Choosing the best mountain bike is hard. There's loads of them. They all look similar yet different. Our expert panel of reviewers narrow things down.
Mountain bikes come in different designs depending on their intention use. A mountain bike for racing cross-country is not the same as a mountain bike intended for weekend trail riding. As such, the round-up of the best mountain bikes available in 2022 features winning bikes from different disciplines within the broad church that is mountain biking. We’ll go through the differences in disciplines further down this guide. It’s also worth looking slightly under your budget and then factoring in what are the best mountain bike upgrades you can easily and affordably add to any of the great bikes to make them even better for you and your riding.
What’s your budget?
£400+ is a good start for a bike that will stand up to off-road abuse without falling apart in five minutes, but… hold your horses. We’re going to go into what you get (and don’t get) for your money in a moment. You can get a perfectly decent mountain bike for under £600. You can also max out your credit card and drop over £10k on a mountain bike.
Are those bikes 10x better? No, they aren’t. The law of diminishing returns definitely applies to mountain bikes, particularly as you spend over £4,000. 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 price scale.
Our current picks at all price points:
We have tested all of the following bikes. Tested them properly against their peers, backed up with years of experience reviewing thousands of mountain bikes since MBR was launched back in 1997. This isn’t some shortlist pulled together from browsing brochures and brand websites – these bikes are ridden and rated by some of the most experienced testers in the business, all with a shared passion for mountain biking and giving you the best buying advice possible.
Under £600 mountain bikes
What to look out for on the best mountain bikes under £600: Avoid full-suspension at all cost. Avoid supermarket bikes. They’ll be heavy and/or flexy with poor damping and there’ll be no after-sales backup or spares when they go wrong. Go for aluminium frames rather than steel/chromoly to save weight. Choose hydraulic disc brakes if possible as they’re more reliable.
Aim for modern trail bike geometry over steep, twitchy XC angles. Air-sprung suspension forks make it easier to set the bike up to your body weight. Shimano or SRAM drivetrains will ensure quality and reliability of shifting, preferably with a single chainring up front and wide-range cassette at the rear. This simplifies gear selection and reduces the chance of the chain coming off on a rough descent.
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
Pros: Amazing price, great geometry and range of sizes, spot-on cockpit and component choices, and an active fork.
Cons: 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.
Simply astounding spec and performance for the price
Wheel size: 27.5in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 14.38kg | Suspension travel: 120mm front | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Ride quality and build kit belie its price tag
Cons: Demand always outstrips supply, so be quick!
By bestowing the same level of detail on the Nucleus VR that most other brands reserve for their flagship models, Vitus has had amazing success with its entry-level hardtail. Every year without fail, Vitus has tweaked the Nucleus VR to ensure that it stays ahead of the competition. And by a couple of steps, it’s often superior to most of the bikes in the sub-£750 class of our Hardtail of the Year test. Sadly, as is the case with so many bikes recently, the price has gone up and availability is scarce. However, if you see the Nucleus come into stock, don’t hesitate to snap it up, even at £599, as it’s still a bargain and by far the best hardtail mountain bike at this price.
Under £750 mountain bikes
What to look out for on the best mountain bikes under £750: Honestly, at this little nudge up from the £600 bikes detailed above, you’re simply looking for slightly better components. Things like better quality tyres (folding kevlar bead, decently treaded), definitely an air-sprung fork, gears with a wider range. Read our buyer’s guide for more information on choosing the best hardtail mountain bike.
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
Pros: The price, updated geometry, light weight, lower range gears, wider handlebar and improved handling. And did we say the price?
Cons: You’ll probably struggle to get hold of one.
The alloy Bizango simple has no competition. It is simply 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.
Under £1,000 mountain bikes
What to look out for on the best mountain bikes under £1,000: an overall weight lower than 14kg (although it can be hard to find listed weights for bikes these days unfortunately). As with the £750 must-haves above, it’s more about looking for improvements in the bike’s overall spec. Two game-changing features that may start to appear at this price point are dropper seatposts and bolt-thru axles.
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
Pros: Good geometry and superlative spec choices. Low weight and comfy ride feel
Cons: BB could be a finger’s width lower. Rear Rekon tyre needs beefing up
The Voodoo Bizango has smashed pretty much any 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 they 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 I’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.
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
Pros: Smooth ride, rewarding handling, grippy tyres.
Cons: 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.
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.
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. Another great feature of the Sentier is that you can get it with either 29in or 27.5in wheels for the same price.
Under £2,000 mountain bikes
What to look out for on the best mountain bikes under £2,000: Should have all of the stuff mentioned for the £1,000 bikes above, plus… A select handful of full-suspension bikes are decent options at this price point. BUT, a hardtail is going to be lighter and significantly better specced. Fat tyre hardtails (with 2.6in + tyres) should be considered and test ridden if you’re after a trail bike. Look for a single chainring drivetrain, ideally 11-speed or higher. A suspension fork with damping adjustment and tuning potential (volume spacers etc). Dropper seatposts are nice to have but can always be fitted later. Hardtails will be split by riding disciplines (XC, Trail, Enduro) so choose your weapon wisely. SRAM NX or Shimano SLX drivetrain (or better). Short stem. Wide handlebars.
Polygon Siskiu T7
The legendary Calibre Bossnut by a different name
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L | Weight: 15.6kg | Suspension travel: 150mm f/140mm r 27.5in, 140mm f/135mm r 29in
Pros: High performance at High St prices. Good geometry and a solid specification with a dropper post.
Cons: Unbranded tyres will need upgrading.
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 Covid forced the brand to find a new factory. Calibre is due to return soon, but in the mean time, 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. At a great price tag, the Polygon Siskiu makes the perfect starter full-suspension bike for all types of trail riding.
High performance trail bike at an unbeatable price
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 14.6kg | Suspension travel: 150mm f/140mm r 27.5in, 140mm f/135mm r 29in | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Cutting-edge sizing and geometry.
Cons: Needs a better shock tune and a dropper post.
There are three different models in the Vitus Mythique range, with prices starting at £1,349.99 and topping out at £1,799.99. All three models use the same alloy frame with four-bar linkage suspension, but wear different components depending on the price point. Like Polygon, Vitus uses both 27.5in and 29in wheels for the Mythique range, but in this case all four frame sizes are available with either wheel, so you don’t have to compromise on your ultimate combo. Cheaper bikes get X-Fusion suspension, which can be a little harsh in our experience, so if you can stretch to the top VRX model, with its Marzocchi fork and RockShox shock, you’ll find yourself going faster with greater control. All-in, the Mythique is a mighty fine way to spread your full-suspension wings.
Read the full review of the Vitus Mythique 27 VR
The hardtail that flatters experts and beginners alike
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: M, L, XL | Weight: 14.41kg | Suspension travel: 120mm f | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Amazingly composed and stable handling.
Cons: Low-profile rear tyre may not suit all conditions. No size small – for that you need the 27.5in wheel 901 or 905.
The Whyte 629 V4 really impressed us, and in many ways it mirrors its stablemate, the 905, in setting new hardtail standards, this time for 29ers. Ultimately it is balanced, composed, stable and precise, and whether you’re a relative beginner, or an experienced trail rider, you’ll instantly become addicted to its ways…
Light weight with sharp handling
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL | Weight: 13.86kg | Suspension travel: 140mm f | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Lighter than most rivals. Handy tool stashed under the saddle.
Cons: Poor wet weather brake performance, but you’ll need new discs and pads to improve it
Merida has done everything right with this latest evolution of the Big Trail. Its engaging ride quality and feature-packed frame instantly impressed us – making it a very compelling choice. With its low weight and sweet handling the Big Trail 600 ripped, especially in drier conditions. The frame’s range of sizing (and approach to it) should cover riders big and small, without having to opt for a smaller wheel size.
Read our full review of the Merida Big Trail 600
Capable all-rounder that’s sure to make you smile
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: M, L, XL | Weight: 13.95kg | Suspension travel: 130mm f | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Stellar specification. Compliant ride.
Cons: Care needed with sizing. Tall seat tube. Only three frame sizes.
Although it doesn’t boast the most up-to-date sizing and fit, we can’t fault the ride quality of Nukeproof’s Scout. When we last reviewed the Scout it was the smaller wheeled 270 and we praised the compliance of its frame. It’s no different with this 290 Comp either – smooth, comfortable and quiet, allowing your mind to stay focused on the trail ahead. Yes, the XL Scout would certainly benefit from a shorter seat tube and a longer head tube, or at the very least and adjustable stroke dropper to get the best from the frame and as it’s very much at home on the descents.
Also worth considering:
- Canyon Stoic 4 review – good handling and well balanced
- Marin San Quentin 2 review – progressive hardtail hooligan
Under £3,000 mountain bikes
What to look out for on the best mountain bikes under £3,000: Should have at least all of the stuff mentioned in the ‘£1,000 to £2,000’ bikes range, plus… More full-suspension options appear, especially over £2,000. Weight conscious cross-country riders are arguably still better served with a hardtail, but everyone else is probably better off on full-suspension as it brings much more comfort and control. Carbon enters the arena here, mainly with direct-sales brands. Dropper seatpost should be present. Suspension fork and rear shock with compression damping adjustment. Full-suspension bikes will be categorised into riding disciplines (XC, Trail, Enduro) so choose accordingly. Some drivetrain parts from SRAM GX or Shimano XT (or better).
Fluid suspension feel and agile handling
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S (27.5in only), M, L, XL | Weight: 15kg | Suspension travel: 160mm f/140mm r 27.5in, 150mm f/130mm r 29in | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Previous winner of our Trail Bike of the Year. Superb suspension and versatile handling.
Cons: Seat tubes could be shorter for improved standover clearance.
After a good few years (decades?) of arguing amongst ourselves, the MTB world has pretty much settled on what constitutes a modern trail bike: a mid-travel 29er. With 140/130mm travel the 29er Reactor ticks the basic boxes, but it’s so much more than that. Incredibly supple suspension allied to a frame shape that’s not too radically slack or low, so cuts across flat singletrack with scalpel-sharpness, yet still has the composure to feel at home on rougher enduro tracks. Also available with a carbon frame and 27.5in wheels, the Reactor range has something for everyone. Which is why it was our Trail Bike of the Year in 2020 and the more expensive Pro version secured a 9/10 rating in the latest 2022 TBoY test.
Affordable mixed wheel fun factory
Wheel size: 29in f/27.5in r | Frame sizes: S1, S2, S3, S4, S5 | Weight: 15.75kg | Suspension travel: 160mm f/160mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Killer value for money. Inspiring handling.
Cons: Sluggish NX shifting, lack of official product info is frustrating
If you’re starting to see a few grey hairs appear then you may well remember the iconic Specialized Big Hit. Although not the original mullet bike, it was perhaps the most successful mixed wheeler before the trend’s recent resurgence. Why was it such a big hit, if you’ll excuse the pun? Well, it wasn’t designed for long distances or going racing, it was built to put a smile on riders’ faces. And it succeeded in spades. The Status invokes the spirit of that classic Big Hit, with a mixed wheel set-up, an affordable price and the ability to generate fun at every turn. For 2022 there are two models on offer, one with 140mm travel and the original version with 160mm travel. Whichever one you pick, you’re in for a great time.
Also worth considering:
- Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 review – best 27.5in wheel trail bike
- YT Jeffsy Comp 29 review – can’t avoid the value prospect
- Whyte T-140 SR V2 review – short-travel ripper engineered in Britain
What to look out for: 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! Regardless, look for at least all of the stuff mentioned above, plus… Carbon frames are worth considering, especially above £3,000. Tubeless set-up wheels and tyres. Complete SRAM GX or Shimano XT drivetrains or better. (Psst… surely you must also be contemplating the best electric mountain bikes at this price..?)
Hilarious speed freak
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 11.25kg | Suspension travel: 120mm f/120mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Perfect speed/capability ratio.
Cons: Business-like way it keeps wheels on the ground.
Did someone say down-country? The Spur is so on trend it hurts. Transition as a brand is typically a leader rather than a follower and this short travel, progressive geometry ripper is right at the forefront of modern mountain biking. The Spur is not designed for hitting chunky enduro track sblind at warp speed; the Spur is all about maxing out the fun on trails that are more familiar and/or calmer. It’s not cheap, but that’s the price you pay for being on the cutting edge of speed and handling.
The ultimate trail bike!
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S1, S2, S3, S4, S5, S6 | Weight: 14.6kg | Suspension travel: 160mm f/150mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: A truly versatile trail bike with addictive handling, adjustable geometry and internal frame storage
Cons: Uses a smaller 30t chainring, so you can run out of gears on descents.
Our Trail Bike of the Year for 2022, the Specialized Stumpjumper Evo Comp effortlessly blends pleasure and performance and boasts the ultimate adjustability of any trail bike, with head angle, BB and chainstay adjustment. Select either an alloy or carbon frame, depending on your budget, and there’s a comprehensive range of sizes to choose from, all offering a super-low standover height. Part enduro shredder, part trail ripper, the Stumpjumper Evo makes every ride better and even boasts somewhere to store your snacks.
Trail bike perfection at a bargain price
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 15.12kg | Suspension travel: 150mm f/140mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Fast, quiet and killer value.
Cons: Stiff dropper remote action. Missing an upper chain guide.
Modern geometry, impeccable handling and a min-blowing spec make this the ultimate direct-sales trail bike. It offers a smooth and silent ride that lets you focus on shredding as hard as you can. An efficient climber, it’s real forte is long, flowing descents, where it almost rides itself. Choose from 27.5in or 29in wheels and three levels of spec – all with carbon frames.
Next level performance with integrated data logging
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 13.65kg (30.09lb) | Suspension travel: 150mm f/130mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Fast and capable, built-in suspension data acquisition, excellent on-trail performance.
Cons: You need a 4G connection.
With Forward Geometry, Mondraker revolutionised how we think about mountain bike sizing. Ten years on and it’s revolutionising suspension set-up. With MIND, Mondraker’s built-in suspension data acquisition, suspension set-up and analysis has never been easier or more accurate. On its own, the Raze RR is a great package, with MIND it offers next level technology and performance for a small upcharge. More importantly, Mondraker has nailed the balance of speed, compliance and capability with the Raze RR to perfectly capture the essence of the short-travel trail category.
Also worth considering:
- Canyon Torque CF 8.0 review – super fast and poised enduro machine
- Santa Cruz Hightower CC review – actually worth the premium
- Evil The Following V3 GX Eagle review– all about the wondrous Delta linkage design
- Trek Top Fuel 8 – hilarious down-country ripper with bonus down tube storage
Best lightweight mountain bike
What to look out for on the best XC race bikes: While hardtails are still ridden by a few diehard racers, most competitors now race on full-suspension bikes. Why? Well XC courses have become more technical and XC full-suspension bikes have become lighter and more efficient. Unless you’re only going to ride sprint races (less than 2 hours) on smooth terrain, a full-suspension XC bike will be much more versatile and let you expand your horizons to take in the best singletrack and trail centres as well.
Vitus Rapide FS CRX
Bargain speed machine
Frame: UD Carbon | Weight: 11.34kg (25lb) | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Rapid up and down. Typical Vitus value.
Cons: Only one bottle mount.
The Vitus Rapide is a pure XC race bike, just not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s got 100mm travel and the full carbon frame weighs only 2,080g, but take a closer look at the rest of its vital stats and you’ll instantly see that the Rapide FS is heavily influenced by the progression of modern trail bike geometry. It’s competitively light given the price, and if Vitus was to release an AMP version, it would easily seek in under the 11kg threshold. It’s also a blisteringly fast bike and not just in a straight line. The modern geometry and generous sizing allow you to attack harder or recover more easily on the descents, but the Rapide still climbs and sprints with the best of them, thanks to its stable but supple suspension so going fast has never been as much fun.
Cheetah (or should that be cheater?) bike
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 10.4kg | Suspension travel: 100mm f/100mm r | Rating: 8/10
Pros: Punches well above its weight.
Cons: Rear suspension is too active when pedaling
At 10.45kg in size large, the Blur delivers effortless speed. Whether you’re sharpening your elbows on the XC race scene, or wanting the ultimate gravel bike killer for smashing long distance epics, the Blur will get the scenery shifting at unbelievable velocity. Capable enough to hit jumps and rip turns, it also has the efficiency to maximise every joule of energy.
The original down-country bike is now a real head turner
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 11.12kg | Suspension travel: 120mm f/120mm r | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Ruthless in its efficiency. Hidden shock should need less maintenance.
Cons: Suspension could be more supple in Descend mode.
Scott’s Spark has won more trophies than any other race bike, with double Olympic gold back in 2016. Redesigned recently with a sleek new frame and more modern geometry, the Scott Spark has lost none of its potency, but it has become even more versatile. It also gets a hidden shock for reduced maintenance, and remote suspension control for uphill efficiency without compromising on downhill confidence.
Also worth considering:
- Specialized Epic Comp review – venerable full-suspension World Cup weapon. The privateer’s choice.
Best enduro mountain bike
What to look out for on the best enduro mountain bikes: Enduro bikes are all about going fast downhill, sure, but they also have to be efficient pedallers to cope with the long liaisons and multiple climbs found in an enduro race. As such, the best enduro bikes are stable and easy to pedal in the saddle on long climbs, but they can tackle a descent with the confidence of a DH bike. Look for travel between 160mm and 180mm combined with either 29in wheels front and rear, or mullet set-ups (29in front, 27.5in rear). Big rotors are a must (200mm) and reinforced tyres with a soft compound up front. Chain guides get fitted for extra security and you may even find a few coil shocks on some models.
Actual one bike quiver
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, M/L, L, XL | Weight: 15.02kg (33.11lb) | Suspension travel: 170mm f/160mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: Fast, fun and efficient. Tight, reactive ride. Progressive geometry. Versatile, composed. A do-it-all bike
Cons: XL would benefit from a steeper seat angle
For an enduro bike with progressive geometry, the Trek Slash 9.8 XT is incredibly versatile. Get on the gas and it responds with a sense of urgency that’s usually reserved for shorter travel bikes. Land deep of a drop, or jump, however, and the rear suspension graces you with a featherlight landing. Cool and composed in every situation the Trek Slash is not the outright plushed bike we’ve ever tested, but the suspension response is always proportional and measured, so you never feel under or over-biked. It’s what makes the Slash the ideal choice for anyone looking for that one do-it-all ride.
Devours the roughest tracks yet climbs with poise and efficiency
Wheel size: 27.5, 29in or mullet | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL | Weight: 15.4kg | Suspension travel: 180mm f/170mm r | Rating: 10/10
Pros: All of the travel, none of the drawback.
Cons: Michelin tyres are temperature sensitive.
The Giga is testament to the adage that you can have your pudding and eat it. You can all of the all-ness all of the time. Loads of travel. Slack AF head angle. The biggest of wheel sizes. And the most remarkable thing? It rides just like a normal mountain bike when the gradient tips up. The Giga really is a race-worthy enduro bike that doesn’t feel like a chore to pedal around on your Sunday Social rides. Poppy and playful, the Giga is no passive plough.
Race-ready 29er enduro bike that blows the doors off everything else at this price point
Wheel size: 29in | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 15.75kg | Suspension travel: 170mm f/160mm r | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Neutral handling, killer build.
Cons: No low-speed adjuster on rear shock.
In the same vein as the Trek Slash or Yeti SB150, the Vitus Sommet CRS is a 29er enduro bike that is designed for big days in the saddle, not just sitting on your ass on a ski lift. And by simply swapping the sticky Maxxis MaxxGrip front tyre for a faster rolling MaxxTerra, it can easily serve double duty as a fast, efficient big-hitting trail bike. The fact that the complete bike costs less than the Yeti or Trek frame and weighs under 16kg, goes to show that you don’t need to sell your car to have a really nice bike.
Also worth considering:
- Specialized Enduro S-Works 29 review – money-no-object enduro perfection
- Whyte G-180 Works 29er V1 review – stability and calmness no matter the speed
What sort of riding are you going to do?
This can be a hard question to answer. But it’s vital to be honest with yourself before making the correct bike choice.
Equally, mountain bikes are now very capable and versatile machines. They can turn their hand to all sorts of riding. More so than ever these days in fact. You can go for a trail ride on an Enduro bike. You can ride enduro trails on a down-country/XC 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: Trail riding
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 120mm 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. As such, it makes sense to pay extra attention to the geometry.
Recommended mountain bike: hardtail or full-suspension with 120-140mm suspension.
Read the mbr review of the Nukeproof Reactor 290c Elite
Choosing the best mountain bike for: Cross-country riding
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.
Read the mbr review of the Specialized Epic Evo
Choosing the best mountain bike for: Enduro riding
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.
Read the mbr review of the Specialized Enduro Elite
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, with brands like Cotic and Starling leading the charge. Maybe things can get too stiff on a mountain bike? When this occurs, fatigue increases. Line choice becomes harder. 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 27.5in bikes and 29er bikes isn’t as pronounced as it was back in the mid ’00s.
Nowadays you can get 29ers with decent amount of suspension travel (up to 170mm – more for DH) and with decent geometry, so the wheel size debate has fizzled out. Some brands even offer two versions of each model, one with 27.5in wheels and one with 29in wheels, so you can just choose the option that suits you.
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.
27.5in 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 6in 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 there 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.
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 just over 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/maneuverable. 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 the wrong size 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. You should also check out our guide to choosing your mountain bike frame size. Once you’ve found what size the manufacturer (and us) 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.