Picking the best beginner mountain bike needn't be difficult or confusing. Read our expert testers' advice and reviews to get the right MTB if you're just starting out.
Our expert panel of reviewers and testers reveal how to choose the best beginner mountain bike. From budget advice through to must-have features and specific bike model recommendations, this guide will really help you draw up a shortlist of trail-worthy best mountain bike options for anyone just starting out off-road cycling. You might also find the following buyer’s guide useful if you don’t find the perfect beginner bike here:
- Buyer’s guide to the best budget electric bikes
- Buyer’s guide to the best electric bikes
- Buyer’s guide to the best budget full-suspension bikes
Best hardtail mountain bike under £1,000
Wheel size: 27.5in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 14.52kg | Suspension travel: 140mm front | Rating: 10/10
Reasons to buy: Modern geometry, dropper seatpost, large-volume tyres
Reasons to avoid: Needs a wider gear range, tall bottom bracket height
The Line T3-27 marks a welcome return for the Calibre brand to the this price category. With progressive trail geometry and large volume 27.5in tyres, there’s been clear inspiration from the Whyte 901 trail bike. Which is no bad thing, given that Whyte has been at the forefront of trail hardtail design for over a decade now.
It’s got all the big decisions right, with progressive geometry, a quality dropper post, and large volume tyres that let you ride further and faster with greater control. The Calibre Line T3-27 is a versatile package you can really shred straight from the box to the trail. And at £999 on the nose, Calibre has hit the bullseye.
Listed retail price for the T3-27 is £1200. However, if you sign up and buy a Go Outdoors membership card for just £5, the bike’s price drops to a great value £999.
A great choice at under £700, despite the old-school drivetrain
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 14.31kg | Suspension travel: 120mm front | Rating: 9/10
Reasons to buy: A top quality frame with up-to-date geometry
Reasons to avoid: Dated 2×10 drivetrain
The Polygon Xtrada 5 may well sport a dated-looking 2×10 drivetrain but this 29er does have the slackest steering geometry for stability at speed, the lowest top tube and shortest seat tube.
We have highlighted the shortcomings of the drivetrain, but we do not want it to be the defining characteristic of the Xtrada 5. Because from the very first pedal stroke it felt like the best riding bike in its class. With the Maxxis Ikon tyres it carries speed really well, but unlike the Jamis, the frame puts the rider in a more commanding position. Your body takes less of a beating than on the Carrera and with the saddle dropped you can really motor on the Polygon.
It’s the clear winner of the sub £700 category in our 2023 Hardtail of the Year test, even if it misses out on a perfect 10 rating.
Quality alloy frame with modern geometry that makes a great platform for future upgrades
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 14.6kg | Suspension travel: 120mm front | Rating: N/A
Reasons to buy: Amazing price, great geometry and range of sizes, spot-on cockpit and component choices, and an active fork.
Reasons to avoid: The fork tops out with a clunk.
Using the same frame as the multi award-winning Voodoo Bizango (featured below) the Braag saves money in a few areas to bring the price point under £600. So you get the same confident, fun handling and excellent spread of sizes, along with a wide-range yet simple 9-speed drivetrain and a plush coil-sprung suspension fork. The only fly in the ointment is that the fork can get a bit clunky, but overall this is a killer bike for the money and one you can upgrade as your skills progress.
The bike that rewrote the definition of entry-level hardtail performance
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 13.1kg | Suspension travel: 120mm front | Rating: 10/10
Reasons to buy: The price, updated geometry, light weight, lower range gears, wider handlebar and improved handling. And did we say the price?
Reasons to avoid: You may struggle to get hold of one.
The alloy Bizango simply has no competition. It is unbeatable for the money. In fact, given the choice we’d probably opt for this bike over many decent £1,000 mountain bikes (saving a couple of components upgrades for the ensuing seasons). Good brakes, good gearing, plenty of standover, decent fork. Shames many bikes at twice the price and not only will help you get confident if you’re just starting out, but will have your back as you improve your technique and start hitting more difficult trails.
A proper hardcore hardtail that won’t break the bank
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 12.94kg | Suspension travel: 140mm front | Rating: 9/10
Reasons to buy: Smooth ride, rewarding handling, grippy tyres.
Reasons to avoid: Fork rattles, gears lack range, uncomfortable brakes.
Vitus as a brand has quickly established itself as the smart choice for anyone looking for affordable mountain bikes that shred hard and don’t cut corners. The frame is excellent quality and the ride quality is infectious, but much of the credit for the Sentier’s trail manners can be attributed to the tyres rather than the geometry or the suspension. One great feature of the Sentier is that you can get it with either 29in or 27.5in wheels for the same price, which helps it accommodate a wider range of rider heights and riding styles. Ultimately we want a bike to put a smile on our face every time we ride it, and the Vitus passes this test with flying colours.
Amazing value 29er hardtail mountain bike
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 13.2kg (29.2lb) | Suspension travel: 130mm front | Rating: 10/10
Reasons to buy: Good geometry and superlative spec choices. Low weight and comfy ride feel
Reasons to avoid: You may just be able to stretch to a full-suspension bike at this price. BB could be a finger’s width lower. Rear Rekon tyre needs beefing up
The Voodoo Bizango has smashed pretty much every test it’s ever entered, winning our Hardtail of the Year award multiple times, earning regular podium places on our list of the best hardtail mountain bikes, and impressing everyone who rode it. It must have been very tempting for Halfords to stick with the old frame, add a modern colour, fettle the spec and keep mixing up that winning mix.
We’re extremely glad it didn’t then. For Halfords’ sake, standing still in the ultra competitive hardtail market is suicide. And for our sake, the new Bizango Pro is much the superior bike to anything Voodoo has made before and ultimately more fun to ride.
Great brakes mean you can go faster in the happy knowledge you can stop when you need to, while the 12-speed shifting means you can cruise the hills faster than plenty of full-sus bikes out there. And then there’s the fork, it’s hugely superior to anything we’ve tried before on a £1k hardtail: air sprung so you can set the sag to your weight, effective rebound dial for control, and a really smooth feel.
7. Polygon Siskiu D5
The remarkable Calibre Bossnut with a different head badge
Wheel size: 27.5in | Travel: 120mm | Frame sizes: S, M, L | Frame: 6061 T6 Aluminium | Weight: 15.43kg (34.02lb) | Rating: N/A
Reasons to buy: Same frame and five star handling as the old Calibre Bossnut. Even cheaper too.
Reasons to avoid: Some of the parts are not as good. Doesn’t get a single-ring 1x drivetrain.
Sky Ineos would be proud of Calibre’s ability to aggregate marginal gains. Continual updates to sizing, geometry, shock tune and specification helped make the Bossnut the benchmark entry-level suspension bike. While Calibre has struggled with supply issues over the last couple of years – and Bossnuts have been off the shopping list as a result – Polygon (who manufactured the bikes for Calibre) still sells the same frame used in its Siskiu model through retailers Blacks and Go Outdoors. If you want a quality full-suspension bike that’s fast, fun and ridiculously good value, the Polygon Siskiu is a serious contender.
The legendary Calibre Bossnut by a different name
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 15.6kg | Suspension travel: 150mm f/140mm r 27.5in, 140mm f/135mm r 29in | Rating: 9/10
Reasons to buy: Progressive sizing and geometry, great value for money
Reasons to avoid: Needs a Shimano chain
Calibre Bikes, sold exclusively through outdoor giant, Go Outdoors, blew the entry-level full-suspension bike market to smithereens when it launched the original Bossnut back in 2016. And it continued to be the benchmark full-suspension bike until the pandemic hit. Supply issues have meant the Bossnut has disappeared from showroom floors recently, but while we wait for Calibre to launch a new range of bikes, there is another option. Calibre’s frames were made by Polygon, and the Indonesian manufacturer has adopted the geometry and suspension tuning that made the Bossnut head and shoulders above the competition, and applied it to the Siskiu. Also sold through Go Outdoors, the Siskiu is available with 29in or 27.5in wheels depending on the frame size, with the larger frames using 29in wheels and the smaller ones getting 27.5in hoops.
With the Siskiu T8 29, Polygon has proven that entry-level pricing does not have to equate to entry-level performance or a lacklustre frame finish. And thanks to the thoroughly modern geometry and sizing, the Siskiu T8 is a bike that can be ridden hard straight from the get go. Yes, there are some weaknesses in the build kit, but fitting a new chain and better tyres are easy and affordable fixes. As such, the Siskiu T8 can evolve with you as your riding progresses, without it ever making you feel like it’s the equipment that’s holding you back.
High performance trail bike at an unbeatable price
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 15.54kg | Suspension travel: 150mm f/140mm r 27.5in, 140mm f/135mm r 29in | Rating: 10/10
Reasons to buy: Brilliant frame quality and handing
Reasons to avoid: Honestly can’t think of any!
There are four different models in the newly refreshed Vitus Mythique range for 2023, with prices starting at £1,599.99 (and topping out at £2,399.99). Like Polygon, Vitus uses both 27.5in and 29in wheels for the Mythique range, but in this case all four frame sizes and three spec levels are available with either wheel, so you don’t have to compromise on your ultimate combo. Cheaper bikes get X-Fusion suspension and a 1×10 drivetrain, but there’s still grippy Maxxis tyres and an indispensable dropper post on the entry-level model. Further up the range you’ll find 1×12 drivetrains and better suspension, with Marzocchi forks and RockShox shocks, so you’ll find yourself going faster with greater control. New for 2023 is also a AMP model with a RockShox Pike Select fork and other choice upgrades.
Speed, smiles, and style; the new Vitus Mythique VRX has all in equal measure. It’s a trail bike that covers a huge remit without the hefty price tag to match. And while every price-point bike is a compromise, Vitus has emphasised the things that matter most to ride quality, without leaving any glaring holes in the specification. The fact that the frame looks every bit as polished as high-end bikes, just adds to the overall appeal. So whether you’re starting out in mountain biking or are a seasoned rider looking for a trail bike that offers unbeatable value, we simply can not recommend the Mythique highly enough.
How much should you spend on the best beginner mountain bike?
We’re not going to come out with a specific price point that you should be aiming for if you’re just starting out in mountain biking. People are different. Some people will want to spend as little as possible. Other folks will want to less money-mindful and will just want to dive straight in and splash the cash. Then there’ll be the mid-range folk who don’t want to skimp but also don’t want to be wasting their hard-earned on OTT MTBs.
All we would say is that you should be spending at least £400 for a hardtail, although the peak value tends to be between £700 and £1,000. In terms of full-suspension bikes, a few sneak in at £1,000, but the best budget options start at £1,500. And be aware that the law of diminishing returns with mountain bike price tags kicks in at around £2,500 mark. In other words, bikes do get better and/or lighter if you spend more than £2.5k but the leaps in progress get smaller and smaller the more money you throw it at. You really are get very little more for your money when you enter the realm of bikes costing more than £3k.
Should I buy a hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike?
It’s often not fashionable to talk about weight and efficiency in mountain bike circles. But they both matter. A lot. Hefty and soggy bikes definitely have their place for experienced riders riding certain types of terrain. But far too many people never get to grips with mountain biking purely because they start out on heavy or inefficient bikes.
Riding mountain bikes uphill off-road is flipping hard work, regardless of what bike you’re on. Don’t make it any worse than it has to be by buying a low-end full-suspension bike. Sure you can get impressive full suspension bikes for a little over £1k these days but they are still significantly heavier than similar priced hardtails.
The other aspect of full suspension bikes is that they absolutely require knowledge and – more importantly – the will to spend time setting them up properly. You can’t just buy a full suspension bike and hit the trails. They require setting up for your weight, your riding style and your terrain. And they require numerous rides to perfect the set-up.
With full-suspension you are buying into greater performance and capability certainly, but you are also committing yourself into considerable set-up sessions as well as more maintenance in general.
We still recommend that beginners go down the route of choosing the best hardtail mountain bike unless your budget is more than £1,500.
Is mountain biking harder than road cycling for a beginner?
Yes and no. Road cycling can, at first, seem easier as roads tend to be smooth, there are no technical challenges, and conditions are relatively consistent. Mountain biking on the other hand, can involve difficult natural obstacles, steep terrain, and ground conditions that require effort to overcome. So mountain biking almost always challenges balance, bike handling skills, and fitness more than road cycling. But, it is also a relatively safe environment for a beginner to build confidence, with no vehicles zooming around, fighting for space and bullying you out of the way. The bikes also tend to be more stable and forgiving, with a more comfortable riding position. If you start small, riding on forest roads and tracks and blue-graded MTB trails, it’s easy to build the skills needed to make mountain biking really enjoyable. And you’ll be closer to. nature than you’ll ever get on a road bike.
What frame size do I need?
Whatever budget you’re trying to stick to, there are two overriding concerns: frame size and geometry. Frame size and geometry are related but they are two separate entities. The former denotes what height of person best fits it. Geometry denotes what sort of terrain and/or riding discipline the bike is best suited to. Do not ever buy a bike that is the wrong size because it’s in the sale or a ‘bargain’. A poorly equipped bike that’s the correct size for you will be better than a well-specced bike that is too small or too large. We go into frame size recommendations in this guide.
What is standover, and why is important with frame sizing?
Standover is essentially how low slung the bike’s top tube is (AKA cross bar). The more room you have to straddle your bike’s top tube will do wonders for your confidence when off-road. Having a too high top tube makes you scared of being to get off safely should the worst happen. Basically, look for a bike frame with a very sloping top tube. Avoid bikes that have top tubes that are near-parallel to the ground.
What’s the best type of mountain bike for a beginner?
There are many different styles of mountain bike, each optimised to a particular type of riding. Enduro bikes are built for racing down steep alpine tracks. XC bikes are for riding as fast as possible on cross-country race circuits for an hour and a half. There are also downhill bikes, trials bikes, jump bikes, freeride bikes, e-bikes, trail bikes… the list goes on. Don’t be tempted into buying a bike that isn’t going to be best suited to the type of riding you actually will be doing on it. In other words, don’t buy a twitchy XC race bike (like the one pictured above) if you like steep, sketchy, technical trails. And don’t buy a burly long-travel enduro bike if your trails don’t have much in the way of gradient or technicality.
If in doubt go for a trail bike. What is a ‘trail bike’ you ask? It’s a typically woolly and vague description but we’d say a trail bike is any mountain bike with a suspension fork with 120mm to 150mm of travel. Geometry-wise, a trail bike should have a head angle no steeper than 66°.
What are the critical components on a beginner’s mountain bike?
After frame size and geometry, the second-level concerns are spec related. Namely, brakes and gears. You need hydraulic disc brakes and you need gears with a wide range a a low ratio.
Hydraulic disc brakes are relatively easily identified, but ideally you want something that’s consistent and easy to modulate. You don’t want to snatch the brake and lock the wheels or end up flying over the bars. Cheaper Shimano brakes are usually excellent in this regard. And you can always detune the power of a brake by reducing the rotor size.
In terms of gearing, you want a wide spread with a low bottom gear that lets you crawl up steep climbs twiddling the cranks, rather than powering with full effort. Look at the cassette – the bunch of gear sprockets on the back wheel – and go for something with a 50t or larger sprocket. To access truly large cassettes you probably need to be looking at bikes with 10-speed drivetrains or higher (11 or 12 speed) and this also lets you change the front chainring if you want to alter the gearing.
What’s the best wheel size for a beginner?
First of all, wheel size does not matter as much as the hype would lead you to believe. It is certainly way less important than frame size and geometry. Wheel size is arguably less important than brakes and gearing in fact.
As MBR testers, we hop between 27.5in and 29in wheel bikes all the time and it’s fine. Arguably, 29ers are the better option for most people but, again, we’d rather ride a good 27.5in bike than a poor 29er.
Having said that, if you’re over 6ft tall, you might find 27.5in wheel bikes a bit too dinky (you feel a bit too much ‘on top’ of the bike rather than ‘in’ it). And if you’re nearer the 5ft mark, you’ll feel lost in between 29in wheels and you would have a better time on a 27.5 bike. For shorter riders, a mixed wheel ‘mullet’ bike gives you the improved momentum and rollover on bumps of a 29in wheel at the front, with the dexterity and bum clearance of a 27.5in wheel at the back.
Is carbon worth it for a beginner?
Well, it’s certainly nice to have, but it’s far from essential.
Carbon frames are a bit lighter than aluminium (or steel) frames but not by as much as you might think. How much weight do you save by spending, say, an extra £1000 to get the carbon frame version of a bike model? About 700g. Now then, 700g may be significant on a high end road bike (700g could be approx 10% of overall bike weight) but on MTB trail bikes that weigh 14kg+ it is much more marginal.
Should I buy online or from a bike shop?
If you truly are a beginner to mountain biking, then we’re going to nail our colours to the mast here and emphasise the added value of getting your first proper mountain bike from a real bricks-and-mortar bike shop. Bike shops give you knowledge and experience. Two vital things when starting out mountain biking and both worth their weight in gold. Not to mention the fact that in most instances you can sit astride a real bike and potentially even actually go for a test ride on a demo bike.
By all means enjoy the (considerable) money saving of a direct-sales mail-order bike when it comes to future bike purchases, but you really need to be visiting a real-world bike shop for buying your first MTB.
Ask around for recommendations on which bike shops to visit. Pick the brains of any MTBing friends or family you have. Scout out the best bike shops using social media. Good bike shops won’t let you walk out with the wrong bike, and they won’t try to fleece you. A good bike shop wants you to come back to them again and again, nurturing a long term relationship with their customers.