The results are in!
We’ve rounded up the best hardtail mountain bikes at £350, £500, £750 and £1,000, read on to find out who came out on top in the definitive test.
Hardtail of the Year is by far the biggest and most important test in the mbr calendar. And for 2019 we’ve made it bigger and better than ever.
By expanded the test down to include a new £350 price point, we have increased the number of bikes by a whopping 25 per cent. So instead of 18 hardtails we now have 24, covering the key £350, £500, £750 and £1k categories and making this the biggest test we have ever undertaken.
If you’ve been following this test over the years, you’ll know that we’ve traditionally said that £500 really is the minimum spend for a proper mountain bike; one that’s capable of withstanding the rigours of off road riding, while making it a fun, enjoyable experience.
Why the sudden change of heart? With all of the bikes getting better every year, we wanted to test the water and our theory, so that’s why we added six sub £350 bikes into the mix. Hopefully we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew.
Now, if you’re thinking, how does one person test 24 bikes? The simple answer is, they don’t. We have four testers, with over 60 years of combined experience, putting these bikes though their paces, one tester dedicated to each price point. This way we can maintain the same exacting testing standards that we would for any other bike test. The one caveat being, we don’t fit our own control tyres to these bikes.
HOTY really is four separate tests in one bumper issue, this also explains why we have four individual winners, one for each price point. After all, it just wouldn’t be fair to compare a £350 bike with one costing almost three times as much money.
And even though this is billed as our Hardtail of the Year test, you’ll notice a distinct lack of high-end hardtails, of which there are plenty. And it’s deliberate, because once you start spending over £1k on a mountain bike, the advantages of full suspension really come into their own, so we switch our focus to finding the best full sussers instead.
We have 24 hardtails, split evenly across four distinct price points, £350, £500, £750 and £1,000, the only stipulation for being that the bikes can’t cost more than the celling price in each category.
Where possible we’ve tried to compare apples with apples, which was made that much easier this year by the growing trend for fatter 2.6in and 2.8in tyres in the sub £1,000 class. Bigger 29in wheels with improved roll over also dominate the in the sub £750 category. Once you get down to the £350 and £500 bikes however, you find a much bigger mix of wheel sizes and attitudes, and it’s in these two categories where the advantageous pricing of sales direct brands really makes a big difference to the end result.
And it’s the end result that we are ultimately interested in. But the reason we make such a big deal about this test isn’t the sheer volume of bikes, it’s that these humble hardtails could be the first step for many on the amazing journey that is mountain biking. People, places, product and passion, mountain biking has it all, and the winning bikes in this test are guaranteed to set you off down the correct trail so you never have to look back. So let’s dive straight in.
You can read all the reviews in the new issue of mbr – on sale now!
Best hardtail mountain bikes: winners
Best hardtail mountain bike under £350
Calibre Two Cubed, £350.00
At £350 the Two Cubed is unbeatable, it has the best sizing and geometry of any bike here, and comes in three usable sizes so most riders should be able to get the right fit. The bike encourages you to push your luck on the trails, ride faster and have more fun, knowing the Two Cubed has the geometry, suspension and components to back you up.
This bike looks like a more expensive bike too, and there lies the rub — it actually is.
Calibre has discounted it for its launch and is currently holding the price down for about a week extra to let mbr readers snap up the deal. If you want it, don’t wait, get it now before it goes up by £50.
Best hardtail mountain bike under £500
Vitus Nucleus 275VR, £499.99
As four-time winner of our sub £500 Hardtail of the Year award, the Nucleus 275 VR has singlehandedly changed our expectations of what’s possible at this price point.
Nothing needs changing or upgrading straight out of the box, which is exactly how it arrives.
But make no mistake, this isn’t just the best value bike here, it’s also by far the best performer. So much so, that in all of our back-to-back testing the Vitus always felt like it was in a class of its own. So to say that it’s simply standout, is something of an understatement.
Best hardtail mountain bike under £750
Voodoo Bizango 29, £650.00
Making a really good hardtail is not hard because they’ve been around for ever. The difficult bit, at this level, is trying to build the best bike you can with a limited budget. The Bizango is a great bike because Voodoo is essentially a direct sales brand, which means it has a bit more budget to play with. That’s has been spent wisely but it doesn’t cost anything to weld the tubes in a different place and Voodoo nailed that too. The Bizango is the best shape, has the best spec, and the best price. If you’re looking for a £650 hardtail this is it, end of.
Best hardtail mountain bike under £1,000
Vitus Sentier 27VR, £999.99
You can only buy this bike direct from Chain Reaction Cycles or Wiggle. This means a massive cost saving for the suppliers and it’s evident in build kit. The only downside is you can’t try before you buy at your local bike shop — so you’ll just have to trust us when we say that you’ll love it.
It’s a playful bike that really wants to rip; it makes you want to stoppie into turns and pull wheelies on the way out. It’s a whole load of fun. Just upgrade those rotors for the winter and you’ve got a do-it-all bike that will do it all year long.
Best hardtail mountain bike test bikes
Calibre Two Cubed, £350.00 – WINNER
Carrera Vulcan, £350.00
Giant ATX 2, £365.00
GT Aggressor Sport, £349.99
Norco Storm 3, £350.00
Saracen Tufftrax, £374.99
Vitus Nucleaus 275VR, £499.99 – WINNER
KTM Chicago Classic, £499.99
Specialized Pitch Sport, £500.00
Trek Marlin 6, £499.99
Calibre Rake, £450.00
Pinnacle Kapur 2, £475.00
Voodo Bizango 29, £650.00 – WINNER
Cannondale Trail 5, £699.99
Kona Mahuna, £749.00
Saracen Zenith pro, £699.99
Scott Aspect 930, £699.99
Trek Roscoe 6, £675.00
Vitus Sentier 27VR, £999.00 – WINNER
Merida Big Trail, £1,000.00
Decathlon Rockrider AM 100 HT, £949.99
Sonder Transmitter NX1 Recon, £999.00
Ragley Marley 2.0, £999.99
Nukeproof Scout 275 Sport, £999.99
Advice on where to buy, how to set up and where to ride your new hardtail
You’ve read the reviews, studied the specs and feel ready to hand over your hard-earned cash on the new bike of your dreams. But do you buy online, walk into a shop or click and collect? How do you choose the right frame size? How do you set up your suspension? What about tyre pressures and saddle height? And where are the best places to ride? The answers to all these questions and more can be found right here.
Where to buy?
- Good bike shops will hold your hand throughout the process and offer all the advice and after-sales support you need if anything goes wrong. Try and choose a mountain bike specialist; one with passionate staff that ride regularly. Often these shops are situated close to the best riding spots.
- Go armed with a shortlist of models, and try and visit during the week, when it’s quieter, if you want to really pick the brains of the staff.
- Ask to test ride the bikes if you can (take ID just in case).
- If you decide to buy, don’t be afraid to ask if you can substitute things like tyres and stems – a good shop may just charge you the difference in price.
- Usually a shop will give you a first free service, too, after a few weeks. This will include checking the gears and brakes once they’ve bedded-in, and lubing the chain. It’s also a good opportunity to ask any questions you have about set-up.
- Find out how much delivery costs – it’s free from Vitus and Sonder, but some brands, such as Canyon, charge.
- Be sure to read the terms and conditions before you buy. These will spell out what happens if you buy the wrong size, or something is faulty on the bike. Expect to pay the cost of shipping the bike back to the manufacturer if anything goes wrong – check the FAQs.
- Decide whether you are confident enough to assemble the bike yourself. It’s not complicated, but you’ll need basic tools and mechanical competence. If not, a good bike shop will do it for you, but expect to pay around £50 for this job.
- You probably won’t be able to see the bike in the flesh, let alone sit on it or test ride it, so triple-check what size you need. Email the brand to check, or search forums for any owner recommendations. When it arrives, ask yourself does the cockpit feel roomy enough? Is the standover height good enough to lean the bike over in a corner? Is the seatpost and saddle in the right place? If the worst comes to the worst, you can usually send it back, unused, for a different size, but check this is the case. For reference, all of our test riders are 5ft10in-5ft11in, and we’ve listed the frame size tested in the spec panel.
- When the bike arrives, make sure the box looks undamaged.
- For sizing advice, read below…
How to choose the right size
Bike manufacturers use seat tube length to denote frame sizes. These can be in inches, or use descriptive terms like Small, Medium and Large. The problem is, there’s no standardised sizing tool, so one brand’s medium can be the same as another’s large.
Mountain biking is a dynamic sport, and you’ll be moving around the bike a lot when you’re riding. It follows, then, that you want plenty of clearance over the top tube when you’re standing astride the bike (called ‘standover’ height, and around three inches is a good starting point) but enough length between the seat and the handlebars that you don’t feel too cramped when sitting down and climbing.
Be careful with online size calculators. They’re not always that accurate. If in doubt, we’d recommend you go for the largest size you can get away with that still provides adequate standover clearance.
Inflate your tyres
Ignore the recommended pressures printed on the sidewalls and aim for around 28psi front and 30psi rear – adjusting either way by a few psi if you weigh more or less than 75kg. Wide tyres can be run slightly softer than narrower ones, too – as low as 15psi for a 2.8in model. Either way, too hard and they’ll be harsh and offer little grip; too soft and you’ll be more prone to pinch flats and you may even roll the tyre clean off the rim.
Adjust your controls
Disc brakes are so powerful you should only need to use one finger to slow down. Loosen the clamps and slide the levers away from the grips until your index finger rests right at the end of the lever blade. This gives you the most leverage and the most secure grip on the bars. Now slide your shifters against the brake clamps to make them accessible. Your brake levers should be angled in line with your arms – don’t rotate them to point straight down.
Optimise your position
Firstly, it’s critical you get the saddle height sorted for seated pedalling. As a rule of thumb, your leg should be straight, with your heel on the pedal and the crankarm in line with your extended leg. This allows for a slight bend in the knee when you place the ball of your foot on the pedal at your maximum saddle height. For technical singletrack climbs, drop your saddle by 1-2cm to make balancing on the bike much easier. Slam the saddle all the way down for descending, and for the next step; setting your suspension…
Set-up your fork
Don’t get distracted by handlebar lockouts as they aren’t much use off-road. Instead, focus on setting your sag correctly. With an air-sprung fork – common above £600 and found on all the winning bikes – start by using the recommendations printed on the leg. RockShox and Manitou have them, but not Suntour. You’ll need a shock pump to do this (around £20). If it has a lock out, check it’s in the open position first. Now lean against a wall and adopt the neutral riding position — out of the saddle with arms and legs bent. Bounce up and down on the fork and let it settle to the sagged position. The sag is how much the suspension compresses under your weight. Start with 20 to 25 per cent of the fork’s travel — so, if you fork has 100mm of travel, it should compress by 20-25mm. Use the rubber O-ring or a zip tie on the leg to measure this. Be sure to set the sag in your full riding kit, with backpack and water included.
Set your bar height
Finally, adjust your stem height. Raising your stem will give you more confidence on the descents, by making it much easier to shift your weight rearward. Too high, however, and you won’t have enough weight on the front tyre for grip on flat corners. It’s worth noting that stem height is closely related to fork set-up, as a combination of both will determine the height of the handlebar.
There are two main sizes of wheel on the market. They are 29in and 27.5in. So what are the pros and cons of each?
27.5in – The most popular wheel size. Doesn’t roll as fast as 29in, but easy to turn and accelerate. Generally stronger and lighter than big wheels too. Paired with big volume tyres (2.5in and upwards) you get a more comfortable ride and improved grip.
29in – Rolls fast, more stable at speed and less interrupted by bumps, which makes them great on a hardtail, so long as the geometry is right. Wheels can be weaker and heavier though.