Mountain biking has always been a sport of innovation. Technology and trends are upended as often as the seasons change. Recently, bigger wheels, improved (and tubeless) tyres, lighter and stronger materials and refined suspension tunes have allowed a new breed of bike to enter the market.
At first these were jokingly named ‘downcountry’ – somewhere between a cross-country (XC) and downhill bike – but the name stuck and now even major bike manufacturers have entire ranges devoted to, well, whatever downcountry is. Which brings us to:
What is downcountry mountain biking?
The improvement in materials and technologies has enabled cross-country bikes to become more than just super lightweight racing machines. Now, they are all that, but they can also hold their own in technical terrain and will stand up to plenty of abuse. Just look at the technicality of courses on the Mercedes-Benz UCI Cross-Country World Cup circuit and you’ll understand how robust modern race bikes need to be.
However, most people aren’t racing cross-country (but if you are, then this guide to race-ready XC bikes might help). That said, a bike that is supremely light and efficient (meaning an easier uphill, allowing you to conserve more energy for fun on the downhill) probably appeals to any mountain biker.
This is where downcountry mountain biking comes in. Add a little more suspension travel, especially to the fork (most XC race bikes use about 100mm front and rear travel, while downcountry bikes tend to be around 120mm or simply increase fork travel), beef up a few key components – tyres and wheels come to mind, widening the handlebar and maybe even adding a small chain device – and suddenly cross-country becomes downcountry.
Convinced you need one in your life? Here’s a selection of some of the best downcountry bikes for 2021.
1. Trek Top Fuel
Trek says its downcountry bikes are ‘both efficient and ready to party’, meaning they are ‘light and fast yet wildly fun when tackling burlier descents’. The Top Fuel is made for endurance racers and multi-discipline riders; it’s bigger than the Supercaliber raced at cross-country World Cup level by the likes of Evie Richards but smaller than the Fuel EX trail bike. A geometry flip-chip allows a choice of racier or more stable settings, while aluminium and carbon fibre models means there’s a variety of price points.
2. Santa Cruz Tallboy
The latest Tallboy was launched in 2019 as ‘the downhiller’s XC bike’, in Santa Cruz’s words. It is a favourite among go-everywhere-fast-and-efficiently trail riders who probably need something a little beefier than a cross-country race bike with longer forks (Santa Cruz has the Blur in its range for pure XC duties).
Its 120mm rear travel and 130mm up front puts it in the short travel downcountry category; lazier geometry (65.5° head angle, roomy cockpit, short chainstays) defines it as the bruiser among its peers.
Santa Cruz offers three frame options in aluminium, carbon or carbon cc (the brand’s highest level of carbon) and a number of build options.
3. Cannondale Scalpel Carbon SE
Cannondale says its Scalpel SE range is ‘World Cup fast and all-mountain fierce’, providing a little more squish than its purebred sibling, the Scalpel. It’s for ‘full-throttle’ trail riding, and every bike comes with a dropper seatpost as well as beefier tyres and a shorter stem than the full-on cross-country bike. Instead of a pivot point on the chainstays, the Scalpel saves weight through flexible carbon plates that form the basis of the bike’s 4-bar FlexPivot system.
4. Specialized Epic EVO
Specialized has been making innovative bikes since day one, and the Epic EVO is testament to the American company’s devotion to pushing the boundaries of singletrack slaying. It is based around the Epic – Specialized’s full-suspension XC race bike – but rear suspension travel is upped by 10mm to 110mm and a 120mm-travel fork ensures added confidence when ploughing through technical sections.
There are three price-point models in the range and also a frame-only S-Works (Specialized’s top-of-the-range) option.
5. Transition Spur
Price: from £4,999.95
Sizes: S, M, L, XL
Frame material: Carbon fibre
Wheel size: 29”
Suspension travel: 120mm rear, 120mm front
Find out more information
Transition Bikes (company motto ‘It’s time to GiddyUp’) is based out of the trail-riding mecca of Bellingham, USA. With infinite technical singletrack on its doorstep, it should come as no surprise that its downcountry bike, the Spur, is often lauded as one of the very best in the category. Its 120mm front and rear suspension travel is complimented by what Transition calls ‘Speed Balanced Geometry’ – a relatively slack head tube angle (66º) paired with a short offset fork, aiming at bringing the rider’s weight central on the bike.
Rider-owned Transition is a smaller brand than some of the behemoths in this feature; its bikes are perhaps pricier as a result. Several builds and a frame-only option are also available.