We're pretty proud of the fact that here at MBT you'll find very little in the way of wheel-size politics or favoritism. Our logic? We've ridden great bikes, average bikes and terrible bikes of just about every wheel size/ combination imaginable. And rarely, if ever, did we determine wheel size alone was responsible for the bike's given performance (or lack there of).
Sure we were there in the early years when 29ers automatically meant your toes were going to get blasted by rotating spokes whenever you turned the handlebar and we remember all too fondly those goofy hybrids that mixed and matched wheel sizes on the same frame in the hopes of capitalizing on the strengths of each (but more often than not managing to combine the weaknesses). All of this brings us to the subject at hand- the Giant Anthem X 29er 4. The name is a bit of a mouthful but pretty self explanatory if you take a moment to break it apart- The Anthem X brand represents Giant's full suspension cross country rigs, the 29er refers to the wheel size and the number 4 places this particular unit at the affordable side of the spectrum (1 obviously being the priciest but best spec'ed of the line).
Rest assured, even though "the 4" represents affordable; Giant makes sure that doesn't mean a poor spec sheet. Shifting duties come in the form of the Shimano Deroe 3x10 drivetrain (shifters, derailleurs), Shimano M552 cranks and chainrings/ HG62 cassette. Braking too is all Shimano with M395 hydraulic discs front and rear. Suspension duties are handled by Rockshox in the form of a Recon Silver TK 29 fork in the front and Monarch R air sprung shock in the rear (good for 3.9" of travel at both ends).
Giant's in house brand provides the handlebar, seat post hubs and rims and wrapping those rims are Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires. All told our size medium test bike weighed in at 29.9 pounds and one identical to ours can be had for $1899.
Set Up Fit & Feel
In person, the Anthem X 29er 4 is a tall, lean machine as an XC bike should be. Steeping over to mount up and the top tube feels a bit high but the bike is light and flickable even at a standstill. The seat position certainly gives the impression of positioning rider weight over the rear wheel yet the reach to the bars isn't near as torturously long as it was with XC bikes in the past (we appreciated the sweep and rise of the Giant Connect handlebar).
Setting up the suspension is surprisingly simple thanks in part to the fact that Giant wisely selected a shock without a whole plethora of tuning options. This may be considered a bad thing on most bikes but Giant clearly believes in the capabilities of their Maestro linkage and you should to. We simply pressurized the air chambers to the recommended sag, slowed the fork's rebound to a bit below middle and were on our way.
And We're Off
Giant squelches one of our biggest complaints about most XC bikes and 29ers (and of course 29er XC bikes) right off the bat by giving this beast full suspension. Sure you give up a bit of efficiency compared to the tried and true hardtail but rest assured the Maestro platform is good enough to turn a dead-stop into a good head of steam just by clicking up through the gears (and with 30 at your disposal, finding a range you aren't loving is all but impossible). It's certainly true that the larger wheels feel a bit less responsive in slow situations; they turn into an asset once trail clutter enters the equation.
Whether or not you'll instantly fall for the Anthem's charm depends heavily upon your expectations going in. While XC bikes of wispy wait, smaller wheels and less suspension typically make speed in spurts that correspond with each rotation of the cranks, the X 29er 4 feels more like what we typically associate with trail bike momentum and stability.
This works to the bike's advantage on chattery climbs and even more so on descents but at the cost of razor sharp cornering or directional changing in the tight stuff. Making sharp corners at low speeds isn't the Anthem's forte' so much as is snaking around switchbacks with speed and leaning the bike further than you'd dare push a 26er. There is certainly a specific technique for making the most of the X and fortunately it's long wheelbase make relying upon its stability feel like second nature in no time.
As is the case with many XC bikes, the Anthem X 29er 4 is a better climber than it is a descender. Chalk it up to those larger wheels that aren't easily deflected off their line and the 30-speed drivetrain, the Anthem rider who stays seated and works a steady cadence will topple many climbs that gave him fits in the past. Turning back around and letting gravity take hold can be a bit more challenging but no more so than upon most any sub-4" travel bike. Again the bike's natural stability aid it greatly here. The suspension is too busy and the steering too sharp to ever allow the rider to forget he's not on a bottomless-feeling downhill rig but those 29" wheels do a surprisingly good job holding a line.
Odds and Ends
We went into the review suspecting the Shimano M552 brakes to be a weak link in this bike's armor once the speeds really started to increase but came away impressed with their ability to mate with the overall package. It's always surprising how a bike that feels naturally stable out of the box demands far less from each of it's components individually.
Additionally the 3.9 inches of suspension present here may not sound impressive but Giant has really discovered a functional mechanical advantage with its Maestro linkage. So much so in fact that the honest-performing fork here sometimes feels like it's working overtime to keep up with the butter-smooth action out back.
The 29" wheels are a bit of an acquired taste even after all this time but for an aspiring XC star used to finicky and nervous-handling 26ers, the Anthem brings a whole new level of stability and confidence. At the same time its handling traits, overall weight and relaxed demeanor make it feel more like a trail rig than a dedicated race bike. We suspect with a few simple mods (a more aggressive all-conditions tire and an even higher rise handlebar) and the 20er 4 could easily become your single do-it-all trail bike that can just so happened to be raced when the mood strikes. In either scenario, it's an awful lot of bang for the buck.