Deciding what mountain bike to buy becomes harder every year. So what's out there today worth looking at?
Even if you're on a tight budget there are some great bikes around from £200 upwards, but up to £500 ignore full suspension and go for a good, light hardtail with a fork that works okay over medium-sized bumps or steps. Avoid heavy steel components where possible (take a magnet shopping with you) and if it doesn't have disc brakes fitted check that it can be upgraded later if needs be.
At this price you should be getting a reasonably light bike with fairly controlled suspension forks that can handle your local trails, proper grippy tyres (check they don't feel plasticky) and hydraulic disc brakes. Even some full suss bikes are this well equipped, although you'll generally be paying
To get a full susser light enough to make uphills manageable. Mail order/ homegrown shop brands dominate the mid-price in terms of hardtail performance and value.
At the £1K price point XC hardtails are near the top of their game in terms of ride quality, and most suspension bikes will be properly smooth and durable wagons. You'll be able to specialize more too, with short or long travel bikes, hardcore hardtails, lightweight racers or back country all rounders well established.
At £1500-£2000 full suspension hits the point of getting a quality frame, forks, shocks and kit for your cash, and even complete builds from top brands like Ellsworth, Santa Cruz or Orange are in reach. From £2000 up you're talking pro level 'best of everything' hardtails and every type of suspension conceivable. Proper big drop freeride/DH, superlight XC racers, long travel trail bikes, midtravel all rounder... it should all be totally compromise-free for over two grand.
If we had to pick one breed really worth looking at today, it has to be mid-travel 120-140mm full suss bikes. They're light enough to climb and race on, but tough and encouraging enough to let you tackle most trail obstacles with confidence.
What to look for...
You should never underestimate the performance of your wheels - and tyres - to your overall ride. Light wheels make a bike feel super responsive, but tough wheels are essential if you're going to be giving them a beating. If in doubt stick with proven names and conventional construction.
The heart of any bike, always get the best quality frame you can afford. There are very few bad ones, but check reviews, actual fit and handling/weight to see whether it'll fit your style. Don't forget practicalities like space for mud and grippy tyres, neat cable routing and upgrade potential.
Suspension forks make a massive difference to control and comfort, helping the front wheel steer and brake securely and stopping your eyes rattling out of your head. Any bike over £500 should have a proper fork not a pogo stick, but still try before you buy.
Some love it, some say it spoils the challenge of the ride and adds potential failure and extra maintenance. There's no doubt it improves traction, control and comfort though. Look for cartridge bearings and longer shock stroke on longer travel bikes.
Hydraulic disc brakes rule today. V-brakes are still lighter, but discs add superb all weather control that'll beat any speed gain from saving a few grams. Cable disc brakes are best avoided though as they can be unpredictable and labour intensive
Who's who? The designers
Want to sound like a friend of the frame building stars on a forum or down at the Dog & Gusset? Here's our who's who of the world's best MTB frame designers
The claimed founding father of mountain biking, either way he ran the first MTB shop and was a record breaking racer in his day. Bought by Trek after a string of landmark innovations, Gary's bikes are still genuinely leftfield creations.
One of the original bespoke MTB builders from the converted beach cruiser days. His signature still signifies quality lightweight kit today. Unlike his manly moustache his kit will never go out of fashion.
Now as famous for being an honorary Brit and 24hr race fanatic as much as a component guru, Keith played a big part in the launch of RockShox, and is still fettling fork geometry for Gary Fisher.
He's been pushing the limits of frame design since college work for Pacific as one of only a handful of westerners in Taiwan. Now a committed carbon fibre fanatic, his Strike, Genius, Scale, Ransom and Spark bikes for Scott have all set whole new standards.
If it's the latest thing now, you can bet Brent Foes was building it years ago. 6in triple ring trail bikes, platform shocks, super low ratio shocks; the 'light years to set up and maintain.