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Field Test: 5 Hardtails and 5 Full Suspension Value Bikes Against the Impossible Climb

This time 'round, we'd gladly take a few rain drops.

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Under a blazing sun, the rubble of the desert leaves little moisture for what’s left of the dirt to stick together and as usual, we chose a grueling section of trail to try and reach the top of, and this time, there are no control tires. Reliable rubber can make or break a bike, which is exactly what this test relies on. Because these are value bikes with varying tire diameters and widths; some fat, some skinny, some sticky, others… not so much. We’ve chosen to leave them totally stock with a “run whatcha brung” attitude.

Here in Tucson, everything is sharp; plants, insects, and most definitely the rock. There is surprisingly ample traction on the bedrock, but sprinkle a few marbles on there and staying upright can be a task. Any rain here on steep grades tends to wash away the fine silt and leave golf ball-size gravel, which made up the majority of the trail bed on our Impossible Climb. It’s also incredibly chunky in places. That requires some full-body moves to lurch the bike up and over, all while trying to maintain a consistent, forward momentum—any spikes in power delivery leads to the rear tire quickly spinning out.

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That brings us to the two main factors for traction on these bikes: tire pressure and rubber compound. With a fat tire, like a 27.5 x 2.8″ width, you can really drop the pressure for the casing to cling to any hold against the jagged rocks. The caveat here is potentially pinching the tire on the abundance of spiky objects, but it’s a fine line to dance on. Again, since the tire combos covered every possible dimension, their pressures were to set to what best suited the bike and terrain. That could range from high teens to low 20s—the bigger the balloon, the lower the pressure. This was especially crucial on the hardtails, which bounced like a farm tractor over speed bumps.

How much of a disadvantage do they have then? I shouldn’t go as far as a David versus Goliath metaphor, but when we swapped to the full-suspension bikes, the first attempt came with piles of control. It’s quite apparent when the trails are as demanding as this, and unfortunately, full-suspension traction comes at a higher cost. That does revisit the timeless debate; does starting out on a hardtail first makes you a better rider? I still think so, but we can get into that another time.

One thing was for certain, it didn’t help me out on this Impossible Climb. I consistently stumbled on one particular corner that combined a turn and step. Of course, at the base of the step lay piles of round rocks on top of the bare bones of the earth. Almost all of the hardtails had short chainstays. No matter how steep the seat tube angle or what size rear tire they had, that playful attitude of the solid rear triangle was no match for keeping my movements settled on the saddle. Between getting jostled around on the saddle and the rear tire contact patch leaving the ground, finding consistent traction was near impossible, hence why we call it the Impossible Climb.

To cut costs, the Commencal Meta HT and Marin Team 1 bikes weren’t supplied with dropper posts as stock. This wasn’t a huge concern on the techy climb at hand. I could set the posts a touch lower than my long distance climbing position and lower my center of gravity to seek out the most traction. The Marin also had a super short stem, which I’m usually a fan of, but any attempt to slow down the steering inputs complicated the balance of the bike. When paired with a 67-degree head tube angle and speedy, narrow tires, it was simply too much to handle on the steeps as the steering twitches too quickly.

In the stack of full-suspension bikes, we had everything from flyweight, 120mm travel whippets with carbon front triangles, like the YT Izzo, to the beastly enduro-inspired geometry of the alloy Canyon Spectral 125. Those two could not be further apart in terms of the components, but also the angles and overall mass.

What really stood out here was not just the seat tube angles, but, no surprise, the components that touch the ground: tires. And what also influences how the wheels contact the ground? The suspension of course. Yes, even on uphills, there was an apparent difference in suspension damping to control the movements from both body inputs to how the tires tracked the jarring rocks and undulations.

The Kona rear suspension was a little squishy feeling, even at the desired sag. This meant that the weight balance moved farther over the rear wheel when power was delivered and took determination to keep the front wheel planted. The Fezzari wasn’t much different. Both bikes also had relaxed seat tube angles which made this trait more pronounced while in the saddle—not ideal when you’re gasping for air, trying not to smash your pedals into the ground, and get to the top of our most Impossible Climb yet.

So how did they compare? The hard, dual compound, soft condition Maxxis Forecaster tires on the Izzo may have their place in the mud, but here in the desert, that Maxxis 3C rubber combo on the Spectral 125 gave me that helping hand. Even though the Canyon was almost 4.5 pounds heavier, the wheels stuck to the ground. One other talking point would be the length of the bike. The gigantic wheelbase surprisingly kept it stable on the uphill too. I thought the break-over angle might mean stuffing the pedals into more boulders, but the suspension was able to keep things settle and push the bike forward. Who would have thought that a heavy, long, sticky rubber-equipped bike could win the Impossible Climb?

Photos by Tom Richards

See more from the 2022 Value Bikes Field Test HERE.