Updated: Mar 16, 2019
In this buyers guide we go into what you get for you money at different price points. We 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 buy 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, 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 buruly 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 MTB 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: 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, steek 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 29er's 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.
See for yourself.
£500 to £1,000
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 handlebars.
£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!
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