The 10 Best Mountain Bikes of 2017
Which mountain bike is right for you and your wallet? We researched 100 bikes, bought 21 of the best and spent a year testing them to help you find the right one. In today's world of frequently updated superbikes and caladescoping categories, buying a bike can require a research PhD. Hence, we took our test bikes to school. We bashed the enduro bikes up and down rock gardens, took the trail bikes for marathon tours of our favorite singletrack, and rode hardtails and short-travel trail bikes above their supposed pay-grade. We also raced bikes in each category against one another, completing over 600 timed laps. What we found tossed some of our assumptions over the bars. While riding any bike is fun, riding the right one takes the experience to the max. Keep reading for a breakdown of our favorite test bikes and the MTB purchase decision process.
Best Aggressive Trail Bike
Yeti SB5.5 2017
Category — Walking the line between Enduro and Mid-Travel Trail
Smooths over the roughest rock gardens
Freight train fast
Aggressive enough for enduro, Efficient enough for trail
A lot to drive up smooth climbs
Takes the trail a tad too seriously
Our reigning king of challenging singletrack, the Yeti SB5.5 is exactly what we want in an aggressive trail bike. It can tackle enduro races and rally mountainsides as your daily driver. Armed with 140mm of Switch Infinity travel, the SB5.5 is stable and confident on descents, urging you to attack heavier lines. If you're working enough to afford this one, it wrings enough extra fun out of every ride to earn its keep. Unless you're shralping rough trails regularly, or want to be, the burly 160mm Fox 36 fork and 29 x 2.5" front tire might be overkill. While the SB5.5 is a pleasant pedaler and composed climber, the front end is a lot to haul up smoother climbs. It ascends well on rough ones. If you're benefiting from the aggressive setup, it's worth the extra work.
Read Full Review: Yeti SB5.5 2017
Best Enduro Descender
Santa Cruz Nomad 2016
Category — Heavy Enduro
Ridiculously confidence inspiring
Plays harder the faster you go
Excellent rear suspension
Not the best climber, but not bad
We reviewed the 2016 Santa Cruz Nomad V3 and it dominated our grueling downhill enduro tests. The Nomad V3 delivers more stability and grace under pressure than any other enduro bike we tested. The faster you push the Nomad, the more confident and playful it gets. It spins up smooth uphills easily enough and, with hard work, can bash through obstacles on technical climbs as well. The 2017 version got a burlier fork and tires on the same V3 frame, making it even more prone to slay descents. Our current review is relevant to the 2016 and 2017 V3 models. Santa Cruz released a redesign in early June 2017, the 2018 Nomad V4. The V4 is a different beast, leaning towards a mini-downhill monster. It's more gravity focused than ever, with 170mm of rear travel and an adjustable head tube angle that ranges from a laidback 65.0-degrees to a very slack 64.6. We'll be testing the 2018 Nomad out on the trails soon. Stay tuned to find out whether V4 design takes on descents as advertised and if it sacrificed any uphill performance as a side-effect.
Read Full Review: Santa Cruz Nomad 2016
Best Buy Trail Bike
Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018
Category — Aggressive/Mid-Travel Trail
Shaken by enduro-grade terrain
The Rocky Mountain Altitude is a spectacularly well-rounded aggressive trail bike. This aluminum framed fun-machine can motor uphill with the skills of a short travel trail bike. Rocky Mountain's Smoothlink suspension design provides a superb pedaling platform allowing for the efficient use of rider energy. Downhill performance is stable and predictable. Modern, long and low geometry makes the Altitude formidable when aimed down steep descents. This bike gets a bit skittish when it is over its head on enduro-grade burly descents. On top of its superb skills on the trail, the Altitude Alloy 50 carries an impressive price tag making it an excellent value. $3399 buys you a Shimano XT 1x11 drivetrain, SLX brakes, Fox Transfer dropper post and Fox suspension front and rear. Wide rubber, dialed geometry, impressive components make the Rocky Mountain Altitude a no-brainer for the budget conscious buyer.
Read First Look Review: Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018
Best Playful Trail Bike
Ibis Ripley LS 2017
Playful to the max
Wickedly sharp handling and cornering
Not a zippy climber
Shuttering pedal strikes on rocky climbs
UPDATE — 3rd Generation Ibis Ripley LS 2018 Released
Four testers spent three days demoing the redesigned 2018 Ripley. See a summary of the updates below, find all the details in our 2018 Ibis Ripley LS First Look
Category — Short-Travel Trail
The Ibis Ripley LS is the epitome of a fun-loving short-travel bicycle. This is as true of the 2018 3rd generation redesign as it is of the 2017 Ripley LS that won our editors' choice award. Both versions shine once riders accumulate some speed heading downhill. Handling is sharp and responsive, encouraging fun behavior. Cornering skills are impressive and more than one tester noted this bike conjures up the elusive "doesn't ride like a 29er feel". The Ripley remains composed at high speeds so long as you don't push it beyond it's trail bike comfort zone. The 2018 model year brings the 3rd generation Ripley LS to the market. The new iteration features a stiffer and wider rear triangle that can accommodate 29 x 2.6" tires. The 2018 Ripley LS provides some performance advantages over the 2017 iteration. The 29 x 2.6" tires and stiffer rear ends offer a noticeable, if minor, improvement in ride quality. So far we've noticed fewer pedal strikes while climbing rocky terrain. That said, if a retailer is offering savings on the outdated 2017 Ripley, we recommend pulling the trigger on the older version. It is hard to pass up a deal.
Read Full Reviews: Ibis Ripley LS 2017, Ibis Ripley LS 2018
Best All-Around Short-Travel Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
Category — Short-Travel Trail
Playful and fun to air
Corners like a champ
Takes hits above its weight class
Poor component spec
No dropper seatpost
The Tallboy is a well-rounded 29er that doesn't suffer anywhere on trail. The Tallboy climbs quickly and efficiently, corners easily and descends with more confidence than it's short-travel status suggests. While the Tallboy can certainly take on some big lines, its 110mm of Virtual Pivot Point suspension and 120mm RockShox Recon Silver fork can only do so much. Your body takes more of a beating than it would on a longer travel bike. On the flip side, the Tallboy is a lighter, faster climber than longer-legged rigs. The bright yellow party wagon is also more playful. If you find yourself on moderate trails or a lot of long climbs with the occasional hard-hitting descent, this may be the ride for you. The Tallboy's lower price point means it comes with lower quality components. The high caliber frame design justifies the price, but you'll probably end up sinking money into a dropper seatpost, burlier back tire, and higher quality fork.
Read Full Review: Santa Cruz Tallboy 2017
Best Switch Bike
Pivot Mach 429 Trail 2017
Category — Short-Travel Trail
Very capable trail bike
Fun with 27.5+ wheels, efficient as a 29er
Gets bounced around on its narrow 29" tires
Pay attention to the fit
With its 29-inch wheelset the Mach 429 Trail is a straightlaced gunner that simply wants to get where it's going. Climbing better than any other bike in the Trail Bike test, it's efficiency stands out. The Mach 429 Trail descends with more authority than you'd expect from a bike with 116mm of rear travel with sharp handling skills opening up line choices. On the downside, it's light enough to get bucked around in chop more than we'd like. Its narrow rims and tires don't help. As a 27.5+ ride, it's personality perks up. Extra traction makes the Mach 429 Trail a more comfortable and aggressive descender. It launches easier than the 29er iteration. You get options with the Mach 429 Trail, a cross-country feeling 29er or a confident 27.5+ trail bike with enhanced downhill performance.
Read Full Review: Pivot Mach 429 Trail 2017
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Category — Hardtail Trail
Ridiculous fun levels
Very confident bike
Excellent dropper seatpost
Feels too sluggish for long climbs
Annoying chain slap
The Fuse is a warm welcome back to the hardtail category for our long-time riders. Hardtails have a suspension fork to cushion the front, but the rigid backend is harsh. The jarring feel teaches new riders to pick smoother lines and to absorb hits with soft knees and elbows, but it can beat you up and wear you out. The Fuse's 27.5 x 3" Specialized Purgatory and Ground Control plus-size tires take the edge off. They also offer infinite traction. The combination of mid-fat tires and the bike's balanced geometry keep it surprisingly stable and confidence inspiring on descents. While it pedals and handles well on the climbs, the extra traction makes it feel sluggish, despite performing well in our uphill time trials. We don't want to grind it uphill all day. Other than that, the three-inch tires don't weigh it down. It's a playful ride with a light feel. For your average after-work ride, the Fuse is a low-maintenance dream bike.
Read Full Review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
How to Buy a Mountain Bike
Buying a mountain bike is no straight-forward endeavor. Terms like mid-travel, short-travel, and enduro are hurled around left and right. It can be downright confusing to figure out where to begin. OutdoorGearLab is here to help you make sense of the mountain bike industry and navigate to the mountain bike that is right for you. Below, we explain bike categories and what type of riding works best for each. Once you've narrowed it down the kind of bike you want, consider things like wheel size (i.e. 26", 27.5", of 29"), tire size (i.e. 2.25" to 3") and whether you want to buy a complete bike or build your own. If you're female, or just like a range of color choices and smaller bike sizes, there's the whole women's bike thing to consider. We walk you through those decisions as well.
Where do you want to ride?
Figure out what type of terrain you spend the majority of your time riding, what kind of riding puts the biggest grin your face, and what kind of terrain you want to ride as you progress. Got it? Read on.
If you like long smooth climbs and don't care for comfort, you might like a Cross-Country Bike.This probably isn't you. Folks interested in a cross-country bike are likely planning on racing and value pedaling and climbing speed over comfort and fun. Those who ride very smooth and buff trails might enjoy the outright efficiency of these bikes. Make no mistake, a cross-country bike lacks the confidence to hit high speeds and charge descents without feeling under-gunned.
If you'd rather just get out and ride than attack steep or rough terrain regularly, check out the Hardtails.Hardtail trail bikes are a great choice for the set-it- and-forget-it-crowd. These bikes are simple and don't require the recommended annual service of a rear shock and suspension bearings and pivots. With trail-focused semi-aggressive geometry, a hardtail trail bike is perfectly capable of getting a little rad. Less experienced riders will gain valuable skills on these squish-less bikes that teach proper form. Since hardtails require less technology, they are typically less expensive than full suspension rigs. A lower price point makes hardtails an excellent option for passionate riders on a budget. Riders who prefer to attack steeper and rougher terrain with any regularity should look into a full-suspension bike.
If you value variety, efficient climbing, and aren't hell-bent on slaying descents, a Short-Travel Trail Bike is a solid choice.Short-travel bikes are practical for those looking for full-suspension confidence and comfort without sacrificing efficiency. Riders who like to pound out serious miles will feel comfortable aboard these short-legged steeds. Bicycles in this category would be an excellent option for those who ride flatter terrain or live in mountainous areas but don't want to push the envelope to get aggressive on the descents. Riders seeking a more well-rounded climbing/descending experience might be interested in pulling some more heft with a mid-travel bike.
If you do destroy descents but still, value climbing skills, check out the MTB sweet spot known as Mid-Travel Trail.These bikes are very well-rounded and provide strong performance in all areas. They balance climbing skills and descending capabilities beautifully to create ultimate versatility. Mid-travel bikes are just as comfortable making the occasional trip to the bike park as they are doing a 50-mile trail ride. These bikes are comfortable on the overwhelming majority of trails. This suspension range, 130-150mm, is a sweet spot for a wide range of riders. If you live in a primarily flat or smooth region, these bikes could prove to be overkill. If the highlight of each of your rides is flying down the super-gnar, you should look into an enduro/long-travel rig.
If you bomb technical descents and climb enough to get to them, consider Long-Travel or Enduro.Long-travel or enduro bikes are awesome for those who don't mind carrying some extra bike around in the name of getting rowdy. These bikes are more downhill than uphill focused. While they pedal reasonably well, efficiency is not their best trait. Bike park, gnarly trail rides, shuttle laps, or cross-country rides, these bikes can do it all. Long travel or enduro bikes do require a lot more effort to pedal long distances, and you will not set any climbing records. Those looking find their way onto so freeride lines or park laps will be more than comfortable aboard these shred sleds.
Making Sense of Mountain Bike Categories — Manufacturers produce thousands of mountain bike models each year globally. The industry organizes bike models into categories to keep them straight, identifying the riding style and terrain each bike is most suited for. It is important to note, you can ride any terrain on any bike, it is just a matter of how comfortable and confident that ride will be.
There is, of course, some crossover, but here are some of the most popular and consistent categories.
Cross-country Bikes — Stiff and brutally efficient. Cross-country bikes are either hardtails, meaning they have no rear suspension, or they have about 100mm of rear suspension. A low front end, steep geometry, and narrow tires prioritize pedaling and climbing skills over descending prowess.
Hardtail Trail Bikes — Simple, low maintenance, and speedy. These no-frills bikes do not have rear suspension but feature trail bike geometry. Hardtail trail bikes are relatively well-rounded but require some caution on the descents as they tend to be fairly harsh. These are very efficient pedallers.
Short-Travel Trail Bikes — Squishy and speedy. Short-travel trail bikes feature about 110-130mm of rear wheel travel. These are comfortable bikes for long days in the saddle. Short-travel bikes emphasize retaining efficiency while still allowing riders to descend with full-suspension confidence.
Mid-Travel Trail Bikes — Multi-faceted and fun. These bikes are well rounded squishy bikes with approximately 130-150mm of travel. Mid-Travel bikes balance climbing and descending abilities well and make fantastic daily drivers.
Long-Travel Trail or Enduro Bikes — Aggressive with a focus on the descent. Enduro bikes feature 155-170mm of travel and have the ability to climb reasonably well. While climbing efficiency is decent, the focus is on high speed and rough downhills.
Once you know what know what kind of mountain bike you want, a few more decisions about components will help you narrow down the field considerably.
Wheel Size— Back in the day, MTB wheels were 26 inches. Now, 27.5-inch and 29-inch are far more common on the trail, and the 26-inch bike is all but dead. The benefit of bigger wheels is that they make trail features smaller by comparison. As a result, you can roll over more chunder with less effort. Bigger wheels are also faster and carry speed very well through chunky terrain. The argument for smaller wheels is that they are easier to maneuver and therefore, more fun. For a few short years, many riders thought 27.5-inch wheels were the sweet spot between rollover benefits of 29ers and tossability of 26-inch bikes. Modern frame geometry drastically improved the performance of 29ers, and now they're all the rage. Many frames now offer a few wheel and tire size options. It's still valuable to think through which on you want. We don't know anyone who regularly switches between wheelsets.
Tire Size and Rim Width— Normal tires are slowly getting wider over time, at the moment they tend to run 2.35-inches wide on most trail bikes. More aggressive bikes are now coming with 2.4, 2.5 or even 2.6-inch versions on wider rims. Wider tires offer tons of traction and a little softer ride but provide more resistance when heading uphill. Then, there are your plus-sized, or mid-fat, tires. These run from 2.8-inches to 3-inches. We like the 2.8-inch versions as they offer traction and often give you defined cornering knobs to dig into turns. Three-inch tires give you plenty of grip but a vague cornering feel due to smaller, more uniform knobs. Tires are easy to switch out, rims are much pricier. It's a good idea to ask manufacturers or dealers what range of tires you can run on their rims.
Choosing a Complete Bike Build
All mountain bikes are considered unisex, and, ladies, you can buy any bike you want. Many companies make women's specific bikes, Specialized and Trek are two big ones. Liv is Giant's women's brand. There are also a few women's specific companies, the most prominent of which is Juliana. Some of these bikes feature women's specific geometry (i.e. Specialized and Liv), accounting for a lighter, shorter person with proportionally longer legs. We don't have any evidence that women's specific geometry is necessary. Other brands use the same geometry as the unisex bikes. Juliana, for example, uses the same exact frames as Santa Cruz. These bikes cater to women by downsizing the contact points, i.e. smaller grips, shorter bars, shorter cranks, and a different saddle. Many brands claim the fork and rear shock features women's specific tuning. Most of the women we know ride unisex bikes. If a woman's bike appeals to you, go for it. Otherwise, the rest of them work as well.
How Many Bikes Do you Need
Not many of us enjoy the luxury of having multiple bikes to tackle each trail with a precision weapon. That's why we emphasize short, and mid-travel trail bikes as the do it all bikes for the masses. They are efficient enough on long rides and composed enough headed downhill that they can comfortably handle the majority of terrain you ride regularly. Short-travel just skews climbing and mid-travel balances up and downhill more equally. You can always rent a longer travel ride for a day at the bike park.
This article should give you a good idea of the type of bike that will best suit you and your favorite trails. It should also help you think through some of the big secondary decisions to narrow your search. After that primer, look back at the descriptions of our editors' choice for each of the categories. These bikes are our favorites of the 100 that we researched and 21 that we tested. They're a good place to start. Then, read about how each bike rides according to our team of professional testers. We're continually researching, purchasing and testing new rides to help with your MTB search. We know this is a big purchase decision, and we want to make it easier so you can get out on the trails and to the goods.
— Clark Tate, Pat Donahue
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