Gary Fisher X-Caliber £1200

Cross-country big-wheeler

BikeRadar score 4/5

Fisher have been pushing the benefits of big wheels for longer than anyone else in the mainstream. The X-Caliber delivers all the extra traction and smooth riding bonuses of 29in hoops in an affordable but well-specced package.

It’s light enough to pick up the pace and, once rolling, its ability to roll over rough and rubbly sections or clean the climbs that everything else spins out on is genuinely astonishing. 

Ride & handling: Tight, balanced showcase of the benefits of big wheels

If you’ve not ridden a 29er (29in-wheeled mountain bike) before they do feel odd at first; the larger wheels have more inertia so, however fast the tyres, they take longer to accelerate than standard wheels. They’re also slower to brake and change direction, especially with heavier, cheaper wheels like those here.

Fisher have really honed and finetuned their bikes' handling manners over the years though and the overall balance of the X-Caliber is impressive. It’ll swing round low-speed sections without threatening to stumble or jackknife.

The stiff front end means it tracks across roots and ruts well rather than being magnetically drawn to its doom like flexier 29ers often are. Fisher's G2 geometry (increased fork offset and trail for quicker steering without losing overall stability) and the backswept bar mean you can flick the front wheel about easily in situations where we’d normally expect to be heaving on the bars.

The X-Caliber will even pop a wheelie if you give it warning, although it’s definitely more suited to ‘wheels on the ground’ riding than frequent flying. The tight back end does a good job of keeping acceleration keen considering the extra wheel weight, and drive is direct rather than disappointing.

It’s when you let it gather momentum at its own pace and carry speed through technical sections that you’ll really start to understand it though. The smooth fork and shallower contact angle of the bigger wheels effectively shrink the effect of every speed-sucking bump and ripple.

The extra inertia keeps you rolling when conventional wheels stall, and you can even feel the difference in speed sustain between gear shifts. It flies down descents like a long-forked bike too, although you do get a fair amount of kick and clatter from the rear.

Traction levels are outstanding; despite limited tyre tread the X-Caliber consistently cleaned technical muddy, rooty and rocky climbs that nothing else managed. In a back-to-back comparison with the same rubber in a 26in format (on the Trek 6700) the X-Caliber cornered, climbed and even crabbed across off-camber slopes that its rival couldn’t touch.

While slower acceleration and high traction don’t sound very exciting you’ll soon learn to let others leap ahead, knowing full well that as soon as you’re up to speed you’ll haul them in. Anything technical – from remotely rough to properly random rockeries – becomes a complete killing field if you’re out with conventional bikes. 

Frame & equipment: Decent fork and great upgrade potential

Fisher have no fewer than five big wheelers. Apart from the £3,250 Superfly, the rest share the same frame, giving the cheaper bikes great upgrade potential. Bigger wheels create a lot of potential frame problems for designers, mainly relating to twisting stiffness and the excess wheelbase slowing down handling.

The X-Caliber fends off the first with a massive hatchet-style headstock and equally big down tube behind the low flanged head tube. The broad span seat- and chainstays give maximum mud clearance, although it’s still tight against the seat tube to keep the back end short.

The Fisher scores highly for having a smooth-stroking Fox fork up front – a specific version designed to Fisher’s G2 geometry recipe. The broad rims add extra volume to already corpulent Bontrager tyres. It’s a very competitive weight considering the inevitable extra wheel mass, and there’s serious potential to pimp it out.

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