What bike should I buy for marathon racing? Or, what bike should I buy for… *enter a massive stage race here*? These are not uncommon questions for bike shop staff, or that we get sent via email or social media. And it is justifiable too – the range of bikes continues to expand, as does the type and variety of races where we can go and race them. Trying to get the right bike does take a bit of research.
Lots of XC focused bikes are moving to adapt to new standards. Whether those standards are relevant to you, your riding, and your event is up to you. But let’s take a look through some of the decisions you will need to make, and criteria you should judge a bike on.
Hardtail or full-suspension?
More than ever, it is clear that the hardtail is far from dead. Manufacturers are building more compliance into the back end of their bikes. Be it via superlight seat stays and a specific lay up in the chainstays which Scott do with their latest Scale, or even by using a decoupler, as Trek do with their Procaliber. Bianchi have also redesigned their Methanol with Counterveil – for much the same reasons.
Some brands, like Canyon, also use a dedicated seat post to get some extra comfort, and this is common with Cannondale, Focus and Merida as well. BMC take a different path, and actually have a small elastomer in the seat stays, to provide an improvement in traction and comfort, only on their top tier Teamelite 01. Something that Lukas Fluckiger says is surprisingly effective.
So does that mean a full-suspension bike is redundant? No, of course not. But it has given hardtails a broader performance envelope, and quite an edge especially in one day marathons.
“I would say 80 or 90% of the races I do with my Fourstroke. Almost every training ride at home I do with the Fourstroke. It really is a bike for rough conditions. The races get more and more bikepark style with rock gardens, and even in the uphill it is really bumpy. Even if the race is 1.5 hours, it is still good to have some comfort in the race. That’s why I mostly use the BMC Fourstroke.” Lukas Fluckiger
A full-suspension bike will still likely be the choice for a marathon in rockier areas, or even where it’s not ridiculously rough, but there is a lot of pedalling. There is also a big advantage in having the right full-suspension bike in a stage race. The 2015 Swiss Epic saw an interesting mix of bikes amongst the elite. Some were one 100-120mm travel 27.5″ bikes, like the Scott-Odlo team. But speaking to the BMC Team, they chose the Teamelite 01 over the Fourstroke, as the climbs were so long, that they preferred the efficiency and lower weight of their hardtails. Also, both riders were Swiss, and perhaps very comfortable on the long, technical descents.
But, if you’re not a professional with physiotherapists to keep you in shape between each stage, chances are a short travel full-suspension bike will suit you best. That said, if you love the feel of a hardtail, and you have a very small build and notice the extra 1kg difference to a full-suspension bike, you might be best to stay on a hardtail. This really can be a difficult decision.
To put some general recommendations, but not rules, out there. Something like the Cape Epic suits a short travel full-suspension bike. Transalp is probably best on a compliant hardtail due to the immense amount of climbing. The Crocodile Trophy could go either way, thanks to the ever increasing technical terrain. The Swiss Epic might ideally be suited to a light hardtail with a dropper post. There is no one ideal bike, but few people are likely to do all of those events in one year.
Don’t miss our look at the new Scott Spark range – an update on a very popular stage race and marathon bike.
At this point, let’s just focus on 29″ and 27.5″ wheels. Plus bikes (27.5″ rim sizes with 2.8″ tyres or larger) tend to be best suited to trail riding, as opposed to marathon and stage racing. That might well change though, given how quickly more brands are getting onboard.
A 29er will typically be faster rolling on open terrain, while people say that a 27.5″ wheel is more agile. But your bikes geometry will actually account for much of the agility you want. The best guide here is what more and more manufacturers are doing – size specific wheel sizing. Trek, Merida, Yeti… and more bike brands do it with their cross country and marathon focused hardtails and bikes. And brands like Giant who swore off 29ers a few years ago are now bringing them back into their range.
At a quick count, I can’t think of a major marathon or stage race won recently on a 27.5″ wheeled bike. However the tighter, slower trails of some events like BC Bike Race would more than likely suit a bike with 27.5″ wheels. So if you need more agility, or you’re shorter – tend towards 27.5″ wheels.
All that is opinion – and test riding will be a far better option to decide what feels best.
Frame technology your new bike should have
This might be a bit contentious, but there are a few things I would personally look for when looking at a new bike, for both performance reasons, being future proof and compatibility. Boost spacing is one of those. You will almost certainly look at a 29er, and although the rapid change in ‘standards’ is annoying,
Boost does make sense with big wheels, greatly assisting with wheel stiffness, and also helping draw the back end of the bike in for better handling. With the hub flanges further out, there is a better angle from the flange to the rim – creating more even tension and a stronger wheel too.
Be aware of how hard or easy it is to service the bearings on a full-suspension frame too. And if you’re travelling a long way, take the spares and any specific tools. Some systems you can rebuild with a multitool. Others are a bit more in-depth.
Cable or wire routing options is also a big one. Internal is good, but really you want something that can take 1x, or 2x options, plus with an option for a stealth dropper, and the possibility for running Shimano Di2. While SRAM have put wireless shifting into the road marketplace, it’s not on the horizon on mountain bikes anytime soon. External routing is a bonus for ease of maintenance, but quality internal routing setups are actually very easy. Trek have this dialled, and Merida, Canyon and Norco aren’t bad either.
Being dropper post friendly might be contentious, but a weight penalty of just 200-300g can have you moving a lot faster, especially if your target events have long descents. It’s not so much about getting behind the seat, as keeping a good position on the bike to pump and work your bike through technical terrain.
Drivetrain reliability also involves chain retention. A few manufacturers are creating bikes without the option to run 2x – but also without the option to run a chain device. The Norco Revolvers our team used in 2016 are one such bike – and gratefully the 2017 models have mounts for a front derailleur or chain guide.
Hydrate or die
Water is important. One of the big advantages of most hardtails is being able to run two water bottle cages. It has been said this is more important in training than racing – and that may well be the case, although it depends what your target event is. In the XCM World Championships this year, feedzones were rarely more than 12km apart – one bottle is easy! But go to a more remote stage race where the feed zones might be 40km or more apart, and being able to carry two bottles is a huge benefit.
Few full-suspension bikes allow two bottles to be carried within the main triangle, but there are some notable exceptions. Cannondale’s new Scalpel SI, Rocky Mountain’s new Element, the Specliazed Epic, plus the latest KTM, and also the Swift Evil Twin amongst a few others, like the new Bulls’ Wild Edge.
Of course, there are always mounts on the underside of down tubes, and for seat posts by KCNC – which can make the difference.
A matter of drivetrains
This gets a bit murky, and while Shimano v SRAM isn’t quite as passionate as Shimano v Campagnolo it’s not that far off for some. As a rule, both brands’ top group sets are exceptional. What you want to consider is ergonomics, gear range, versatility, and availability of spares.
If you like Gripshift, you’ll be on SRAM. If you want the biggest range with a single chainring – you’re on SRAM with the new Eagle 10-50 cassette. It’s a huge gear range! Shimano’s M9020 XTR Di2 2×11 has probably the smoothest shifting with the best range, but it does take a lot of money, and some dedicated parts like frame, bars, stem to get it looking the best – there are still a lot of cables and it’s way better if they are out of harms way.
Di2 also has an excellent feel – the lever isn’t a switch, it’s tactile and moves in a great motion around the bar. But even with the the new 11-46 cassette, the range isn’t the same as SRAM. The downside? SRAM’s Eagle group sets are high end, with high cost. The latest SRAM GX Eagle should be advantageous.
And range is important. 1x set ups do have a lot less maintenance, and if you can get the range you need from a 1x group set, you have a simpler drivetrain which involves a lot less thought to use when 4 hours into a 6hr stage.
You should also consider availability of parts, and the cost of spares. SRAM tends to lose out here in some countries. My experience has Shimano spares being a lot easier to source in Europe, but SRAM and Shimano are on equal footing for spares in Australia and the USA. And while an XTR cassette is never cheap, the 11-42 XT cassette is very well-priced, compared to any SRAM 10-42 cassette. Shimano rear derailleurs tend to sit out of harms way better at the back of the bike compared to SRAM, but these are minor points compared to the need for range.
And lastly – versatility. Shimano’s 1x group sets can be made 2x, and vice-versa if your frame has a front derailleur mount. So when you’re deciding, make sure your decision isn’t made due to fashion – but functionality for your intended racing and riding. 2x is popular in Europe as they have some very big mountains. If that’s where you’re racing, or you have something similar in your backyard – take the hint!
Unless you are looking at one of the very top models from a bike brand, it is actually quite unlikely that they will come stock with a nice wheel set. A dependable wheel set – sure. But they’re unlikely to be light, stiff and strong until you’re at the top of the range.
And that is what you want. Be it 27.5″ or 29″, you do want your wheels to be light. But they need to be strong and reliable – and laterally stiff. Much of this points to carbon fibre, but Team Bulls run NoTubes Race Gold rims with bladed spokes to XTR hubs. That’s a light, compliant, and reliable wheel. Perfect for the stage races and marathons that they dominate in.
Let’s consider the three main parts – hubs, rims and spokes.
Your hubs should be well sealed, and ideally adaptable. If you aren’t on Boost spacing, maybe you want something that can move between through axle and quick release? Increasingly, I don’t see why you would need QR. But maybe. You should also make sure the freehub can be changed from an XD driver to a Shimano splined freehub. It really helps with versatility. High flanges help for wheel stiffness, and large bearing sizes are excellent for durability. Fast engagement is very helpful, and the Kappius 240 points wins, there are other hubs that engage quite quickly, like Industry Nine’s freehub on Project 321 hubs, or the DT Swiss 240 with the engagement upgrade. SRAM’s hubs are also excellent, and obviously Shimano’s XTR hubs are amazing – just not adaptable.
Rims are important. Yes, everyone is moving to wider rims, and it doesn’t mean you have to… but you should consider something with about 22-26mm internal width. Having spent many hours on both a NoTubes Valor wheel set and Kappius KW1.5 wheels, it is clear what the differences are. The Kappius wheels felt better out of corners and on tech climbs with much higher engagement, but also more planted and secure thanks to a wider rim. NoTubes have redeveloped their Crest alloy rim to be wider, and it is an exceptional choice to build a wheel on.
Some rims don’t inflate easily for tubeless – and I’m left wondering what the point is. NoTubes have always set up tubeless easily, as did Kappius. Early Enve rims were rubbish for setting up tubeless, but more recent models are much improved.
I only ride and race on carbon rims now, because I experience better durability. A quality carbon fibre rim is far stronger than alloy, so requires less attention through a stage race, or just through the year. Light alloy rims don’t take too much of a hit to be knocked around.
If you are looking at getting wheels built on the hubs and rims you choose – don’t forget the spokes! It is worth choosing well here, as the labour cost is another part of the investment. Bladed spokes like the DT Aerolite are stunning, but spokes like the Sapim Laser, or DT Super Comp are very reliable. Built well, bladed spokes sit well against each other where they cross and feel like they brace the wheel better. Alloy nipples are lighter, but brass are longer lasting. Your wheel builder can steer you in the right direction. Whatever you choose, keep some spares on hand to take to major events.
Tyres fit for purpose
Just like a bike is unlikely to come with the wheels you want, same goes for tyres. But that’s ok, this is an easy change. For most races you need to marry low weight, fast rolling resistance, cornering traction and puncture resistance. But you probably also want easy tubeless set up, good bag size, and great climbing and braking traction.
It can be hard to find all these things in one tyre. We ran a test to see what worked best for us.
You will be best to choose your tyres for your event. Central Australia requires super strong tyres, like Maxxis tyres with EXO protection, or Schwalbe Double Defence. Same for South Africa. Some areas are sandy so you can opt for something more supple, but don’t neglect bag size for some floatation.
Wet conditions need softer compounds and deeper lugs. But you might still want something fast on the back. Our team riders predominantly use Maxxis Ikons in 2.2″ with EXO casing, and often with an Ardent Race in 2.2″ on the front – with or without EXO casing depending on the conditions. Sometimes Imogen will opt for a 2.0″ Ikon on the rear as she is lighter. A similar combination from a variety of tyre manufacturers is possible – whereby you have a faster rolling rear and a gripper front. I don’t tend to change for different races very often, as I find this combination very versatile. No matter your brand preference, you should be able to find the right combination. But err on the side of caution – stopping for flats is slower than a slightly heavier tyre.
Your contact points
Well this is personal – but suffice to say choosing the right saddle is important. You will probably already have something you know and trust. Stick with it. But don’t be surprised when you see some people running saddles you think are crazy. Super light saddles like Tune’s Speedneedle is very comfortable for some. It actually just depends on the padding you need, and the width you need.
I have always found a Fizik Arione ‘pretty good’. As in, it’s great about 80% of the time. Right now I’m on a Prologo model which is proving to be better. It’s still narrow, and flat, which makes it easy to move around on, and easy to sit on and pedal. These are both good things.
Bar width and grips are often over looked. And put stem length in there too. The wider your bars, the shorter your stem. Just because your new bars are a hip 740mm wide doesn’t mean you need to run them that wide – your shoulders just might not be big enough! Play with sliding your controls inboard. I run 720mm bars but would like to go to 730mm. Imogen Smith runs 710mm with a 70mm stem, although many women will run narrower. Sweep is worth considering – some people really like the very straight bars, but I prefer 9 degrees. 12 degrees is also available. 9 degree is certainly the standard.
I’ve had struggles with grips in the past – and I’m back where I started on Ritchey WCS foam grips. They’re light, comfortable and stay put. Ergonomic grips can really help for some, but it depends what you prefer. Thankfully, they aren’t an overly expensive part to experiment with. Just make sure they don’t move around, and that they’re not so thick it takes too much pressure to hold the bars. FRM have great foam models too.
Pedals and shoes are a contact point, and in the scope of building a bike or buying one you probably already have this sorted out. But if they are worn – replace them. You need these to work properly, and a worn shoe and pedal interface will interfere with pedalling, and possibly cause an injury.
Choices by others
Here are some bikes we have looked at in the past, so you can get an idea what works for some:
Is that it?
No, there are things to consider like suspension systems, custom tuning, availability in your area – and one of the biggest of all: what does your local bike shop stock? Unless you’re highly proficient at mechanical repairs, and happy to stock your shed with spares, you will be best to work with your local trusted shop to get you on the bike that suits you best. They are probably your best bet for test rides too.
Got a question? Post it in the comments below and I’ll get back to you.