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Mountain biking surged in popularity over the pandemic lockdown - with mandated daily exercise in local mountains, dirt trails and off-road locations providing solace to millions of bikers up and down the country.
Now that (thankfully) lockdown is receding into our memories, you may be looking to get into the exhilarating sport yourself. Unfortunately, though, much of the information out there is tailored toward those who already know the difference between a hardtail and a full-suss bike, fat wheels or trail bikes.
It can seem a little complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. The below models are all excellent mountain bikes, and will keep those new to the sport safe and happy, as well as being thrilling enough to those who head out on the hills on a regular basis.
What to look for in a mountain bike?
There is no one size fits all approach to choosing the right mountain bike - they come in all shapes and sizes, and it depends whether you’re looking for one that you’ll ride exclusively off-road, or if it’s going to be a hybrid bike - headed out on your daily commute as well as down hills. Here are our top tips though:
- Find the right size. Don’t be scared that your mountain bike will likely be longer than a road bike. Using an online tool such as this one is the best way of making sure the bike matches your height and build.
- Choose the right wheels for you. There are two main wheel sizes - 29”, and 27”. In broad terms, the bigger sized wheel is better if you anticipate covering large distances on your bike, the smaller wheel sized is tougher and better at hugging the mountainside if you’re planning on riding crazy trails.
- Pick between hardtail and suspension. Hardtails are bikes with only front suspension while full suspension bikes have both front and rear suspension. Full-suss bikes are more forgiving on rough terrain, which some argue makes them better for beginners, while hardtails require you to develop greater technical skin when swooping down mountains - you’ll be a better rider in the longer run if you learn on a hardtail, but full-suss are more fun.
- Expect your bike to be heavier than a road bike - and don’t fret about that.
- Keep it simple to start with. The temptation can be to kit out your bike with flashy specs. Get to know your bike first. You can always up-spec.
- Keep some money for the kit you need. You’ll need a dedicated trail helmet (they offer greater coverage, stronger construction), and you may need glasses, a backpack, sticky shoes for the flat pedals. Factor that into your budget.
How much to spend on a mountain bike?
There’s no getting away from the fact that some of the best bikes out there are expensive, but it’s worth remembering that spending more doesn’t always absolutely guarantee you increased quality, and it isn’t always a direct sliding scale.
Generally, most mountain bikes are made up of a number of parts from suppliers and manufactures, and the more customisation options you get generally the more you’ll be paying. You can find a reasonable bike for between £400-£500, and upwards of £1000 you get more bespoke parts added as stock from more reputable brands.
If you’re lucky enough to have upwards of £2000 to spend, you’re entering into the realms of carbon fibre frames and custom lightweight components.
Interested in touring with your bike? Look at our guide to touring bike essentials. Or if you’re interested in commuting, we have a guide to the best hybrid bikes, or the best electric bikes.
There’s also a guide to great bike panniers.
Pick things up quickly? The Orbea Laufey is for you.
It’s an impressive hard-tail that is well suited to aggressive trail riding. It has a 140mm fork and a dropper post. Don’t what that means? It’s a specification that means you can comfortably ride it as a beginner, but as you progress, your riding capabilities won’t out-shine the bike’s components.
With Shimano M201 hydraulic disc brakes, you’ll stay safe when handling, while the 2.6in Maxxis tires keep you gripping the trail.
This option is a bit of an all-rounder.
E-Trends have certainly got one eye firmly fixed on the future with their Trekker bike, and we liked the fact that even though it has been designed as a mountain bike first and foremost, it felt just home on the roads of our home city.
It has up to 17 miles electric power on a full charge (which takes around 5 hours to complete), and the boost is applied as you pedal, which makes making progress easy. A sturdy frame, 27.5in wheels and tough tyres also make it easy to feel confident on uneven or mountainous tracks.
Expensive, but the electric power will appeal to some.
Vitus have made a name for themselves crafting lightweight, versatile and easy to use mountain bikes – we like the Sentier 275 VR as it feels fast, comes with a good amount of specification options for its price and doesn’t shy away from attacking the trails or being ridden aggressively both up and downhill.
Definitely one of the more confidence-inspiring bikes we’ve had experience of.
A great option here on the affordable end of the scale – the Pinnacle Kapur 1 is a cross country hardtail bike and even though it won’t break the bank, it’s still designed to cover big distances on unforgiving terrain, which we’re pleased to say it does with great success.
We liked the fact that for the price, you still get hydraulic disk brakes and post routing options for fork upgrades, which means the bike will grow with you.
The Shimano Altus 9 speed gearing also works really well and transfers up and down with ease and crispness.
New to Halfords, mountain bike manufacturer Voodoo bring their Braag to market for the 2021-2022 range.
This affordable, entry-level unit impressed us with its alloy frame and good-quality accessories such as a padded saddle from WTB Volt and Clarks Clout 180/160mm brakes.
It’s a budget hardtail, offering a very comfortable saddle, a brilliant riding position and those aforementioned tidy components.
Pedal it, and the gears shift beautifully: descend downhill, and it corners confidently. It’s a genuine hoot to ride.
An excellent lightweight option that won’t break the bank, we liked the Saracens Zenith Pro for everyday and weekend riding.
It’s a bike that allows high performance and excellent handling ability, and if you can cope with the fact that it’s a few years old now, there are some excellent deals to be had out there.
The RST Omega fork travels to 120mm and is friction damped and coil sprung.
Did we say this was a list for beginners? Well, you’ve got to have a bike to train towards using, right? This is the serious mountain bikers’ dream bike.
Designed to be the ‘ultimate aggressive trail bike,’ the Nukeproof Reactor features a super-lightweight carbon frame, offering fully separate setups for 27.5” or 29” wheel sizes.
Fork travel is 10mm more that the rear – generally 130mm married to 140mm travel, which makes a unique and reactive setup that wants to be thrown around.
It has won numerous awards, including Mountain Bike Rider Magazine’s Editor’s Choice and Trail Bike of the Year.
Expensive, premium and worth considering for ultra-serious riders.