Mountain bikes have come a long way since their conception and nowadays, they take an incredible amount of shapes and forms with suspension travel being a key aspect of every bike out there.
The best cross-country mountain bikes are built to climb just as quickly as they can descend and as such, they’re usually fitted with suspension figures from 80- up to 120mm in the most extreme cases.
The next step up is trail bikes and this area is the most competitive. These bikes come with suspension travel ranging from 120 to 160mm, so their range is much broader. These bikes are designed to be capable all-rounders. Trail bike geometries range massively from those that are more cross-country to numbers that won’t look out of place on an enduro bike.
Enduro bikes come with travel ranging from 160 to 190mm. These are designed to smash the gnarliest of trails, often against the clock. While they’re still built to behave when pedaling, they take downhill performance very seriously, usually coming with very progressive geometries that offer full support and stability when descending at speed.
Of course, hardtails do things a little differently as they have no rear suspension but that doesn’t mean that they’re not designed towards certain intentions. Again, their suspension travel ranges and their geometries slacken and get more progressive as their downhill capabilities edge more to the extreme.
At off.road.cc, we try our very best to test a range of mountain bikes in order to help you make the most educated purchasing decisions. Here’s a list of some of the top-performing cross-country, trail, and enduro bikes we’ve tested. Keep reading to learn more about the best mountain bikes or skip to the bottom for answers to the most frequently asked questions.
Best cross-country mountain bikes
2021 specialized epic comp first look straight.jpg, by Liam Mercer
The Specialized Epic Comp is a cross-country bike that makes use of Specialized’s fancy BRAIN tech. With 100mm of suspension at the front and rear, the BRAIN automatically locks it out or opens it up through the use of a clever inertia valve.
As the cross-country bike, the Epic is pretty light and excels when the trail points upwards. That said, it's equally as gifted when it comes to the technical downs and also makes slight work of fire roads and gravel tracks.
Best trail mountain bikes 2023
As its name suggests, the Canyon Spectral 125 CF8 comes with 125mm of rear wheel travel combined with 140mm at the front. It’s a fun and lightweight trail ripper that’ll please any rider. Thanks to its little suspension and well-considered kinematic, it’s a keen peddler uphill but because of its progressive geometry, it’s incredibly capable when pointed downhill. It presents good value for money too. This bike rolls on 29-inch wheels.
Canyon says that the Spectral 125 is designed to offer a new experience compared to the Spectral and the brand has confidently hit the nail on the head. It’s just as fast, poised, and composed as the bigger travel bike but it’s much faster on the pedals, more supportive under compression and it certainly doesn’t hold back on the agility front.
The Privateer 141 GX Pike takes a huge chunk of inspiration from its enduro-orientated brother but pares it down into a more trail friendly package. Built around an alloy frame, it’s built with a range of features that not only makes it a capable bike for UK riding but also easy for the at-home mechanic to wrench on.
We liked this bike for its progressive enduro bike style geometry that makes it fast and confident downhill. This bike rocks 29-inch wheels with 141mm of suspension at the rear and 150mm at the front.
Geometry-wise, the One-Forty has firmly moved the goalposts. That’s because it comes with a super lengthy 510mm reach on a large frame, a figure that’s not even found on most enduro bikes. Offering both mullet wheel setups and full 29-inch hoops, the One-Forty offers a cracking descending character while comfortable and efficient pedaling which makes it an ideal choice for big and long days on the bike.
One-Forty uses flex stays in the place of a horst link. This saves precious grams while making maintenance a bit simpler. Each frame size gets a kinematic designed especially to suit harder riding or heavier riders, increasing the platform’s progression as the size grows.
Best enduro mountain bikes
The Capra Core 4 is YT Industries’ range-topping enduro bike. As such, it comes stacked with top-shelf kit, including the Fox 38 Factory fork with 170mm of travel and the Fox X2 shock that damps 165mm of squish.
As far as enduro bike geometry goes, this one is a little more conservative but it's appreciably agile. It adopts a tweaked geometry with a steeper seat tube, a slacker head angle and a stretched reach. Coming from a direct-sales brand, it doesn’t carry the price tag of similarly specced rigs from other brands.
The 161 comes with a very progressive geometry that helps the bike excel when pointed downhill but it keeps weight very central when climbing: a 64-degree head angle, 80-degree effective seat angle, generous reach numbers, and chainstays that grow through the sizes.
The frame is built from off-the-shelf aluminium tubing; however, it has been designed and constructed to Privateer’s spec, making it progressive yet affordable. The frame is well-thought-out with cable clamps, fuss-free cable routing, extra bearings in the main pivot and a threaded bottom bracket. It’s been built with longevity and serviceability in mind.
Best hardtail mountain bikes
The steel-framed Stif Squatch is a bike with a progressive geometry right at its heart. Built with compliant chainstays, it’s a hardtail that can be ridden quickly while dampening the harsh sting out of small trail features.
It gets a very slack 64-degree head tube angle but as it’s paired with a 130mm suspension fork, it doesn’t steepen heavily as it moves through its travel. It then gets a very steep seat tube, making this an efficient winch-and-plummet machine.
The best mountain bikes don’t need to be expensive and the Voodoo Binzango is a shining example of that. While it doesn’t have the fancy bells and whistles of its pricier competition, it gets a well-sorted geometry that makes this an ideal first, or second bike for anyone who wants to hit the trails. The Bizango is a 29er with 120mm of travel, and it’s an ideal bike for anything the UK’s trail centres have to throw at it.
The seat tube angle - on a large - is rated at 74.5-degrees with a 461mm reach. The former places rider weight centrally and comfortably above the pedals while the latter offers plenty of room to shift that weight around. The reach isn’t massively long for a large frame but it keeps the front end well-behaved, planted, and easy to weight-up when getting you up a hill.
2022 santa cruz chameleon r 29 al hero.jpeg, by Liam Mercer
The Chameleon is built to be an adaptable hardtail that can accommodate both a full 29-inch or a mullet wheel size. It comes with a range of mounting points, allowing the rider to load it up with bags, or simply shred their favourite trails.
This bike is graced with a reasonably progressive geometry that doesn’t take things too far, so it’s capable on the downs while comfortable if you’re looking banking big miles. As far as geometry goes, the Santa Cruz Chameleon benefits from a 465mm reach on this large frame. This isn't terribly long but it's definitely not short.
The 74.4-degree seat tube isn’t particularly steep but the pair results in a pretty spacious cockpit and, to a point, it can feel slightly stretched while seated when the 800mm Burgtech bar and 42.5mm stem are thrown into the mix.
How to choose the best mountain bike
What is the best type of bike for mountain biking?
A trail bike is often an excellent place to start because these bikes are good all-rounders. But the best way to figure out what bike is best for you is to get out and ride a few. Whether that’s borrowing your mate’s or heading to your local trail centre’s rental facility. This will help you form your tastes and inform you of what you like, and dislike about certain kinds of bikes before finding one that suits you the best.
Lots of brands also offer demo days, where they’ll bring the whole range of bikes for you to try. The same goes for bike shops, too, and the benefit of these is that you’ll be able to test bikes from a number of companies. Sometimes there’s a small fee to pay, others you simply just need to sign up and head to the right trail centre.
Is a full-suspension mountain bike better than a hard tail?
Both full-suspension mountain bikes and hardtails have their pros and cons. Starting with the former, they’re much better and smoothing out bumps, which improves overall control at speed, while offering a more comfortable ride when you’re pedaling uphill. Full-suspension mountain bikes are easier to ride at higher speeds but because of the relationship between pedaling forces and how suspension works, they’re not as efficient when pedaling.
Hardtails are often chosen for their efficiency, as there’s no rear suspension that’ll move as the rider pedals. This helps massively when pedaling uphill because there’s no suspension to work against you. Often, hardtails are lighter, too, so they’re regularly spotted on the cross-country circuit. They also require far less maintenance, as there are no pivot bearings that’ll wear out with time.
For the trail rider, however, hardtails provide a fun and engaging ride that will never be found on a full-suspension bike, no matter how hard designers may try. Some even say that they’re the perfect starting place for new riders to begin honing their skills as they don’t have the rear-end forgiveness of a full-suspension bike. This will force riders to consider their line choice more, and thus find the smoother and faster line more effectively.
Is it better for a mountain bike to be too big or too small?
Like choosing a mountain bike, mountain bike sizing and geometry is a big talking point and there’s no wrong answer. To merely skim the surface, a smaller mountain bike will feel more agile on the trail at the price of stability at speed, and through steeper sections. A bigger mountain bike will be more stable but not as agile.
What’s most important is that you can fit on your bike while being able to achieve the full range of movement towards the front and rear of your bike. On every brand’s website, each bike comes with a recommended size range and more often than not, it’s pretty accurate.
But it’s always the best idea to get hands-on with a bike and see how it feels to you in a shop before settling on the correct size for you. The bike should feel comfortable without feeling as if you’re stretched over it, or cramped.
What is the best frame material?
Alloy (aluminium), carbon, titanium or steel. Each frame material offers its own unique properties. Alloy is often found on lower-end bikes and is favoured for its low cost and durability. It’s also rather environmentally friendly as it can be recycled, and it produces fewer emissions during manufacturing. Frames made from alloy can feel harsh, however.
Steel is known for a special blend of stiffness and compliance. As such, it’s usually used to build mid to high-end hardtails. It’s not the lightest material on the market but it offers a good deal of strength. It’s also one of the most environmentally friendly materials as it can be recycled and doesn’t produce as much CO2 throughout the whole process.
A majority of higher-end bikes come built with carbon-fibre frame. Brands choose carbon to build their bikes with because more often than not, it’s lighter in weight and stiffer than its metal counterparts. It also allows the designers to create more attractive shapes.
Titanium is then reserved for the highest-end bikes, which mostly take the form of hardtails. Not only is titanium expensive, but it’s notoriously difficult to work with. It’s desired for its strength-to-weight ratio, and its ease of repair when damaged or scratched.