When you think of a 29er hardtail, you generally think racy cross-country – but the £900 Vitus Sentier 290 doesn’t care about that.
It’s a tough, enthusiastic, 29in-wheeled, 140mm-forked trail bike that’s been thoroughly overhauled for 2015.
Frame and equipment: aluminium frame with a tall front end and a solid spec
The aluminium frame combines 439mm chainstays (which are now rounded for extra ‘give’) with a decent effective top tube – 603mm on this medium sized test bike – and a low-slung bottom bracket to create a stable, reassuring ride.
The front end is tall, however. Even without spacers and the stem flipped for a seven-degree drop, the 720mm bars are a bit high, and head tubes get 10mm taller per size. Flatter and/or wider bars will fix this – Vitus calls these 720mm bars flat, but they rise around 20mm.
The front end feels quite tall, but that's easily remedied with flatter or wider bars
The Sentier has chainguide mounts for chain devices, and though the SLX clutch mech keeps the chain on well without one, it’s a benefit if you choose to go single front ring. The lack of guides for a dropper post is a disappointment though. The Sentier 290 is far too capable as a fast trail bike for a dropper not to be the most obvious, useful upgrade possible.
The rest of the spec is solid if not always outstanding. The WTB Vigilante/Trail Boss tyres are a fantastic pair, combining great, predictable grip with tall, supple sidewalls, which – along with their huge diameter – mute considerable levels of chatter. They’re not especially fast rolling on smooth surfaces, but they’re not draggy either.
The Shimano M396 brakes offer only medium levels of power, and feel is similarly muted in comparison to its basic Deores. That’s despite the use of resin pads – they’re softer and bite more immediately than sintered, though Shimano doesn’t do sintered pads for these.
In all, the 2015 Sentier comes totally ready to ride, which adds to the already strong value of the direct-sale method. The finish is strong, with deep paint and attractive decals, but the overall look is… polite. We think some lairy, modern colours would catch the eyes of more potential buyers.
Ride and handling: fun, inspiring and stable – a bike for trails rather than cross-country
Drop the saddle, stand up and pile into some singletrack and the Sentier 290 feels just right. It's confidently stable, thanks both to the inertia of those big wheels and the 1,138mm wheelbase – this Medium is longer than last year’s size Large, thanks in part to a head angle that’s two degrees slacker (68 degrees). It's still very flickable and eager.
The WTB-rimmed wheels are stiff enough for accurate tracking through rough ground and hard corners, while the 12.7kg weight and excellent rubber play their own part in the planted-yet-lively feel. It's a fun and inspiring ride that feels far better than its price suggests.
The Shimano Deore chainset lets you put the power down
Climbing is proficient rather than sparkling – it's definitely a trail bike rather than XC, despite those rather Germanic looks – but traction is great and there's plenty of room in the cockpit for weightshifts, even with a 6ft rider. Riders who are that tall may be ultimately better off with a Large coupled with a wide flat bar and dinky stem, however.
Manitou's Minute Comp fork is smooth and supportive once blown up quite hard with fairly minimal sag, and the rebound and compression damping adjustments are effective. The axle’s a 15mm screw-through, which is just as well as the narrow legs are rather flexy.
This year the Sentier comes in an extra size, so there are now four options. The 635mm effective top tube of the new XL properly accommodates rider over 6ft – or anyone who wants to fit a shorter stem than the standard 60mm from the off.
The 2015 Sentier strikes a great balance: it's built for fun descents and spirited riding, but it's not so heavy or stiff it can't be enjoyed everywhere else. The big wheels really score in both all-day comfort and tricky-moment traction over a traditional, 26in-wheeled hardcore hardtail too.
The Sentier climbs well, but is oriented towards attacking the fun stuff
Better still, it arrives ready to rock. Yes, a dropper post and a wider/flatter/shorter bar and stem would improve it, but there's nothing that absolutely needs changing. There are few bikes you can say that about – and even fewer at such an impressive price.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.