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The Beta Tests Favorites: Short Travel

The best of the least

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The last of our Beta Tests reviews have finally been uploaded, published, shared, liked and disliked. So now, we’re thinking back to the bikes that stood out. The ones that Beta Testers would fight over to ride during their downtime … if downtime actually existed during The Beta Tests. But because we can never get our testers to pick just one favorite, we’re splitting it into short travel and long travel. Where did we draw the line that separates the two? Easy. 140 millimeters. Why, then, did we call the 140mm Esker Rowl a short-travel bike? You’ll have to read about it.

Photos: Anthony Smith 

Travis Engel: Esker Rowl

I like short-travel bikes because of how they descend, not how they climb. In my world, the uphills are usually long, smooth fire roads where a little blue lever can effectively take me from enduro to XC in an instant. If I’m in the mood to  hug the ground, grit my teeth and chase the dragon, I’ll pick a big bike. If I want to get creative, I’ll pick a small one.

But not too small. I acknowledge that the 120mm 29er category has made some great leaps in defying expectations of late, but there’s a limit. I want something that is forgiving enough to get me out of trouble, but nimble enough to get me into it. No bike combines the two better than the Esker Rowl. At 140 millimeters of rear travel and 150 front, this is not a ‘short-travel’ bike, but hear me out. 140mm bikes like the Devinci Troy and the Evil Offering have longer wheelbases and a generally more forgiving feel than the Rowl. I remember, after just 20 minutes on this bike, being sure that I had set the sag too firm, but when I went to burp some air, I saw I had indeed bottomed out the shock. Recently. It combines support in the midstroke and ramp-up at the endstroke in a way that makes it feel like a shorter travel bike until you need more. And apparently, I need more pretty often.

I mention the suspension first because I fear I made too big a deal of the real reason I picked this bike: the chainstays. The 425mm chainstays. More than any other dimension, a short rear center is what gets me in the mood to goof off, and this bike has it. Lifting up into a manual or breaking the back tire loose around a turn felt natural from the first moment I got the Rowl up to speed. No, it’s not the most stable trail bike out there. I actually got a little out of control in a couple sections that I would auto-pilot through on other bikes. But that’s the point. It encouraged me to be a little more deliberate with my speed and line choice. It’s enough to make me pass up a more capable, more forgiving, faster bikes in the interest of pure childish fun.

It also climbs really well.


Simon Stewart: Transition Spur

My first full-suspension bike was a red ’97 Specialized Ground Control. I remember putting it on layaway for six months. It was decently spec’d and respectably light. Let’s not forget, it was much easier to be light back then with smaller wheels, skinny-stanchioned forks, V-brakes, pinner tires, interrupted cable housing and rigid seatposts. I’m fairly sure if I were to graph my mountain bike weights from then till now, it would look like a line initially going pretty steeply up, then plateauing north of the 30-pound mark and staying put for every bit of 15 years. This is where my best of the test selection comes in and tilts that graph back down: the Transition Spur.

Our 25-pound test bike without a doubt put the biggest smile on my face, both uphill and, surprisingly, down too. It was the downhill performance that really cemented its No.1 spot. It was just so much damn fun to fling it down the trail, toss it into corners, excessively bunny hop everything, and skim over rock gardens like it was my job. Of course it climbed superbly, and was so refreshing to push the pedals on a light, efficient bike, especially one with modern geometry. Nobody would call the suspension plush, but it doesn’t matter. It’s lively and supportive which complements the character of the bike, and it’s that character that I found so endearing. 

RockShox probably deserves a little credit for the burgeoning light weight trail bike segment. The 35mm-stanchion Sid, which is a massive step up in stiffness and a cornering precision over the previous 32mm Sid, provides the perfect lightweight fork to design around. I’d venture to say that we’ll see many other brands dip their toes in this pool in the near future, but they’ll have their work cut out for them if they’re to top the Spur.

I want this bike, and if I’m lucky enough to get one, I promise to resist the urge to over-fork it, over-shock it, and over-tire it, and to leave it be in its 25-pound awesomeness as quite possibly one of the funnest bikes I’ve ever ridden.  

Lydia Tanner: Liv Intrigue 29

I have a confession: The only reason I first got invited to test bikes was because brands decided women’s-specific bikes were a thing. I wasn’t experienced enough yet to really add to the conversation about bikes in general, but we couldn’t have men testing women’s bikes, so that’s what got me in—brands literally carved a space for me.

Still, I’ve always been a skeptic of ‘women’s-specific’ as a concept. Yeah, it was cool to have bike brands finally acknowledge women, but I didn’t always love the way they seemed to think of us. That first batch of bikes was all pinks and floral prints, dirty names, head-scratching spec, and marketing around “keeping up” or “gaining confidence”. 

It was like looking in a funhouse mirror when you’re expecting a regular one. The version of ‘women’ I saw reflected by the industry wasn’t me or anyone I rode with—likely because it was a version of women still created mostly by men. 

We’ve come a long way since then, and the 2021 Liv Intrigue is perfect proof. It’s got a modern geometry, thoughtful spec, and great all-around ride qualities. It is also one of the most affordable bikes we tested. All said, this is the first version of the Intrigue since 2015 that I’d recommend (like, strongly) to my friends. 

Unlike most brands, which have moved away from women’s-specific geometry, Liv carries on. But like the rest of the industry, they’re slowly employing more women—and listening to what we expect from our bikes—and it shows. I generally tend to gravitate towards smaller brands, but for pure progress, value, and just being a super-solid bike for pretty much any kind of riding, the Liv Intrigue was my favorite this year.

Anthony Smith: Transition Spur

There’s something really special in the DNA of Transition’s new Spur. At first glance, it may not seem that remarkable. Lightweight, Sid suspension, flex stays, we’ve seen all that, right? But at the core of its personality is a bike that stays true to everything you’ve come to expect from Transition: a no-holds-barred bike on the descents. Yep, this lightweight trail bike was also one of my absolute favorites to point downhill.

Transition’s SBG geometry is a really interesting complement to a bike in this category. Short stem, wide bars, and a relatively slack 75.9-degree head angle gave this bike such a composed, yet nimble personality. It cornered like it was on rails, and the flex stays would help it snap into and out of the turns. Given those supportive flex stays, you might expect to feel a lack of traction in rough terrain, but it really wants to hug the ground. It’s just hungry for speed on all types of terrain.

It does everything you want a modern trail bike to do, but on paper, it’s really competing more with bikes in the XC category. And when you talk about pedaling performance it feels right at home there. It almost messes with your head when you ride it for the first time; its versatility is remarkable. For me, Transition’s new Spur represents a new bar for what a lightweight ‘XC’ bike is capable of.

Nicole Formosa: Transition Spur

I’ve never considered myself the target audience for Transition bikes. The few models I’ve tested, even those without much travel, always just felt like too much bike for me; kinda heavy climbing, kinda long and hard to maneuver, descending rockstars, sure, but only if you could really push it, and I never truly felt like I could. Unapologetically PNW to their core. And that was fine. The brand certainly wasn’t trying to be all things to all riders, and I just wasn’t one of their people. Until now. Now I am one of their people, because I love the Spur, and I feel like the Spur maybe even loves me back. 

It’s not exactly a secret that short-travel 29ers are my jam, so this definitely wasn’t a shocking pick for me, or a difficult one to make. But I still can’t believe how well Transition executed its first foray into this crowded category, especially one with such a high bar set. Here it is, sitting alongside cream-of-the-crop bikes like the Yeti SB115 or the Evil Following and absolutely competing. The Spur is light, yet so very capable. It feels really well put together, from the flex-stay designed around RockShox SID suspension to the Maxxis rubber and the perfectly balanced cockpit; it’s obvious Transition didn’t wing it when developing the Spur. And the resulting effort is a playful, fast and composed bike that begs for long days in the saddle or quick rips from the house. It’s the bike I never would’ve expected Transition to make, but so happy they did.