Downhill bikes have an uncompromising soul that is enchanting now as it was twenty years ago. Where the downhill bike goes, others follow. Or try to. They aren’t overly fussed about being able to pedal, they don’t pander to those without honed bike handling skills, in fact they aren’t concerned with much other than getting down a hill as fast as possible.
Words: James Smurthwaite and Steve Jones
downhill mountain bikes - best of 2016
The fact that they are useless for the majority of mountain biking only adds to their appeal. Much like a great white shark they are keenly tuned for one purpose and this is what makes them so enthralling.
Most of the big brands produce a flagship downhill mountain bike that is raced by its World Cup team. Not only are these the fastest bikes the brand will make, but they will also have technologies that will trickle down through the rest of their ranges as time goes on, so they’re worth keeping an eye on whether you are an avid race fan or not.
We’ve been testing downhill mountain bikes for twenty years but we’re yet to find the perfect one – it takes an ultimate combination of feel, fit and ‘je ne sais quoi’ to convince us, and with new tech coming along every year we always seem to have a new favourite.
Here’s our pick of the current bunch of downhill mountain bikes: IN ORDER OF RANKING
Specialized S-Works Demo 8
This is a bike that we’ve named the Princess but is undoubtedly the king of modern downhill. Proper dirty, steep, technical downhill is its habitat. It was our downhill mountain bike of the year last year, and leads the chase again in 2016.
It’s not perfect but if you want the bike that’s best suited to charging on the steepest, roughest tracks in the world (i.e technical downhill tracks, not those which would involve lung reconstruction work), this is the one. Most surprisingly of all it does it with a combination of silence and poise that we’ve simply not come across before.
This bike has been turning heads since it was first announced. Its lines are clean and its asymmetrical design gives it a space age feel. This is a design that will no doubt be jotted down as iconic in the annals of mountain biking.
There is a discernible difference between the Demo and some other so-called downhill mountain bikes that only comes from the complete build, the mix of flex and stiffness, the rear damping, the custom parts and brawler geometry, the bassy thud and menace that this bike exudes and leaving you hungry for more. The chasing pack is not far behind but for now the Specialized Demo is the beaux of the ball.
A new frame that jumps straight onto our list this year (as a side note how nice is it to see a brand do something new and not just develop an established platform?) the Canyon Sender feels instantly at home among this esteemed company.
Inspired by moto, but covering all the downhill basics, Canyon really has built a bike that stands apart form the rest of the field. In truth we probably need a bit more time on it before we can comprehensively place it on this list but our gut feeling on the rides we’ve had tell us it’s well up there. It currently holds its place second in line to the Demo, it could well go one higher - we simply need more time on the bike.
YT Tues CF Pro
It’s long been a favourite of ours and now it’s starting to rack up the World Cup wins under Aaron Gwin. Not many downhill mountain bikes can say they changed the game but then not many bikes come from companies like YT Industries.
Slicing through the industry with its unbeatable pricing and specification (where else can you buy a carbon downhill bike for £2,700?) the Tues is always going to be an unbeatable product on paper but it also has the ride to match. Slight tweaks to the geometry and damping from Fox have only improved the Tues for 2016.
The specification, geometry and performance of the Tues is still very, very good, its also super quiet and beautifully constructed, it holds together well, and although €4999 is still a lot of money, in relative terms it takes some beating.
As far as sizing goes we’d love to see an XL to suit riders between 6’ and 6’5" (rumour has it that it’s not far off) but that’s pretty much the only thing that is holding this bike back currently. For the price it’s unparalleled, and it’s now proven at World Cup level. You can only salute a brand that has come and conquered – it has done it with modesty – and has delivered downhill equipment of great integrity. On standby to make a move to the top of our list.
The privateers’ favourite, the Giant Glory is a composed package with a business-like and reliable specification. These may not be terms that set your pulse racing but if you look at its results in the hands of Marcelo Gutierrez (and formerly Danny Hart) you’d be a fool to underestimate this bike.
It’s one of the lightest downhill mountain bikes available (with a carbon version released this year) and has a smooth, compliant ride that translates to some serious speed when pushed hard – it just does everything well.
The Glory has an exceptional balance to its chassis, and the proportions front and rear of the bike together with one of the lowest bottom brackets in the business and one of the longest ‘reach’ dimensions make it a bench mark bike in many respects. It pushes the Specialized Demo hard but that’s nearly two thousand pounds more.
In short it’s simple, fast, silent, balanced and easy on your body. We are mostly talking basics here. So many brands that make downhill bikes think they have it dialled. Ride the Glory and all becomes clear how crucial it is to get chassis flex/stiffness, damper tune and wheel build working in unison. Do not underestimate this bike.
Trek Session 9.9
Looks like a Session, right? That’s what you’re supposed to say in these situations. Except when you actually get close to one there are very few bikes that can match the level of detail and finish on this beauty – but then you’d hope so for that money!
The well thought out frame comes with the best damping around and it has proven race-winning pedigree under Aaron Gwin, Tracey Moseley and now the Athertons. It’s the most expensive production downhill mountain bike available but it could well be with good reason
Trek has been working on this suspension design for ten years and it’s among the more refined systems out there. It’s an incredibly balanced bike that can be placed easily around the trail – and oh, so fast. For us it’s slightly too high in the bottom bracket, and comes with a superfluous ‘high’ geometry setting that we’ve never felt the need to engage.
The very first thing we’d do though is swap out the standard Bontrager bar, it’s too narrow and we’re not sure what Trek were thinking with it. Despite this it stands as one of the top production downhill mountain bikes going and comes with an otherwise flawless spec. As an all-round downhill bike that can be applied to the quite diverse this bike really takes some beating.
Single pivot, built by hand in Halifax and fully aluminium, the Orange 324 may feel like a throwback but it’s a rough diamond with fully modern geometry and simply sorted suspension that keeps it up to date with the space-age competition.
For the Dirt 100 we were given a custom spec loaded up with bling from Hope and Fox, so when we got our hands on the production model we were left feeling a little disappointed by some of the component choices. The BoXXer Team upfront is a robust option but it tethered the bike, putting on some better damping really let it fly.
The balance of flex and stiffness keeps the bike on track and true, enabling it to get to those hard to reach lines. There’s a real poise to this mountain bike in the air, confidence inspiring to just keep progressing to bigger things.
This leaves the 324 in a tough place, more expensive than direct sales offerings but less well specced. It’s rough around the edges but has a superb heart, Orange just needs to load this up with a factory spec for it to be a real winner.
The Solid Strike was one of the first 650b downhill mountain bikes we ever rode and it remains one of our favourites. Its secret comes from its numbers. With ‘reach’ at 453mm, a bottom bracket drop of -8mm, which puts it at under 350mm, the Strike is about as bang on as you can get, and a wheelbase of 1270mm makes it longer than extra large Trek Session or Specialized Demo.
The bike is aluminum but considering our test bike only weighed 36lbs it really does make you question whether you should put up with the less comfortable ride of some cheaper carbon at all. Unfortunately, you can’t make full use of the lightness due to the slack head angle that makes the bike a handful on flatter terrain, but that does translate to a lot of poise in the steeps.
New for this year is the Bos Void rear damper and Idylle Rare FCV, these are also the units being used by Schmid’s new team, and notably one of the biggest UCI team’s on the circuit – Solid-Reverse Factory Racing – which has former World Downhill Champion Morgane Charre, and top UK racer’s Harry Molloy and Joe Connell on board the Strike’s with the famous Toulouse suspension, Bos, holding them in line.
Santa Cruz V10 CC
Successful, iconic, coveted and with a price to match, the Santa Cruz V10CC is a bike steeped in mythology but cast all that aside and it’s a bike that can still deliver. The introduction of XL and XXL sizes mean that it’s now a viable option for even the tallest riders (Minnaar and Peaty both measuring 6ft 3 in) while staying as light as ever.
For us, the ride isn’t up there with the likes of the Demo or the Session, especially on long, steep, rough tracks but it has a playfulness that the other two fail to match. The V10 is now more like a V8 with 216mm of travel and it has adjustable geometry but like the Trek Session we see the higher setting as a non-feature and would prefer a lower setting instead
The latest V10 lacks poise in steep terrain, but it has incredible pace on less- steep grounds, and there’s great fun to be had in skimming, ducking and weaving like a courser after a hare. It brings its own speed that’s not found in monster trucking through the rough but using it gain power and momentum. It might not be outstanding, but it’s very good.
The bike that delivered World Championships for Gee and Rachel Atherton is still going strong despite their defection to Trek. It may be Mondraker that takes all the plaudits for big bikes, but if you look at wheelbase, you’ll find that the GT Fury is actually longer and size wise, we simply couldn’t fault it.
Stiffness is a much coveted feature in modern bikes but if anything the Fury has a bit too much for us. There’s no doubt this is a thoroughbred race bike designed for World Cup tracks but it won’t be a barrel of fun on your local bike park’s jump line.
It’s one of the most stable bikes around though and a great package at just under £5,000 for a race ready and reliable build. If you can get past the chunky industrial look that it has and some of the overkill welds and you aren’t after a beauty queen with the spec and sizing it’s a great bike.
Scott Gambler 710
The Gambler was released a few years ago and instantly caught the eye. It still stands as one of the lightest aluminium production bikes and we think that the geometry is faultless. It’s also well specced for a £5k downhill mountain bike with a Fox 40 taking care of things up front and a full Saint drivetrain.
Unfortunately, we didn’t like the Fox Float X2 at the back. We’ve been less than impressed with its performance on most bikes, we had to ram it full of spacers and even then the rebound has to be run almost fully open to get any life out of the bike. However, since our test we've found there have been inconsistencies with shock tunes and have ridden better versions. On top of this, the back end has an off-putting knocking noise. It can be lessened by running the lowest geometry setting but it isn’t really what you want when you’re putting down this much money.
Even with its faults its still massively enjoyable riding the Gambler. As a workhorse it’s a good bet for many riders and has stood up well to many riders giving it some stick. It’s now also, finally, earned its first World Cup podium under Adam Brayton.