Review: Whyte S-120C Works
|It's a bike that encourages you to treat the trail like a natural pumptrack in order to keep cruising along.— Mike Kazimer|
Suspension Design The S-120 uses a Horst Link suspension layout (Whyte call it Quad-4). The shock is driving by a u-shaped yoke that attaches to a link that runs from the seatstays to the seat tube. Achieving the right balance of support and compliance is especially important on shorter travel bikes – all 120 millimeters need to be usable, but in a controlled way. To that end, Whyte focused on ensuring there was enough ramp up to prevent harsh bottom outs, while keeping the beginning of the stroke supple to help maintain traction.
The S-120 has a very roomy cockpit, even with a 40mm stem installed due to the long reach and 75-degree seat tube angle. I recently tested the Pole Machine, and while that bike is obviously situated in an entirely different category, it does share the same 480mm reach number as the S-120. The result of the S-120's slacker seat angle is that it has a 33mm longer top tube than the Pole, which meant that there was a stark contrast between the two bikes' seated climbing positions. I felt more stretched out on the S-120, while my position on the Machine was almost too upright for my tastes.The bottom line? Reach numbers are an important part of the geometry equation, but top tube length shouldn't be ignored. I ended up sliding the seat all the way forward to achieve the positioning I was looking for, but it's something to keep in mind for riders who may be between sizes. The overall ride quality of the S-120 while climbing or on rolling terrain is closer to a Cadillac than a Corvette. It'll rack up the miles on a big day of riding without putting up a fuss, but it has a calm, cruisy nature that separates it from a snappier bike like the Pivot Trail 429, or a Scott Spark. Uphill aficionados (yes, they do exist) would be better served by something a little lighter, and a little less slack – the muted handling of the S-120 isn't going to set a hill climber's heart aflutter. Granted, I didn't have any trouble cleaning the techy portions of my regular test track, but the S-120 didn't feel as energetic as I'd hoped; it takes a little more work to snake it through tighter sections of trail. That being said, it is more responsive than a longer travel machine with similar numbers would be, due to the fact that there's less suspension to sag into. It pedals well with the shock in the fully open position, although I did make use of the climb switch for longer, smoother dirt road grinds.
How does it compare? The S-120 isn't your typical trail bike, but the Transition Smuggler comfortably sits in a similar niche. Both bikes have 120mm of rear travel, although the Smuggler gets a 140mm Fox 34 versus the 120mm Stepcast 34 on the S-120. Neither bike qualifies as a feather weight, with a with a total weight between 28 - 29 pounds depending on the tire choice.The S-120 has a more efficient feel, especially during out of the saddle pedaling, and was more likely to use the climb switch on the Smuggler due to the fact that it sunk into its travel more easily. The Smuggler does have a slightly shorter reach and a steeper seat angle, which created a better seated climbing position for me, but both bikes are a welcome departure from the old-school, steep and sketchy geometry that used to prevail. The extra 20mm of travel up front on the Smuggle goes a long way, and I felt more comfortable letting it all hang out on that bike. The Smuggler's reverse mullet configuration seemed to encourage a looser riding style, while I had to stay a little more focused on the Whyte.Pivot's 429 Trail is aimed at the same type of rider, although that bike has a much crisper feel when climbing. It feels more like a traditional trail bike, with quick and snappy handling, although it doesn't have the same level of surefooted stability that the S-120 demonstrates on the descents.
XTR M9100 brakes: : The new XTR brakes now use a four piston caliper along with a redesigned lever, a revision that's claimed to deliver more power and better modulation. I didn't have any issues with the amount of power, but the inconsistent lever feel that was present on the prior version still reared its ugly head. Even after a fresh bleed the feel at the lever was different almost every time I pulled it. Things got even worse at the end of the test period, when temperatures dropped below freezing. Mineral oil and cold temps don't go together very well, and both levers had minimal movement before they engaged.
XTR drivetrain: The XTR brakes didn't impress me, but the 12-speed drivetrain sure did. The shifter's ergonomics are excellent, with well defined ridges on each paddle for traction, and crisp, snappy shifting. It's also possible to drop down two gears with only one push of the lever, something that's not possible with SRAM's shift levers. I can't say I noticed the extra tooth on the 10-51 cassette (versus Eagle's 10-50), but every shift was incredibly smooth and precise.
Maxxis Forekaster / Crossmark tires: The tire spec on the S-120 isn't that out of line for a trail bike, but at the very least I think a Forekaster front and rear would have been a better choice. The Crossmark is a good dry conditions tire, but it can be a little, um, “interesting” when things get wet. Or just go all in and run the time-tested DHF / DHR II combo – after all, the S-120 already feels more like a trail bike than an XC whippet.
Fox Stepcast 34: The Stepcast 34 is a very impressive fork, one that's capable of handling terrain that's well outside the scope of a typical cross-country ride. However, there is one downside – the travel is limited to 120mm. That's not a big deal if you're building up an ultralight XC or marathon race machine, but the S-120 is more than that. It's the type of bike that makes you wonder how it would handle with a little more travel up front, but unfortunately the only way to find out is to install a different fork, rather than performing a simple air spring swap. The 'regular' 34 would have been the better spec choice, a few extra grams be damned.
|Is the S120 a sign of things to come? Or it too focused on the 'down' portion of downcountry? That's open to debate, but Whyte deserve credit for giving it a try. The S-120 has a calm and stable nature that's usually not found on a shorter travel bike, and if your cross-country rides tend to be extra technical the S-120 is worth a look.— Mike Kazimer|