A buyer's guide to enduro mountain bikes
All you need to know for choosing the best long travel machine
Enduro racing is on the rise, both here in the UK and globally, and as such there is a huge amount of focus from mountainbike manufacturers in this area. We guide you through the tech, travel and wheel sizes.
Words: Sean White Photos: L.Crossman-Emms, B.Winder, S.Jones, M.Rose.
WHAT IS AN ENDURO BIKE?
Once named ‘all-mountain’ bikes, this category sits above the trail bikes category and below bikes specifically designed for downhill or freeride use. Enduro racing focuses on timed technical descents (on near DH level terrain) with untimed transfer sections where you climb to the start of the next stage, so these bikes take qualities and characteristics from both of these two categories.
The bikes for this type of riding need to be capable of descending with great stability, good manoeuvrability, have plenty of well controlled suspension travel and attacking geometry – all essential to boost your confidence and keep you within your limits of control. They also need to climb well though, so an enduro bike needs to pedal efficiently, be geared correctly and ideally have a low weight. It's a lot to pack in.
Geometry needs to be focussed on the job in hand, with good weight distribution, balance and handling in the steep and nasty stuff, yet not too lazy when pressing on in the faster undulating singletrack sections.
Suspension travel will be around the 170-160mm front and rear with a 27.5"/650B wheel and 150-155mm with a 29"- with air springs front and rear in most cases, keeping weight low and letting you fine tune spring rates with ease. Damping needs to be well controlled and adjustable, with compression lock-out to aid pedalling efficiency on long climbs.
Careful set up is needed to get the best out of your bike - bars/stem, tyre choice and pressures, suspension and saddle height will all contribute to getting the best from your enduro bike, whether up, across or down the hill.
SHOULD YOU BUY AN ENDURO BIKE?
If you have plans for a season of gravity stage racing then there’s no question that you’ll have an enduro bike on your list. They’re can be incredibly versatile machine - a well sorted enduro bike will be capable of a day of uplifting on local DH trails, hitting the tougher runs at a bike park, yet be efficient enough for a four hour trail ride. The slack and low geometry, lengthy wheelbase and sturdy wheels can however need a dose more fitness and determination to muscle along in tamer terrain – even if the bike’s weight is not far off a trail bike. You can easily be ‘over-biked’, and you may find that an up-to-date trail bike could be a better bet for the majority of your riding.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU SPEND?
To get the performance you need to race enduro or session technical descents, and at the same time keep pedalling efficiency high is asking a lot, so as with a downhill machine the starting price for an enduro bike will not be at the budget end of the market. With the direct-sales YT Capra currently starting at €2299 you’ll be needing a budget of around £2K at the minimum once you’ve made a few personal changes to the bike. If direct-sales doesn’t appeal and you prefer the back-up, familiarity and peace of mind that a bike shop can give you, then you’ll be looking at a touch more – a Whyte G-160 starts at £2799 for example. Both of these enduro bikes are picks in our 2016 Dirt 100.
If you're looking at the premium end of the market with top end suspension, transmission and wheels on a carbon frame you are looking at the £4000+ price tags. A good example of a cutting edge enduro bike is the Specialized S-Works Enduro 29 at £6000.
So that's covered the basics, let's dig a touch deeper and look at the details and choices to be made when deciding which long travel enduro bike to buy.
The frame is the heart of the machine and is the main cost (or should be) when it comes to building an enduro bike. Materials will be aluminium or the potentially lighter carbon fibre with often a carbon main frame and aluminium used on the stays of the rear swingarm. Single pivot or multi-pivot designs will drive the rear shock and there are pros and cons to each – with some brands offering a warranty on the bearings.
Geometry and sizing is incredibly important and this is where some bikes shine and others are a let down. Get this right, and choose the right size frame and you’re onto a great start. This is one area where buying from a bike shop has an advantage – you should be able to sit on (and possibly test ride) the bike of your choice, although some of the direct-sales brands do have demo days where you can try before you buy.
Enduro bikes are longer in the wheelbase and slacker in the head angle than trail bikes and are usually run with a short 35-60mm stem and 750–800mm handlebars. The reach (and top tube length) is usually designed around this set up. Head angles are in the 64-66° area with a wheelbase that is a long and stable 1200mm or more. These angles, dimensions and thinking if done correctly will add up to a bike that descends with confidence yet is nimble when needed and climbs in a balanced manner.
Check the warranty on the frame - it's an expensive part of the bike and it is reassuring to have it covered for more than a year or two. Some brands will offer a crash replacement scheme too.
With long travel front and rear, well mannered and easily controllable suspension is essential to keep both the performance and balance.
Single crown 160-170mm travel forks are the name of the game here on bikes with a 27.5"/650B wheels size, with a shade less on the longer travel 29er in most cases. A bolt through axle (usually 15mm diameter, occasionally 20mm) adds steering authority and stiffens up the fork, along with a tapered steerer. These modern long travel forks will crash through terrain that not so long ago was territory only a pure downhill bike would be comfortable in. Tuneable air springs are standard now, with compression and rebound damping adjustments to control the support and feel of the fork. The damping and control a quality fork such as the Fox 36, RockShox Lyrik, Manitou Mattoc, Ohlins, or Bos DeVille delivers really is a marked difference over budget units - it's a great place to focus a chunk of your budget on, or upgrade in the future. Keep an eye out for X-Fusion too - a good blend of performance and price.
A well designed full-suspension enduro frame is nothing without a quality rear shock with the correct tune. To balance the front forks and the bike's geometry you'll usually find a rear shock from Fox or RockShox in most occasions, with Bos and X-fusion making an appearance too. Air is usually the spring choice for most (keeping the weight low) however the Cane Creek Double Barrel coil shock is often seen on a serious custom build. Good damping adjustment is essential and again a lock-out to aid efficiency on long fire road climbs is a good move. Most shocks will have a tune that is appropriate to the frame's design - all part of a thorough design and development process that adds up to a high performance bike.
When it comes to wheels, many enduro bikes will be running the 27.5" wheel size - with a select number of hard hitting 29ers available, and more to come for 2017 by the look of it. A combination of realistically light yet reliably tough rims are required to take the abuse that will be dished out on them, especially if you are new to enduro and still developing your skills. Rims are getting wider (often 30mm internal width) to give the bigger (2.3" width or more) tyres a better performing shape. They'll be tubeless ready in most cases too. Hubs will usually be cartridge bearing for a long life and easy maintenance. Take a look at our favourites here.
As with wheels, these will take a real beating especially in dry and fast race conditions. Tyres will be weighing in around 750-1100g each, with tougher casings, tubeless compatibility and double or triple tread compounds. An aggressive tread pattern up front with a faster rolling lower profile tread at the rear is a good set up once conditions dry up and speeds increase. The Maxxis High Roller 2, Schwalbe Magic Mary and Rock Razor are all recommendations from us here at Dirt.
Lightweight two or four piston hydraulic disc brakes are standard kit on a modern enduro bike - reliable, powerful and with good controllable modulation. Rotors sizes will be 180mm with maybe a larger size up front. Shimano, Hope and Sram are favourites but we've just found favour with the new MT5 from Magura.
Enduro bike transmissions have made a switch to single ring set ups, especially for racing. With a wide range cassette at the back, a single 'narrow/wide' chainring up front and a clutch rear mech, chain retention is great, noise low and the gear ratios will cover most terrain - both up and down.
A stiff but light chainset, a wide ten, eleven or twelve speed cassette (the SRAM Eagle has a 50T ring!) and a chain guide for added security will give you have a very reliable race-ready transmission.
Getting your bars and stem sorted is crucial for not only control but fit and comfort - there may well be some trial and error in fine tuning your set up to get the best from your bike. Handlebars will be cheaper aluminium or high end carbon but all should be at least 750mm in width and more likely 780-800mm. These wider bars will be fitted to a short, stiff stem (35-50mm are the usual sizes) to give stability and handling that goes hand in hand with the slack geometry of a modern enduro bike. Lock on grips, with the right diameter for your hands and a pattern and rubber compound to suit your riding conditions will increase control and comfort even further. The Dirt 100 has our pick for equipping your bike's cockpit.
Now seen as almost an essential on an enduro bike, a dropper post allows you to remotely (from a handlebar mounted control) adjust your saddle height on the fly whether climbing, attacking technical singletrack or dropping into a sketchy descent - letting you keep your flow. The RockShox Reverb was the benchmark, but there are now many options, notably the Specialized Command IIRC post.
It's a choice between flats and clips here, with many racers picking the efficiency of 'clipping in'. Always a topic for discussion and potentially a trade off depending on your riding style. All pedals need well sealed reliable bearings and a good build quality to put up with plenty of knocks and abuse and will need to work well with your footwear choice. Budget for £60 upwards for a pair of pedals - check out the Dirt 100 for our choices.
Where do you buy an enduro bike?
A few choices here - From a bike shop, an internet retailer or direct-sales brand, or a second-hand bike.
As with a downhill bike, you're buying a specialist machine with plenty of technology and features to adjust. If you're new to this then you'll need assistance - from either experienced riding mates or a good shop.
A reputable shop, with staff who ride and have experience setting up and tweaking full suspension bikes (trail, enduro or DH) will be a good starting point. Test bikes will often be available and the staff will usually be very familiar with them and how suitable they are for you. If you buy a bike, they'll set the shock pressures, adjust and explain the damping settings and recommend a starting point with tyre pressures. Get these settings wrong and the bike will not perform at its best and maybe even hold you back. Bar sweep, stem height and saddle position need looking at too and this is where the experience and expertise of a good shop can be invaluable. If you get any trouble with the bike they'll be there for you and get you rolling again quickly. Warranty issues, if they arise, can be solved face to face too.
If you're buying on the internet, you'll need to slow the process up and double check sizing, pricing (including carriage costs) and warranties - it will be an email or phone call with enquires or problem solving and after sales service. You may well be saving money and getting a very well designed bike with some brands, so it's very tempting and now proving a popular way to buy. If you moving from a trail or DH bike to an enduro bike, you'll have a taste for sizing and geometry so you'll be able to make a well informed decision.
With a second hand bike you need to tread cautiously - prices will be attractive and if you're happy with a three year old enduro bike running on 26" wheels they will be cheap to buy and probably loaded with quality kit. With a used bike be wary of a machine that has had heavy use, with worn suspension and drivetrain or hidden damage - this can be costly to put right and maybe false economy.
We're constantly testing and looking for better bikes and the pace of change is rapid. Check out the Dirt 100 2016 for our pick of the crop including the Canyon Strive, YT Capra, Orange Alpine 160, Giant Reign and others. Also, take a look at the following enduro bikes that we've recently tested:
Too much travel? Then check out our buyer's guide to TRAIL bikes HERE.