After putting lots of hard desert miles in on the four hardtails and five full-suspension bikes we had on hand for this year’s Value Field Test it was time to pick some favorites. We decided to highlight the components that impressed us the most, the ones that we’d happily run on our own bikes, and that perform well above their ‘budget’ designation.
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Fork: Fox 34 & 36 / Grip damper
Fox’s Grip damper equipped forks are simple and effective. A dial is used to adjust the amount of low-speed compression, and there’s a very useable range of settings. It doesn’t have the high-speed rebound and compression adjustments found on the higher-end Grip2 damper, but honestly, for most riders this fork is going to be perfectly fine. We were all able to find settings that worked well for us, and didn’t have any issues with 34 or the 36 on the unforgiving Tucson trails.
There’s a sizable price difference between the RockShox 35 forks that we weren’t as impressed with: The 35 retails for around $500, while a 34 Performance is $800, so pitting those two against each other isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, the Grip damper forks deserve the recognition, and would be a great upgrade for riders who are on more entry-level suspension.
Honorable Mention: DVO Diamond D1
Somehow Fezzari managed to spec a DVO Diamond on a bike that retails for less than $3,000, an impressive feat in itself. The Diamond has all of the features you’d expect from a high end fork, including DVO’s OTT feature that makes it easy to adjust how sensitive the fork feels during the beginning of its travel. The Diamond retails for $1,000, which means it’s not going to be the way to go for riders on a budget, but its performance and adjustability earn it an honorable mention.
Drivetrain: Shimano Deore & SLX
Shimano’s Deore and SLX drivetrains continue to impress, delivering quick, consistent shifting time after time. The fact that all of Shimano’s 12-speed drivetrains, from Deore up to XTR, all use the same freehub body is added bonus plus. That means that riders who want to upgrade to a lighter cassette in the future won’t need to buy a different freehub body at the same time.
Brakes: Shimano MT500
For less than $100 per wheel, Shimano’s MT500 brakes offer a very good price-to-performance ratio. There’s plenty of power for general trail riding, and we didn’t experience any consistency issues with the sets that we reviewed. The MT500s typically show up on bikes spec’d with resin pads and less expensive resin-only rotors, but if you’re buying them aftermarket, upgrading to metallic pads will improve their wet-weather performance (something we didn’t need to deal with at all in the Arizona desert).
SRAM Universal Derailleur Hanger
There’s nothing worse than shopping for a derailleur hanger only to find out that it’s going to cost $60 to replace it. SRAM’s been working on changing that for the last few years with their Universal Derailleur Hanger, and it’s great to see them showing up on less-expensive bikes. A replacement hanger is only $16, and they’re readily available from brick-and-mortar and online stores.
Tires: Specialized Butcher / Purgatory
Specialized revamped their tire compounds, and the new rubber is better than ever in the wet and the dry. The higher the number, the stickier the rubber, so rainforest dwellers will be best suited by the the T9 compound, and the desert denizens will likely prefer the T7 option, as least as a rear tire for more longevity on harder-packed trails. Either way, at around $60 – $70 each, Specialized’s tires are less expensive than many of the options from the likes of Schwalbe and Maxxis, and are a solid option for any bike build, budget or not.
Grips: ODI Motion Lock-On
It’s not uncommon for value priced bikes to end up with grips that look similar to the more popular option on the market, except that they use an extra-hard rubber, or the dimensions are just different enough to cause discomfort. Luckily, two of the bikes we had in for testing arrived with ODI’s Motion Lock-On grips already installed. They use a simple one-bolt design, with a relatively thin profile and a knurled pattern in the rubber for extra traction. That rubber is soft and very comfortable, a welcome feature when you’re pinballing down a rocky trail on a hardtail.
Saddle: Specialized Bridge
Saddles are obviously a matter of personal preference, but the Bridge’s shape ended up working well for all of the testers. The rounded edges keep it from leaving bruises on the descents, and the depression in the middle helps keep blood flowing where it’s supposed to. The Bridge is available in 143 and 155mm widths, and in a $60 Sport model with steel rails, or a $140 version with hollow Cr-Mo rails and Specialized’s Mimic foam for even more comfort.
Trans-X Dropper Post
Dropper posts are no longer an optional accessory, they’re a necessity, at least if you’re planning on doing any proper mountain biking. That’s why it’s great to see simple, effective posts from Trans-X showing up as standard equipment. The travel adjust feature on their +RAD post also deserves kudos—it allows the post’s travel to be changed a few minutes, no tools required.
Trans-X doesn’t have their full line for sale aftermarket, but if you’re shopping for a new bike and it’s spec’d with a Trans-X post there’s a very good chance it’s going to work exactly like it’s supposed to right out of the box, and there won’t really be any need to upgrade it in the future.
Frame: Commencal Meta HT AM
In many cases, companies only offer their lower-priced models as complete bikes, rather than offering a frame only. Building a bike from the frame up can be a time-consuming, tedious affair, and many riders just want to walk into a shop, pick something that fits their needs, and roll out onto the trails. However, for those who want to start from scratch, the $650 Commencal Meta HT AM frame is a great starting point. The aluminum frame is very nicely finished, with internal cable routing, plenty of chainslap protection, and geometry that makes it extremely versatile.