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Review: Whyte S-120C Works

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bigquotes It's a bike that encourages you to treat the trail like a natural pumptrack in order to keep cruising along. Mike Kazimer


Construction and Features The S-120 bears more than a passing resemblance to Whyte's 27.5” wheeled T-130 – in fact, the frames are identical, with only the shock length and wheel size to differentiate them. A carbon fiber front triangle is paired to an aluminum swingarm, with clevis style pivots at the seat and chainstays. Whyte didn't go too wild trying to shave grams on the S-120 – the focus seems to have been more on creating a sturdy and reliable bike that could withstand the UK's foulest weather. From the integrated seatpost clamp, complete with a rubber seal around the post to keep water from entering the frame, to the extra layer of grease behind the anodized bearing covers (and lifetime bearing warranty), it's clear that the S-120's designers are familiar with riding in the muck and mire. There's a threaded bottom bracket, too, along with internal cable routing and room to mount a water bottle cage on top of the down tube.

Geometry & Sizing The S120 is currently one of the longest and slackest bikes in the short travel trail bike category, with with a 65.6-degree head angle, and reach of 480mm for a size large. For comparison, Pivot's Trail 429 has a 67.3-degree head angle (with a 130mm fork) and a 460mm reach, and a Specialized Stumpjumper ST has a 67.5-degree head angle (also with a 130mm fork) and a 455mm reach. Whyte quietly started using reduced offset forks on their bikes back in 2017, a trend that has since spread like wildfire throughout the industry. The S120 is no exception – the Stepcast Fox 34 has 44mm of offset, compared to the 51mm that was the norm not too long ago.At 75-degrees the S120's seat angle is contemporary but not boundary-pushing, while the 430mm chainstay length is fairly typical for bikes in this category.


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.

Build Kit



Climbing

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.
Descending The S-120 may have middle-of-the-road climbing abilities for a 120mm bike, but the good news is that it punches above its travel bracket when gravity takes over. The shorter travel obviously means it's less forgiving of mistakes, but there's no need to tiptoe through technical sections of trail - even when switching from a long-travel beast to the S-120 I didn't have to drastically change my riding style thanks to the familiar-feeling geometry. Sure, it's not as plush as those big rigs, but the travel it has is very well managed by the DPS shock and 34 fork, with plenty of support for pedaling and pumping, and to keep it from bottoming out on bigger drops. Just the fact that I felt comfortable hitting bigger drops on the S-120 is a testament to the level of confidence its geometry inspires. I do think a 130mm fork would have been a better spec choice – there were a few times when a little extra travel up front would have been appreciated. Overall, the S-120 has a calm and stable nature as opposed to being poppy and playful, and it's better suited to going fast instead of taking part in impromptu trailside jib sessions. The long front center and slack head angle make it best suited to speeding through rolling terrain, and treating the trail like a natural pumptrack is the key to maintaining a good pace. It's not the most nimble machine in this category, but the flipside is that it feels more composed on steeper trails than the vast majority of 120mm bikes out there.

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.

Technical Report

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 this the bike for you? Deciding who the S120 is for is a tricky proposition. It's not the bike if you're looking for a light and lively XC speed demon; instead, it's more of short travel shredder, a bike for the rider who doesn't want gobs of travel to dull their ride experience, but also doesn't want to be hampered by conservative geometry.
Pinkbike's Take
bigquotes 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

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