Not all mountain bikes are created equal
Choosing the best mountain bike is hard. There’s loads of them out there. They all look the same. And yet different too. This guide will narrow things down.
After reading this comprehensive guide you’ll be left with a practical way of compiling your own handy shortlist of potential purchases.
Our current favourite mountain bikes
Trek Fuel EX 7 29, £2,200 – Bike of the Year
130mm travel full suspension trail bike 29er from one of the biggest bike brands on the planet. Great pace, great looks, great price.
Vitus Nucleus 275 VR – Hardtail of the Year under £500
Aluminium hardtail with a 120mm travel air sprung suspension fork and geometry that results in a bike that more than handle its own with the bigger price tag bikes.
Norco Fluid HT+ 7.2 – Hardtail of the Year under £1,000
Plus tyre hardtail with a 120mm suspension fork. A sorted trail riding geometry and impressive spec (dropper post!) makes this a Plus bike well worth trying out.
Commençal Meta TR V4.2 Essential, €2,899 – 27.5in Trail Bike of the Year
130mm 650b trail bike with a 140mm fork up front. Great geometry and a sorted suspension setup makes for a total trail blazer.
YT Industries Jeffsy CF Pro 29, £3,399 – 29in Trail Bike of the Year
140mm travel full suspension trail bike 29er with a carbon frame and an outstanding build kit. It helps that the ride is as good as the spec list.
Scott Spark 710 Plus, £3,899 – 27.5 Plus Trail Bike of the Year
120mm full suspension trail bike with 27.5 x 2.8in Plus tyres. This bike is a double Olympic Gold medal winner shod with fun-tastic fat rubber.
Best mountain bike: what to look for in a mountain bike
In this buyers guide we’ll go into what you get for you money at different price points. We’ll also detail the principal variations in mountain bike designs that are out there.
What’s your budget?
Hold your horses. We’re going to go into what you get (and don’t get) for your money further down this page. You can get a perfectly decent mountain bike for under £500. You can also max out you Mastercard and drop over £5k on a mountain bike. Are those bikes 10x better? No, they aren’t. They are better, sometimes significantly so depending on the rider and terrain, but essentially you get less drastic improvements in bike quality the higher you go up the money scale.
Anyway, let’s leave budget talking for a few mins. First, there are some other important issues to address…
What sort of riding are you going to do?
This is a very hard question to answer. But it’s vital to making the correct bike choice.
Now then, mountain bikes are capable machines. They can turn their hand to all sorts of riding. More so than ever these days in fact. You can go for a XC ride on an Enduro bike. You can do a XC race on a Trail bike. So you aren’t closing off all avenues of riding by going for a certain sort of bike. But you’ll have a more fun and rewarding experience if you get a bike that suits your main type of riding best.
Conversely, don’t be tempted to get a bike for the extreme 1% of the riding that you’ll do on it. A burly gravity-fuelled bike is fine and dandy for the annual uplift day but you’ll have to pedal that thing around for the other 51 weekends of the year.
Whilst your budget is probably going to be main thing you’re thinking about at first, it shouldn’t be. First, you need to decide on the type of mountain bike is going to suit you best. Then you can look at what your budget will get you.
Whilst it’s increasingly rare to find a bad bike these days, it is all too easy to end up with a bike that simply isn’t suited to where you ride.
For the purposes of this guide let’s ignore the extreme ends of the spectrum. Chances are you aren’t looking for an Olympic XC race bike. Nor are you looking for a World Cup level Downhill bike. This buyers guide is about ‘normal’ mountain bikes.
Even within the realm of ‘normal’ mountain bikes there are various sub-genres. Some are gimmicks, some are irrelevant, some are seemingly entirely fabricated by marketing departments.
The remit of normal mountain biking has ‘Cross-Country’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘Enduro’ at the end other end. Enduro used to be (and sometimes still is) called ‘All Mountain’ by some bike brands. In the broad middle of this spectrum is where ‘Trail’ bikes live.
In a nutshell: the best mountain bike for most people
In our opinion, if you’re in doubt, get a Trail bike. These will be capable enough on more extreme terrain but won’t feel like a burden on calmer, flatter terrain.
Choosing the best mountain bike for: Cross-country riding
AKA XC, Marathon
This is less about jumps and slamming berms and more about pedalling miles and crossing fells. But hold on, don’t write it off thinking it’s for doddery older riders on dull, wide fireroads. XC riding and racers are still about off-road speed. But with cross country there’s more of an emphasis on climbing. So the bikes are as light as possible. They also don’t pack much in the way of suspension travel (sub-120mm) as more suspension travel results in heavier bikes. They are also often less overbuilt in terms of fork/frame/wheel stiffness. Again, stiffer stuff means more weight. They also aren’t able to install a dropper seatpost due to having narrow (sub-30.9mm) seat tubes. Crucially, XC bikes also still have rather old-fashioned geometry that often ignores descending prowess and is still heavily modelled on road bikes. This is all well and good if you’re Nino Schurter but for most people the end result is fairly terrifying on any technical terrain. As a result, even if you want to ride cross-country you’re probably better off on a (light as possible) trail bike than a sketchy XC bike.
Recommended mountain bike: light-as-you-can-afford hardtail or light full suspension with 100-120mm suspension and 29in wheels.
Choosing the best mountain bike for: Trail riding
AKA Mountain Biking
Trail riding is arguably best defined by what it’s not. It’s not cross-country. It’s not Enduro. It’s riding around regular tracks and trail centres with the occasional 50km moorland epic thrown in and the odd uplift day or two. Trail bikes sport between 120 and 150mm of travel and are designed strong enough to withstand all sorts without ending up being portly. The geometry on Trail bikes should be able to handle all sorts of terrain. But often it doesn’t. We’re still finding Trail bikes with overly steep head angles, short reaches and slack seat angles. If you want to be Trail rider, pay extra attention to the geometry.
Recommended mountain bike: hardtail or full suspension with 120-140mm suspension.
Choosing the best mountain bike for: Enduro riding
AKA All Mountain
Enduro riding intentionally and unashamedly prioritises descending capability and speed. The terrain can resemble Downhill race tracks but there’s no uplift here. You have to pedal your way around. Enduro bikes are essentially longer travel (160+mm) Trail bikes with stronger parts. As a result they’re heavier than Trail bikes. Or the same weight and significantly more expensive. Enduro bikes are very much in vogue but you should be careful before you automatically head down this route. A couple of kilos may not sound much but it’s always there no matter what trail you’re on. If most of your riding is trail centres then an Enduro bike is going to be OTT and very probably slower than a Trail bike. One area where Enduro bikes are leading the way for all kinds of riding however is geometry. A cutting edge Enduro bike will have a riding position that bests both XC and Trail bikes for climbing, descending and contouring. Enduro bikes are at the forefront of mountain biking. A lightweight Enduro bike is an amazing thing. And amazingly expensive.
Recommended mountain bike: full suspension with 150-170mm suspension.
Okay then, now that you may be getting somewhere and you’ve chosen what sort of riding your mainly going to do on your new mountain bike, it’s time to deal with some classic debates: hardtail or full suspension, carbon or aluminium, and which wheel size is best.
Hardtail or full suspension?
It’s easy to assume that everyone would be riding full suspension bikes instead of hardtails if there was no price difference. This isn’t really true. Hardtails do have some advantages over full suspension bikes regardless of price tag.
Hardtails are lighter. Hardtails have less to go wrong or require servicing. Hardtails are easier to clean. Hardtails can be faster and more fun on smoother trails. Adding to this the fact that hardtails are cheaper than their full sus counterparts means that hardtails aren’t going to be extinct anytime soon.
Full suspension is still what most riders lust after, rightly or wrongly. What are the benefits of going full suspension? First and foremost, control. The comfort factor is much less important – which may surprise you but it’s true. Full suspension bikes track the ground better and as such offer greater traction. Full sussers are less skittish and sketchy to ride compared to hardtails. The fatigue and comfort benefits do exist but it’s the extra performance capability of full suspension that’s the main thing. Being less beaten up and less tired on longer rides is an added bonus of bounce.
What are the drawbacks of full suspension? They’re heavier than hardtails. They’re poorer specced (compared to hardtail of the same price). They have bearings and pivots that wear out and cost money. They can be mud traps. They can be difficult to clean properly. And if you don’t understand the basics of how to setup suspension then a full susser can ride really badly, inefficiently and sketchily.
Carbon or aluminium?
At the mid to high end level there’s something of a crossover point where you can sometimes choose between a carbon framed bike (with lower end parts) or an aluminium framed bike (with better bits) at around the same price point. We’d always recommend going for the better specced aluminium model.
Is carbon worth the extra money? For most riders, no it isn’t. Just how much extra does it cost anyway? To go carbon will cost you approximately an extra £1,000 (for the similarly equipped bike).
What does this £1,000 get you? A lighter frame for sure. But not that much lighter, maybe 700g or so. The more convincing argument for going carbon is not weight, it’s ride feel. Carbon bikes ride differently to aluminium bikes. Stiffer. Sometimes with a damped (dead) sort of feeling. And these days carbon bikes are often stronger than their aluminium counterparts.
The carbon feel and strength is what it’s all about. This is not to say that this racy, rally-car ‘carbon feel’ is going to suit everyone. Some riders prefer the feel of aluminium bikes over carbon.
Some people are even making big hype about steel again. This time steel full suspension. Maybe things can get too stiff on a mountain bike? Fatigue suffers. Line choice gets less forgiving. Maybe some chassis flex results in a faster ride? But then, steel full sussers are going to be even heavier than aluminium.
At the end of the day, the frame material isn’t going to affect most people’s bike riding. Tyres, wheels and suspension setup is far, far more significant. So we would actually say that frame material isn’t worth worrying about overly.
Which wheel size is best?
This old chestnut. Again, we’re going to be mildly controversial and say that the difference between 650b bikes and 29er bikes isn’t as pronounced as you may have been lead to believe.
Unlike a few years ago, nowadays you can get 29ers with decent amount of suspension travel (up to 160mm) and with decent geometry, so the wheel size debate has become less black and white than it used to be. You can get ‘rad’ 29ers now.
29ers are more stable and have better grip. But they have unavoidably higher front ends and the rear tyre can hit your bum on steep stuff if you’re under 6ft tall. The higher wheel axles can make the bike feel taller in tight switchbacks and thus require more leaning over.
One things for sure, more people should try a 29er than currently do. The stigma of the awful early 29ers has lingered. A modern 29er is a totally different animal.
650b bikes are stiffer, can have lower front ends and the rear tyre won’t boot you up the behind on steeps. The lower wheel axles require less body english in tight hairpins so the bikes can feel more nimble for a given rider input.
If you’re 6ft tall or over, you’re probably going to better served by a 29er. If you’re under 5ft 6″ then a 29er is likely going to feel too big.
If you’re of average height, you need to try each wheel size for yourself. Ignore trends. Ignore haters. See for yourself.
Which suspension design is best?
A bonus debate for you. Sorry! Although there’s less hype and grand claims made about different suspension frame designs these days (compared to the slanging matches and OTT marketing of yore anyway) there is still a valid interest in how the designs differ from each other.
The mountain biking market is now mature and experienced enough to know that their is no single Best Suspension Design. The four-bar (or Horst Link) used to be the Holy Grail. Single pivots used to get ragged on for being crude. Neither of these stances are correct in 2017/18.
To be frank, pretty much all suspension designs are good. But they are not all the same. They do differ in how they feel and respond (to both the trail and to the rider onboard). Some are fussy in how precisely they’re set up, some are more forgiving. Some also require more maintenance than others.
The rear shock – and how you can tune it – is arguably more important than frame suspension design these days. It is now possible to do an awful to with a rear shock to alleviate any frame design niggles you may encounter. Bike too bob-prone, or wallowy, or harsh bottom out? Chances are something can be done with the rear shock to address this.
Basically, bike companies have got all the kooky and plain bad designs out of their system now. The differences between them are now extremely subtle. Learning about suspension theory and setup is more important.
Geometry, geometry, geometry
The angles and lengths of the frame tubes governs almost everything in how a bike will ride. The best suspension in the world counts for nought if the geometry is poor. Similarly, a bike with great geometry can often overcome any suspension shortcomings and ride just fine.
What’s the best geometry for a mountain bike? This is a tricky area and one which is still full of old myths and prejudices. But here’s our take on it…
Long reach (the distance between saddle and handlebars, in layman’s terms) is good. Steep seat angles are good. Slack head angles are good. And we’re not talking just ‘good for descending’. This geometry is good everywhere. Slack head angles don’t cause front end wandering on climbs (that’s caused by slack seat angles and/or short top tubes).
Low bottom bracket heights are generally good (for stability and for cornering) but riders who ride in rutted/tufty/stumpy terrain may get naffed off with frequent pedal strikes and so prefer a higher bottom bracket height and accept the compromise in handling.
Chainstay length is another area full of cliché. Short chainstays are seen as highly desirable. Long chainstays are seen as bad. Why is short good? We’re not sure it is particularly. It makes bikes easier to manual but that’s about it. They also can make bikes climb worse (wheelie prone). Long chainstays offer greater stability and climbing prowess.
Another aspect these days is the return of standover as being high on the important list. The advent of dropper posts with 150mm+ of travel has meant that bike designers are factoring shorter seat tube lengths in their bikes now so that they can fit in long drop dropper posts.
Truth be told though, you still can’t judge how a bike will ride by looking at its geometry chart. Geometry is a combination of multiple factors that all interact with each other. One isolated measurement doesn’t govern everything.
We’ve ridden plenty of ‘poor geometry on paper’ bikes that turn out to ride exceptionally well in the real world.
Having said that, don’t buy a bike with a short reach. Just don’t. Almost everything else in bike geometry can be changed (by saddle positioning, angleset headset, offset shock bushings, different length cranks, thinner pedals etc etc) but a short bike will always be a short bike no matter what you do.
How much should you spend?
If you have less than £1,000 to spend then we still think a hardtail is the way to go. Sub-£1k full sussers are going to be overly hefty and sport low-end kit that will impair your ride experience.
These days you can get capable and fun full suspension bikes from the £1,000 mark. They aren’t especially light but they aren’t restrictively heavy either. And the parts package on a good £1k susser will feature perfectly good stuff from recognised brands. Sure there’ll be some cost-cutting here and there, and some no-name finishing kit, but it won’t overly affect the bike’s ride.
What size bike should you get?
A lot of people are riding around the wrong size bike.
The first myth to bust is that smaller bikes are more nimble/playful/manoeuvrable. Nope. Smaller bikes are less stable, more sketchy and uncomfortable. Don’t buy a bike that’s too small thinking it’ll be alright. Don’t get suckered into buying an undersize bike because it’s at a bargain price.
A cheap bike that’s big enough for you and has good geometry will be infinitely better than a half-price bling bike that’s too small for you.
Don’t buy a too-small bike. Even if that’s what all your mates have done. Even if that’s what the bike shop staffer says. They’re wrong.
The best way to do it is consult with what the bike manufacturer’s height advice says. Once you’ve found what size they advise, have a nosey at the next size up. Have a look at the seat tube length and standover. If you’d still be alright on the larger size, you should try both the recommended size and the next size up when you go to try the bike for size. Long top tubes can be addressed (improved in fact!) by fitting a shorter stem and moving the saddle forward on its rails.
Things to look out for…
- Avoid full suspension at all cost.
- Avoid supermarket bikes. They’ll be awful and there’ll be no aftersales backup or spares when they go wrong.
- Buy one in the sale rather than full SRP.
- Go for aluminium frame rather than steel/cromoly.
- Hydraulic disc brakes if possible.
- Aim for modern Trail bike geometry more than outdated XC geometry.
- Air sprung suspension fork if possible.
- Shimano or SRAM drivetrain.
£500 to £1,000
At least all of the above plus…
- Hardtail is still the way to go.
- Hydraulic disc brakes.
- Air sprung suspension fork, ideally with a bolt-thru axle and a tapered steerer tube.
- Avoid triple chainsets. Two- or single-chainring drivetrains are great. Definitely try to get a clutch rear mech.
- Go for decent tyres.
- Try to get wheels that are tubeless ready.
- Nearer the £1,000 end of the price range a steel frame is okay (it’ll be much fancier steel than found on sub-£500 bikes).
£1,000 to £1,500
At least all of the above plus…
- A handful of full suspension bikes are decent options at this point.
- BUT a hardtail is going to be lighter and significantly better specced.
- Plus tyre hardtails should be considered and demoed if you’re after a Trail bike.
- Look for a single chainring drivetrain, ideally 11 speed or higher.
- A suspension fork with more damping adjustment and tuning potential (volume spacers etc).
- Dropper seatposts are nice.
- Hardtails will be more differentiated into riding disciplines (XC, Trail, Enduro) so choose your weapon wisely.
- SRAM NX or Shimano SLX drivetrain (or better).
- Short stem.
- Wide handleabars.
£1,500 to £2,500
At least all of the above plus…
- More full suspension options appear, especially over £2,000.
- Weight conscious cross-country riders arguably still better served with a hardtail. Carbon enters the arena here.
- Dropper seatpost should be specced.
- Suspension fork and rear shock with compression damping adjustment.
- Full suspension bikes will be more differentiated into riding disciplines (XC, Trail, Enduro) so choose accordingly.
- Some drivetrain parts from SRAM GX or Shimano XT (or better).
£2,500 to £4,000
At least all of the above plus…
- Carbon frames are worth considering, especially above £3,000.
- Tubeless setup wheels and tyres.
- Complete SRAM GX or Shimano XT drivetrains (or better).
Lucky you. Just make sure you get a bike that suits your principle riding discipline (XC, Trail or Enduro) and you’ll not go wrong with anything at this price!