Cooking up the Perfect Enduro Bike
by Jordan Carr
Long, fast ’n’ rowdy descents, steep and technical, tip-of-the-saddle climbs, and all varieties of intimidating technical terrain—the kind of stuff that could reduce a XC bike into splintered pieces of carbon—this is what trail bikes are made for.
The idea that you don’t just earn your turns but you truly session each descent in style while pushing the limits of your (and your bike’s) capabilities is what defines trail riding and its popularized competitive counterpart: enduro racing.
This style of riding and racing appeals to a variety of riders, from XC and DH racers looking to expand their horizons to super-skilled trail riders who would otherwise never consider competing. The bike industry has responded with products and support for the growing race scene—enduro races of all shapes and sizes are popping up like Canada thistle. The industry is quickly adapting. But we’ve still found few bikes that are actually out-of-the-box capable of being the ultimate trail or enduro race rig. Every time a 150- to 160-mm travel bike finds its way to our shop for testing, we immediately start making adaptations, pulling off rigid seatposts, simplifying drivetrains, and installing wider bars and shorter stems, burlier tubeless-ready wheels and tires, and longer-travel forks.
The evolution of trail bikes has come a long way, and there are some solid options available. Midsize, rider-controlled manufacturers like Santa Cruz, Ibis and Pivot seem to have a leg up with the ability to allow riders to make specific component choices when buying a new dream rig. But what parts transform your trail bike into the ultimate enduro race machine?
Building up a dream trail bike that can withstand a wide variety of terrain demands can take some time, research and hard-earned cash. If you want to play in this realm, you need the right tools. Starting with the right frame and the right suspension design is crucial, but each component, from the seatpost to the pedals, will make a difference in how long the bike lasts and how it performs under extreme duress.
Although the options for building up your trail bike are almost endless, the heart of all capable enduro bikes is the same: proficiency to descend the gnarliest trails with ease while being light and efficient enough to comfortably make it on a long slog through the mountains. Here’s our take on the ultimate custom trail build and some options, depending on your needs.
It helps to start with a frame that complements the riding terrain in your area: Are the trails super rocky and technical or soft, flowy and grippy? Whether you choose a 140-mm cross countryesque rig, a stout 170-mm bike that screams on the roughest descents, or something in between—a few key details can help bring versatility to the forefront.
For our build we chose a 160-mm-travel Santa Cruz Nomad Carbon. Offering pedaling efficiency, a slack geometry and a stout frame, the Nomad has proven it fits the bill for the varied terrain of the Rocky Mountains.
When Santa Cruz first introduced the Nomad Carbon in 2010, it was an instant hit. The design pairs a refined carbon frame with a comfortable yet capable geometry and 160 mm of Santa Cruz’s VPP suspension technology. Fast-forward to 2012, and the Nomad C is still one of the most sought-after trail bikes on the market. After logging many hours on the industry’s top carbon trail bikes, we were pleasantly surprised with the Nomad on all fronts. Because of its versatility, it made a great base for an ultimate trail bike build. It offers great pedaling efficiency, an extremely durable frame, and amazing downhill capability.
Other great options for frames that fit in this category are the Ibis Mojo HD, Specialized Stumpjumper Carbon EVO or Carbon Enduro, Trek Slash, Pivot Firebird, Yeti SB66 and Rocky Mountain Slayer. New on the U.S. market is LiteVille, and the 601 frame is worth checking out. All of these frames feature between 150 and 160 mm of travel with angles that lend to both ascending and descending. Selecting the right bike for you will take a little research and riding depending on your riding background. Important features to consider are ISCG tabs for mounting a chainguide, cable routing for a dropper seatpost, and added protection in areas prone to impact from trail debris.
Suspension design also plays a key role in a bike’s overall capabilities. Many of the more involved designs like the VPP (Virtual Pivot Point), DW-Link, Trek’s Full Floater and Specialized’s FSR designs all offer a good balance of suspension movement and pedaling efficiency. Each suspension design can then be altered even more with the usage of different rear shock options and tunes.
Up front, we chose a 170-mm travel, 35-mm stanchioned RockShox Lyrik RC2 DH for its extreme versatility. Though the fork lacks a full lockout, the Lyrik offers a good amount of on-trail adjustability. Redesigned for 2012, two knobs on the right leg allow for quick high and low speed compression adjustment for changing trail conditions. It’s likely you won’t mess with these knobs very often during a ride, but a quick turn of the low speed compression can provide more stability for climbing or extra fine tuning. The downhill capability is what makes the Lyrik special. With an updated damper system for 2012, the Lyrik offers refined bump performance and absolutely dominates descents while still climbing well. An optional travel adjust feature is available for bringing the front end down for steep grinders or less demanding trails. Upgrading to this fork will put vicious teeth on any trail bike. Other similar options in the realm of the Lyric include the Fox 36 Talas and X-Fusion Slant. For a lighter duty bike, the Magura Thor, Fox F32 150mm or RockShox Revelation fork are light and simple options.
Rear Shock $350–$500
Though the Nomad’s VPP suspension offers an efficient pedaling platform, a versatile and specifically tuned shock is important to allow for quick compression adjustments for short punchy climbs when getting power to the rear wheel. The RockShox Monarch Plus RC3 shock (which was factory tuned for the Nomad) offers the adjustability of an XC style shock with an on-the-fly low-speed compression adjustment switch while providing ample big-hit capability with its oversized reservoir. Flipping the lever to the firm position significantly changed how the bike climbed and pedaled the flats.
RockShox designed the Monarch Plus as a complement to many of the current trail bikes on the market. On the Nomad, it offered a lively yet forgiving feel,a perfect balance between squish and efficiency.
Rear Derailleur $250–$300
For weight, simplicity and durability we opted for a 1x10 drivetrain on the Nomad. For enduro racing, 10 gears is all you need. A short cage rear derailleur setup with a 1x10 system offers extremely quick and positive shifting. For this purpose, the SRAM XO short cage derailleur offers great spring tension to keep the chain on track at all times. A clutch-equipped derailleur like a Shimano Shadow Plus or the soon-to-be-released SRAM Type 2 will offer an even greater level of chain management by reducing unwanted chain slap and chatter.
A key component to any capable trail bike is a chainguide, and MRP’s G2 SL offers simple yet effective chain management utilizing a lower sealed bearing pulley wheel paired with an easily adjustable upper guide. The system protects your drivetrain from potential trail debris and rock impacts with its burly lower skid plate. A 2x guide is also available from MRP, offering the same benefits while allowing for a dual ring setup in front. MRP offers guide configurations to fit almost any frame on the market, but most manufacturers are including specific chainguide tabs on current trail bike models, making setup and adjustment easy as pie.
Dropper Seatpost $250–370
Height-adjust seatposts have easily become one of the best component upgrades that can be made to improve bike handling skills. On this build, we chose the new crankbrothers Kronolog for its simple yet functional design. Offering 125 mm of infinite adjustment, the mechanical Kronolog is light with nice design features. It functions well, but early reports of failures in the locking mechanism have been reported. Ours lasted a few months before it began slipping a few millimeters. The design has merit but still needs some tweaking to be perfect. In general, dropper posts offer some engineering challenges, and most of them require regular maintenance (if not occasional rebuilds) to keep them working correctly. But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Other reasonable options include the X-Fusion Silo SL, RockShox Reverb, Specialized Command Post, the new Fox DOSS and the Gravity Dropper.
With its rounded, hammock design, the Fizik Gobi XM is a saddle for riders who prefer to stay put in their saddles. Designed specifically for mountain bike use, the Gobi offers a comfortable amount of flex, allowing the rider to sit within the saddle rather than on top. Its rounded shape provided just enough space to move around when needed, but not so much that it was hard to find the sweet spot. We also like WTB’s Pure V and Vigo models.
Bright white rims mated with stout black spokes make the Mavic Crossmax SX stand out on almost any bike. But these redesigned all-mountain hoops are more than just trail bike bling. A Maxtal aluminum rim provides a claimed 30 percent more strength than traditional aluminum, while massive Zicral alloy spokes transfer that strength through to the rest of the wheel. These wheels take considerable abuse but still offer enough vertical flex to smooth out rough terrain. At the center, Mavic utilizes an ITS-4 freehub system for ultra-quick engagement when slamming out of corners. This is a solid freehub design with improved reliability over Mavic’s pre-2011 models. Full UST certification makes the SX quick and simple to mount up tubeless while offering a much greater level of tubeless safety. Other options for a stout trail wheel include the DT Swiss FX1950 Tricon, Easton Haven Carbon and WTB Stryker AM.
Appropriately named the “Jack of All Trades,” Schwalbe’s Hans Dampf is one of the best trail tires we have ridden. With its rounded profile, blocky moto-inspired tread and triple-compound rubber, the Hans hooks up on nearly every trail while offering surprisingly low rolling resistance for such a big tire. Schwalbe’s Snakeskin sidewalls provide a durable casing to protect against even the sharpest of rock gardens. At 750 grams, they aren’t light, but the simple floor-pump tubeless setup made us appreciate the engineering that went into these tires. Other similar options include the Continental Trail King, Maxxis Minion and Specialized Purgatory.
The biggest question: clipless or flat (platform) pedals? If you typically ride flat pedals, stick with it. If you’re used to being clipped in and prefer the extra power when climbing, whether enduro racing or trail riding, using a pedal model with extra platform to stand on is well worth the extra weight. If you pull your foot out in a corner and don’t get clipped back in right away, you still have a solid base to stand on. All three major pedal manufacturers make an all-mountain model with added platform. And they’re compatible with the same cleats as their XC modes, so you can stay with the same brand you typically ride. We ride SPDs, so we went with Shimano’s XT-level trail pedal, the PD-M785. Crankbrothers’ Mallet and Time’s XRoc are both viable options.