Like Orange's evergreen Five, the Crush – a bike that the company style as the Five's 'tag-team partner' – gets 650b wheels for the 2014 season. They add noticeable smoothness, speed and grip to what's already a natural gravity-biased grin machine.
Ride and handling: get a grip
The reasonable (for the category) compliance boosts traction, and whether you're trying to find the grip to fling it round a corner or grinding up a greasy wooded climb, there's always more adhesion than you expect from the low tread Maxxis Ardent tyres.
At the risk of being branded the corrupt hype mongers of a worldwide conspiracy by those determined to stick with 26in wheels, these 650b hoops make for a noticeable boost in grip, smoothness and rolling speed: ride the two sizes back-to-back and it's immediately obvious.
It's not enough to make your existing 26er (or 29er) redundant, but if you're looking at buying a new bike right now the 650b switchover has been even more complete than we ever expected. You will actually have to go out of your way to find a higher-quality bike with 26in wheels this year. Luckily, all hype aside, we think it's a size that works brilliantly for aggressive trail riding.
Back to the Crush. It's a really fun and surprisingly capable bike, particularly when pointed downhill. It's not short of traction on climbs either, or the agility and smoothness rock and roll on singletrack. Getting it up to speed can be a bit of a grunt, but it's lighter than most full suspension bikes at this price.
These more compliant stays feel slightly softer when you're on the power, and we appreciate the relentless reliability of the Shimano transmission. The old-style, free-swinging rear mech is an oversight, mind you; a clutch-equipped version would make the bike a lot quieter, especially as there are no guide mounts for dealing with the lashing chain that way, either.
Sure, the 710mm RaceFace bars are narrow for a 50mm stem and a 67-degree head angle, and it takes more effort to slot the bike onto traction-bending lines. But we were surprised how little it affected overall control and confidence even on radical descents, especially considering that we're normally a broken record on the issue of wider bars and wild-riding bikes. While we sometimes missed the 'go there, bike' authority of properly spread hands, our knuckles were happy whenever we opted for the pray rather than brake approach on tree-tight trails.
The longer rear end of the new Crush adds a bit of drogue-chute stability when you're taking a proper flier at techy descents, and that extra length – plus narrower stays and big, L-shaped forged dropouts – allow welcome extra flex, meaning less of a battering for your feet when spanking the rims through a rock field or landing a drop rear-first. Add the reasonable-sized rear tyre and – presuming you get the right size – it's a bike you'll be happy to sit on (rather than constantly have to hover above) all day.
It's a mark of how much smoothing the Sektor fork and the stout, supple Maxxis tyres are doing that the front end isn't a wrist and shoulder killer. Just take a look at those super-sized tubes, and note the big gussets under the head tube and ahead of the seat tube.
Frame and equipment: Orange squashed
Trying before you buy is vital to get the right size. We're not just talking about the very common 'there's a big gap between medium and large' problem that afflicts many makes. We're talking about how the Crush's medium frame (the size of Orange we normally ride) is absolutely tiny. Despite a top tube length that looks fine on paper, the on-trail reality is a bike with a cockpit small enough to be Dr Evil's sidekick.
The Crush actually has the longest wheelbase of the three hardtails tested here, by around 25mm, so the effect is more to do with the relatively steep 73-degree seat tube and short front end. Stood up, even six-footers will feel okay, but if you're anywhere near that (or even a few inches less) you're better off with the 15mm-longer Large. There's an XL too, which is another 15mm longer still.
Obviously sizing is something you get right by going to a demo day or an Orange dealer and trying the bike yourself, but think about sizing up... and don't blame us if you order online and end up with something that looks like it's been boil washed.
Mavic rims have legendary longevity, as do cup-and-cone Shimano rear hubs - so long as the latter gets careful, regular maintenance. It all builds into a rather heavy and slightly narrow pair of wheels, though the RaceFace triple at least has all the gears you need to escape even the steepest Pennine valley.
Despite their bottom rung ranking, the Elixir 1 brakes are the most reliable in the Avid line-up, and if you want more braking grip there's plenty of room for a properly knobbly tyre. The frame is rigged ready for a dropper post too - something it's crying out for, along with a wider bar.
Get the right size and the Crush is a great update on the high-confidence, low-maintenance format that still thrives in the tight, techy British backwoods and vertically-sided valleys.