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Best mountain bikes 2018: Get out on the trails with our pick of the best trail-focused MTBs

Fancy heading offroad to tackle paths, mud and rock-strewn trails? Then find your perfect ride with our buying guide and bite-size reviews

Few things beat mucking around on bikes in the woods. But if you’re keen to get off-road for the first time, or dipping back in after a bit of time off the bike, the range of options now available can be dizzying. With bikes catering for multiple disciplines, from light, speedy cross country steeds all the way through to ultra-burly downhill rigs, and each available with a range of different wheel sizes, it pays to do some research before reaching for the credit card. Read on and we’ll explain the key things you need to look out for, followed by bite-size reviews of our top off-road recommendations.

How to buy the best mountain bike for you

What kind of MTB should I buy?

With the huge array of specialist bikes on the market, we reckon the best place to start is the most versatile do-it-all member of the MTB family, the trail bike. This breed of MTB is equally at home whizzing around the local park, slogging around your nearest trail centre or flying down a high alpine path, so they make the perfect introduction to the sport.

Just because a trail bike is something of a do-it-all option doesn’t mean that they’re just for beginners, though. Even affordable bikes are massively improved from those available just a decade ago, and are perfect for exploring more technical, tricky trails as your skills progress. Bigger, smoother-rolling wheels, more powerful braking, lighter weight, more efficient suspension, wider gearing and greater durability all combine to give you the confidence to take on terrain and distances previously unimaginable.

How much do I need to spend?

While you can buy a decent starter mountain bike and get out onto the trails from as little as £500, these machines can stall as the going gets rougher – and you’ll find that the components simply won’t survive the abuse which UK trails can dish out. Once you factor in the cost of a decent frame, good-quality components and an effective suspension fork, you’re looking at a bare minimum of around £800.

We’d still recommend budgeting to spend around £1,000 or so – you can spend less, but if you want a good quality Shimano or SRAM groupset that will handle the rough and tough of UK riding (something we’ll discuss in more detail a little further down the page), a suspension fork that won’t prove out of its depth the moment the trail heads south, and the kind of ride quality that will prove capable enough off-road to allow you to progress to tougher trails as your skills improve, then this is a sensible ballpark figure.

What size wheels should I go for?

One of the biggest developments in the mountain bike world in recent years is the proliferation of different wheel sizes. Up until fairly recently, almost all mountain bikes used 26in diameter wheels, but these have now been all but consigned to the scrap heap in favour of two new standards: 27.5in (also known as 650b) and 29in.

Whichever you choose, the larger diameter wheels roll more easily over uneven terrain than the old 26in standard, and don’t find themselves as easily bogged down in rockier terrain. For out and out straight-line speed, 29in wheels tend to take the lead, not least as the bigger wheels retain speed better over rough terrain, whereas 27.5in hoops mark a useful middle-ground between the quick-turning agility of their 26in predecessors and the speedier 29in generation. It’s also worth noting that some manufacturers employ 27.5in wheels on the smaller-sized bikes, as they make it easier for manufacturers to design compact frames for riders of a shorter stature.

Want the best of both worlds? Then it’s worth considering the latest breed of 27.5 Plus bikes. These combine the 27.5in standard with huge 3in tyres for improved grip and rock-swallowing prowess. Best of all, bikes that use the standard also often allow you to swap out the stock wheels for 29in ones, so investing in a second pair of wheels can allow you to turn one bike from a 29er speed-demon into a 27.5+ trail monster in a matter of minutes.

Do I need both front and rear suspension?

The next big question is whether to go for a full suspension bike, which has shocks front and rear, or a hardtail which is only equipped with front suspension.

The benefit of suspension is that it insulates the rider from lumps in the terrain and helps keep the tyres in contact with the ground when the going gets tough. This makes it possible to go faster over rough terrain, while improving control, safety, and grip. It also means you’ll get less fatigued when tackling challenging terrain, as your arms and legs won’t get pummelled by every lump and bump.

There’s a lot to be said for beginners learning aboard a hardtail, and then progressing to a full suspension bike once they’ve got the hang of things – full suspension bikes are fantastic fun, but the ability to plough through rough terrain without learning the proper technique can drum in some bad habits. Hardtails force you to absorb impacts with your legs and arms, and to use your body weight to ease the bike around obstacles in the trail, which is invaluable when it comes to tackling the toughest, steepest trails.

Full suspension bikes are designed to tackle trickier trails, and will make it far easier and less fatiguing to spend all day clattering along rock-strewn trails. However, the addition of rear suspension does come with a weight penalty, and in addition to being more expensive in the first place, they also cost more to maintain. With suspension manufacturers such as Fox suggesting yearly service intervals – or every 100 hours of riding – as a bare minimum, and a service costing around £100 per shock or more, the running costs aren’t to be sniffed at.

If you decide to go for a full suspension bike, bear in mind that it will take time and effort to find the right suspension settings for your weight and your style of riding before a bike can perform to its full potential. This can be something of a dark art, so prepare to to spend some time learning to get it right.

Which features should I look out for?

One of the most important things to consider, is which groupset a bike comes with. The groupset is the collection of parts that transmit your pedalling input to the wheels and bring you to a halt – this includes the cranks, chain, cassette, derailleurs, shifter and brakes. The two principal manufacturers of MTB groupsets are Shimano and SRAM, and while both have their own way of doing things – not to mention ardent fans loyal to each camp – they both produce a wide range of group sets from affordable entry-level kit, right up to the cutting-edge technology you’ll find adorning the bikes of professional racers. Spend more, and you’ll get lighter, higher performance gear that gives smoother gear shifting and more powerful braking, but don’t feel that you need to spend a fortune – performance is so refined these days that even the lowliest groupset from both manufacturers is more than good enough for most riders.

Do I want as many gears as possible?

No, it’s the range of those gears that’s more important for off-road riding. A recent trend is that most mountain bikes have largely switched from using two or three chainrings at the front to using a single front chainring. This might sound like a retrograde step, but it’s not. Although single-ring bikes are currently limited to having 11 gears (12 with the very latest, super-expensive SRAM groupsets), the cassette (the cluster of cogs on the rear wheel) has everything from a tiny 11 tooth cog to a plate-sized 42 tooth cog, so you still get a similar range of gears to the previous generation of bikes equipped with double and triple chainsets.

The added benefit of a single chainring up front is that manufacturers can design frames which can accommodate larger wheels and tyres, and it makes for a far simpler, more robust setup which is less prone to getting damaged, clogged with mud, or require servicing to function correctly.

After the groupset come the components. The contact points like the bar and saddle have a big effect on comfort and control, and it’s well worth changing these if they don’t suit your hands, or your behind. Another key decision to make is whether you want to stick with flat pedals, or try riding clipped-in with a pair of clipless pedals – both have their fans, and upsides and downsides, but beginners would be advised to gain confidence on flat pedals before going the clipless route.

Then there are handy extras such as dropper posts. These extendable seatposts allow you to have the saddle at the perfect height for pedalling along the flat, or uphill, but then drop the saddle down out of the way with a press of a button on the handlebar, which makes it much easier to descend through difficult, steep terrain without the saddle catching your shorts or getting in the way.

Do I need to buy a ‘women’s specific’ model?

Some brands and designers will tell you women need specifically designed bikes, but by and large this is just marketing. Women’s bikes do come in smaller sizes which can come in handy if you’re on the shorter side – and it is well worth investing in a saddle specifically designed for a woman’s derriere – but otherwise there’s no reason to restrict yourself solely to bikes which proclaim to be designed with female-friendly geometry in mind. As long as you choose the right size frame for you, it’s possible to dial in the perfect fit with different lengths of stem and handlebar widths.

The best mountain bikes to buy

The best full suspension MTBs

Calibre Bossnut Evo: The best full-suspension MTB under £1,500

Price: £1,300 | Buy now from Go Outdoors

The Bossnut isn’t just the cheapest full suspension bike we’d be happy to recommend, it’s a fantastic bike in its own right. Up for absolutely anything you can throw at it, whether that’s getting loose around flat-out corners, soaring off man-sized drops or piloting through rock-strewn trails, it’s a lot of bicycle for very little money.

This updated ‘Evo’ model improves on an already brilliant bike, improving the fork, upgrading the groupset, adding routing for a dropper post, and broadening the bars for even surer handling. The Rockshox Recon RL fork and Monarch R rear shock to provide 130mm of plush-feeling suspension action, and the fork’s 15mm bolt-through axle keeps the front of the bike tracking smoothly even when the trail gets rough.

The aggressive, yet fast rolling WTB tyre combo are mounted onto matching WTB tubeless ready rims so you can upgrade to a puncture-defying tubeless setup when funds allow, and the reliable 1×11 Sram Nx drivetrain provides a huge range of gear ratios, while the clutch derailleur stops the chain slipping and slapping on rockier trails.

Grab a Go Outdoors card, and you can pick it up for a bargain £999.99 – we simply couldn’t ask for more bike for the cash.

Buy now from Go Outdoors

Key specs – Wheel size: 27.5in; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 130mm (front and rear); Gearing: Sram Nx 1×11-speed; Additional features: Tubeless ready wheels

Boardman MTR 8.9: The best sub-£2,000 trail-centre slayer

Price: £1,600 | Buy now from Halfords

Chris Boardman is known as ‘The Professor’ for his analytical approach to bicycle design, but with the MTR 8.9 he’s gone nutty. Great quality suspension front and rear, a slack head angle for smashing through challenging trails, and super-modern 1×11 drivetrain add up to an frenetic and playful bike. It’s a bit of a looker, too. 

Ideally suited to racing around one of the UK’s many trail centres, the Boardman is gravity-focused, yet won’t hold you back too much on the climbs thanks to the short stem and medium width bars. With boost-spec 148mm hubs, a single chainring drivetrain, and puncture-thwarting tubeless tyres the MTR doesn’t lack for much in terms of technology. This is doubly impressive given its moderate £1,600 price tag. That said, our one grumble is the lack of a dropper post: at around £100-200, it’d be the first upgrade we’d make.

Buy now from Halfords

Key specs – Wheel size: 27.5in; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 140mm; Gearing: Sram Nx 1×11-speed; Additional features: Tubeless ready wheels

Canyon Spectral AL 6.0: A stunning all-round trail bike

Price: £2,299 | Buy now from Canyon

What comes up must go down, and the Spectral is a supremely capable descender that also happens to be a real rocket once the trail points skywards. The beefy and ultra-capable Rockshox Pike RC fork provides 150mm of travel up front, which is matched by a slightly more modest 140mm of travel at the rear.

It’s when the going gets tough that the Canyon’s supremely stiff fork and frame come into their own, however. Point the Spectral through rock gardens and it just presses on through, the shocks soaking up the abuse, and the short stem and wide bars make it easy to keep it ploughing in the right direction.

This year Canyon has gone big on the tyres, joining the plus-size trend in search of increased traction and smoother rolling. Its huge 2.6-inch wide Maxxis Minion provides outrageous grip up front while the fast-rolling, semi-slick Rekon on the back ensures that flat sections and uphills don’t prove too much of a drag. SRAM’s top-flight 12-speed Eagle groupset features sprockets ranging between 10 to 50t, ensuring you can conquer any climb, while the Kind Shock Lev Si dropper seatpost ensures the saddle is always exactly where you need it.

As ever, Canyon has created a stunning package for sensible money.

Buy now from Canyon

Key specs – Wheel size: 27.5+; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 150mm (front), 140mm (rear); Gearing: SRAM Eagle 1×12-speed; Additional features: Dropper post

Specialized Stumpjumper Expert: The best all-round carbon MTB

Price: £5,000 | Buy now from Evans Cycles

One of the bike world’s longest serving models, Specialized’s Stumpjumper has come a long way since the first steel model rolled out of the factory in 1981. Now, in 2018, it’s evolved around a high-spec asymmetric carbon chassis with a full-throated 150mm of travel front and rear.

Standout features on the frame include its ‘Flip Chip’ design which lets you quickly adjust the bike’s geometry and a ‘Swat box’ that allows you to store small tools and essentials within the downtube. Available with either smaller 27.5” wheels and plus-size tyres, or conventional width rubber on larger 29” hoops, the two versions of the Stuntjumper are otherwise identical.

With a premium price, you’d expect premium kit. Specialized doesn’t disappoint. Having since ditched their own proprietary shock designs, Rockshox’s Pike RC fork and Deluxe RT3 shock at the rear suck up the trail chatter, and the carbon wheels keep things light, strong and fast-rolling. No one is likely to complain about SRAM’s GX Eagle 1×12 speed drivetrain, either, which uses a single chainring, yet provides a massive 500% gear range. Very modern, very tough, very versatile. If you can stomach the cost the Stumpjumper is a belter.

Buy now from Evans Cycles

Key specs – Wheel size: 29in; Frame material: Carbon; Suspension travel: 150mm; Gearing: SRAM GX Eagle 1×12-speed; Additional features: Dropper post

The best hardtail MTBs to buy

Marin Nail Trail 7: A brilliant trail-focused hardtail

Price: £1,600 – Buy now from Tredz

Marin has put together a superb trail-focused hardtail with the Nail Trail. Interestingly, the smallest frame size is equipped with 27.5in wheels, the medium frame gives you the choice between 27.5in and 29in wheels, and the larger frame sizes all opt for the faster-rolling 29er format.

Whichever size suits your stature best, however, RockShox’s stocky Revelation RC fork provides 120mm of travel, which is more than enough to handle most UK trails, yet never feels too much when pedalling on the flat or cranking up steeper climbs. The Shimano SLX groupset is extremely competent, too. It provides effortless shifts even under load while the narrow-wide chainring and clutch-equipped derailleur do a great job of keeping the chain from dropping, even on the gnarliest of descents. The dropper seatpost makes it quick to switch between in-the-saddle climbing and rowdy downhill modes, ensuring efficient pedalling when needed, but dropping out of the way when you need the freedom to throw your weight around.

This split personality is something of a recurring theme. Low weight means the Nail Trail is surprisingly quick on cross-country trails, yet the capable fork, dropper post and commanding cockpit imbue it with a pleasingly gung-ho streak. If your budget simply can’t stretch to the Nail Trail 7, though, don’t despair – the Nail Trail 6 sheds the dropper post and makes a few judicious downgrades throughout to slash £500 from the asking price.

Buy now from Tredz

Key specs – Wheel size: 29in; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 120mm; Gearing: Shimano SLX 11-speed; Additional features: Dropper post

Santa Cruz Chameleon D: The best 29in hardtail under £2,000

Price: £1,699 – Buy now from Leisure Lakes Bikes

Mountain bikes come in a bewildering range of different configurations. Cleverly, the aptly named Chameleon can adapt to its environment or the whims of its rider. Built with standard 29” wheels it’s an aggressive XC style hardtail based around a 120mm fork. However it can also accept ultra fat 27.5”+ wheels and tyre systems to turn it into a fat-tyred trail hooligan. Their effective outer diameter is the same as a 29” tyre, but the extra volume allows the bike to plow through rough sections or over loose terrain with ease. In either configuration a low centre of gravity makes for confident cornering and an outrageously fun ride. Available as a frame only it’s possible to build the Chameleon exactly to your requirements or choose one of several build kits to suit your budget. The top-end kit shown here features a dropper post, FOX forks, and SRAM NX 11 speed groupset.

Buy now from Leisure Lakes Bikes

Key specs – Wheel size: 27.5, 27.5 Plus, 29; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 120mm; Gearing: Various; Additional features: Adjustable geometry

Vitus Nucleus 275 VR: The best budget hard-nut hardtail

Price: £500 – Buy now from Chain Reaction Cycles

The small wheeled Vitus Nucleus 275 is obscenely capable for a bike costing only £500. Nicking lots of technology from Vitus’s more expensive models, the Nucleus 275 is longer, lower and slacker than most bikes at this price. This raked out geometry is super stable when the going gets rough, and perfect for thrashing through corners.

Coming straight from the warehouse of internet giant Chain Reaction Cycles, Vitus has done wonders to serve up such a tasty spec on a budget. The high-quality WTB ST i25 tubeless-ready rims are matched to the wide and aggressive WTB-branded tyre combination of a grippy Vigilante out front and a faster-rolling Trail Boss at the rear. The Tektro HD-M290 hydraulic disc brakes are surprisingly effective, too.

At this price-point, budgeting for a capable suspension fork is always tricky but the Suntour XCR is as good as you could hope for. With an air spring and pre-load adjustment, it’s easy to set up regardless of rider weight. With a lock-out mechanism to make it rigid when not needed, and rebound adjustment to control the way it feels on the trail, it’s a great starting point – even if it is the first thing we’d upgrade.

Buy now from Chain Reaction Cycles

Key specs – Wheel size: 27.5in; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 120mm; Gearing: Shimano Altus 9-speed; Additional features: Tubeless ready wheels

Scott Scale 980: The best hardtail for super-fast XC trails

Price: £979 | Buy now from Evans Cycles

In an age where bikes seem to be increasingly skewed towards going downhill fast, the Scott Scale 980 proves there’s still a lot to recommend a machine that’s blazingly fast on the ups too. With a light frame, big diameter wheels, and a minimalist amount of front suspension it bucks the trend for ever gnarlier bicycles.

The reward is pure speed. Able to sprint without hesitation, a stretched out position boosts pedalling efficiency. and the remote lockout on the fork allows you to stop them bobbing up and down on climbs or sprints at the flick of a button.

Just because cross-country might be an old-school discipline, it doesn’t mean the Scott is a Luddite. The Sram 1×11-speed is bang up to date. With a single chainring and clutch mech it’s reliable, light, and looks great. Given its race-focused design, it’s also surprising to see how little the Scale costs. At under a grand, it’s a seriously fast XC racing steed for not a lot of money.

Buy now from Evans Cycles

Key specs – Wheel size: 29in; Frame material: Aluminium; Suspension travel: 100mm; Gearing: Sram Nx 1×11-speed; Additional features: Tubeless ready wheels

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