Operation: Reasonable compromise

Long travel, lightweight, trail smashable — seeking the holy trinity of trailbike happiness


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A couple years ago, I began voicing my own squeaky wheel opinion that the weight of trail bikes was creeping up into an untenable chunkiness. I said something to the effect that 150-millimeter travel bikes weighing over 32 pounds weren’t really doing any of us any favors when it came to ripping trail. Voicing this during some bike test roundtables, and then in a column soon after, produced a predictable range of comments in response. A few people agreed with me. A whole lot more did not. Their commentary could best be summed up as follows: “Learn how to ride, you old kook.”

Stung by the slings and arrows of YouTube trolls, I decided to go ahead and build “my kind of long-travel trail bike,” and in the process hopefully force those same YouTube trolls to eat a big dish of crow. I was going to build a long travel 29er with a carefully selected bunch of components, with the stipulation that they be real-world accessible, and end up with something at least 5 pounds lighter than average that would still be fully abuse-worthy. Talking with Travis Engel here about this, we dubbed the project Operation: Reasonable Compromise.

Closeup of top tube and handlebars
Photo: Isaac Wallen

I settled on a just-superseded Ibis Ripmo as the base frame for three reasons. One, it’s a highly capable and well-loved 145-millimeter-travel platform that I get along well with. Two, at 6.5 pounds for frame and shock, it’s a very respectable starting point for a weight shaving exercise. Three, since Ibis had just come out with the newer, more aggro Ripmo, I was able to buy the prior vintage for a screaming deal. I ordered the standard Ibis XT build kit, minus wheels, seatpost and saddle. This was my starting point. All built up with the stock parts and no pedals, this bike weighs between 30 and 31 pounds depending on the tires. As a barometer of comparison for what else is out there, I would rate this as on the light end of the spectrum for a full-send approved, 150-millimeter-ish 29er. At the most recent gathering of our test flock, the common weight for bikes in this category of travel and intent was somewhere between 32 and 33 pounds.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

So, onto the Jenny Craig experiment. The bike pictured here weighs 27.5 pounds, sans pedals. There is room to go lighter, by about a pound, and we will talk about that. But this here is where I drew the line. This is my Reasonable Compromise: 27.5 pounds, with a Fox 36 Factory fork, and X2 shock, 30-millimeter inner rim width and 2.5” tires.

Is it fully shreddable? Will it catch huge air without any “these wheels will explode when I case them” fears? Can it decimate rock gardens at speed? Can I ring the rosies off the fork and shock and laugh as I plow? Will this silence the armchair snipers? Am I awesome and all-powerful and the smartest, most stylish mofo in the world?

In a word, no.

But is it a Reasonable Compromise? Read on, and decide for yourself. First, let’s talk about the weight we cut, and where, and why.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

Wheels: This right here is the single easiest place to cut a huge chunk of weight. It is also the single most glaring area of compromise. The middle-ground Ibis wheelset that is specced for this bike features Ibis’ house brand 35-millimeter inner width rims, and weighs 1710 grams for the set. You can get those with a pair of awesome Maxxis Assegai 2.5 tires with EXO+ casings and be ready to break rocks all day long. The weight of those stock wheels is decent, about on par for the lightweight end of abuse-ready wheels. For total peace of mind, and for really smashing descents and jump lines, you’d probably want to aim for something heavier still. That’s the cost of doing business, and also where we get into the first major crux of Reasonable Compromise.

A few people agreed with me. A whole lot more did not. Their commentary could best be summed up as follows: “Learn how to ride, you old kook.”

I had a couple hard rules when it came to wheels and tires. The minimum internal rim width I would accept would be 30 millimeters, and the tires needed to be 2.5 inches or wider. The route I took led me to the following: A set of DT-Swiss XMC 1200 wheels (1509 grams per set), Maxxis Rekon 2.6 tires (120tpi, 3C Maxx Terra compound, 800 grams apiece), and about 100 grams of sealant per tire.

Closeup of wheel and tire
Photo: Isaac Wallen

Tire weight alone is massive here. A Maxxis Assegai 2.6 EXO casing in the same 3C Maxx Terra compound weighs 1145 grams (Maxxis claimed weight for both Rekon and Assegai is about 20 grams lighter than my scale indicates, and the weights I am listing here are what I weighed. Maybe Maxxis are being optimistic, maybe my scale is inaccurate. Just sayin’…). The full Monty Maxxis Assegai in DoubleDown casing and Maxxx Grip compound weighs more than 1300 grams. But it’s a stretch to call that a trail tire. As it is though, we’re looking at a roughly 600-gram differential in same compound (but much different level of aggression) tires. Add a 400- or so gram difference in wheel weights, and right there we are talking about a full kilogram of bike weight, two point two pounds. Add another pound if you want the DD casings and Maxx Grip compound. Oof.

But, herein lies the crux of compromise, and this will also define every other component choice I made: The wheels and tires that I chose are compromises even for me. They roll super-fast, and I like the way Rekons work in the dry. Or I am very used to how they work in the dry. Anywhere wet, or anywhere super loose, and they begin to show their limits. Also, I don’t jump (“learn to ride, you old kook!”), at least not with the big air aspirations that so many riders have. But I weigh between 180 and 190 pounds, and like to lay into the corners hard, and at times I can feel this setup getting a little squirmy. Hard chargers and big jumpers would absolutely hate this setup, and with good reason.

For me, though, this is a compromise that I can tolerate in most of my riding, most of the time. This is something you need to define for yourself, but these days there are so many options available that the act of definition gets a little hazy. I rate my wheel decision as on the light side of durable, and definitely not very smashable. But, if I really wanted to geek out on the grams, I could drop another half-pound of weight with a set of Roval Control SL wheels, slap on some some 2.3 Rekons and lose another whole pound, and end up with a 26-pound bike. With a 160-millimeter Fox 36 fork, and a reservoir shock that has adjustable high and low speed compression and rebound damping and 145 millimeters of travel out back.

Closeup of bottom frame
Photo: Isaac Wallen

Jeeezus, we burned some words talking about wheels, eh? There’s an old adage — “an ounce on the wheel is worth a pound on the frame.” I cannot stress enough how much of a performance difference wheel weight makes. Lighter wheels climb like angels, and paired with fast rolling tires will absolutely make you feel like a hero going uphill or grinding out miles of rolling terrain. But they are more fragile, as well as more nervous handling and less planted, when it comes time to beat them against sharp rocks. You decide how you want to roll this conundrum.

On to the rest of the compromises, and whether or not they were reasonable. I will try to make this succinct.

Will this silence the armchair snipers? Am I awesome and all-powerful and the smartest, most stylish mofo in the world? In a word, no.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

Brakes: The stock Shimano XT brakes were ditched in favor of Magura MT-Trail setup, running 180-millimeter rotors front and rear, with a four-piston front caliper, and two pistons gripping the rear. I also snuck in a Magural SL rotor out back. The brake swap netted a 140-gram weight reduction, without any real dent to performance. XT and Magura feel different to each other, but when both are bled and maintained they offer what feels like very similar levels of bite. The ergonomics of the Magura brakes are sweet, and I dig them. No compromise in my book.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

Cranks: E-13 XCX Race Mountain cranks are “the lightest production carbon crankset on the market.” SOLD! Well, not so fast … The weight savings here over the XT crankset is substantial, around 220 grams depending on chainring, but the same caveats apply here as with the wheels. These are not the kind of cranks you want for bike park use, or for slamming into rocks, or for regular crashing. They are really, really, really light. And they will die early if you abuse them. Also, the chain doesn’t run quite as silky smooth over the E-13 chainring as it does over the Shimano chainring. Compromise. In my case, reasonable for now, but may be subject to revision down the line.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

Fork: That’s a Fox 36 Factory 160 up front there. BUT WAIT! Instead of a Grip2 damper, I selected a Fit damper instead. You can order forks this way, if you want. Opting for a Fit instead of Grip damper saved me 100 grams. Was it worth it? No. Absolutely not. Bad call on my part. Less adjustability, not as refined trail feel, occasional funny rattling noise from the compression adjuster cap. Compromise. Unreasonable.

Closeup of gear cassette
Photo: Isaac Wallen

Cassette: XTR. Damn, it hurts just looking at the price tag on XTR cassettes. But there’s 103 grams of weight to be purged for those willing to spend the additional $230 over the $160 that an XT cassette will cost come replacement time. Performance-wise, it’s a wash. I challenge anyone to tell the difference in shift quality between XT and XTR cassettes. A quarter pound is a quarter pound though. In this case, that’s a gold standard quarter pound. Level of compromise depends entirely on your wallet depth …

Photo: Isaac Wallen

Dropper post: This wasn’t really a weight saving call at all. I just really like PNW’s Rainier post and Loam Lever. The post is silky smooth, action is light, and the lever is a joy to push. For the sake of keeping it light (and because I’m just not that tall), I opted for 150 millimeters of travel, saving 30 grams over the longer 175-millimeter Rainier dropper.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

That’s it. I pulled about two pounds out of the wheels, and close to another two pounds out of the components. There’s still about a pound to be scrounged out of bars and saddle and grips, but these further weight savings all come at the cost of durability, comfort, and/or staggering amounts of money. The same can be said for dropping any more weight in the wheel/tire department. Expensive, and counterproductive in terms of broad capability.

I challenge anyone to tell the difference in shift quality between XT and XTR cassettes. A quarter pound is a quarter pound though.

In the end, I opted to build up a second set of wheels, using Revel’s new thermowhatchamacallit rims and XTR hubs and good old fashioned j-bend spokes with brass nipples. They weigh 1760 grams for the pair, and with the Assegai tires and XT cassette are not going to win any KOMs uphill but definitely give me peace of mind when slamming them into the rocks somewhere uphill from Downieville.

Photo: Isaac Wallen

For an all-day backcountry long ride setup, the light wheels and tires on this bike are awesome. It’s ridiculously comfortable, gets after it on the climbs like a super plush XC bike, and if you pay attention to your lines it’s a whole lot of fun to rip downhill.

Buuuut, it’s not an XC bike by any stretch of the imagination. When it comes to coughing up a lung chasing my tail around the blown out wastes of summertime in Fort Ord, I reach for the lighter, sharper, faster Epic Evo that lives in my barn. Every single time. There’s just no need for more than 120 millimeters of travel on most of the terrain within an hour of my home.

Photo: Isaac Wallen
Ripmo mountain bike

And, if I want to go smash rocks, I put the heavy wheels on the Ripmo, which then bumps the weight back up to almost 30 pounds. So, for all my grumbling about bikes being too heavy, when it comes to riding them like they are meant to be ridden I am forced to concede that they kind of NEED to be a little hefty. The difference between a 27-pound bike and a 33-pound sled is pretty damn noticeable in every way you care to measure. The difference between a 30-pound bike and a 33-pound bike? Not so much.

So, as Vernon Felton would like to say, There You Have It. I set out to prove the doubters wrong, to silence their crowing. Instead the crows came home to roost, and now I must eat them. The compromises involved in getting a modern long travel, super capable mountain bike down to something nearing short travel weights are the kind of compromises that handicap some very important aspects of the bike’s capabilities. Where you ride, how you ride, how much you weigh and how hard you crash are all very important factors to consider when sizing up a project like this. Think long and hard about whether these compromises are worthwhile before you open up your wallet.

Photos: Isaac Wallen