Best Aggressive Quiver Killer
Yeti SB5.5 2017
Category — On the Trail end of the Enduro Spectrum
Smooths over the roughest rock gardens
Freight train fast
Aggressive enough for enduro, Efficient enough for trail
A lot to drive up smooth climbs
Takes the trail a tad too seriously
Our reigning king of challenging singletrack, the Yeti SB5.5
is exactly what we want an aggressive trail bike to be. It can tackle enduro races and
rally mountainsides as your daily driver. Armed with 140mm of Switch Infinity travel, the SB5.5
is stable and confident on descents, urging you to attack heavier lines. Unless you're shralping rough trails regularly, or want to be, the burly 160mm Fox 36 fork and 29 x 2.5" front tire might be overkill. If that's the case, consider the Santa Cruz Hightower LT
below. The SB5.5
is a pleasant pedaler and composed climber, but the front end is a lot to haul up smoother climbs. If you're benefiting from the aggressive setup though, it's worth the extra work.
Read Full Review: Yeti SB5.5 2017
Best Balanced Quiver Killer
Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
Category — On the Trail end of the Enduro Spectrum
Excellent and balanced performance
Confident inspiring and predictable descending skills
Efficient and composed climber
Requires precision on the most aggressive descents
Among our favorite bikes of all time, the 2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT
is a contender. Like the Yeti SB5.5
, it's efficient enough to take out every day but burly and speed-hungry enough to line up at an enduro race. While it requires finesse to work through big-line descents that the SB5.5
just rolls through, the Hightower LT
tackles downhill runs with confidence and composure. It's also a far better climber than the SB5.5
. For that reason, we prefer the Santa Cruz
for long days in the saddle. The lively pedal platform keeps you energized while cranking out the miles. You'll go out of your way to just keep riding the Hightower LT
Read the First Look: Hightower LT 2018
Aggressive and mid-travel trail bikes are well-rounded rides, perfect for attacking entire mountains.
Best Buy Aggressive Trail Bike
Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018
Category — Aggressive/Mid-Travel Trail
Shaken by enduro-grade terrain
The Rocky Mountain Altitude
is a spectacularly well-rounded aggressive trail bike. This aluminum framed fun-machine can motor uphill with the skills of a short travel trail bike. Rocky Mountain's
Smoothlink suspension design provides a superb pedaling platform allowing for the efficient use of rider energy. Downhill performance is stable and predictable. Modern, long and low
geometry makes the Altitude
formidable when aimed down steep descents. This bike gets a bit skittish when it is over its head on enduro-grade burly descents. On top of its superb skills on the trail, the Altitude Alloy 50
carries an impressive price tag making it an excellent value. $3399 buys you a Shimano XT 1x11 drivetrain, SLX brakes, Fox Transfer dropper post and Fox suspension front and rear. Wide rubber, dialed geometry, impressive components make the Rocky Mountain Altitude
a no-brainer for the budget conscious buyer.
Read First Look Review: Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018
Best Buy Mid-Travel Trail Bike
Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential
Category — Mid-Travel Trail
Shaken by bigger terrain features
The well-rounded Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential
is a great go-to bike for 90% percent of trails on any given mountain. It can handle all but the gnarliest descents. The Meta TR's
exact steering skills get you right to your line and hold it with category defining confidence. A solid pedal platform keeps you cranking, keeping your speed up to hunt down every sneaky sideline in sight. This bike is a blast. The Meta TR
also climbs much better than its bulky looks, stiff gearing, and substantial weight imply. Its narrow, 2.25-inch rear tire is our only cause for complaint. While the burliest terrain rattles the mid-travel ride, the Meta TR's
limits align with expectations for this travel range. It can tackle black diamond and even double-black terrain, but its confidence drops, and you'll need attentive line choices.
Read Full Review: Commencal Meta TR 2017
Short-travel trail bikes offer a lively feel.
Best Playful Trail Bike
Ibis Ripley LS 2018
at Competitive Cyclist
Category — Short-Travel Trail
Off-the-charts fun factor
Nimble, sporty and playful
Confident in most situations
Climbing skills aren't killer
Shaken in rougher terrain
The most playful bike we've tested, the Ibis Ripley LS
won our 2017 Trail Bike Review. The 2018 update doesn't disappoint with wider 29-inch tires providing velcro grip on the trails. Sharp handling and a lively trail feel will have you pushing this 120mm bike to the max. Careful, it rides bigger than such short travel would suggest thanks to those wagon wheels, but it's distractingly high fun levels can get you in over your head in a hurry. The Ripley LS
is surprisingly spritely for a 29er. It's also a surprisingly lackluster climber for such a short travel bike. We call it average on the uphill. Just sit and spin, the flats and descents are so very worth it.
Read Full Reviews: Ibis Ripley LS 2018
, Ibis Ripley LS 2017
Best All-Around Short-Travel Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
Category — Short-Travel Trail
Playful and fun to air
Corners like a champ
Takes hits above its weight class
Poor component spec
No dropper post
is a well-rounded 29er that doesn't suffer anywhere on trail. It climbs quickly and efficiently, corners easily and descends with more confidence than it's short-travel status suggests. While the Tallboy
can certainly take on some big lines, its 110mm of Virtual Pivot Point suspension and 120mm RockShox Recon Silver fork can only do so much. Your body takes more of a beating than it would on a longer travel bike. On the flip side, the Tallboy
is a lighter, faster climber than longer-legged rigs. The bright yellow party wagon is also more playful. If you find yourself on moderate trails or a lot of long climbs with the occasional hard-hitting descent, this may be the ride for you. The Tallboy's
lower price point means it comes with lower quality components. The high caliber frame design justifies the price, but you'll probably end up sinking money into a dropper seatpost, burlier back tire, and higher quality fork.
Read Full Review: Santa Cruz Tallboy 2017
Best Switch Bike
Pivot Mach 429 Trail 2017
at Competitive Cyclist
Category — Short-Travel Trail
Very capable trail bike
Fun with 27.5+ wheels, efficient as a 29er
Gets bounced around on its narrow 29" tires
Pay attention to the fit
With its 29-inch wheelset the Mach 429 Trail
is a straight-laced gunner that simply wants to get where it's going. Climbing better than any other bike in the Trail Bike test, it's efficiency stands out. The Mach 429 Trail
descends with more authority than you'd expect from a bike with 116mm of rear travel with sharp handling skills opening up line choices. On the downside, it's light enough to get bucked around in chop more than we'd like. Its narrow rims and tires don't help. As a 27.5+ ride, it's personality perks up. Extra traction makes the Mach 429 Trail
a more comfortable and aggressive descender. It launches easier than the 29er iteration. You get options with the Mach 429 Trail
, a cross-country feeling 29er or a confident 27.5+ trail bike with enhanced downhill performance.
Read Full Review: Pivot Mach 429 Trail 2017
Aggressive enduro bikes often take endurance to get up the hill but are a pure pleasure on the descent.
Best Enduro Descender
Santa Cruz Nomad 2016
Category — Heavy Enduro
Ridiculously confidence inspiring
Plays harder the faster you go
Excellent rear suspension
Not the best climber, but not bad
We reviewed the 2016 Santa Cruz Nomad V3
and it dominated our grueling downhill enduro tests. The Nomad V3
delivers more stability and grace under pressure than any other enduro bike we've tested. The faster you push the Nomad
, the more confident and playful it gets. It spins up smooth climbs easily enough and, with hard work, can bash through obstacles on technical climbs as well. The 2017 version got a burlier fork and tires on the same V3 frame, making it even more prone to slay descents. Our current review is relevant to the 2016 and 2017 V3 models. Santa Cruz released a redesign in early June 2017, the 2018 Nomad V4
. The V4
is a different beast. It's more gravity focused than ever, with 170mm of rear travel and an adjustable head tube angle that ranges from a laid back 65.0-degrees to a very slack 64.6.
Read Full Review: Santa Cruz Nomad 2016
Best Buy Enduro Descender
Commencal Meta AM 4.2 Essential
Category — Enduro
Impressive high-speed performance on enduro descents
Bumbling at slow speeds
Stability and confidence at speed come at a bargain in the Commencal Meta AM 4.2 Essential.
For $3,349 you get a shred-ready enduro beast with a RockShox Lyrik fork, SRAM Guide brakes, and a SRAM GX 1x11 drivetrain. Playful it is not, but if you get your fun from vanquishing massive rock gardens with a single point and shoot, you're going to be stoked on the Meta AM
. It is a pure-bred enduro sled, i.e. it can climb, but it doesn't love to. It can get up a hill spinning nice and slow on smooth terrain. Anything trickier or more hurried than that is a tedious and tiring process. This is not the bike for any climbing-intensive trail plans. Anyone willing to sacrifice climbing chops for that untouchable descent crushing high is in for a treat with this bike.
Read Full Review: Commencal Meta AM 2017
Hardtails get rowdy too.
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Category — Hardtail Trail
Ridiculous fun levels
Very confident bike
Excellent dropper seatpost
Feels too sluggish for long climbs
Annoying chain slap
is a warm welcome back to the hardtail category for our long-time riders. Hardtails have a suspension fork to cushion the front, but the rigid backend is harsh. The jarring feel teaches new riders to pick smoother lines and to absorb hits with soft knees and elbows, but it can beat you up and wear you out. The Fuse's
27.5 x 3" Specialized Purgatory and Ground Control plus-size tires take the edge off. They also offer infinite traction. The combination of mid-fat tires and the bike's balanced geometry keep it surprisingly stable and confidence inspiring on descents. While it pedals and handles well on the climbs, the extra traction makes it feel sluggish, despite performing well in our uphill time trials. We don't want to grind it uphill all day. Other than that, the three-inch tires don't weigh it down. It's a playful ride with a light feel. For your average after-work ride, the Fuse
is a low-maintenance dream bike.
Read Full Review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Some bikes are all-arounders and some specialize. Unless you want more than one, we recommend the former. Short-travel trail bikes do the job for mellow terrain, mid-travel trail bikes are the best everyday riders for chunky trails.
How to Buy a Mountain Bike
Buying a mountain bike is not straightforward. Terms like mid-travel, short-travel, and enduro are hurled around left and right. OutdoorGearLab is here to help you find the mountain bike that is right for you. Below, we explain bike categories and what type of riding works best for each. Once you've narrowed it down the kind of bike you want, consider things like wheel size (i.e., 26", 27.5", of 29"), tire size (i.e., 2.25" to 3") and whether you want to buy a complete bike or build your own. If you're female, or just like a range of color choices and smaller bike sizes, there's the whole women's bike
thing to consider. We walk you through those decisions as well.
Where do you want to ride?
Think about what type of terrain you spend the majority of your time riding, what kind of riding puts the biggest grin your face, and what kind of terrain you want to ride as you progress. Got it? Read on.
If you like long smooth climbs and don't care for comfort, you might like a Cross-Country Bike.
This probably isn't you. Folks interested in a cross-country bike are likely planning on racing and value pedaling and climbing speed over comfort and fun. Those who ride very smooth and buff trails might enjoy the outright efficiency of these bikes. If you like heading downhill where there may be rocks, a cross-country bike lacks the confidence to hit high speeds and charge descents without feeling under-gunned.
Hardtails are great for grab-n-go trail riding.
If you'd rather just get out and ride than attack steep or rough terrain regularly, check out the Hardtails.
Hardtail trail bikes are a great choice for the set-it- and-forget-it-crowd
. These bikes are simple and don't require the recommended annual service of a rear shock and suspension bearings and pivots. With trail-focused semi-aggressive geometry, a hardtail trail bike is perfectly capable of getting a little rad. Less experienced riders will gain valuable skills on these squish-less bikes that teach proper form. Since hardtails require less technology, they are typically less expensive than full suspension rigs. A lower price point makes hardtails an excellent option for passionate riders on a budget. Riders who prefer to attack steeper and rougher terrain with any regularity should look into a full-suspension bike.
Short-trail trail bikes soften rocky descents and are zippy climbers.
If you value variety, efficient climbing, and aren't hell-bent on slaying descents, a Short-Travel Trail Bike is a solid choice.
Short-travel bikes are practical for those looking for full-suspension confidence and comfort without sacrificing efficiency. Riders who like to pound out serious miles will feel comfortable aboard these short-legged steeds. Bicycles in this category would be an excellent option for those who ride flatter terrain or live in mountainous areas but don't want to push the envelope to get aggressive on the descents. Riders seeking a more well-rounded climbing/descending experience might be interested in pulling some more heft with a mid-travel bike.
Mid-travel trail bikes climb and descend big lines equally well. We like them.
If you do destroy descents but still value climbing skills, check out the MTB sweet spot known as Mid-Travel Trail.
These bikes are very well-rounded and provide strong performance in all areas. They balance climbing skills and descending capabilities beautifully to create ultimate versatility. Mid-travel bikes are just as comfortable making the occasional trip to the bike park as they are doing a 30-mile trail ride. These bikes are comfortable on the overwhelming majority of trails. This suspension range, 130-150mm, is a sweet spot for a wide range of riders. If you live in a primarily flat or smooth region, these bikes could prove to be overkill. If the highlight of each of your rides is flying down the super-gnar, you should look into an enduro/long-travel rig.
Enduro bikes are made for eating up descents and climbing well enough to get to the top of the next. They keep getting better at both.
If you bomb technical descents and climb just enough to the top, consider Long-Travel Trail or Enduro.
Long-travel or enduro bikes are awesome for those who don't mind carrying some extra bike around in the name of getting rowdy. These bikes are more downhill than uphill focused. While they pedal reasonably well, efficiency is not their best trait. Bike park, gnarly trail rides, shuttle laps, or cross-country rides, these bikes can do it all. Long travel or enduro bikes do require a lot more effort to pedal long distances, and you will not set any climbing records. Those looking find their way onto so freeride lines or park laps will be more than comfortable aboard these shred sleds.
How do you pick just one?
Making Sense of Mountain Bike Categories — Manufacturers produce thousands of mountain bike models each year globally. The industry organizes bike models into categories to keep them straight, identifying the riding style and terrain each bike is most suited for. It is important to note, you can ride any terrain on any bike, it is just a matter of how comfortable and confident that ride will be.
There is, of course, some crossover, but here are some of the most popular and consistent categories.
Cross-country Bikes — Stiff and brutally efficient. Cross-country bikes are either hardtails, meaning they have no rear suspension, or they have about 100mm of rear suspension. A low front end, steep geometry, and narrow tires prioritize pedaling and climbing skills over descending prowess.
Hardtail Trail Bikes — Simple, low maintenance, and speedy. These no-frills bikes do not have rear suspension but feature trail bike geometry. Hardtail trail bikes are relatively well-rounded but require some caution on the descents as they tend to be somewhat harsh. These are very efficient pedallers.
Short-Travel Trail Bikes — Squishy and speedy. Short-travel trail bikes feature about 110-130mm of rear wheel travel. These are comfortable bikes for long days in the saddle. Short-travel bikes emphasize retaining efficiency while still allowing riders to descend with full-suspension confidence.
Mid-Travel Trail Bikes — Multi-faceted and fun. These bikes are well rounded squishy bikes with approximately 130-150mm of travel. Mid-Travel bikes balance climbing and descending abilities well and make fantastic daily drivers.
Long-Travel Trail or Enduro Bikes — Aggressive with a focus on the descent. Enduro bikes feature 155-170mm of travel and have the ability to climb reasonably well. While climbing efficiency is decent, the focus is on high speed and rough downhills.
You might have a better idea of what type of bike you want, but what components do you want to come with it?
Once you know what know what kind of mountain bike you want, a few more decisions about components will help you narrow down the field considerably.
— Back in the day, MTB wheels were 26 inches. Now, 27.5-inch and 29-inch are far more common on the trail, and the 26-inch bike is all but dead. The benefit of bigger wheels is that they make trail features smaller by comparison. As a result, you can roll over more chunder with less effort. Bigger wheels are also faster and carry speed very well through chunky terrain. The argument for smaller wheels is that they are easier to maneuver and therefore, more fun. For a few short years, many riders thought 27.5-inch wheels were the sweet spot between rollover benefits of 29ers and tossability of 26-inch bikes. Modern frame geometry drastically improved the performance of 29ers, and now they're all the rage. Many frames now offer a few wheel and tire size options. It's still valuable to think through which on you want. We don't know anyone who regularly switches between wheelsets.
Tires connect your bike to the trail and have an enormous impact on performance.
Tire Size and Rim Width
tires are slowly getting wider over time, at the moment they tend to run 2.35-inches wide on most trail bikes. More aggressive bikes are now coming with 2.4, 2.5 or even 2.6-inch versions on wider rims. Wider tires offer tons of traction and a little softer ride but provide more resistance when heading uphill. Then, there are your plus-sized, or mid-fat, tires. These run from 2.8-inches to 3-inches. We like the 2.8-inch versions as they offer traction and
often give you defined cornering knobs to dig into turns. Three-inch tires give you plenty of grip, but a vague cornering feel due to smaller, more uniform knobs. Tires are easy to switch out. Rims are much pricier. It's a good idea to ask manufacturers or dealers what range of tires you can run on their rims.
Complete bike build kits vary considerably in price and quality.
Choosing a Complete Bike Build
- Frame. Aluminum v. Carbon is your first big decision point. Choosing an aluminum frame offers substantial cost savings. It's slightly heavier, flexes more easily, and is slightly weaker than carbon. If you're just trying to get out on your bike, aluminum is great. Consider carbon fiber if investing in your bike is a priority, and you plan on having it for an extended period. Carbon fiber ages better than aluminum.
- Shock. After that, pay attention to the fork and rear shock (if applicable). Higher end fork and shocks will be more adjustable to your weight, riding style, and personal preference.
A crisply shifting drivetrain is always a plus. This 1x example keeps things simple with a single chainring and no front derailleur.
- Drivetrain. It's important to note if the drivetrain has one (1x) or two chainrings (2x). Two chainrings require a front derailleur, meaning you have shifters on both sides of your handlebars. We like 1x better. It's easier to shift, simpler and less to destroy.
- Wheelset. Higher quality is better, but pay attention to the rim width, which can drastically alter how effective your tires are. Rims are getting wider along with tires, making traction plentiful and bikes more comfortable.
- Seatpost. We highly recommend a dropper seatpost. If you're not a convert already, it will change your game more than any other single shift. Sometimes it's worth jumping up to a higher quality complete build to get one and sometimes it makes more sense to get one separately.
Women can choose between any ole unisex mountain bike or some of the women's specific models offered today.
All mountain bikes are considered unisex, and, ladies, you can buy any bike you want. Many companies make women's specific bikes, Specialized and Trek are two big ones. Liv is Giant's women's brand. There are also a few women's specific companies, the most prominent of which is Juliana. Some of these bikes feature women's specific
geometry (i.e. Specialized and Liv), accounting for a lighter, shorter person with proportionally longer legs. We don't have any evidence that women's specific geometry is necessary. Other brands use the same geometry as the unisex bikes. Juliana, for example, uses the same exact frames as Santa Cruz. These bikes cater to women by downsizing the contact points
, i.e. smaller grips, shorter bars, shorter cranks, and a different saddle. Many brands claim the fork and rear shock features women's specific tuning. Most of the women we know ride unisex bikes. If a woman's bike appeals to you, go for it. Otherwise, the rest of them work as well.
Minimal assembly required. Slap on the wheels and the handlebars, maybe run it past a mechanic if you're new to wrenching, and start rolling.
Consumer Direct or Local Bike Shop
More bike manufacturers are offering their products directly to the consumer than ever before using that ultimate storefront real estate, the world-wide-web. Cutting out the middle-man, i.e. the bike shop, offers serious savings, resulting in truly unheard of component quality on low-cost complete bikes. Of course, that doesn't guarantee that you're getting a quality frame. Check out our Consumer Direct Mountain Bike Review, to find out which rise above the rest
and how they compare to the higher-end offerings.
Convenience and savings come at the cost of the camaraderie and support offered by your local bike shop. Buying a mountain bike from Joe Sproket down the street includes the price of a bike expert retainer. Quick repairs, component suggestions, warranties, etc. — Mr. Sproket is liable to help you out.
More bikes mean more specific talents and more to maintain.
How Many Bikes Do you Need
Not many of us enjoy the luxury of having multiple bikes to tackle each trail with a precision weapon. That's why we emphasize short, and mid-travel trail bikes as the do it all
bikes for the masses. They are efficient enough on long rides and composed enough headed downhill that they can comfortably handle the majority of terrain you ride regularly. Short-travel just skews climbing and mid-travel balances up and downhill more equally. You can always rent a longer travel ride for a day at the bike park.
No matter what bike you ride, you'll probably love it enough to get a portrait taken.
This article should give you a good idea of the type of bike that will best suit you and your favorite trails. It should also help you think through some of the big secondary decisions to narrow your search. After that primer, look back at the descriptions of our editors' choice for each of the categories. These bikes are our favorites of the 100 that we researched and 21 that we tested. They're a good place to start. Then, read about how each bike rides according to our team of professional testers. We're continually researching, purchasing and testing new rides to help with your MTB search. We know this is a big purchase decision, and we want to make it easier so you can get out on the trails and to the goods.