As much fun on the ups as it is on the downs. That’s an advertising cliché, but Whyte’s new all-carbon E-120 is closer than anything we’ve ridden.
We really liked the first generation Whyte E-5, but its performance on high-speed bumps left something to be desired. Its E-120 full-carbon offspring redefines the E family, and in the process sets a new benchmark for lightweight full-suspension bikes.
The fact that Jon Whyte has retired from the bike company named after him doesn't appear to have muffled the brand. We hear Jon is now living and riding in British Columbia, so we'd imagine he'll be wanting the new E-120 as his all-round trail tool. It's fast enough to be a race bike, but it deserves to be treated to the sort of big-country trail experiences which don't often crop up in normal cross-country races.
Ride: planted on descents, eager on climbs
First, let's get something out in the open. Monocoque carbon framesets - and swingarms in particular - have a certain sound quality to them. When you're changing gear or hammering down a stony descent on the Whyte E-120, you'll be aware that sounds are slightly more amplified than on a typical metal chassis. Some riders find this off-putting, some don't. Either way, you'll probably completely forget about it after a couple of rides.
It's well worth spending time setting up the rear shock of the E-120 to get the very best from its fastidiously designed compression curve. Dial in too much sag and you'll compromise the 'super plush with no apparent speed loss' advantage of the initially rearward axle path. Dial in too little and you might as well buy a shorter-travel bike, with the far more skittish responses that come with the territory.
The Whyte is anything but skittish, though. In terms of traction, tracking, pedal feel and bump taming, it's one of the most well planted 120mm travel bikes we've ridden. It copes with the big hits way better than its E-5 predecessor and, although the shock O-ring showed that we were achieving close to full travel at times, it never felt challenged.
The nervousness that's frequently associated with lightweight full carbon cross-country bikes is absent on the E-120. Once you've overcome the initial worry of dropping its beautifully insectile form on rocks, the relaxed geometry encourages you to ride harder and faster than you would usually think about on a sub-25lb bike. It breezes up climbs and constantly surprises you by the way it copes with fast and unpredictable terrain.
Frame: the Whyte stuff & the black stuff
Jon Whyte's protégé, Ian Alexander, has taken up the design reins for Whyte Bikes distributor ATB Sales. Since ATB Sales is also behind Marin Bikes in the UK, it's no surprise to see an increasing crossover between the most desirable aspects of Whyte and Marin full-suspension bikes.
The Quad Link rear suspension is the most distinctive design element of both brands, but Whyte forges its own distinct path by using a carbon swingarm on the E-5, augmented by a beautifully sculpted full-carbon frame on the E-120. This keeps weight low and the desirability factor high. It also makes the E-120 distinctively different from Marin's 120mm travel £2999 Mount Vision Pro, not to mention a fair bit lighter - tipping the scales at 24.2lb complete, this is one of the lightest 120mm travel bikes we've ridden.
There's something almost organic about the sculpted carbon aesthetics of the E-120. Multi-monocoque unidirectional carbon fibre frame sections blend beautifully to form a minimalist yet purposeful-looking whole, with a host of talking-point features that attract stroking fingers as well as admiring glances. To enhance front end strength, the head tube bulges from 1.125in at the top to 1.25in at the crown. Carbon road frames often use this setup, and FSA makes headsets to fit. However, unlike the tapered steerers used on top-end Trek and Specialized bikes, the E-120 uses a standard 1.125in Fox fork, fitted with a special crown race to hold a bigger lower bearing.
Other unique features include Whyte's Big Gripper latched rear dropouts and unusual oversized quick release seat clamp, while the bearings in the carbon links between the mainframe and the swingarm have a lifetime warranty.
Whyte's Quad Link rear suspension system offers loads of mud room, as well as leaving the shock well protected from trail gunk. Its axle path arcs from up and back for excellent small bump responses, to up and forward later in the shock stroke for bigger hits.
Compression and rebound are superbly controlled, and Fox RP23 shock technology allows you to tune the ride feel from the soft settings that seem to suit the bike, through progressive stages of 'ProPedal' damping to suit those who like a stiffer back end for climbs.
The fork settings allow you to tune the front to match - if that's what you want - all the way to full lockout, but that would be completely missing the point. It's the comfort, the efficiency and the control of the Whyte's Quad Link frame design which let you ride fast, not turning it back into a hardtail.
Equipment: spendy but lovely
The full 'Team' parts build on this bike will cost you quite a bit more than the more sensible XT version, but there will be plenty of riders attracted to the low weight and bling factor of Hope's Mono Mini Pro brakes and Pro III wheelset. Easton's top-end CNT EC70 seat post
and Monkeylite low rise bar also come as standard, with an Easton EA90 stem and Fizik's Wing Flex Gobi saddle as icing on the cake.
Shimano's XTR group provides a crankset and gear mechs, with Rapidfire shifters, while the rims are DT Swiss XR 4.2Ds, shod with Continental Mountain King 2.2in treads. This is all excellent stuff and worthy of any top-end bike.