Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot of negative internet chatter when bike brands release hardtail trail bikes that are not overly slack, steep, or otherwise geometrically boundary-pushing in some way. My suspicion is that many of these comments come from riders that prefer lifts over pedaling uphill but nonetheless cast a shadow on mid-travel hardtails that are intended for folks that aren’t spending their days in terrain parks.
Admittedly, I thought this way for a while and, in fact, all three mountain bikes I currently own are very much long, low, and slack with steep seat tubes (to the extent that my full-suspension bike has a very slack 64º head tube angle). But I also find myself reminiscing about the days, just a few short years ago, when I owned one bike at a time and used it for nearly everything – from XC races to 50-100 mile race events and week-long bikepacking trips. Those 29er hardtails I used to enjoy so much, with somewhere around 70º HTA and 44” wheelbases, seemed plenty capable. I never complained about settling in for a handful of miles on the road to ride out to my local trail systems and then shredding for hours.
The newest offering from Sage Titanium, the Powerline, joins a growing category of highly adept mid-travel hardtails that incorporate modern geometries for contemporary riding styles, but retain the ethos of classic do-it-all 29ers — bikes that straddle the line between trail and cross country but ride capably in each application and beyond. The Powerline, and other modern bikes like it, are far from passe and leverage years of experience and rider feedback to provide great options for someone looking for a venerable quiver-killer.
The pandemic companion I didn’t know I needed
Back in early 2020, my spring and summer calendar was packed full of trips and events. I had multiple bikepacking excursions planned, had signed up for an endurance race, had lofty expectations for local weekly short track races, and was looking forward to riding new-to-me trail systems with friends and family across the US. And, after a few conversations with Sage, I was excited for the opportunity to test their new release – the Powerline – through it all for a long term review. Early on, just looking at the specs and geo of this new titanium hardtail, I thought it would be perfect for helping me best my times on familiar technical climbs, for long enduranc-y rides around Phoenix trails, and even test its ability to haul weight on longer multi-day trips.
Then, the pandemic hit and my schedule was wiped clean. Trips were canceled, races called off, and I had to pivot my riding plans to more of the solo variety while still fully evaluating the advertised versatility of the Powerline. Thus, during the past several months of pandemic-induced solo rides, I’ve been putting the Powerline through its paces on everything from central Arizona’s chunkiest terrain to some of the classic adventure routes in the northern part of the state and even a couple of overnight bikepacking excursions.
Oregon born and bred
David Rosen, founder and owner of Sage, has been designing bikes for his brand in Portland, OR for nearly ten years. Since entering the market in 2012, the brand has focused on building legacy bikes that riders could feel good about owning for a long time. Over the years, he has expanded the brand’s “stock” offerings to appeal to a broader scope of road, ‘cross, and mountain riders. You can see this in many of his designs to this day with pragmatic (rather than overtly trendy) geometries, use of high quality materials, and thoughtful componentry specs.
While Rosen designs each bike’s geometry and selects the tubesets tailored to each frame’s intended performance, Sage collaborates with a number of frame builders in the US to create a finished product. Customers are able to request customizations on the stock frames like slightly larger tire clearances, extra bottle/rack mounts, or even morph it into a fully custom frame. Sage’s most recent release, the Powerline, with a 67.5° head angle, 130mm fork, and clearance for 2.5” tires, sits comfortably in the middle of the brand’s mountain lineup for riders looking for a do-it-all/quiver killer; a bike billed by Sage to be at home “tearing up your local flow trails, or racing XC or Endurance events.”
Sage’s bikes are typically made to order specifically for their customers, but the company has established a network of retail dealers that both demo and sell their bikes. At the time of writing, Sage has sixteen partner dealers listed on their website, including Shadetree Bikes near me in Phoenix where I actually saw a Powerline on the floor earlier this summer. This is something fairly unique in the boutique/bespoke/custom bike market, but an interesting and helpful concept that enables customers to “try before you buy” and potentially request slight geo or component upgrades and/or modifications to base models at the time of order. As further indication of Sage’s customer focus, one of the first things I noticed about their online presence was the stellar user experience throughout the company’s website. Utilizing the “build your dream bike” interface, customers are able to select from lists of component choices, color options, and sizing parameters. Give it a whirl – it’s actually pretty fun to use.
Accoutrements for the long haul
The components on the review bike I received were selected by Sage, but are not far off from what I would have chosen for this bike myself. This includes the M8100 XT 12-speed drivetrain and brakes, Enve cockpit, Fox 34 Factory fork with the Fit4 damper, and Transfer dropper. Everything bearing-related was color-matched to the frame decals from Sage’s Portland neighbor Chris King. I thought the Stans Flow MK3 wheels were a bit under-spec’d in relation to the rest of the build, but there are plenty of other options available through Sage to suit a range of 29” wheel preferences. While the Powerline I received was not “custom,” it was built to order just like all of Sage’s bikes, so I got to experience a few weeks of waiting in anticipation just as I would as if I had purchased the bike.
When I did receive it, the bike was impeccably built. All I had to do was install the handlebar, front wheel, pedals and it was ready to ride — tires came already seated to the rims, the derailleur was dialed perfectly, and brakes actuated surprisingly smooth even after shipping. The only aspect of the build I wish I could have discussed with Sage ahead of time was the steerer/stem height. The steerer was pre-cut to align the stem with the top of the headset, but personally I would have preferred additional steerer length for a more personalized fit.
From head tube to dropouts, Sage’s attention to detail is readily apparent on the Powerline. One of the most notable details is the frame’s finish quality – its brushed treatment with clean welds throughout is flawless. Adding to the frame’s refined look, Sage included their patented Cable Clip System (CCS) that can be easily removed for an even cleaner aesthetic when running a wireless drivetrain. Sage specs a proprietary Beccus saddle with this bike, which I rode a few times, really enjoying its short nose, but swapped for an Ergon SM Enduro Sport saddle with the matchy-matchy oil slick rails. And, further contributing to the versatility of the bike, there are bottle bosses on the bottom side of the downtube for a total of three sets. The CNC’d titanium chainstay yoke, stamped with the moniker “SAGE,” adds to the simple and robust look of the frame. A flat plate on the drive side, the yoke is utilized on many of Sage’s frames and is particularly helpful on smaller sizes to run standard-sized chainrings and wide tires.
Logo details are applied as decals on my review bike, rather than etched in or engraved, and can be fully color-coordinated. Sage indicated that the decals can be easily changed out as component choices and colors will likely change over time but, if this were my bike, I would probably explore a badging/logo option that was less susceptible to peeling or damage. I seem to regularly add and remove frame bags from my hardtails and don’t have much faith in durability of decals over painted, or etched, alternatives. Sage also offers anodized logos (like the recent Barlow from the Chris King Open House) as well as super-durable Cerakote finishes, like the Powerline they showed at the ENVE Builder’s Round-Up.
Single-color anodizing would be a $600 upcharge and Cerakote is $650. Similar to this Storm King, they will even bead blast frames, with logos as the underlying brushed titanium, for an extra $250. To explore these beaucoup options in detail, Sage has created an additional page on their site with plenty of info and examples.
Ride quality: lively, adaptable, and fun
The Powerline rides as good as it looks. As I mentioned earlier, Sage measures the Powerline’s headtube angle at 67.5º across the size range with a spec’d 130mm fork, which places it in the trail bike category rather than cross country. While many riders prefer trail bikes on the slacker side these days, myself included (or so I thought), the Powerline is no slouch on technical chunky descents and shines on steep and loose sustained climbs. I can legitimately say it exceeded my expectations and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how confident and efficient I ride it, even on the rowdiest of trails. With a 50mm BB drop and 117.9cm wheelbase (on the size large), I was able to clear some of the most annoying protruding rocks I normally scrape with my pedals climbing familiar trails and simultaneously feel stuck to the ground when letting loose in the steeps.
Of course, it is a hardtail, and when I got going too fast the back end did start to feel touchy. This might have something to do with the rear 2.4 Maxxis Rekon and Stans Flow wheels it came with, and would likely be improved with a different wheel/tire pairing. The Powerline is capable of running a 2.5 in the rear and the Fox Float could easily run a 2.6. I would have loved to try a combo like a Minion DHF front/Aggressor 2.5 rear. It would have, of course, increased the rolling resistance a bit, but probably would have felt more at home in Arizona than the XC-oriented tires the bike came with. Additionally, David Rosen did confirm that the Powerline can handle a 140mm fork rather than the 130mm spec that would, of course, slacken its headtube angle and slightly raise its bottom bracket height. So, if you’re looking at the Powerline, but desire a bit more playfulness and added downhill prowess, the bike can oblige.
The liveliness of the Powerline’s rear end combined with the high engagement of the King microspline hub and efficiency of the XT drivetrain make it a powerful climber. There’s something special about the energy transfer and stability of a well-designed titanium bike that you just don’t get with other frame materials. With it’s pleasant stiffness and nearly full lockout mode, the Fox Fit4 damper can not be overlooked as an integral part of the performance of the Powerline. Maybe it’s all in my head, but the energy transfer of the titanium frame feels very apparent with this bike – similar to momentum gained from flexing a ski into a turn. I’m not as Strava-obsessed as many of my friends, but I do turn it on to track my fitness, or lack thereof. The Powerline helped me to set new personal records on nearly all of my favorite local climbs, and even some descending segments. I wish I could have ridden the Powerline in a distance race setting – like the Whiskey Offroad 50 I was originally registered for this year – because I feel like its responsiveness, comfort, and stability would have really shined.
I spend a lot of time riding singlespeed and have gotten in the habit of standing to power through steep and techy trail sections, but I enjoyed climbing with the 73.75º effective seat tube angle on this bike. It kept me in a powerful seated climbing position more than I’m used to and with the front wheel planted firmly on the dirt.
On loose and steep climbs, where I would typically expect more bounce and less traction, the 43cm rigid chainstays seemed to propel me up with a very pleasing feeling of momentum. Speaking of singlespeeding, while the rear dropouts on the Powerline are very attractive, they don’t provide a viable option to run the bike as a singlespeed. I understand Sage could custom source and add a sliding dropout option, but that would be a custom request.
I used the Powerline on a couple of overnight excursions this summer (luckily my Rogue Panda frame bag fit perfectly!), most notably Around the Peaks of Flagstaff, and it made for enjoyable riding experiences. Adding eight liters of water weight, plus camping gear, the Powerline performed as good, if not better, than the mid-travel steel hardtails I’m used to bikepacking with on varied terrain.
Maybe it’s the lightweight frame, maybe the 12-speed XT drivetrain, maybe I was more fit than usual this summer, but the Powerline really shined loaded down; in both the climbing and descending departments. If I wasn’t a titanium convert before, I certainly am now.
At 6’ tall with long legs and a torso on the shorter side for my height, I often struggle with bike fitment, which becomes particularly noticeable on longer rides. On the Powerline, though, I didn’t experience much discomfort. Even with the steerer cut a little shorter than I would normally prefer, essentially lengthening my reach on the bike, the 63.2cm stack kept me plenty upright and comfortable. The carbon cockpit was a nice compliment to the titanium frame. I normally prefer wide bars and felt right at home with the ENVE M9 mountain bar with 40mm stem.
So, to wrap this up, the Powerline is an incredibly well built (in the USA!) option for someone looking for a bike equally adept at local XC races after work and packed up for a long weekend of back-country adventure. It’s the first bike I’ve ridden in years that is as comfortable and efficient on the road riding out to local trail systems as it is bombing down the most demanding lines. And, it’s oriented toward the future too – details like three bottle/accessory mounts, removable cable guides, 29 x 2.5 tire clearance, internal dropper routing, and threaded bottom bracket make it a bike that will keep up with component swaps/upgrades for years to come. For the price point, would I change some things? I sure would, but those changes have nothing to do with the frame itself. As mentioned above, I’d have picked a different wheel option, dropouts that are more single speed-friendly, and commit to a more durable badging/finish option. That said, Sage makes it so easy to customize and if I was in the market for a legacy bike like the Powerline, I have no doubt that David and team would help curate the right bike for my needs.
I want to give a big shout-out to Sage for the opportunity to ride the Powerline through a very strange summer. I’m by no means a professional bike reviewer, but I like to ride bikes. A lot. Having the Powerline for a handful of months gave me something to look forward to as I embarked on countless solo rides and other adventures. And, of course, to The Radavist for this platform to share my thoughts and the most wonderful Locke Hassett for shooting photos of my ugly mug in Prescott earlier this year before the pandemic really flared up in Arizona.
See more information on the Powerline at Sage Titanium.