The mountain bike legs of adventure races usually comprise a fair amount of fire-road style tracks, tarmac sections and occasionally some fun singletrack. With fast and efficient mile munching the name of the game though, rather than conquering super teccy trails, a fast and light XC hardtail is the usual weapon of choice for most racers. With a hardtail there's less to go wrong than a full susser, it's easier to sling on your shoulder for "Hike your Bike" sections, it would clog up with so much mud and, for your money, you'll get a lighter and better specced bike. There's now another decision to make though, 26 or 29 inch wheels? Nik Cook has been longterm testing a race ready 29'er, the Giant XTC Composite, to see what the big wheeled fuss is about.
The birth of mountain biking can be traced back to a few mates in Marin County California tinkering with their beach cruisers to produce bikes that'd allow them to hurtle down their local mountain trails. Those bikes happened to have twenty-six inch wheels and, since those early beginnings, mountain bikes have followed this small wheeled precedent. Twenty nine inch wheels make a lot of sense and now 29‘ers are genuinely in the mainstream with all the major manufacturers rolling them out across their ranges. No longer ridiculed as "clown bikes", their enhanced rolling characteristics, improved traction and grounded ride quality is winning over many riders.
Although there are full suspension all-mountain, downhill and freeride bikes available as 29‘ers, fast aggressive hardtail XC racers are where the bigger wheels really shine. Carbon frames give a plush but responsive ride and, with a relatively short travel fork up front combined with the additional bump absorbing capability of the bigger wheels, the potential for lightening fast race bikes is obvious. Top XC racers are converting to them in droves but don't think they're just for long limbed. Both Emily Batty and Willow Rockwell (nee Koerber) stand five foot nothing and have been winning on 29ers on the international XC circuit.
Onto the Giant XTC and its build. There's no doubting that the carbon frame is a chunky looking beast with massively oversized tubes. The MegaDrive down-tube in particular is a whopper, looking more like a gutter and handily doubling up as an effective crud catcher.
The Asymmetric chainstays are also huge and the PowerCore bottom bracket a monster. This should deliver stiff power transfer and, with the bike coming in at under 11kg, big tubes don't always mean big weight. Geometry is unashamedly racy and the 71 degree head angle gives a decidedly front end tucked under look compared to the plethora of slack angled bikes currently available. The wheels are Giant's own P-XC29-2 rims on their Tracker hubs and represent a decent enough lightweight and stiff wheelset at this price point. I've chucked in a Stans strip as I prefer to run tubeless but that's a personal preference. The specced Racing Ralph tyres give a none to subtle hint as to the intended purpose of this bike but, for general UK conditions and especially my local Dark Peak trails, I'd prefer something a bit more grippy and durable. Forks are high quality Fox Float F29 RLC 100 mm with a 15mm Thru Axle. This is a classic XC set-up with the Thru Axle adding extra stiffness, control and stability. Drivetrain is a SRAM affair with mostly second tier X9 but an X0 rear derailleur making a cameo. This is solid spec for the price and the 12-36t cassette and 2X10 26/39t upfront gearing is a perfect racing 29er set-up.
Although I'd personally prefer Shimano XTR brakes, as I find maintaining them far easier, the Avid 7's can't usually be faulted once their set-up. Giant spec their own race oriented flat bars and 100 mm stem and the Fizik Tundra perch rounds off an all round impressive build.
First ride out of the box was a trip to Coed Llandegla to ride the new black and red routes. Being January I was a bit worried how the Ralphs would perform and, with patches of ice and snow on the ground, hoped I hadn't made a mistake. Being used to riding cross, road and TT bikes, as well as mtb's, the aggressive geometry didn't feel at all unusual to me and, on the long fire road drag away from the trail centre, it flew along. Through the first few bumps and berms, I had to dial into its handling and soon realised it rewarded positive and confident riding. The harder I pushed it and the more I committed to lines, the better it railed and performed. If I got lazy, caught in two minds or didn't get my weight distribution spot on, it'd develop a definite flightiness and, like a highly strung race horse, try to buck the incompetent fool off its back. After a few sketchy moment on the early exposed sections, once on the sheltered forest trails, the Ralphs delivered their normal fast rolling ride. They're my summer and hard-pack tyre of choice and were certainly complimenting the rapid rolling XTC. Through the new super fast jumpy descent on the black section, it was obvious right from the start that the XTC was a tyres on the ground bike but it made flattening the jumps super easy and covered the ground blisteringly quickly. Powering through short uphill kicks, the stiffness of the frame shone through with no effort wasted to flex and, on full-on climbs, I was dropping my ride mates with ease. By the end of the loop the XTC and I had come to an understanding. As long as I rode it hard and well, it'd reward me with startling speed and performance but, if I slipped into dithering numpty mode, it'd give me a much deserved kick up the backside.
I then had a real period of getting to know the XTC on my local trails and, with a cold and dry spell, I was able to keep running the Ralphs. The more I rode the XTC, the faster I got and was soon setting PB's on all my training loops. I've certainly ridden more predictable and surefooted 29‘ers, such as the slacker angled Trek Superfly, but the XTC more than made up for any lost time on technical descents with its flat rolling pace and climbing prowess. That said, you had to descend confidently and well on it so whether it was losing any time is debatable. For all day XC epics it was perfect. I'm used to a racy head down position but, for such a stiff pedaling and responsive bike, ride compliance and comfort was spot on and suggest that it'd be an awesome for Enduros and Adventure Racing.
Next was a race outing at the WildMan off-road duathlon on the sandy trails near Farnham in Surrey. On the relatively non-technical trails it was the perfect bike for the day and I managed to ride the 11th fastest bike split and placed 9th overall. Interestingly almost all the top racers were on 29ers and, for these sort of races, or if you're a triathlete looking for a mountain bike that won't feel too heavy and unresponsive a bike like the Giant XTC is the ideal choice.
With snow on my home trails, the Ralphs finally had to go and fortunately I was able to swap in a set of Strada handbuilt www.stradawheels.co.uk wheels set up tubeless with Bontrager Mud X TLR tyres. If the XTC was good with it's original wheels, with the Stradas it was sublime. The guaranteed way to elevate a 29er's performance is to cut the rolling weight of those big wheels. Climbing, acceleration and rolling were all tweaked up a notch and, even in the sloppy conditions after the thaw, I was still setting fast lap times.
With my next race at the renown mud bowl of Pippingford in Sussex for the Tuffman off-road duathlon, the Strada wheels and Bonty tyres stayed on. With the big freeze though and -8C on the start line, the ground was frozen solid but the XTC still delivered the goods. On the far more technical bike leg I posted the 7th fastest time but let the XTC down with some mediocre running and finished 10th overall. Pippingford is a regular course on the National XC Series though and again the XTC showed how strong it is on a racing course.
Then it was back to Llandegla for the Fearless off-road duathlon. Post-thaw, trail conditions were a draggy slop of slush and mud. With the bike course the old red route, the XTC was largely responsible for me posting the 2nd fastest bike split (would have been the fastest if I hadn't gone the wrong way at the start) and placing 2nd overall.
Through the rest of the winter and into spring, I put in some serious Peak District miles and, for all day epics, the XTC is brilliant. It's not just a racing thoroughbred and, even after 6-7 hours on it, comfort isn't an issue. Aside from regular drivetrain wear and tear from gritstone mud meaning a new chain and a few pad brake pad replacements, repairs have been limited to re-truing the rear wheel after a couple of spokes loosened off. This rubbishes the claim that some people make about the fragility of carbon frames and them not being suitable for hard regular riding.
The next competitive outing for the XTC was the HellRider Adventure Duathlon and you can see how well that went in this months Feature Article. I'd then intended to ride the XTC at Mountain Mayhem and had even fitted super skinny mud tyres but, with an even worse swamp than previous years forecasted, spared it the torture and rode my singlespeed. The XTC has continued to excel through our alleged summer and, I guess this is the biggest stamp of my approval, I'm going to buy it.
Despite some initial teething problems and occasional scary moment, I'd grown to genuinely love the XTC and it puts a massive grin on my face every time I ride it. It certainly won't suit all and, if you're after slack angled 140 mm travel hard hitting hard tail, it isn't the bike for you. However for Adventure Racing or if you come from a triathlon or road background, enjoy long cross country rides or just appreciate that mountain biking is as much about climbing speed as descending, it could well be the perfect bike.
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