Cross-Country Superbike Shootout

Cross-Country Superbike
Shootout

Although the 2020 Olympics have been pushed off until next year, the bikes that are set to take the start gate have long been in development and couldn’t wait to be unveiled. This year’s crop of cross-country race steeds is lighter, faster and more advanced than we’ve ever seen before. The Mountain Bike Action crew had the opportunity to put the top four XC race stallions to the test to discover which bike is most likely to help you earn your own gold medal.

THE CONTENDERS

Our shootout consisted of four top-of-the-line cross-country race bikes: Specialized’s S-Works Epic, Canyon’s Lux CF 9.0 Team, Trek’s Supercaliber 9.9 and, last but not least, Cannondale’s Scalpel Hi-Mod Ultimate. Our list of bikes range in price from $7000 all the way up to $12,000. That’s right, we put the true superbikes to the test; however, keep in mind that many of these bikes are offered at a more entry-level price point for the weekend warrior who may not have a factory-backed budget. Weighing in at the heaviest of the class is the Canyon at 22 pounds. The lightest was the Epic weighing 21.25

pounds. Each bike in this shootout has its own pros and cons, so without further ado, let’s dive right into what these bikes are all about.

S-WORKS EPIC

The Epic is arguably the most well-known and highly regarded bike in its class due to its two-decade run and over 100 World Cup podiums to date. The Epic set the bar high and felt like the bike to beat going into our shootout. The latest updates to the Epic are a complete frame redesign, along with an updated Brain shock. Let’s dive into the tech and on-the-track feel for our S-Works contender.

TECH

Specialized went all out to make the S-Works Epic pop no matter how you slice it. Just take one look at its Candy Red paint job that flows down its RockShox SID fork legs for evidence of that. True tech guys and gals will fall in love with the clean and sleek appearance, thanks to SRAM’s AXS wireless drivetrain. In fact, the only two exposed “cables” at the front of the bike are the hydraulic brake hoses. The Epic offers the most futuristic look of all its competitors. It is the only bike to feature a power meter built into the crankset.

Specialized made the Epic more downhill-ready, with a slacker 67.5-degree head tube angle and a bottom bracket that sits 9mm lower than that of last year’s model. Additionally, the reach was increased across frame sizes to allow the use of shorter stems. A new Brain shock was placed lower behind the rear triangle, allowing the rear brake to be relocated. The new system offers more vertical flex in the chainstays to improve ride quality. Last but not least is a new pair of Control SL wheels that are 4mm wider and 90 grams lighter than last year’s. The wider profile offers improved impact strength by distributing the force over a larger area and gives the tire a wider stance for increased traction.

ON THE TRACK

SUSPENSION 100mm front 100mm rear
TIRE SIZE 29″

The Epic, by far, was the most user-friendly bike in our shootout, thanks to its Brain suspension, which outsmarts the trails. While the rest of the bikes in our lineup came with remote lockouts, the Epic automatically stiffened up during out-of-the-saddle sprints and became supple when the trails got rough. The Epic’s new geometry was also highly favored by our test riders who experienced more confidence when hard-charging through challenging terrain. Specialized spec’d the Epic with the widest tires in its class at 2.3 inches, further improving the bike’s downhill prowess.

Of course, the Epic is designed to conquer climbs, just like all of its competitors. When the Epic is pointed uphill, it provides excellent pedaling efficiency with minimal movement. It’s not quite as locked-out feeling as the other bikes in this shootout; however, the time saved by not having to think about flipping a lockout switch and the added traction supplied by the slight suspension movement are points in its favor. As expected, the Epic was the bike to beat in this shootout, and with its Ferrari-like appearance and performance, it’s hard to walk past this machine.

CANYON LUX CF 9.0 TEAM

Canyon’s consumer-direct model allows the German company to offer exceptional price points, undercutting the most expensive bike in this shootout by $5000. With that savings, you could probably afford to own a competitive World Cup race bike, along with a quality road bike for the ultimate training package. The bike is armed to the teeth with high-tech components, a lightweight frame, carbon wheels and even a dropper post. The Lux is made to compete at the top level of our sport without demanding a top-dollar price.

TECH

The Lux features a carbon frame with internal cable routing, a Press-Fit bottom bracket and a steering lock that prevents the handlebars from dama h dl b f d ging the frame should things go wrong out on the trails. The bike features top-of-the-line Fox Factory suspension, along with a high-end Shimano XTR 12-speed drivetrain. The overall appearance of the bike is quite nice until you spot the vast array of cables at the front of the bike. With a remote lockout to the front and rear, a cable shifter, a dropper-post remote and, of course, two hydraulic brake lines, the Lux quickly becomes a mechanic’s worst nightmare. Compared to the Epic’s ultra-sleek look, the Lux may seem less appealing. That said, each one of the Canyon’s components operates really well and will benefit the rider on the trail.

ON THE TRACK

SUSPENSION 100mm front 100mm rear
TIRE SIZE 29″

Canyon’s Lux was the only bike in our shootout with an XTR drivetrain; the other brands went with SRAM. Shimano’s XTR offers a crisper feel and an audible click that lets you know you have changed gears. The Fox suspension with remote lockout is also a nice touch, delivering both climbing and descending performance. The Lux has a secret weapon—a dropper post—a feature not seen on the rest of the bikes in this shootout. That said, the Lux needed a lowered saddle height the most. With a 70-degree head tube angle and 720mm handlebars, Canyon’s Lux was the twitchiest bike in our lineup. At slower speeds, the bike felt snappy and fun, allowing us to navigate the tightest trails with ease; however, when the trail got faster, the Lux started to get nervous. A skilled XC rider should be able to tame this beast and harness its speed, while a less confident descender will find the Lux requires laser focus if the rider wants to avoid being tossed over the bars. The Lux may have a slightly outdated geometry for today’s rougher XC courses, but its value makes it appealing to riders looking to save a few thousand bucks.

TREK SUPERCALIBER 9.9

Trek’s Supercaliber is the most innovative bike in our shootout, combining the snappy performance of a hardtail with the supple control of a full-suspension bike. It truly blurs the lines between full suspension and hardtail and has a strong emphasis on straight-line speed. The heart of the Supercaliber is its IsoStrut shock. The bike uses an integrated shock that controls the flex in the rear end for minimal movement. An added bonus is the lack of pivots, making the bike lighter and simpler.

TECH

The Supercaliber is a race-ready bike made to be as light as possible, thanks to its innovative suspension design. Offering a claimed 60mm of travel with the combination of its shock stroke and rear-end flex, the Supercaliber has just enough squish to mellow out the trails. Trek constructed this bike using its OCLV carbon layup and used some of its own technologies, such as Knockblock, an integrated steering-lock system. Knockblock helps prevent the fork from smashing into the frame’s straight downtube. Trek also incorporated its Control Freak cable-routing system designed to allow any combination of controls on your bike. Should you want to add a dropper post or set up the brakes moto-style, Trek makes it easy.

Looking at the Supercaliber’s component package, you’ll see carbon parts, a high-end cable drivetrain and a 100mm Fox fork. Trek offers rider confidence with a slightly more relaxed geometry compared to the Lux; however, it’s not quite as slack as the Epic or Cannondale.

ON THE TRACK

SUSPENSION 100mm front 60mm rear
TIRE SIZE 29″

The Supercaliber is a full-speed-ahead race bike. Weighing in at slightly over 20 pounds without pedals, the Supercaliber is remarkably efficient at putting power to the ground. Aiding the pedaling efficiency is the geometry that places the rider over the front of the Supercaliber. The forward weight balance also enhanced how quickly the bike responded, both in and out of corners. The biggest advantage of the Supercaliber was no pedal bob during acceleration, yet the suspension proved capable of opening up and coming alive when the terrain got rough. Harsh hits, meanwhile, reminded us that the bike has less suspension than other bikes in its class. Many of our test riders said it was like riding a hardtail that magically soaks up the trails. It’s not designed for the more “sendy” XC rider.

CANNONDALE SCALPEL HI-MOD ULTIMATE

Demanding the highest price in our shootout, Cannondale’s Scalpel had a lot to live up to. Luckily, Cannondale had a few tricks up its sleeve to set this bike apart from its competitors. From high-tech carbon materials to hidden tools and top-of-the-line components, the Scalpel easily grabs any rider’s attention. And if that’s not enough to warrant a second look, Cannondale’s Lefty fork will sure do the trick.

TECH

Cannondale designed the Scalpel with Hi-Mod BallisTec carbon and a FlexPivot frame. The rear triangle uses a flat leaf-spring shape designed to increase compliance over rough terrain. The Scalpel has an integrated stash kit that places a multi-tool, tire plug and CO2 under the rider’s water-bottle cage. This handy feature was used quite often by our testers. There’s no shortage of technology on the Scalpel, including a Garmin wheel sensor that pairs with your smartphone and gives you information, such as speed, route, distance and more. A feature mechanics will love is the tube-in-tube cable-routing system that makes routing internal cables as easy as can be.

ON THE TRACK

SUSPENSION 100mm front 100mm rear
TIRE SIZE 29″

Our test crew quickly fell in love with the Cannondale’s confident handling and climbing performance. The bike has a plush ride that makes it great for marathon-style races, but it is also efficient enough to power its way up singletrack. The Lefty fork may look strange to new Cannondale riders; however, remember that a 747 aircraft has landing gear closely resembling the single-leg fork design. On the trail, the fork provides excellent handling, diving in and out of corners with ease. Although the Scalpel is the most expensive bike in the lineup, its technology, component spec and innovation justify the price. Any rider looking for a well-rounded cross-country machine that’s fast yet comfortable will gravitate towards the Scalpel.

THE SHOWDOWN

When it’s time to line up at the starting gate, which bike would our test riders choose? Well, we hate to say it, but it was a toss-up. While all four bikes are easily capable of winning a race, two stood out. That said, the other two had great qualities that deserve to be mentioned. Starting with the Canyon Lux, we couldn’t get past its insanely good value. A full XTR spec and Fox Factory suspension on a carbon frame topped off with a dropper post for right around $7000 is a great deal. This bike is truly race-ready and put up a great fight in our shootout. Unfortunately, its overly steep head tube was its main drawback, and that’s something changing out parts simply won’t fix. That said, the Lux is a great bike for any budget racer looking for the full-factory treatment.

Moving on to the Trek Supercaliber, we found the bike to be a solid choice for short-track racers wanting to lay down the power with hardtail-like efficiency. The drawback to the Supercaliber is that its limited suspension is harsh on bigger hits. If your racetracks are smooth and flowy, you’ll find the Trek to be a great weapon, but rough terrain will quickly wear you out.

The Epic and Scalpel tied for first place. Both bikes feature top-of-the-line components and showcase the latest innovations in mountain bike technology. Both bikes would be ideal options when a rider needs the most comfort possible to take on a 40-plus-mile race. Each of these bikes shines in different areas, from the Epic’s limited controls that allow its rider to better focus on the race to the Scalpel’s confident handling and plush suspension feel when the trail gets rowdy. As for overall appearance, we have to give the edge to the Candy Red machine, while Cannondale’s clever tool holder and eye-catching Lefty fork earned points in its favor. Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any one of these superbikes. Each offers a unique ride quality best suited for different parts of the race.

An XC rider should find the bike that best complements the area where his or her skills are lacking. If you need optimal climbing performance, go with Trek’s near-hardtail efficiency. If you are on a tight budget, pick Canyon’s Lux, which offers everything you need and more. Want a bike that seems like it came from the future? Specialized’s Epic is right for you. And, if you are hunting for the perfect long-distance race bike, the Cannondale Scalpel is second to none. If you have yet to see our video shootout on these bikes, head over to Mountain Bike Action’s YouTube channel and see our testers battle side by side. Also, make sure to keep a close eye on these bikes. We’re sure some small tweaks will be made to these machines as all of these companies prepare for an Olympic do-over year in 2021.


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$450bike testCannondale Scalpel Hi-MOD UltimateCANYON LUX CF 9.0 TEAMS-WORKS EPICShootoutTrek Supercaliber 9.9video