Best mountain bike: how to choose the right one for you

Our in-depth buyer's guide to getting the right mountain bike

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 be overwhelming.

Our buyer's 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.

Our ultimate buying guide to the best mountain bikes of 2019

This article was updated on 30 November 2018

MTB Buyer's Guide — what you need to know

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.

That said, just because you can spend a lot doesn’t mean you need to. It’s possible to get capable bikes at almost any price point, but there are of course basic features you should expect at different levels.

Best mountain bike under £350

It’s possible to get a well made, off-road capable machine from around £350, 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 likely harm rather than improve 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 — potentially making it a better deal in the long run.

At the price, the Calibre Two.Two has everything you could wish for
At the price, the Calibre Two.Two has everything you could wish for

That said, there are plenty of bikes fitted with functional front suspension forks at this price, and they may come from unexpected sources — in the UK, we were very impressed by Calibre's Two.Two hardtail, which is produced by outdoor mega-retailer GO Outdoors.

The Calibre Two.Two can be snapped up for just over £350 if you purchase a membership card.

At this price point, you’re unlikely to get the most up to date components. For example bikes may be fitted with 26-inch (rather than the more modern 25.7 or 29-inch) wheels as well as more basic drivetrain components.

That means there isn’t usually a compelling upgrade path for your bike as you wear out components. It does however provide a very accessible way to owning and riding your very first mountain bike.

Whatever you do, 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.

At this price, they’ll often 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.

Again, at this price you’ll often encounter double and triple chainsets, rather than the modern 1x drivetrains championed by SRAM and Shimano.

Best mountain bike under £500

As you spend more, you get a bike with a lighter frame and more refined equipment.

At this price range, you should expect hydraulic disc brakes rather than the cable operated variety. They need much less maintenance and tend to be more powerful.

You don't need to spend too much to get a capable mountain bike. The Calibre Rake drives that point home
You don't need to spend too much to get a capable mountain bike. The Calibre Rake drives that point home

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 gears.

The tyres fitted should have a pronounced 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.

Again, it’s worth avoiding full suspension bikes at this price, because they’ll be heavy and won’t work well off-road.

Check out our list of the best mountain bikes under £500 for our reviews of the top machines on sale today.

Best mountain bike under £750

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 and forming 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 are likely to be fitted.

Most bikes at £750 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 Calibre Line 10 is one of our top-picks for an affordable hardtail
The Calibre Line 10 is one of our top-picks for an affordable hardtail

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. This uses a large diameter axle which creates a stiffer connection between the wheel and fork, improving steering accuracy.

You should also look out for a fork and frame that uses a tapered head tube with a larger diameter lower bearing and matching fork crown. These offer improved stiffness and mean you can choose from a wider selection of forks when you upgrade in the future.

You should now be getting a bike with at least 10 gear ratios at the back. Some bikes may even use a wide ratio cassette matched to a single front chainring setup to reduce weight.

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.

Check out our guide to the best mountain bikes under £750 for more information.

Best mountain bike under £1,000

This is the magic amount of money where full suspension bikes with reasonably lightweight frames and well-controlled, adjustable shocks start to become available.

The Calibre Bossnut Evo offers capable full-suspension in a £1000 package
The Calibre Bossnut Evo offers capable full-suspension in a £1000 package

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 thru-axle design and a tapered steerer.

You’re likely to see adjustable rebound damping to fine-tune how fast the shock extends after a bump and some forks will have a lockout lever that prevents the suspension moving for greater efficiency on smooth climbs.

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, with higher specification equipment that’ll be lighter, last longer and work flawlessly.

Check out our list of the best mountain bikes under £1,000 for our recommendations.

Best mountain bike under  £2,000

At this price, there are still some compromises on full-suspension bikes, but they’re starting to disappear.

You’ll also start to see some hardtail bikes that use lightweight carbon fibre for their frames, while aluminium framed hardtail models will come with excellent components fitted as standard.

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. We would definitely expect a 1x drivetrain at this price point.

At £2000, you can start to expect capable full-suspension models
At £2000, you can start to expect capable full-suspension models

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.

Check out the best mountain bikes under £2,000 here. And for the basics on getting the most out of all the bells and whistles of your suspension, be sure to check out our beginner's guide to adjusting forks and shocks.

Best mountain bike under  £3,000

At this sort of money, you’ll likely see a split between a quality carbon frame fitted with slightly lower-end components, or an aluminium frame fitted with high-end gear.

At this price, you're starting to get some very, very capable bikes
At this price, you're starting to get some very, very capable bikes

The choice will be yours of whether you want to spring for a carbon frame with components that you upgrade as they wear, or an aluminium option with top-flight components as standard.

Bikes will be very specific to their intended use, with a wide range of travel options and frame geometry, but full-suspension designs now become commonplace.

Hardtails should be equipped with top-end components including the latest 11-speed (or 12-speed) drivetrains from Shimano and SRAM

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.

Best mountain bike over £3,000

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.

The highest-end bikes are the pinnacle of bike technology. That comes at a price though
The highest-end bikes are the pinnacle of bike technology. That comes at a price though

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.

What kind of mountain bike should I buy — different types of mountain bike explained

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 what they are and their features.

What is a 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 switch that helps prevent the suspension sapping pedalling energy on smoother sections of trail.

Cross-country bikes tend to use larger diameter 29in wheels, combined with lightly treaded, low-volume and fast-rolling tyres for maximum speed.

The Specialized S-Works Epic is a very high-end XC machine
The Specialized S-Works Epic is a very high-end XC machine

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 bikes 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. They tend to have a very wide range of gears to allow steep climbing as well as a high top speed.

Buy one if: you like pushing your heart rate as high as it’ll go and riding for hours on end.

  • Entry: £750 (hardtail), £1,000 (full suspension)
  • Good: £1,500 (hardtail), £2,500 (full suspension)
  • Brilliant: £2,500 (hardtail), £3,500 (full suspension)

What is a trail bike?

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 bikes offer a great compromise between climbing ability and descending prowess
Trail bikes offer a great compromise between climbing ability and descending prowess

Trail hardtails — sometimes known as hardcore hardtails — will use strong frames matched to a fork of around 130–150mm travel.

Full-suspension trail bikes will use anywhere between 130–150mm of travel at either end.

Aluminium is the choice of frame material for more affordable bikes, while top-end machines use carbon fibre. Some more boutique frame builders may use steel.

Double chainrings have largely fallen out of favour, and have been replaced with 1x-drivetrains that offer a wide gear range with simpler maintenance and better performance.

Trail bikes may use either 29in or 650b wheels. As a rule, 29in wheels are more stable, while 650b give a more involving and dynamic ride.

You might also come across plus tyres, which pair a 650b sized wheel with a wider rim fitted with a large volume (typically 2.8-inches or more) tyre. 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: £750 (hardtail), £1,000 (full suspension)
  • Good: £1,500 (hardtail), £2,500 (full suspension)
  • Brilliant: £2,500 (hardtail), £3,500 (full suspension)

What is an enduro bike?

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 will offer significant amounts of travel to get you through any terrain
Enduro bikes will offer significant amounts of travel to get you through any terrain

Enduro bikes tend to have more travel than 'normal' trail bikes, and are almost exclusively full suspension. Most use around 160-170mm of travel at either end, paired to tough wheels and reinforced tyres.

The suspension units they use are usually still air-sprung but tend to be heavier duty with a wide range of damping adjustments to tune their downhill performance.

Coil shocks are gaining some favour again for their reliability and consistency for prolonged hard-riding.

Some bikes have remotes that allow you to change the bike’s geometry and travel between a downhill and uphill mode. Bear in mind, that this adds weight, complication and additional potential points of failure.

Nowadays, most bikes have a 1x-drivetrain and a chain guide to prevent the chain falling off. Enduro bikes are also called ‘all mountain’ bikes as they’re ideal for riding in mountainous and technical terrain.

Check out our guide to the best enduro bikes for more information and some recommendations.

Buy if: you prefer your descents to be as technical and tough as possible but don’t mind winching yourself to the top.

  • Entry: £1,300
  • Good: £2,600
  • Brilliant: £4,000

What is a downhill bike?

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 suspension that’s optimised for pure traction and support, rather than pedalling ability.

Downhill bikes are designed for one things — getting you down the hill as quickly as possible
Downhill bikes are designed for one things — getting you down the hill as quickly as possible

To put up with the huge forces the bikes are put under, the forks have legs that extend above the head tube 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: £1,500
  • Good: £3,000
  • Brilliant: £5,000

What is an electric mountain bike (e-mtb)?

Electric mountain bikes are becoming very popular indeed, and it's now possible to find models corresponding to all the disciplines listed above.

An e-bike in disguise? E-bikes aren't as easy to spot as they once were
An e-bike in disguise? E-bikes aren't as easy to spot as they once were

E-bikes incorporate a motor and battery which provide a boost to your pedalling input. The level of assistance is usually adjusted via a control unit at the bike's handlebar.

These bikes are significantly heavier than their non-motorised equivalents but can make light work of climbing up the steepest of gradients.

Don't go thinking riding an e-bike is a piece of cake though, these can deliver a workout that many pros use to train with. Indeed, e-bikes can let you access riding and places that you wouldn’t usually think of going on a non-powered bike.

  • Entry: £2,000
  • Good: £4,000
  • Brilliant: £6,000

Wait, we aren't 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…

What is a fat bike?

Fat bikes are pretty easy to recognise
Fat bikes are pretty easy to recognise

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.

What is a dirt jump bike?

Dirt jump bikes will generally use smaller wheels and a compact frame for optimum manouevrability
Dirt jump bikes will generally use smaller wheels and a compact frame for optimum manouevrability

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.

What is a singlespeed mountain bike?

Singlespeed bikes are few and far between, but those who like them tend to really like them
Singlespeed bikes are few and far between, but those who like them tend to really like them

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 of mountain 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.

While we recommend reading out guide, 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 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.

If you have any other mountain bike related questions, let us know in the comments below.

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