I tested three full-suspension bikes in 2021 — all of them were far more slack in their angles and had far shorter stems than my old Santa Cruz Superlight (which I re-homed earlier in the year).
My only current mountain bike is a 2017 titanium hardtail singlespeed. As you can imagine, that makes each of these other bikes far different from what I’m used to.
The first one I tested was a Rocky Mountain Instinct Carbon 70; the Rocky Mountain crew stopped at Rage Bicycles for a demo. The other two were an Ibis Ripmo AF and a Trek Trek Fuel EX 9.7. I rented them at Thunder Mountain Bikes in Sedona, Ariz., and Epicenter Cycling in Santa Cruz, Calif.
I spent an afternoon with each of them. The Rocky Mountain was the only one I rode on my “home trails.”
So what did I think of these full-suspension bikes?
Taking the Rocky Mountain Instinct for a Ride
The Rocky Mountain Instinct is a big, plush beast of a bike. The Rocky Mountain tech dialed the suspension in nicely for it, and I started off with an easy cruise along the canals to the trails at Papago Park.
The Rocky did a fine job getting up over Hole in the Rock, a short, steep and (sometimes) loose bit. The climb is followed by a rocky downhill. I wasn’t yet familiar enough with the bike to bomb down the descent — and it was also a demo. I didn’t want to break it!
I wasn’t at all eager to push the Rocky. This was my first ride on a bike with progressive geometry and a super-short stem. It felt extremely twitchy to me, for some reason. A small amount of input at the handlebars seemed to result in a steeper turn than I expected.
There’s a nice 4-mile loop at Papago that can tell me a lot about a bike. I was far slower on the Rocky Mountain Instinct than on my singlespeed. It’s a big, weighty bike made even heftier with CushCore tires inserts and a dropper seatpost. Factor in the way-longer-than-I’m-used-to suspension travel, and you can see why this didn’t really work well for me. (NOTE: I’m not a “racer” per se. But I do race in the occasional 6- or 12-hour race, and I don’t want a bike that holds me back.)
A second lap really sapped my energy, and my time declined even more.
I don’t mean to say the Rocky Mountain Instinct is a bad bike. It’s just not the right bike for me.
Travel (F, R): 150/140mm
Price: About $7,000
Hitting Sedona with an Ibis Ripmo AF
Next up, I had a chance to rent a bike from Thunder Mountain Bikes in Sedona.
The trails I rode to were pretty chunky, with some serious technical challenges. Combined with the triple-digit heat, getting a late start and not being able to carry much water (more on that in a moment), I had a short but challenging and fun ride.
The Ibis Ripmo I rented exhibited some of the twitchy feel like the Rocky Mountain in the early part of any steering input. It settled down a bit the further the bar turned.
The Ripmo definitely likes to go fast. Or at least, that’s where I felt best on it. It could also take square-edged hits nicely; I’d bet the Rocky Mountain could as well, but Papago just doesn’t have as many square-ish, good-sized rocks as Sedona does. That DVO Onyx fork was amazing at handling all the chunk — as it should be. It’s an expensive, high-end piece of hardware.
There was a good amount of climbing to do, and the Ripmo didn’t let me down. There were plenty of steep pitches, some of them with loose rubble to contend with. The margin for error was small, and I don’t think the Ripmo was responsible for any parts I didn’t clean.
I have a serious beef with the Ripmo AF, though: Its water bottle mount. It’s not unusual for a full-suspension bike these days to have only one bottle mount. The one on the Ripmo AF is particularly useless. It couldn’t even fit a smallish bottle. That honestly makes this bike absolutely worthless for the kind of riding I do.
In short, it rides very well but lacks the utility I need. The Ripley AF, with its shorter travel, would probably be more my bag. But it’s still a no-go until Ibis starts to make bikes for people who pedal a long distance (and have realistic budgets).
Travel (F, R): 160/147mm
Cruising Aboard the Trek EX 9.7
I have to get this out of the way: Trek is horrifically bad at naming bikes. They’ll either go for mind-numbingly bland or “about to jump the shark trendy.”
Fortunately, the Trek EX 9.7 rides far better than it’s named. It completely disappeared as I rode it. It just got the job done in any situation that didn’t far exceed my desire/capability.
It didn’t have that weird steering feel like the Rocky Mountain or Ibis despite also having slack angles. Its dropper seatpost also worked better than those on any other bike I’ve tried.
The EX 9.7 didn’t hold me back on steep climbs at all — and it never felt like a burden to pedal.
It only does have one bottle mount, but it at least functions for a bottle of any size. It’s also far beefier and burlier than I’d prefer with its 36mm fork stanchion tubes and 140mm of travel.
Oh, and it helps that I rented this bike near some amazing trails near Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s hard not to enjoy a bike on trails as good as what you’ll find at Wilder Ranch State Park.
Travel (F, R): 140/130mm
Which of These Full-Suspension Bikes Wins?
It pains me to say this, but the Trek EX 9.7 was by far my favorite of the full-suspension bikes I rented or demoed this year.
The single bottle mount means it wouldn’t be in contention should I want to buy a new bike. And I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site that I’d have a hard time owner a Big Four (Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Giant) bike because it’s just not the way I roll.
Still, this bike impressed me more than the rest. Well done, Trek!
Out of all the full-suspension bikes out there, I’d like to try the Kona Hei Hei and Salsa Spearfish the most. The Hei Hei comes in aluminum, though without a second bottle mount. The Spearfish comes in aluminum with two bottle mounts, plus all sorts of other places to mount gear.
If you’re researching full-suspension bikes and want to read a few more thoughts that might help, check out this post.
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