I had the same dilemma. I started a thread on Canyon bikes because I was deliberating like you. At the end of the day I went with a Canyon and I’m uber happy with the purchase process and the bike. My two closest riding buddies bought the same bike after me and they have been thrilled as well.
Here are my answers to your questions:
All out race XC or HT?
A HT is probably in this day and age the all out race option between the two. For people that are gram counting and want every weight advantage the HT is the “all out” best option for that. But, looking at the pros, Jonathan Lee (does Yeti even make a HT? I think not), and most (not all) of us on the forums here I think most people would send you down the full squish path more often than not. If you want to you can lock out the suspension and climb like mad on a full squish and it will be faster descending and more comfortable too.
So I would go for the XC race bike.
How do others choose a bike and how do you justify LBS or direct?
If you are doing a fire road climby course like Leadville then a case for a hard tail can be made. For most courses I don’t think the weight difference outweighs the suspension benefits of a full suspension bike. So that’s how I would start - full suspension. Then you can look at your options. Do you ride for a team? Associated with a bike shop? Ex military? Friend of a friend of a friend? If no to all of those then you are paying retail wherever you go so go wherever you want. Your budget is more than enough to get you a killer ride. As others have said, Scott is good value for the money and you have to decide what is most important to you. I don’t mind wrenching my own bike so for me buying online was not an issue.
I weighed the options and went with a Canyon Lux. This one is in your budget and gives you a great bike with 120mm travel up front and great specs on the rest of the loadout.
Other folks will have strong opinions of what they like as well. You will get a lot of good advice, good luck.
Regarding LBS or direct, that’s one you have to figure out yourself. I’ll have to make the same decision next year, and while I really, really like supporting my LBS, I can save $2k for the exact same bike. (Prices in Japan are stupid high.) Honestly, proper fit >> components, so I wouldn’t care too much any longer that I have to make do with GX Eagle rather than X01 Eagle or so. A local bike shop can help you finding a bike that suits your needs, especially if you don’t have any experience with mountain bikes and don’t know how it is supposed to feel. I made the same mistake when I got my first proper road bike (coming from the mountain bike side), and I don’t like the frame geometry at all — even though component-wise, it is a good bike.
Whether to go fully or hardtail, I think the consensus is that if money is no object (and at $5k IMHO you are in that zone already), a full suspension is usually faster on most courses, because you have better traction and you can descend more quickly. If you had $2k-$3k to spend, I’d probably steer you towards a hardtail, because you’d then have to choose between a pretty decent hardtail and an entry-level fully.
The only reason I might want to get a hardtail is if you want to properly learn some of the mountain biking fundamentals. Fullys are better, but more forgiving, and learning on a less forgiving bike can teach you proper technique.
I have two flat out XC race rigs. One HT, one FS. I enjoy both of them immensely. When I finally broke down and bought the FS I was amazed at how much faster my times were. Same course, just two days apart on different bikes. In light of that the HT vs FS decision comes down to your goals and or your comfort. Do you aim to race, or just ride fast and have fun? As for comfort, at 42 I find myself choosing the FS more and more.
LBS for me is a no-brainer. I race for my LBS. They support me, I support them…and if I bought a bike elsewhere I’d likely be booted from the team. (rightfully so) For your first mtb I’d be more inclined to go LBS if you have a shop that is good enough to really help you figure out what you need and help you get fit and set up. If you know exactly what you need and how you want it set up, then online may work fine.
For just a $500 difference at the LBS, I’d go LBS. Because, if you buy a Canyon that has a probably which takes them months to sort out or you have to repack the pack and ship it back, you’ll be wishing you had bought at the LBS.
As far as not knowing what bike you want, I’d try and demo more bikes. If you are mostly a roadie and are just going to go have fun on some trails every now and then, I’d also consider spending a lot less. Or, seeing if you can come up with something used.
I’m mostly a roadie and a few years ago I was wanting a MTB upgrade over my 20 year Cannondale. I bought a $600 Specialized hard tail. That was a huge upgrade but I wanted more. Next I found a carbon Marin hard tail that had had an MSRP of $4K. That was a great bike and I should have kept it. But next I wanted to try full suspension. I got a Specialized Camber. It’s nice and all and gives a fast, plush ride on trails but I had a lot of fun on that Marin Hard tail.
BTW, my Camber was an $8,000 build that I picked up for $3,000 in like-new condition which is why I would look for a used option.
I bought and Aeroad for my road bike and a Scott Spark RC 900 from a bike shop. Now I do a lot (pretty much all) my own bike work so have no concerns doing that for either bike. However, Mountain bikes are a good bit more complicated, particularly if you get a full suspension with lockouts and/or droppers. It might help to have a professional support system for that.
As far as hardtail or squish, I just moved on from a singlespeed hardtail. It wears on you physically and mentally. I think probably more because of the singlespeed part than the hardtail part, but am happy now with a plush suspension with gears.
Unless you are going to race it a lot, definitely consider a little more travel and a little more wheel / tire. My all out XC race bike is a blast, but for most of my riding the trail bike gets the nod. (Or the HT single speeder but that is an acquired taste).
I have a XC Hardtail and would consider that the perfect bike for most of the terrain I ride. It’s super light at 9kg with 2.35" tires and a dropper post. If I could only have one bike honestly that would be it. As much as I love my Tarmac the Hardtail is just such a versatile bike.
But ultimately it comes down to what terrain you plan to ride or what races you’re aiming for. Additionally what I’d personally look for is a threaded bottom bracket, which none of the four brands offer (irc). The new canondale comes with an asymetric rear wheel dish (read proprietary), which would rule it out for me and Scott’s customer service does not have the best rep.
Personally I’d choose a Trek Fuel EX over the Canyon anyday. But maybe I’m biased because I come to like my Trek Procaliber.
Do you plan on racing or taking racing seriously? What are the trails like nearby? I know you said XC “race” but want to understand if you plan on racing. I ask since geometries vary widely between an XC “race” bike (though the geometry is more ‘relaxed’ than a few years ago) and a trail bike. A trail bike could be more fun…
One other option would be to see if vendors have demo days in your area. They usually setup at a local trailhead and allow you to ride a variety of bikes. Though this might not be feasible given the current pandemic.
Don’t really plan on racing as such but I like fast and light. Trail bikes start to get a bit heavier so I settled in the XC category. The scapel has a relaxed geo that’s regarded as ‘more modern’ and its literally a month old.
I live in NJ and we have a mix of rocky gnarly trails and some good general flow trails. I prefer to flow but I’m a capable, n=1, rider. Considered HT just to get better skills but I tihnk an XC bike will help me develop more.
I’m in NJ too…Hoboken. Anyway, yep, full suspension is a great option and I agree, most of the XC race bikes are way more slack than they use to be. I’m riding a 2018 Epic Carbon Comp w/ a 40mm stem and 780mm bars. Handles great for the NJ trails. Unless you plan on going to Mountain Creek, the XC bike will be great. If you are looking for someone to show you around on some trails, let me know!
If you can get hands on a loaner, take it to someplace like Allaire or Nox and then take it to High Rocks. If you think you’ll tend more the smooth flowy rides then an XC type bike with fast tires will be great.
But if you think you’ll gravitate (sic) toward the gnarlier technical rocks and roots stuff, consider a bit more travel, tire, brake, suspension. You wouldn’t lose much uphill and the downs will be a lot more fun.
FWIW, I split my NJ ride time between an SS HT, an Epic Sworks race bike and a Mojo 3. You can ride most trails here (outside a bike park) on anything so its about maximizing the fun based on what you will do most of.
I wouldnt get too hung up on light and fast as I did that in a past life and grew out of it. But definitely understand the topic.