Cycling Issue
By Austin Parker
on 6.18.13
Photo by Jay Dash, L. Parker

Somewhere in between grinding steep climbs and effortlessly floating hairpin singletrack downhill, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter the dreaded “endo”. The end-over handlebars is a rite of passage for any mountain biker as he works up the ranks from cruising novice to dirt demon. At least, that’s what I thought before taking a spin on the new Yeti SB95 ($4,800 as tested) on a recent trip to Vail Mountain, CO. The race course there is notorious for destroying riders’ legs on the way up — nearly 2,500 feet of vertical climbing on a two-lap race is fairly standard — and crushing their confidence on the tight, aspen-choked single track on the way to the finish.

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The cross-country mountain biking world has long been dominated by the 26-inch wheeled, hard-tailed (read: no shocks on the rear triangle, so your ass gets its fair share of the bruising) race rigs. It’s only in the last couple of years that the 29-inch wheel has come onto the scene, shaking things up in terms of comfort and geometry. The driving idea behind the 29er revolution was having the extra wheel real-estate for rolling through technical sections and holding your momentum longer on downhill marathons. The downside? Larger wheels often mean a taller, longer bike, so smaller riders may have trouble handling them. If you’re not concerned with a little extra bike, the SB95 charges firmly to the forefront of the 29er wave: you can climb with the pros and rip the downhill without fear.

When I picked up the bike at Yeti’s factory in Golden, CO, the first impression was borderline skeptical. A long-travel bike — it’s got five full inches of suspension in the front and back — is not your typical cross-country race day ride. The resident pros were quick to dispel that apprehension, assuring me that after a quick break-in ride and a short tutorial on flipping the climb/descend switch on the rear shock I’d be good to go. The extra travel distance on the shocks helped assuage my fears too; after a few years’ break from race courses, I’d need all the help I could get to stay on the right side of the handlebars. Standing over the top tube in the parking lot and ripping switchbacks at altitude are far removed from one another, so I loaded up with my group and headed west to get a few practice rides in before race day.

There’s nothing quite like a trial by fire, and that’s exactly what the “easy lap” for course inspection the day before the cross country mountain bike race at the GoPro Summer Mountain Games was. The the SB95 handled the brutal uphill sections with ease (my lungs, however, protested loud enough to scare most of the wildlife away). The climbing function of the rear Fox CTD shock locked out enough of the typical bouncy ride to make sure I didn’t lag behind my group; I actually started picking a few friends off and gaining ground towards the top.

The the SB95 handled the brutal uphill sections with ease (my lungs, however, protested loud enough to scare most of the wildlife away).

This surprising climbing ability is what sets the SB95 apart from its competitors — and helped surprise more than a few other riders during the race. The 29er wheels and knobby Maxxis Ardent tires efficiently ate up ground through even the worst mud and dust. The real fun, though, came during the long downhill charge through the Hank’s Hideaway section of trails. If your dream ride consists of technical switchbacks peppered with exposed roots, rocks and the occasional downed racer, the SB95 is your steed. With the shocks switched to “descend” mode, nothing stood in the way of opening up a decent gap from a large pack of riders. The forgiving ride, due to five full inches of travel, almost let me forget I was charging down a race course pushing for a speed record.

The 29ers’ reputation of not handling quite as nimbly as their 26-inch cousins? Most decidedly false, at least as far as I could tell. With a dialed-in front shock I rolled through bermed turns and steep rock hops without a second thought. More importantly, the plush combination of front and rear shocks kept the ever-present endo threat at bay, and I never had to put my helmet to the test.

The SB95 may not fit the mold for a textbook cross country racer, but I’ll gladly take the trade-off of extra weight for the more comfortable ride — especially when it involves the steep climbing and descending in Vail. This climbs like a much lighter bike; its downhill performance outshines other bikes on the mountain. If you’re still looking to shave a few ounces off your rig, a 95 Carbon is also available, weighing in at just a few pounds more than an ultralight road bike. Whatever you choose, the SB95 will keep the pressure on your competitors and let you charge hard for all-day endurance rides. There’s a reason the best choose Yeti, and this bike is it.

METHODOLOGY We decided that best way to try an untested bike would be to enter a race known for grinding competitors with long miles of steep climbs (eat your heart out, Lance) before throwing them off the side of the mountain through boulder fields and aspen groves.
limits-promo-logoThis review is part of a new original GP series, LIMITS, dedicated to exploring the physical and mental borderlands of human capability. And beyond.