Biking, Drinking, Learning
Disclaimer: this is not a review. For reviews of these bikes see the bottom of the page.
Recently, I had a fantastic week hanging out with friends, riding bikes, and drinking beers. We set out to explore the trails in Bend, Oregon and I took the time to demo a few different bikes. There is something refreshing for the soul when you put your life on hold for a while and spend a week riding bikes with good friends.
I used this escape to learn more about a few high-end mountain bikes. I’m no professional rider, but I’ve been riding for quite a while. All this new tech in the mountain bike industry shouldn’t change much, right?
My plan was to start with the cheaper bikes and progressively move to more expensive ones. For comparison, my current MTB is a Canfield Brothers EPO with a Rock Shox Pike, Industry Nine Trail S wheelset, and Shimano XT 1×11 drivetrain. Since Bend is substantially more stout than my local trails, all the bikes I chose to demo were full suspension. That was a good call.
Here is what I learned throughout the week.
We flew into Redmond airport on a Sunday and none of us planned well, so we had hours to kill before we could check into our AirBnB. When you’re with a bunch of your bros and have hours to kill there are only two options. We waited on the beers and went straight to the bike shop to see if we could ride today.
After the girl at the bike shop tried to tell me I should ride a Juliana—“It’s just like a Santa Cruz with a different paint job,” I managed to scrounge a Santa Cruz Tallboy CC X01 for the afternoon. Yes, Juliana is Santa Cruz’s womens-specific brand, but they have done a lot more than change the colors.
From the shop we rode up to Phil’s trailhead. For the first day, we took it a bit easy on the pace, but we didn’t shy away from the fun lines. The Santa Cruz Tallboy handled the trails with ease, making the climbs relatively effortless and soaking up the hits from a few of my sloppy lines on ‘Lower Whoops.’
Overall, the Tallboy was a great bike. It was easy to not even think about it. It handled exactly how I expected. The SRAM GX was made for quick, accurate shifting, combining that with the easy bike control it made for a comfortable, fast ride. It may not have been as light or nimble as my EPO, but the suspension made for a more secure ride. I figured the rest of the bikes I planned to demo would perform similarly.
Riding the Tallboy on the first day ruined my ‘inexpensive bike to dream bike’ demo plan. Yes, we should’ve planned better, but we got an extra day of riding, so who cares.
On the first two days of riding I planned to rent a Transition Scout NX. We picked up the bike and aside from some mechanical fixes we loaded up the trucks and headed up the mountain. While the weather in Bend was beautiful, by the time we got to the trailhead it was dumping snow.
Without the proper clothes, there was only one option. Ride faster!
I jumped on the Scout and, despite some understandable complaining, we were off. On our way to ‘Flagline’ trail, the going was quite slow, but when we got there it was on point! The trail was fast and Scout handled pretty well, but the aluminum frame was a bit rough. The build kit also wasn’t on par with the Tallboy. It was a SRAM NX drivetrain with a KS Lev dropper post. If I wasn’t always bringing up the rear, the guys would’ve been questioning my gentle coaxing of the saddle to come back up. Admittedly it was cold, but I shouldn’t have to clench my butt around the seat to raise my saddle. Also, the NX drivetrain was obviously not the top-end offering from SRAM (I demo’d that too, more on that later), because there was a slight hesitation in the shifting.
Overall, the trail was amazing. The Transition Scout performed admirably, but I would’ve preferred a better build kit.
Again, I had planned to ride the Scout, but a game-time decision and an accommodating bike shop let me pick up my next bike a day early.
After some delicious breakfast burritos to soak up the beers from the night prior, we dropped off the Transition and picked up a Santa Cruz Hightower CC 27.5+ X01. Once we were loaded up, we headed back up the mountain.
Our goal was to hit ‘Tiddlywinks.’ Trails named after children’s games are usually my speed, but I had a feeling that Tiddlywinks was going to be more fun than my son could handle. It was. Oh, and it was amazing.
The huge Maxxis Rekon 27.5” x 2.8” tires on the Hightower were a bit of a bear on the uphills, but they gave me grip for days on the descents. On ‘Tiddlywinks,’ I got cocky and hit one of the berms too high, it got soft, and I went down. It was one of the least eventful wrecks I’ve ever had, but it did show me that even with plus tires there is a limit to their floatation.
Overall, the Hightower was confidence-inspiring. After riding the Scout, the Hightower was much more at home on these trails. However, the bigger tires did seem a bit slower. We ended the day with big smiles and some microbrews.
Today, I kept the Hightower and we headed up to ‘Swampy Lakes.’ As with the previous two days, we got dressed at the trailhead in the snow.
There was not a lot of talking as we got ready in the cold. It didn’t take long, since we all wanted to start riding. The snow was a bit more than the day prior, but nothing like our day on ‘Flagline.’ Regardless of the cold, we pressed on.
The Hightower performed similarly to the day prior, but I was beginning to notice quite a bit of pedal bob. When I mashed on the pedals to get up a hill, much of the energy was transferred into the suspension and tires bouncing up and down rather than it transferring into forward momentum. This was a forgivable offense considering that we were shuttling all our rides and the 27.5+ tires were awesome on the downhill sections.
We finished the day with a fun connection from ‘Storm King’ to ‘Grand Slam’ to ‘KGB.’ The final trail had a really nice rhythm section with little rollers. Through all this the Hightower treated me well.
Today, we were finally able to do the highly recommended McKenzie River Trail. This involved a long shuttle, hiring a driver, and waking up early, but it was totally worth it. This was one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever ridden.
The terrain was seriously different than Bend. There was wide open single/doubletrack around an upper lake that turned into super technical rock gardens when we got a bit lower. Through all this the Hightower was at ease. She allowed me to roll through and over the lava rocks quite easily. I found that my line selection was significantly different than whoever happened to be in front of me. There was no need for finesse when I had the bike working with me. The big tires and efficient suspension worked wonders.
Since most of the trail was downhill, I took full advantage of the Hightower. She allowed me to carry speed through sketchy sections and covered my ass when I missed the line. Regardless, I earned a bit of praise at the end of the ride for actually keeping pace. The post-ride beers were well-earned.
After adding an early riding day to the front end of the trip, a few of our crew decided to bail early. Actually, there was only two of us left.
Since this was the final day, I planned to demo a high-end cross-country bike. I was fortunate enough to find a Kona Hei Hei Supreme kitted out with a SRAM XX1 drivetrain and a Rockshox RS1 fork. This bike was sweet.
With just the two of us, we decided to head back to our favorite trail of the trip—Tiddlywinks.
It was sunny and for the first time on the trip we thought we’d start riding without snow. We were close, but caught a few flakes as we pushed up the hill. Speaking of the hill, it was really a non-factor for the Hei Hei, that thing climbed incredibly well. It was only after riding this bike that I realized how much of an oaf the Hightower could be on the ups. The big, squishy plus tires bounced quite a bit. There was none of that on the Kona.
The Hei Hei Supreme had a handlebar-mounted, one-button dual suspension lock out, so I could ensure whatever power I could muster went into moving forward rather than compressing the shock. It was a good idea, but the bike climbed so well normally that I preferred not to use it.
The geometry of the Hei Hei was super-efficient, and totally different than any of the previous bikes I rode. Even with the 29er wheels it was nimble and significantly lighter than the Alloy frame Scout or the big-tired Hightower. I was having a great time on this bike!
…then we hit Tiddlywinks.
With only 120 mm of suspension on the front and 100mm at the rear, the Hei Hei got a little squirmy when the trail got bigger. The head tube angle was 68’ compared with the 67’ HTA of the Hightower, but that one degree was very noticeable.
It held well on the berms, but it really didn’t like the high-speed bumps that the Hightower just ate up. It did surprisingly well in the air, but if I didn’t hit the landing buttery-smooth it made sure I knew about it. While, this wouldn’t be much of an issue for Nino Schurter, I could probably use a bike that’s more forgiving of my sloppy lines.
Despite this cross country bike’s issues on an enduro trail, it begged me to keep riding. Instead of our planned early exit back to the house, we decided to keep going and take the long way home.
This bike was my favorite of the trip. Maybe it was the WTB Ci31 TCS carbon wheelset. Maybe it was the super-precise, top-of-the-line SRAM XX1 Eagle drivetrain. Most likely, it was the great build choices combined with an excellent frame that excelled on the sections of trail similar to my local trails. However, if I was lapping Tiddlywinks or Lower Whoops, I’d prefer something longer and slacker with a bit more travel.
This bike trip taught me more about modern mountain bikes than I planned. Reading about the differences in magazines or other blogs didn’t do them justice. A plus tire bike and a cross country rig are seriously far apart in their ride qualities. Even the difference between high-end trail bikes was surprising and I learned that I had definite preferences for certain ride characteristics.
Before you buy your next bike do your research, go talk with an expert, and take a few bikes out for test rides. If you plan to pay over a grand, why not treat the buying process like that of a car? This isn’t like buying the latest iPhone, there are so many more options.
This trip added to my motivation to improve this site. There are so many different bikes available for you, our goal is to help you find the right one. So, go check our Bike Finder. If that doesn’t help you narrow it down, email us and we’d love to help offer some suggestions.
Our goal is simple: We want to help you find a bike you will love to ride. That way you’ll get out and ride more. While the bike industry tries to tell you what’s best for you, we put Riders First.
Big Thanks to Zach, Mark, James, Josh, Dave, and Mike for the invite, for the photos, and for the great times!