Picking out the best mountain bike can seem like a complicated business. The sheer variety of bike types, not to mention the bewildering array of technology and terminology surrounding them, can seem staggering.
This article was last updated on 18 May 2017.
Our buying guide will run you through everything you need to know, from how much you should spend to what kind of mountain bike will be best for you. We'll also highlight the key features you should look out for and then point you to our lists of the best buys at each price point.
How much do I need to spend?
For most people – and especially when starting out – budget is the critical factor when looking at a new bike. How much you’re willing to spend radically affects what’s on offer, and it’s easy to look at mountain bikes in a shop or online and be put off by the stupendous price tags attached to many of them.
Just because you can spend a lot doesn’t mean you need to. But there are some basic features you should expect at various prices.
It’s possible to get a well made, off-road capable machine from around $600, though there are certain caveats. At this sort of money, you should steer well, well clear of any full suspension bikes – that’s a bike that’s got suspension at the front and rear wheels. They’ll be significantly heavier than either front suspension equipped ‘hardtails’ or suspension-free 'rigid' bikes, and the cheap and uncontrolled suspension units fitted to them will actually harm off-road performance.
While a completely rigid bike might seem basic, the simpler design means that more money will have been spent on the frame and components – making it a better deal in the long run. That said, there are plenty of bikes fitted with functional front suspension forks at this price, and they may come from unexpected sources – in Australia, for example, Reid Cycle's Xenon 29er is sold as a factory-direct bike and offers plenty of value. Other direct-buy options from the likes of Cell Bikes and Polygon offer similar value too.
Either way, look for a frame that’s made from lightweight aluminium rather than heavy steel. You should also look for a bike that comes fitted with disc brakes rather than rim brakes, because they’ll keep working in the wet and provide more consistent power. They'll most likely be cable operated, rather than the fully hydraulic units seen on pricier bikes, but they're a feature well worth having.
If you intend to take the bike off-road, make sure it's got suitable gearing – many cheaper bikes will be specified with mostly on-road performance in mind, and will lack a gear low enough to haul you up hills. Look for a small chainring at the front that has 22 or 24 teeth, paired to a cassette on the rear wheel that has 34 or 36 teeth on its biggest sprocket.
As you spend more, you get a bike with a lighter frame and more refined equipment. At this price range, you should look for hydraulic disc brakes rather than the cable operated variety. They need much less maintenance and tend to be much more powerful.
You should also look for a bike with a drivetrain that has at least nine gear ratios (usually abbreviated to '9spd') at the back, matched to two or three chainrings up front, giving a total of 18 or 27 ratios. The tyres fitted should have a decent tread profile that’s designed for proper off-road use and should be made from a softer rubber compound than basic tyres, giving better grip in the wet. You can use your thumbnail to press the tread to assess how soft different tyres are.
A suspension fork with a smooth and controlled action should be fitted. To test this, give the fork a good bounce and it should compress easily and return smoothly. If it makes nasty noises or returns rapidly – like a pogo stick – give it a wide berth. The better bikes at this price now offer forks with rebound control which allow you to adjust the suspension return rate. A lockout is also expected, which provides efficiency on smooth sections. Again, it’s worth avoiding full suspension bikes at this price, because they’ll be heavy and won’t work well off-road.
It’s at this price that bikes start to become more specialised to suit different kinds of riding. We’ll cover the different kinds of bike later, but you’re guaranteed a hardtail that’ll be able to put up with almost anything you can throw at it.
The frame is likely to still be aluminium, but it’ll use advanced construction techniques to make it both lighter and more comfortable for big days in the saddle. Hydraulic disc brakes from a big-name brand such as Shimano or SRAM/Avid are likely to be fitted.
Most bikes at AU$1,400 or above will have a decent quality suspension fork. This should ideally be air-sprung, which is lighter than using a coil spring and allows you to adjust the fork to suit your weight.
The very best equipped models at this price will also have a ‘thru-axle’ fork and wheel rather than a ‘quick release’ or ‘QR’ system. They use a larger diameter axle to give a stiffer connection between the wheel and fork, improving steering accuracy. You should also look out for a fork and frame that uses a special head tube with a larger diameter lower bearing and matching fork crown. Again, these are much stiffer and mean you can chose from a wider selection of upgraded forks in the future.
You should now be getting a bike with at least 10 gear ratios at the back. Look out for a rear derailleur that's equipped with a clutch, such as Shimano’s ShadowPlus or SRAM’s Type 2 designs. These help prevent the chain from falling off on rough terrain.
Many manufacturers will now start fitting tyres and wheels that can be used without an inner tube. These 'tubeless' systems can reduce punctures and save weight. Look out for the words ‘tubeless ready’ or ‘tubeless compatible’ on the tyre sidewall.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, full suspension bikes at this price are still likely to be badly compromised and we wouldn’t recommend them. Although the Polygon Siskiu D7.0 may be an exception to this rule.
This is the magic amount of money where full suspension bikes with reasonably lightweight frames and well-controlled, adjustable shocks start to become available. You’re still likely to pay a slight weight or equipment penalty over a comparably priced hardtail for the privilege, but they do offer extra security on rough descents.
At this sort of money, all bikes should have well-controlled and adjustable air-sprung forks, preferably with a through axle design and a tapered steerer. At a minimum, you should see adjustable rebound damping to fine-tune how fast the shock extends after a bump and a lockout lever that prevents the suspension moving for greater efficiency on smooth climbs or road sections.
Some bikes may even feature a thru-axle at the rear wheel for improved stiffness. We’d definitely expect to see a modern 10-speed drivetrain with a clutch-equipped derailleur, and higher specification equipment that’ll be lighter, last longer and work flawlessly.
At this price, full-suspension bikes' compromises begin to evaporate. Short-travel cross-country bikes designed for long distance riding will be light enough to ride all day, while longer-travel trail bikes will be able to tackle seriously rugged descents and get you back up to the top without any issues.
Suspension units will be of a higher quality, with much more damping adjustment on offer. The drivetrain should definitely be 10spd and is likely to be of a high quality. Some bikes (priced closer to AU$4,000) may even use an extra-wide ratio cassette matched to a single front chainring setup to reduce weight.
You’ll also start to see hardtail bikes move to lightweight carbon fibre for their frames. Some bikes may even come with a ‘dropper’ seatpost that allows the saddle to be lowered without having to stop. These are great for riding technical terrain and a definite plus for most riders.
For the basics on getting the most out of your full-suspension ride, be sure to check out our beginner's guide to adjusting forks and shocks.
At this sort of money, you’re much more likely to see a quality carbon frame, no matter what style of bike you’re after. Bikes will be very specific to their intended use, with a wide range of travel options and frame geometry.
Hardtails are likely to be equipped with top end components including the latest 11-speed drivetrains from Shimano and SRAM. Some full suspension bikes may also come equipped with these too.
Dropper posts will be fitted to everything but the most dedicated cross-country bikes. Tyres are likely to come in specialist rubber compounds to suit their use and tubeless compatibility is a given. Wheels will be tough yet lightweight.
It’s around this point that the law of diminishing returns starts to set in, as you’ll need to spend a lot of money to lose much more weight, while performance increases are more likely to be limited by the rider’s ability than the bicycle itself.
More carbon fibre means less weight, while components are likely to be high quality, lightweight and tough items from respected manufacturers. As well as bikes from big brands, there are numerous smaller manufacturers providing high quality, specialist machines.
Suspension units will use extremely high performing and adjustable dampers, often with special low friction coatings.Tyres will be highly adapted to the task at hand, with plenty of traction and speed. Wheels may start to use different construction methods and more exotic materials such as carbon fibre to provide low weight and strength.
So what kind of mountain bike should I buy?
There’s a huge array of different kinds of bike, all designed to perform a certain task to perfection. Here’s a quick run through of what they are and their features.
Cross-country (XC) bike
Cross-country bikes (sometimes abbreviated to XC) are all about covering ground quickly, whether it’s in a race or just on a big day out in the mountains. For racing use, hardtails are still preferred by many, but full suspension designs are becoming more popular. They tend to have around 80-100mm of travel at either end, usually equipped with a lockout on more expensive models.
Cross-country bikes tend to use larger diameter 29in wheels – so are often referred to as 29ers – combined with lightly treaded, low-volume and fast-rolling tyres for maximum speed, though some brands offer them with 650b wheels – also called 27.5in. They tend to use steeper head angles combined with longer stems and narrower bars for quick reacting handling and to place the rider into an efficient pedalling position. The downside of this type of geometry is that it can make them harder to control on steeper descents, especially when combined with shorter-travel suspension and skinnier tyres.
Cheaper cross-country bikes will use alloy frames, but carbon is the default choice for top end race bikes – although exotic materials such as titanium are sometimes seen. They tend to have a very wide range of gears to allow steep climbing as well as a high top speed. For those starting off in the sport, the very cheapest mountain bikes will likely be cross country inspired.
Buy one if: You like pushing your heart rate as high as it’ll go and riding for hours on end.
- Entry: AU$650 (hardtail) AU$1,300 (full suspension)
- Good: AU$1,500 (hardtail) AU$3,000 (full suspension)
- Brilliant: AU$3,000 (hardtail) AU$6,000 (full suspension)
This is the most popular style of bike, because it can be used for pretty much anything. Trail bikes have more relaxed angles to give greater confidence when descending and kit that’s designed to deal with more punishment. They use shorter stems and wider handlebars to help improve control at speed, while tyres will have more aggressive tread.
Trail hardtails – sometimes known as ‘hardcore hardtails’ – will use strong frames matched to a fork of around 120-150mm travel. Some trail hardtails will use high-quality steel frames, but they’re mostly aluminium. Full-suspension trail bikes will use anywhere between 120-150mm of travel at either end, with aluminium being the choice of frame material for more affordable bikes, while top end machines use carbon fibre. Double chainrings and wide range gears are popular to allow you to climb big hills.
Trail bikes may use either 29in or 650b wheels. As a rule, 29in wheels are more stable, while 650b gives a more involving and dynamic ride. A new type and wheel and tyre combination that uses a 650b sized wheel with a wider rim paired to a large volume tyre is being introduced by some manufacturers. It’s variously called ‘6Fattie’, ‘27+’ and ‘650+’ and is claimed to give much improved grip.
Buy one if: You like hitting descents as much as you like climbing and need a machine that can do it all.
- Entry: AU$900 (hardtail) AU$2,000 (full suspension)
- Good: AU$2,000 (hardtail) AU$4,000 (full suspension)
- Brilliant: AU$6,000 (full suspension)
Enduro is a racing format in which the descents are timed, but you still have to pedal yourself around the course. That means that these bikes are designed to perform exceptionally well down steep and difficult trails but are still light and efficient enough to pedal back to the top.
Enduro bikes tend to have more travel than 'normal' trail bikes, and are almost exclusively full suspension. Most use around 150-170mm of travel at either end, paired to tough wheels and reinforced tyres. The suspension units they use are still air-sprung but tend to be heavier duty with a wide range of damping adjustments to tune their downhill performance.
Some have remotes that allow you to change the bike’s geometry and travel between a downhill and uphill mode. Many have just one chainring and a device to prevent the chain falling off paired to a wide range of gears at the back. Enduro bikes are also called ‘all mountain’ bikes as they’re ideal for riding in mountainous and technical terrain.
Buy if: If you prefer your descents to be as technical and tough as possible but don’t mind winching yourself to the top.
- Entry: AU$2,500
- Good: AU$5,000
- Brilliant: AU$7,000
Check out our guide to the best enduro bikes for more information and some recommendations.
As the name suggests, these bikes are about doing one thing; going down steep and technical tracks very, very quickly. They have around 200mm of travel at either end, often using coil sprung rear suspension that’s optimised for pure traction and support, rather than pedalling ability.
To put up with the huge forces the bikes are put under, the forks have legs that extend above the headtube and are then braced together, known as a 'double-crown' or ‘triple-clamp’ fork. Again, aluminium is the choice for cheaper bikes, while pro-level machinery will be carbon.
Buy if: You just like going downhill fast on the hardest terrain and biggest jumps you can find and are happy to push or get a lift to the top.
- Entry: AU$3,000
- Good: AU$5,000
- Brilliant: AU$7,000
Wait, we’re not finished!
While that might seem like a lot of different kinds, there are even more niches in the world of mountain biking. Here are a few more that you might run across…
These use hugely oversized tyres that are run at very low pressures in order to give traction on snow or sand. They’re popular with adventure riders going off the beaten track or people who fancy something that looks really different. They’re usually rigid and have lots of rack mounts for carrying gear.
Quite possibly the most controversial niche of mountain bikes are e- MTBs. These are pedal assisted mountain bikes that usually feature a Bosch or Shimano Steps electric motor, and often tout the latest suspension technology, axle standards, wheel sizes and components. There is no throttle and you'll need to pedal for the motor to kick in, but they offer a bit of help to get you up a steep climb or stay out and ride a bit longer.
The trouble is they fall into a bit of a grey area as to whether or not they are 'motorised' and thus where they are allowed to be ridden. This classification varies country to country and even state to state, so if your unsure talk to your local mountain bike club, advocacy organisations and local land managers
Dirt jump bikes
As the name suggests, these are meant for hitting jumps or pump tracks. They use tough frames that are easy to move about in the air, short-travel forks and often only have one gear for simplicity. Due to small frames sizes, they can be a little awkward to pedal around.
Popular with masochists, these bikes only have one gear. The lack of moving parts means they’re simple to maintain and many people like to run them through the winter months to prevent damaging another bike. They can be very cheap but many are also expensive, exotic bikes built by niche custom framebuilders. They’re usually hardtails or fully rigid.
What size bike do I need?
Hopefully by now you’ll have some idea of how much you’d like to spend and what kind of bike you need. Make sure you search our reviews to see the highest scoring bikes in a particular category and once you’ve drawn up a shortlist, it’s time to make sure you get the right size of frame. This is a vital step and can make a huge difference to how much you’ll enjoy your new bike.
You can read our guide to mountain bike sizing here but it’s often best to head down to your local bike shop to try the bike you’re looking at in person. Remember that bike sizing varies between brands, so if a medium sized bike from one brand fits you well, it doesn’t automatically mean another brand’s medium will.
If possible, try to arrange a test ride so you can see how the bike feels on the trail. Many brands have demo days where they bring their entire range along for potential customers to try. As a general rule, if you’re after a high-end bike, many shops will be happy to tweak certain components such as the saddle, tyres or grips to the ones you prefer if it means they can seal a deal.
With many online or direct sales bike shops, you don’t get the option to try before you buy, but most have a robust returns policy if you decide you’re not happy with the fit of your new machine.
Above all, remember to check our reviews to see which bikes we rate and why, plus loads more.
To stay current, this article has been updated since it was first published and so some comments below may be out of date.