Of all outdoors sports, bikes get my “coolest machine to look at” award.

I keep my downhill bike next to my desk chair — as a motivation refresher for whenever I’m getting bogged down. Glancing at the linkages, brakes, and drivetrain puts me in a better mood every time.

Here, Blue Ridge Outdoors takes a look at the best new trail-tested mountain bike gear for Spring 2014.

Giant Trance 27.5gear4

Walking out of Sycamore Cycles in Brevard, N.C., I couldn’t suppress my shit-eating grin. Clicking along next to me was a brand new Giant Trance 27.5 demo—a “freshie” as I’ve always called new toys. This would be my first time on a 27.5-inch wheeled bike, the trend that is currently sweeping the cycling industry.

Racing daylight, I put my gear on at the base of the Black Mountain Trail and hit it. The Trance’s setup seemed like a perfect trail bike for my gravity background: 140 mm of travel front and rear, short stem, slack head tube angle, and front and rear quick-release through-axles. My eyes told me it would be confidence-inspiring for the technical stuff, but underneath me the bike demonstrated that it was also capable of climbing like a demon. The Fox TALAS fork allows the option of lowering the front end for uphill efficiency. This, when combined with “climb” mode to tighten up both suspensions, seemed to compensate nicely for my weak quads. I love it when nice gear makes me feel like a better rider than I am!

It was a perfect Pisgah testing day—gloomy and cold, with a trail extending before me that had recently been soaked with rain, then snow, and then freeze-thaw. My first experience with 27.5-inch wheels felt good. The bike pulled through muddy patches, soft sand, and technical uphill roots, and kept asking for more.

After 50 minutes of climbing, I gripped the bars in anticipation of ripping the downhill ahead. A quick flip of the settings from “climb” to “descend,” and I dropped into the twilight. The Trance reacted well as I pumped the suspension, weighting and unweighting the bike. Roots, rocks, waterbars… the trail is steep and demanding, and the fallen leaves seem to drift like snow. Dropping my front wheel into those mystery piles at speed was unnerving, but the bike sliced through and handled unexpected hits well. The bigger wheels gave me the impression of having a longer foundation underneath me, and that extra circumference extended far in front, assuring me that I wouldn’t go over the bars on steep sections.

As I hooked off the gnar and onto a more open section of singletrack, the bike hunkered down and accelerated. It felt stable at high speed and seemed to like big, fast hits. Pumping and hopping off of rollers and from side to side, it felt lively, but didn’t pop like my 26er. The Trance likes to stay connected: low and fast. There’s a reason why Giant Factory Team riders have been crushing it on the enduro circuit.

Roughly 2.3 miles, 1,300 vertical feet, and just over 10 minutes later, I was back at my truck with endorphins dripping out of my ears and my forearms on fire. It might be time to smash the piggybank. $3600.

Cane Creek Double Barrel Coil  gear2

I’ve had a Double Barrel on my downhill bike for a bit over a year, and my experience can be described in two words: smooth and quiet. I like to ride fast, I like hitting downhill jumps, and sometimes I ride above my ability level (which isn’t very hard to do). This shock has saved my ass many, many times. I noticed an immediate improvement in arm pump when descending long, rough sections of trail. It’s counterintuitive that a rear shock would have that much impact on your bars/hands, but that’s exactly what happened. This shock is endlessly adjustable, and it’s made here in North Carolina. $650

Smith PivLock Overdrive  gear3

In this recent addition, Smith targets versatility. The idea is to carry multiple lenses for your shades (it comes with three sets), and keep performance as high as possible by easily switching lenses to light conditions. This is particularly important on a bike, where we must be acutely aware of every rock and root that passes through our vision, while also protecting eyes from branches, dirt, and bugs. The lenses allow good peripheral vision for looking up when in the saddle, and the frame feels strong and flexible. The temple arms hug the side of my head and fit easily underneath both my XC and full-face helmet.  They’re a perfect substitute for goggles on those hot days on the DH bike. $199