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First Impressions: Pivot Switchblade & Pivot Firebird

Pivot grabbed our attention in a big way with the release of the all-new Switchblade and completely redesigned Firebird. While the Firebird’s obviously aggressive inclinations immediately appealed to me, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by some of the Switchblade’s unexpected details. Both models employ the elements one expects from Pivot—DW Link suspension, organic lines, and lightweight carbon fiber construction—but both of these long-travel trail bikes display their fair share of outside-the-box thinking as well. After throwing a leg over both bikes at the fall edition of Outerbike, we’re happy to share some first impressions of Pivot’s hardest-hitting trail bikes.

Switchblade

Pivot Switchblade

The Switchblade fits in neatly with an exploding segment of the market, namely longer-travel, highly capable 29in/27.5 Plus compatible trail bikes. It’s worth noting that like most other bikes in this category, converting between wheel sizes is more involved than just swapping out wheelsets. Pivot recommends using an included +17mm lower headset cup when riding the bike on Plus wheels, which compensates for the smaller diameter of a 27.5 Plus wheelset. So unless you want to include a headset press as part of your traveling tool kit, you’ll be better off choosing your preferred wheel size and sticking to it.

One could hardly mention the Switchblade without touching on the rear hub spacing, dubbed “Super Boost Plus,” a tongue-in-cheek name for the 157mm rear hub spacing that’s been standard on downhill bikes since the early 2000s. While I was concerned that the wider rear hub spacing would result in heel clearance issues, I actually found that my feet were farther from the chainstays than on most Boost bikes. Those with very large feet may have a different experience, but my size 44 cycling shoes could have been a few sizes bigger without interference. The upshot is that tire clearance is class-leading, clearing both 29 x 2.5 and 27.5 x 3.0 tires with tons of room to spare, and perhaps just as interesting, it also allows for the use of a front derailleur—a feature that’s been eliminated on nearly every bike with which the Switchblade is intended to compete. Regardless of your preferred drivetrain, Pivot’s cable port system cleanly accommodates every available setup, from a cable-actuated one-by, to Shimano’s excellent Di2 groupsets.

Pivot Switchblade
The Switchblade’s comfortably roomy fit and excellent suspension made it completely intuitive from the first pedal stroke. The author making use of the bike’s excellent cornering speed.

While the technical specifications can be dizzying, getting the Switchblade on dirt revealed a ride characteristic that was completely natural. The geometry is textbook modern, with a very short back end that contributes to quick direction changes, and a roomy front end that draws the rider into the center of the bike. The bottom bracket is low and planted, and although Moab’s rocky Mag 7 network doesn’t provide a truly comprehensive test of cornering, the initial impression was that the bike felt like it was on rails. That surefootedness was aided by the Plus tires, which were fast and composed in the face of the uneven rock slabs that litter the area. The 135mm of DW Link travel out back felt predictably flawless and mated nicely to the longer-stroke 150mm Fox 36, which added much appreciated stiffness to the bike’s leading edge. My only gripe was the bars being too narrow for my tastes, at a fairly slim 740mm.

Pivot Switchblade
Although it’s fairly long, the Switchblade maintained a playful demeanor that’s equal parts fun and flat-out fast. The author holds a tight line.

To my thinking, the Switchblade occupies a sweet spot in its class, somewhere between the longer travel, yet snappier-handling Niner RIP 9 RDO, and the mini-DH feel of an Evil Wreckoning. Which of the aforementioned is right for you will be down to taste, but the Switchblade’s balance, pedaling efficiency, and comfortable cockpit make it a bike that should work well for nearly anyone, and that’s before considering the staggering range of body types that this model will accommodate.

Firebird

Pivot Firebird

The 27.5-inch-wheeled Firebird unsurprisingly shares the majority of its feature package with the Switchblade, with one notable change. That change is a Boost 148 rear end, instead of the Switchblade’s Super Boost setup. According to Pivot, the added stiffness and tire clearance that Super Boost adds to the Switchblade is simply unnecessary with the Firebird’s smaller wheels. That’s reinforced by Pivot’s claims that the Firebird’s rear triangle is actually stiffer than that of their Phoenix downhill race bike. The Phoenix connection is obvious when crunching the geometry numbers, with the Firebird claiming even longer reach measurements per size than the Switchblade, a trait that’s carried over directly from the sprawling Phoenix. The 170mm of DW Link travel is controlled by a Fox FLOAT X2 rear shock, the same unit that the Pivot Factory team has chosen for the World Cup downhill race season. A size large Firebird’s wheelbase measures in at just under 48.5 inches, which is longer than most downhill bikes, despite the sub-17-inch chainstays. The downhill racing comparisons here are apt, as the Firebird’s stated mission is to be the closest thing to a true DH bike, while retaining the ability to pedal to the top.

Pivot Firebird
The Firebird looks roomy on paper and feels massive in a parking lot, but getting it on dirt revealed that the fit is much more natural than one might expect. The author’s six feet tall, and found that the size large fit perfectly.

The Firebird’s mission statement and geometry chart both indicate that it exists in the upper echelons of highly capable trail bikes, which made the relatively flat Mag 7 trail network a less-than-ideal location for pushing the Firebird to its limits. But despite my concerns that the Firebird would be a handful at slower speeds, I actually found it very easy to ride on mellower terrain. It certainly requires a bit of patience to work through tight, flat corners, but in this instance, patience doesn’t mean riding slowly—at all. Quite to the contrary, it was possible to ride the Firebird at impressive pace in situations where it should have been way too much bike. A limited amount of climbing revealed an efficient pedaling position and the stiffness under power that one typically expects from a DW Link bike. For a bike with 170mm of travel, it climbs miraculously well—better, in fact, than a fair number of bikes boasting more modest amounts of travel.

Pivot Firebird
Although boasts phenomenal pedaling efficiency, the Firebird comes into its own as the trail gets steeper and rougher. The author points it through a slab-ridden section.

While many riders may be inclined to size down in order to enjoy a more responsive ride, I’m of the opinion that such an approach is typically misguided, and the Pivot’s fairly extreme geometry provides a perfect illustration. At 6 feet tall, my test bike was a large, but I threw a leg over a medium earlier in the weekend to evaluate for size. The medium felt big—very big, in fact—but I found it almost impossible to turn. The culprit? Weight distribution. On the medium, I found that my center of mass was too far back to initiate turns effectively. This led to the front wheel pushing in turns in a repeatable display of understeer, even as I struggled to adopt a highly exaggerated over-the-bars riding position. The added reach of the even bigger large naturally pulled me into the front of the bike, leading the bike to oversteer just slightly when pushed hard in a display of nearly perfect cornering manners. Of course, when the trail turned down, the Firebird just wanted to go faster, displaying unshakable control and inspiring complete confidence. I’m looking forward to hopefully spending more time on one, as my initial impression was that the Firebird may in fact be the most capable of the 160mm-and-up “super enduro” bikes currently on the market. Without thorough testing in a more appropriate environment, however, that claim remains somewhat speculative.

Making Your Selection

Predictable though it may be, the choice between models starts with one question—how are you going to use it? If you’re looking for a trail bike in the traditional sense, the Switchblade is an outstanding option. Its handling borders on telepathic, displaying the very best of what’s come to characterize the modern trail bike. And that’s before you consider the staggering range of sizes and variety of setup options that others in its class can’t touch. Unless your idea of a trail bike includes a ton of shuttling and chairlifts, the Firebird is probably going to be overkill for most riders, although I can think of more than a few individuals who would be very happy with it nonetheless.

If you’re looking for an enduro race bike, the calculus is a bit different. The Switchblade’s more conservative handling is nevertheless incredibly capable, which would make it a serious contender on faster, less technical courses typical of western enduro races. For those racing the steeper, rougher courses typical of east coast enduro races, many of which take place on actual downhill race tracks, the Firebird promises a competitive advantage that few bikes will be able to match. Although the Firebird occupies a niche with a more selective appeal, I personally found it immensely inspiring, and it promises far greater versatility than its geometry numbers might lead one to believe. Then again, the Switchblade was simply outstanding, and would be a fantastic partner for far more riders. Whichever you choose, Pivot’s new trail bikes continue to stand out amongst their respective classes in spite of some truly impressive competition.

ClosingShotA_BCRe_160930_00233__cc
A short test period meant using every last bit of daylight in evaluating the machines in question. All in a day’s work.

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