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In the past year, we’ve ridden and evaluated more than 100 of the top mountain bikes—everything from budget hardtails to do-it-all trail models to bomber downhill race bikes. We found entry-level hardtails that are truly capable for less than $900. And excellent full-suspension bikes for less than $1,500, which was unheard of just a few years ago. And of course we discovered near-magical options that cost three and four times that.
What’s New in Mountain Bike Design
With the widespread adoption of dropper posts, better suspension, and geometry that favors longer front ends and tighter rear ends, it’s now possible to shred pretty hard on bikes with less travel. Bikes like the Santa Cruz Tallboy, Evil Following MB, and more recently, Giant Trance 29 have 120mm of rear travel (or less) but the slack angles (and stability) of enduro bikes. And bikes like the Pivot Firebird give you DH travel with crisper pedaling, to create one of the most versatile long-travel bikes we’ve tried. As you’re looking for your next ride, pay as much attention to geometry as you do travel and wheel size.
Key Geometry Considerations
If you’ve been following the trends in mountain bikes, no doubt you’ve noticed that “longer” is the most popular word going. Reaches are getting longer, which—along with increasingly slack head tube angles—also lengthens the bike’s front center and wheelbase. This additional length centers the rider between the wheels more, and makes bikes feel more stable, more secure in steep terrain, and smoother overall. Longer isn’t always better, though, and can make a bike feel less stable at slower speeds and harder to maneuver in tight terrain.
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Seat tubes are also much steeper than they’ve been—as steep as 76 degrees or more. This puts most riders in a more favorable seated climbing position. But steeper seat angles also allow frame engineers to move the seat tube out of the way as they try to increase travel, decrease chainstay length, and fit bigger wheels and tires into their frames.
Types of Mountain Bikes
How We Tested
Our team of experienced testers spent many hours and miles using these mountain bikes for their intended purpose, as well as pushing the bikes’ limits outside of their primary intent. We raced them, rode them on our local trails, and hit the bike park. Often we swapped tires and other components to get a better understanding of each bike. After a lot of sweaty, dirty miles, we considered the full picture weighing not just performance and handling, but also, price, comfort, value, and reliability.
BEST WOMEN’S TRAIL 29
The Maverick—the Santa Cruz Hightower is the same bike with a few parts differences—is a 140/150mm (rear/front) 29er that provides a stable ride with plenty of travel for comfort and control, with a decent turn of uphill performance too. This is an all-purpose mountain bike for riders who prefer the confidence that comes with longer travel but don’t want to resort to an enduro bike. Maverick builds start at $4,299, but if you want to spend less Hightower models start at $2,899.
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MOST-BALANCED TRAIL BIKE
The new Pivot Switchblade—142mm rear, 160mm front—is longer and slacker than its previous generation, but it’s also a bit taller and steeper than much of its competition. That gives this bike impressive balance. Stable at speed, but also agile and lively, and it offers top-of-its-class climbing performance too. It’s gravity friendly, but not gravity focused; a big bike that climbs really well, but still descends like a big bike. This is the bike for a rider who loves the climb as much as the shred.
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FASTEST TRAIL BIKE
Spot Ryve 115
The Ryve 115 fills the space between a pure XC race bike, and a trail bike. It is light (our sample weighed 24.5 pounds), shorter travel (115mm rear and 120mm front), and quick handling; Spot’s Living Link suspension offers efficient pedaling performance and a super-lively feel. It’s a super zippy bike that’s a bit more planted on the downhill than a pure race bike. It’s for the rider who wants the efficiency of an XC bike with a bit more capability.
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BEST TRAIL HARDTAIL
Salsa Timberjack NX Eagle 29
Full suspension bikes are great, but they’re heavier, more expensive, and more maintenance intensive than a bike without rear suspension. Salsa’s Timberjack is a trail bike for riders who prefer the simplicity and durability of a hardtail. With a 130mm fork, dropper post, and 67-degree head angle, the Timberjack is stable and capable,—this bike is ready to get rowdy. It’s also very versatile, with swinger dropouts (420-437mm chainstay length) that let you tune the Timberjack’s handling, or set it up as a singlespeed. It also has clearance plus-size tires up to 3 inches wide (up to 2.6 in 29er) if you prefer traction and float. And if you want to get away, it has mounts for three bottles and a rear rack. This is the bike for the rider who wants trail manners with the low fuss ownership of a hardtail.
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Niner RIP 9 RDO
Niner’s RIP 9 RDO gets a ground-up overhaul for 2019. The biggest surprise is the 27.5-inch-wheel frame alongside the expected 29er—each version is dedicated to one wheel size. The new RIP has 140mm of rear travel with a 150mm Fox 36 fork on the front and a 10mm reduction in travel at both ends from the outgoing RIP, which helps the new version pedal more efficiently. The result is one of the finest and most well-rounded trail bikes we’ve tested. It’s responsive, yet stable, and it can handle big sends while remaining playful on the smaller stuff. We’ve seen lots of new trail bikes recently. They’re all great in their own way, but this Niner is one of the best we’ve ridden.
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Santa Cruz Tallboy
The all-new Tallboy—and its Juliana sibling—gets many of the features that rolled out in the Megatower and Hightower 29ers earlier this year. The new generation four Tallboy adds still more travel—120mm rear, 130mm front—with even longer and slacker geometry, but it still fills the same role in Santa Cruz’s line. As the definition of lightweight trail 29er has evolved, so has the Tallboy. Visually, the biggest change to the Tallboy 4 is the switch to a lower link-driven shock—previous Tallboy models drove the shock off the upper link. This design began with Santa Cruz’s gravity bikes and has trickled down to shorter-travel models ever since. It also lowers the Tallboy’s center of gravity, and makes it look compact with a low-slung stance. The Tallboy has two geometry adjustments. A flip chip in the lower suspension link adjusts head angle +/- 0.2 degrees, seat angle +/- 0.3 degrees, and BB height +/- 3mm. It also has a small effect on shock rate: In the low setting it is a bit more progressive, in the high setting more linear. Put it all together and you get a bike that helps redefine what can be done with just 120mm of travel.
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BEST NEW XC BIKE
Trek Supercaliber 9.9
Trek’s new Supercaliber is the latest attempt to create the ultimate XC race bike by merging the best attributes of a hardtail (stiffness, low weight) and full suspension (traction, comfort, control) frame into one. And based on our rides, it’s the closest yet to that best-of-both-worlds machine with 60mm of rear travel. Trek’s IsoStrut design places a Fox Float shock into a tube—both ends of that tube are bolted to the underside of the SuperCal’s top tube. At the top of the seat stays is a sleeve (Trek calls it a carriage) that slides over the bolted-in tube. Cutouts in the tube allow a cross bolt to pass through the sleeve, the tube, and the rear shock eyelet. Trek says this design eliminates rotation around the shock shaft, and side-loading the shaft so the bike has the stiffness and feel of a hardtail, but with real full suspension for better comfort and control. And based on back to back testing with a hardail, the Supercaliber is everything it was designed to be.
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TONS OF TECH AND IN-FRAME STORAGE
Trek Fuel EX 9.9
Trek’s Fuel EX was an excellent lightweight trail bike, with notes of XC race in its bouquet. For 2020 the EX effectively underwent a training montage worthy of an ’80s movie and emerged bigger and badder. It is up to 140mm travel in the front (still 130mm in the rear), longer, slacker, stiffer, and comes with bigger tires. The new EX is a trail bike with hints of enduro. Yep, it’s heavier: The top-of-the-line model weighs about 29 pounds on our scale. But it also has a trap door and hidden storage in the down tube. The longer and slacker geometry provides a more centered feel when you’re working the trail with the saddle dropped. The bike’s steering is light, and the bike climbs technical singletrack very well—a nice suspension platform and crisp pedaling manners help. On downhills, it’s very sure-footed and even rides a little bigger than its travel and geometry might suggest. There are a lot of great trail bikes you can buy right now. This EX makes a strong case that it’s one of the very best.
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BEST FOR NAILING THE JUMP LINE
Kona Process 153 29
It’s tough not to have fun on a 160/153mm trail bike, but if your idea of fun involves jibbing, popping off, and generally challenging the trail’s obstacles with other unnecessary maneuvers, you’ll want this Kona Process. Its RockShox suspension feels buttery from the box, and at 31 pounds, the bike is pleasingly flickable around tight corners. The Process never feels too aggressive; more rip than race, its playful handling encourages you to try that jump line you’ve been too scared to attempt. (There’s plenty of travel for when you case a landing, as we did repeatedly during testing.) I’s also an impressive pedaling platform, and climbing technical cross-country trails is made easier by the suspension’s slow-speed sensitivity to rocks and roots. Our tester says he’s definitely ridden faster-feeling bikes on local trails, but none more versatile and consistently amusing.
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BEST BUDGET HARDTAIL
Rocky Mountain Growler 20
Not long ago, you had to pay considerably for a mountain bike you could trust on anything but the smoothest trails. And there were almost zero bikes that cost less than a grand you’d want to take on a big, out-there-adventure ride. But the price of entry is falling and this bike is leading the way: The Growler outperforms more expensive options. You get an aluminum frame with trail geometry, a 120mm coil-spring fork, 27.5×2.8-inch WTB Ranger tires, hydraulic brakes, and a Shimano 1×9 drivetrain. It’s everything you need at a price you’ll love.
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BEST BUDGET FULL SUSPENSION
Marin Rift Zone 27.5
We loved the Rift Zone 27.5 (formerly named Hawk Hill) so much we gave it an Editors’ Choice Award in 2018. We couldn’t find a better, more versatile full-suspension bike for the price. This newer (and slightly more expensive) version is even more capable. It gets a one-degree slacker head angle, longer reach, and a dropper post, which is worth every penny of the additional cost. Marin packed this newest model with quality suspension, good parts, and a lively ride. Hit drops, climb mountains, rip downhill; there are few places you can’t go on this bike.
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BEST WOMEN’S TRAIL 27.5
Norco Fluid FS 2
The Norco Fluid FS 2 is an exciting, responsive, and springy ride that, for the price, is one of the best women’s mountain bikes we’ve tried. It has 120mm of good suspension and feels stable and predictable in the rough stuff. The wide, super-knobby, 2.6-inch wide Maxxis Forekaster tires help here. The aluminum frame has a RockShox Deluxe R shock, and the 130mm-travel RockShox Sektor RL fork gives you a bit more give and bounce in the front to pop up and over bigger rocks and logs. You also get a a nice SRAM NX 1×11 drivetrain, dropper post, and SRAM Level T hydraulic brakes—capable parts that help you build skills or get rowdy.
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Santa Cruz V10 29
The V10 is Santa Cruz’s race-proven gravity machine, and this latest version is built around 29-inch wheels. It features 215mm of the brand’s VPP suspension technology. A flip chip allows riders to increase chainstay length (and wheelbase) by 10mm, and the new bike gets an updated suspension tune with a lower leverage rate. The carbon XO build comes with Fox’s 49 Factory fork, with a DHX2 Factory SLS coil shock, Maxxis Assegai 29×2.5-inch tires, and a 7-speed SRAM X01 DH drivetrain. It’s long, low, and with those big wheels and refined suspension, pretty damn unstoppable.
BEST ALL-AROUND FATBIKE
The updated and redesigned Beargrease is a stable, dependable snow-riding machine that comes with rack, pannier, and bag mounts for bikepacking and long-haul racing. The Beargrease is equipped with 4-inch tires but can handle 4.6-, 4.8-, and 5-inch models depending on which fork you choose. Internal sleeved cable routing keeps cables away from the weather and makes maintenance easier. And dropper-post routing lets you set this bike up for technical trails. The drivetrain is 1x specific, which will be familiar to many mountain bikers.
BEST BUDGET ENDURO
Transition’s Sentinel 29er is something special: a mid-travel 29er that rips like an enduro bike. The magic comes from Transition’s Speed Balanced geometry, which pairs a slacker head-tube angle with a reduced offset fork to better balance the rider’s weight between the wheels. There’s also the very capable FSR-style four-bar-link suspension mated to a Fox Float X shock that delivers 140mm of trail-hugging, jump-boosting performance. The 160mm-travel Fox Float 36 Rhythm fork gives this bike a decidedly gravity-friendly stance. While carbon-frame versions are available, this budget-friendly aluminum model gives you nearly all the performance at an excellent price.
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