With the huge variety of mountain bikes these days – including subcategories of subcategories – the once very simple process of buying a mountain bike can now be a bit daunting, even for seasoned vets.
How much travel do you want? What width tires? Full suspension, hardtail or full rigid? XC, Trail or Enduro? Over the years, different categories of MTBs have evolved as rider preferences change, more locations open, and of course technology explodes. The first major advancement was suspension, then came disc brakes and later 27” and 29” wheels, and now Fat and Plus-size bikes.
There’s a lot to know when buying a new mountain bike. But don’t fret – we’ve laid down the basic and specifics to help you choose the best rig for you, including which bikes excel in specific situations, what you’ll get from an investment-grade bike, and which bikes standout in different price ranges.
Brands evaluated by Active Junky
- Rocky Mountain
Types of Mountain Bikes
These days there are quite literally enough bike categories to ride a different type of terrain on a purpose-built machine every day of the week. But most folks can’t swing that financial commitment and will only be able to buy one mountain bike – two if they’re lucky. The key to buying the right bike is knowing primarily how and where you’ll ride, or more specifically, which category bike you’ll want.
The major categories are based mainly on length of travel and geometry: Cross Country (XC); Trail (XC/Trail or All Mountain); and Enduro. Of course there is a wide range of subcategories – different suspension options, wheel/tire widths, etc. – within the three major categories, as well as a huge range in price point.
Cross Country Mountain Bikes
XC bikes are generally lighter with shorter travel, usually between 100mm and 120mm, and can be full rigid, hardtail (front suspension only) or full suspension. These days, they’re almost always 29ers. They also generally feature stiffer frames with a more “aggressive,” or forward, geometry and are best for riding faster speeds on smoother trails and railing sharp corners. They excel at climbing all but the nastiest technical routes, but are a bit more “tippy” (prone to “endos”) and don’t have enough suspension for serious technical descents.
Trail & All-Mountain Bikes
Trail bikes tend to run a bit heavier with a slacker geometry, and are usually full suspension, with between 130mm and 160mm of travel front and rear – although a new breed of hardtail Trail bikes is gaining popularity. Most now offer 27.5” wheels although some 29ers still exist. These offer a combination of the speed traits of the XC bikes with the descending abilities of Enduro, and are excellent all-around bikes for a wide variety of terrain.
Enduro Moutain Bikes
Enduro bikes – named after the recently booming style of races that go up a mountain and then fly back down – are almost exclusively 27.5” wheels, and usually 160mm-180mm of full suspension with very relaxed geometries. Enduro can still go uphill relatively well, but descending is decidedly smoother and faster than the other two categories.
By far the biggest thing in the industry in the past couple of years is “Plus Size” bikes – these are generally Trail- and Enduro-oriented bikes with 27.5” wheels, and they’re capable of handling tires up to 3” wide and more, adding cushion and traction to the rig, and making it more rideable in snow and sand. We’ve included a few in this guide as we feel these are more versatile and enjoyable for a wide range of riders. And unlike many industry “trends,” we feel strongly that Plus Size bikes are here to stay.
Editor’s Note: In the MTB category, there are also electric and Downhill options, but we won’t cover those in this guide.
How We Tested
Five Questions to Ask Yourself
As explained above, picking the right mountain bike can be a daunting task. Here are five questions to ask yourself to help narrow down the options to make an education decision and a solid MTB selection.
Question #1: Do I really need to spend $5,000 or more on a high-end bike?
Just because a bike costs more and/or features the latest kick-ass tech does not mean it’s the right fit for you. In fact, we find some of the lower-end models last longer and can be easier to work on than premium models.
Question #2: Will I really get what I pay for?
In general, a bike is as good as its components and frame, and the more you spend the better they are. And because components are generally from third parties and not from the bike’s brand, you can certainly find bargains with the same or similar parts.
Question #3: Where and how will I be riding?
Your bike choice should depend almost entirely on the precise type of riding you’ll be doing. Be realistic about how far, often and aggressively you’ll ride, and on what type of trails and terrain. If you never get within 10 miles of an XC race, there’s absolutely no reason to shell out $10,000 for a top-end racing bike, or if you mostly take a lift up the hill so you can completely shred the descent, you need a bike with suspension and build that can handle the rigors of big hits and rock gardens, regardless of weight.
Question #4: How do I choose which tire/wheel is best for me?
In general, taller thinner 29” wheels/tires are faster at speed and roll over obstacles easier thanks to their lower entry-angle. However, they can add weight, raise a rider’s center of gravity, and may not be as strong as smaller wheels. 27.5” wheels come in two widths – standard and Plus – and both are common on Trail and Enduro bikes. Narrower wheels/tires will be faster than Plus in flat and smoother terrain, but wider ones have much better traction, which is especially critical on loose gravelly terrain, wet rocks, mud and any descents.
Question #5: Technology changes so fast – how do I know my bike won’t be obsolete in a year?
The reality is you don’t! But you can certainly narrow your odds. Do the research on some bike websites to see what the latest tech trends are, and ask at local shops. Most of what’s out there now will be around a while. If there is a new trend, like Plus size tires recently, ask the shop workers if they think it’s here to stay. And as a general rule, we’d suggest staying away from truly radical technology until it’s been around a year or two.
Three Purchasing Mistakes
#1. Buying the wrong size bike: If this is your first MTB-style bike, let the professional at the dealer suggest – and confirm – the best size.
#2. Buying the wrong style bike: With all the styles available, it’s easy to buy the wrong one, so make sure the type of bike best fits your true riding style and your usual trails before purchasing.
#3. Spending too much (or too little): It’s easy to get sucked in by a ridiculously low price tag or to want the fanciest, sexiest bike in the shop. Most people don’t need, and in fact can’t handle, a top-end bike; and the least expensive bike in the shop may quickly become obsolete as soon as you improve and/or up your miles.
While all five of the following characteristics were respectable in every bike selected for this guide, each product displayed a singular strength, noted in their review. As such, the quintet of attributes considered covered everything except value: Active Junky considers around $6,000 and above as top end, with $800 normally a minimum for suitable quality.
Stiffness & Efficiency
The stiffer and stronger a frame is in the fork/headtube conjunction and the bottom bracket/rear triangle area, the quicker accelerating and better handling it will usually be. However, it can also mean a harsher ride.
Ride quality means how much ruggedness of terrain can be felt and overall ride comfort. Along with suspension, the frame’s tubing, geometry and wheelset dictate how comfortably a bike rides. Just because a bike has full suspension doesn’t necessarily mean it offers a strong ride quality, and vice versa.
A bike’s components – drivetrain, wheels, brakes, bars and seatpost – are a major player in the overall performance, and since most are provided by third parties, these often help dictate the value of the bike. To wit, an outstanding frame can be rendered sub-standard with lousy components.
Less weight means easier maneuverability and less effort, but weight is not always a good overall indicator of a bike’s performance or value. Often the same things that help keep weight down can also diminish durability and/or functionality.
While we can’t ride these bikes long enough to determine this on specific models, we’ve ridden enough of each brand to make a pretty good prediction. And it’s safe to say that these bikes will generally outlast their riders’ tastes and/or motivation.