We are constantly scouring the internet for the latest and greatest mountain bikes. We buy the most compelling options and ride these bikes as much as humanly possible and push them to their limits. All of this effort to find the absolute perfect mountain bike for you. We ride each batch of test bikes and implement our thorough and scientific testing process to deliver the best information possible about these bikes. Our testers eat, sleep, and breathe mountain bikes and work as hard as possible to scrutinize every minute detail of these bikes. Bike park laps, full-day rides, 5000-foot climbs, we put these bikes through the ringer. We have compiled this list of the best options in each category of bike. In other words, these are the best of the best.
The 10 Best Mountain Bikes of 2018
Best Trail Bike
Yeti SB130 TURQ X01 2019
The SB130 is mid-travel trail slayer that is a fantastic daily driver. This 130mm 29er makes a lot of sense for a huge percentage of riders in a huge number of regions. Whether you frequent fast, rolling, flow trails or all-day big mountain missions, the Yeti has you covered. This bicycle sets you up in an excellent climbing position and delivers top-notch efficiency. Climbing traction is excellent and the rear wheel tracks very well through technical and rough climbs. Downhill performance is impressive and handling is sharp. The aggressive angles and mean front end, the SB130 shreds almost any downhill save for true enduro-grade trails. Yes, this bicycle is expensive. Build kits start at $5,199 and our test bike carries a $7,199 price tag. That said, if you're looking for the best of the best, it might be worth considering.
Buy it if you want a balanced trail bike that climbs very effectively and gets radical on the way down the mountain. The SB130 feels right at home on the vast majority of singletrack. It's a perfect do-it-all bike for.
Read review: Yeti SB130 TURQ X01 2019
Best Women's Trail Bike
Juliana Joplin S Carbon C 2018
The Juliana Joplin is a versatile, balanced and fun bike. The cockpit offers a comfortable stance with an aggressive feel. The Joplin is a solid descender despite its 110mm of rear wheel travel. As with many Virtual Pivot Point with significant levels of anti-squat, the small bump compliance isn't fantastic but stands up very well in the mid-late stroke. This bike offers excellent handling at all speeds thanks to its balanced geometry that avoids going to slack or too steep. A $4799 price tag gets you a dialed frame with a superb design. The components are solid, but we would recommend addressing the rear tire and it could be interesting to run this bike with a 130mm fork instead of the stock 120mm.
Buy it if you ride a wide variety of terrain. This bike is happy on rolling trails, technical trails, and likes to have fun. The Joplin shares a frame with the Santa Cruz Tallboy, which has a stiffer shock tune for heavier riders.
Read review: Juliana Joplin S Carbon C 2018
Best Short-Travel Trail Bike
Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018
The Ibis Ripley LS is the most playful 29-ers we've tested. 29x2.6-inch tires provide copious amounts of grip. Pair the tacky tires with super-sharp handling and the result is a ninja-like bike. Carving down flow trails and ripping through berms is a blast. Changing your line in a hurry is easy and confident. This 120mm bike does have its limits on chunky terrain. This bike was not designed for a steady diet of rocks or chunk. Climbing is impressive thanks to its enormous amount of traction. Working uphill on loose or technical climbs is definitely a strong suit. Efficiency is solid, but the extra-chunky tires aren't particularly fast-rolling. It is still a supremely comfortable climber and spritely pedaler, but it doesn't climb like a race rocket.
Buy it if you love having fun and don't intend on pushing too hard on rough downhills. Riders who live in regions with a lot of flowy and fast trails will love this bike.Read reviews: Ibis Ripley LS 2018
Best Quiver Killer for 1
Ibis Ripmo GX 2018
The Ibis is a fantastic quiver killer for the aggressive rider. This bike boats impressive climbing abilities and surprisingly sharp handling given its slack geometry. This bike can climb with the mid-travel crowd while providing aggressive downhill performance. The Ripmo can truly do-it-all and it does it well. Despite having 145mm of rear wheel travel, the rear end of this bike feels very athletic. Given the slack head tube angle and slack head tube angle, this bike has a longer wheelbase. This wheelbase creates excellent stability at speed but doesn't deliver the most playful ride.
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is another excellent quiver killer. The Santa Cruz has more conservative geometry and feels a bit more like a beefed up trail bike rather than an enduro bike. This makes the Hightower LT a great choice for longer rides.
Read Review: Ibis Ripmo GX 2018
Best Quiver Killer 2
Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
The 2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a well-rounded quiver killer. Like the Yeti SB5.5, the LT is efficient enough for everyday trail riding but capable enough for the enduro start gate. The Hightower LT shreds downhill with confidence and composure. This bike reacts very well in the mid-late stroke of its travel. It is a bit harsh on small bumps where the anti-squat has a negative effect. This bike is s a capable all-day climber as long as you like a super-firm pedal platform compared to a more active suspension system.
The Hightower LT is a bit more capable and supportive on aggressive descents compared to the Ibis Ripmo. The Santa Cruz may lack the super burly front end of the Ibis but the rear end feels significantly more supportive on bigger impacts.
Read Review: Hightower LT 2018
Best Trail Bike Under $2500
Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 2018
The Canyon Spectral is a very well-rounded aggressive trail bike. This aluminum fun-machine can motor uphill confidently. Canyon's Triple Phase Suspension design provides a reliable pedaling platform with excellent traction. Modern, long and low geometry makes the Spectral formidable when aimed down descents. The bike is a stable and predictable descender that provides quick handling. On top of its superb skills on the trail, the Spectral AL 6.0 carries an impressive price tag, making it an excellent value. For $2,399 you get a SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain, SRAM Guide brakes, KS Lev dropper post and a RockShox Pike fork. A bit heavy for the longest of rides, the Spectral also gets skittish on enduro-grade burly descents. This bike can get aggressive, but it isn't a pure enduro bike.
Buy it if your rides are not excessively long and if you moderate your exposure to ultra-steep and punishing rock gardens. Wide rubber, dialed geometry, and impressive components make the Canyon Spectral a no-brainer for the budget conscious buyer.
Read Review: Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 2018
Best Enduro Descender
Santa Cruz Nomad R 2018
The 2018 Santa Cruz Nomad V4 lives for frightening high speeds and steep trails. This new iteration of the classic long-travel bike features more travel, reworked suspension linkage and adjustable geometry. The result? Pure, unadulterated downhill performance that is comfortable at the bike park or blasting shuttle laps. Climbing abilities are less than impressive. This long-travel bike has a mini-downhill feel and the uphill experience suffers dearly as a result. It is possible to power this bike up any trail, it simply requires patience and a whole lot of effort.
Buy the 2018 Nomad if you're looking for an extremely downhill dominated experience. This is a great option for the rider who frequently shuttles or rides lift-accessed terrain. This is also a great choice for those who own a sporty trail bike and want a long-travel bike for the quiver. The Juliana Strega is the women's version of this bike with lighter shock tuning. Both the Nomad and Strega are available in an extra small frame size.
Read review: Santa Cruz Nomad R 2018
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018
The Fuse is a warm welcome back to the hardtail category for our long-time testers. A hardtail's 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. It offers a playful ride with a light feel. For your average after-work ride, the Fuse is a low-maintenance dream bike. While the Fuse pedals and handles well on the climbs, the extra traction makes it feel sluggish. The bike performed well in our short uphill time trials, but we don't want to grind it uphill all day. It's not a problem on your average two-hour ride.Buy it if you want a grab-and-go bike to usher you into the sport with confidence or a low-maintenance addition to the quiver.
Read review: Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018
Best Fat Bike
Trek Farley 5 2018
The Trek Farley 5 is a fast rolling and aggressive fat bike. This monster truck rolls on 27.5x4.5-inch tires while most traditional fat bikes use 26x4-inch or 26x5-inch tires. As a result, the Farley mows down technical trails. The huge tires carry speed over chattery and chundery sections of the trail while keeping out of bomb holes. Whether your riding snowy trails or sloppy mud, the Farley crushes. Climbing is solid once you get the big wheels rolling. It should be noted that given the Farley's straight line and high-speed attitude, it is not the most playful bike. Our test bike had a solid build kit and includes A Shimano Deore 1x10 drivetrain and Bontrager Gnarwahl tires.
Buy it if you want a fat bike that gets aggressive. There are better options for bikepacking use or mellow cruises on snowpacked trails, but if you want to go fast, the Farley is a great choice.
Read review: Trek Farley 5 2018
Best Electric Mountain Bike
Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie 2018
The Turbo Levo is a dialed electric bike that offers sharp handling, great battery life, and sleek styling. The Specialized was the most nimble bike among electric bikes. The battery and motor are tucked into the frame and keep a low center of gravity for confident and stable downhill performance. The 3-inch Specialized Butcher tires offer loads of traction on most trail surfaces. One weakness is the abrupt cutoff in the motor on the ascent. As soon as the pedals stop turning on the climb, the motor cuts out. This results in an abrupt interruption of momentum. This can be brutal in technical zones. At $5500, the build kit on our Comp model was mediocre.
Buy it if you want a well-rounded electric bike with a well-sorted battery and motor.
Read review: Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie 2018
How to Buy a Mountain Bike
Purchasing a mountain bike is an expensive endeavor and can be scary. Slapping down the credit card for a large purchase requires serious research. All of this research can bring to light loads of jargon and terms. Terms like mid-travel, short-travel, and enduro are thrown around all the time. OutdoorGearLab is here to make sense of it all.
We will explain the different types of mountain bikes and what they are designed for. Once you settle on a category of bike, you will need to consider wheel and tire size. 29-inch, 27.5-inch, plus sized, they all have strengths and weaknesses. Female riders have to decide if they need a women's bike or if they can just tweak a unisex bike to fit them better. We will walk you through all of these decisions.
Where do you want to ride?
It is very important to be realistic about what kind of terrain you want to ride. Determining what sort of trails you have in your hometown is important. In addition, it can be worth considering if you will be reguarly traveling to bike parks or trail centers often.
Cross-Country Bikesare very much a niche category. If you are reading this, chances are these bikes probably aren't for you. Folks interested in a true cross-country bike are likely thinking about racing and value weight and efficiency over fun, comfort, and practicality. These bikes are fun on a quite limited range of trails. Stiff and brutally efficient, cross-country bikes are either hardtails, meaning they have no rear suspension, or they have about 100mm of rear suspension. Steep geometry, a low stem, and firm and uncomfortable performance are features of these bikes.
Riders who gravitate to very smooth trails might enjoy the outright efficiency of these bikes. If you want a playful ride or live where the trails have roots and rocks, these probably aren't the best choice. A short-travel trail bike is almost as efficient while offering a far more fun and capable ride.
Trail Hardtailsare a great option if you'd rather just get out and ride than attack steep or rough terrain regularly. Simple, low maintenance, and speedy — these no-frills bikes do not have a rear suspension but feature more aggressive trail bike geometry. As a result, they are very efficient pedallers that and are perfectly capable of getting a little rad. Less experienced riders will gain valuable skills on these less forgiving bikes, which benefit from excellent line choices and proper form. Hardtail trail bikes are relatively versatile but require some caution on the descents as they tend to be somewhat harsh. Riders who prefer to attack steeper and rougher terrain with any regularity should look into a full-suspension bike.
Since hardtails require less technology, they are usually less expensive than full suspension bikes. A lower price point makes hardtails an excellent option for passionate riders on a budget. If you think these are the bikes for you, check out these five trail focused hardtails.
Short-Travel Trail Bikesare excellent if you value variety, efficient climbing, and aren't hell-bent on slaying descents. Short-travel trail bikes feature about 110-130mm of rear wheel travel. They 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 this seems like the balance of bike skills you've been looking for, check out the 110 to 130mm options in our constantly updated Trail Bike Review. Travel numbers appear in Suspension & Travel row of our Test Results and Ratings Table.
Mid-Travel Trail Bikesare an MTB sweet spot perfect for anyone who destroys descents but still values climbing skills. These bikes are very versatile and provide strong performance in all areas. They balance climbing skills and descending capabilities beautifully and are comfortable on the overwhelming majority of trails. Mid-travel bikes are just as comfortable making the occasional trip to the bike park as they are doing a 30-mile trail ride. This suspension range, 130-150mm, works 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're interested in this multi-faceted and fun category, head our ever-evolving Trail Bike Review to read about fantastic daily drivers in the 130 to 150mm range. Find travel numbers in the last visible row of the Test Results and Ratings Table.
Enduro Bikeslove to bomb technical descents and climb just enough get to the top. Long-travel, or enduro, bikes are awesome for those who don't mind carrying some extra bike around in the name of getting rowdy. With 155 to 170mm of travel, they pedal reasonably well, but efficiency is not their defining trait. These bikes are not the best for long distance rides, and will not set any climbing records. Enduro bikes focus on high speeds and rough downhills. Those looking for freeride lines or park laps will be more than comfortable aboard these shred sleds. To learn more, read our review of the top enduro bikes.
Once you know what know what kind of mountain bike you want, a few component decisions will help you narrow down the field considerably.
Back in the day, MTB wheels were all 26 inches. Now, 27.5-inch and 29-inch versions are far more common on the trail. 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 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 they are allowing from more precise and playful handling than ever before. Many frames now offer a few wheel and tire size options. It's still valuable to think through which one you want to commit to. 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 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. To get really geeky about tires, check out our MTB tire review.
Tires are easy to switch out. Rims are a much pricier and time-consuming fix. Anything less than a 25mm rim is now considered narrow for an aggressive trail or enduro bike. We recommend trying to find something in the range of 26mm to 30mm. For less aggressive bikes it's less critical, but traction is traction. We like it on all of our bikes. 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
- Frame. Aluminum vs. Carbon is your first big decision point. Choosing an aluminum frame offers substantial cost savings. It's slightly heavier, flexes more easily, and is somewhat weaker than carbon. If you're just trying to get out on your bike, aluminum is great. Consider carbon fiber if investing in your bike is a priority, and you plan on having it for an extended period. Carbon fiber ages better than aluminum.
- Fork and Rear Shock. A higher end fork and rear shock will be more adjustable to your weight, riding style, and personal preference.
- Drivetrain. It's important to note if the drivetrain has one (1x) or two (2x) chainrings. Two chainrings require a front derailleur, meaning you have shifters on both sides of your handlebars. We like 1x better. It's simpler, easier to shift, leaves more room for a dropper seatpost control, and is less to destroy.
- Wheelset. Higher quality is better, but pay attention to the rim width, which can drastically alter how effective your tires are. Rims are getting wider along with tires, making traction plentiful and bikes more comfortable.
- Seatpost. We highly recommend a dropper seatpost. Here's a review of some of the best. If you're not a convert already, it will change your game more than any other single shift. Sometimes it's worth jumping up to a higher quality complete build to get one and sometimes it makes more sense to get one separately.
The majority of mountain bikes are considered unisex models. What makes any bike a women's bike, is whether or not a woman is riding it. The problem with only providing unisex models for both men and women is that these bikes are set up for the average rider. The average rider still skews male and is around 30 pounds heavier than a woman of approximately the same height (according to women's MTB company Juliana and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Men are also taller than women on average. This means that frames can be too big and shock tunes can be too stiff for smaller, lighter riders.
Several bike manufacturers address this issue by making women's specific models. Some take a step further and branch off into separate, women's specific companies. Examples of the former include Specialized and Trek. Examples of the latter include Santa Cruz's Juliana and Giant's Liv. It used to be more common to build women's bikes from the ground up with unique geometry. Now most companies provide unisex frames with lighter shock tunes, different colors, and women's specific touch points. These touch points include women's saddles, smaller grips, and sometimes shorter cranks and handlebars.
Liv is the noted exception, foregoing unisex geometry to create unique women's specific frames. We found their Pique SX frame comfortable but less performance-oriented than our favorite women's bike, the Juliana Furtado. The Furtado shares its chassis with the unisex Santa Cruz 5010.
Setting frame design aside, we find sizing and shock tunes to be the most essential elements of a women's mountain bike. First, a bike has to fit. Second, its fork and shock need to respond to small impacts and use their full travel range on larger hits. At that point, you have a functioning mountain bike. We found the lighter tunes on the three women's bikes we tested worked very well for our 100 to 130-pound testers, some of whom have a tough time dialing in the unisex bikes that they ride.
In other words, women just need bikes in smaller sizes with appropriate shock tunes. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of bikes available that fit this description. Companies tweak only a fraction of unisex bikes to make women's specific models. Women can undoubtedly make shocks with stiffer tunes work, sometimes by appealing to the shock manufacturers themselves. It's just harder and time-consuming, a real bummer when you just want to get on your bike and ride.
Consumer Direct vs. Local Bike Shop
Consumer direct is a major buzzword in the mountain bike industry. More and more brands are now selling their bikes directly to the consumer. This cuts out the middleman, which is the local bike shop. With the middleman cut out of the sales chain, companies can sell their bikes at extremely attractive prices. Brands like YT, Commencal, and Canyon are the biggest consumer-direct brands in the USA.
Convenience and savings often come at a cost, and buying consumer direct is no different. Buying a mountain bike a bike shop buys you a relationship with a shop and maybe some small complimentary services. Quick repairs and warranty services will often be conducted for free.
Having a quiver of mountain bikes is the definition of a luxury. A multi-bike quiver can be the best solution to get the most out of this fantastic sport. That said, it certainly isn't cheap. Having a short-travel and an enduro bike will have you covered on the bulk of trails. Since this is somewhat unrealistic, we place a lot of emphasis on mid-travel trail bikes. These are often the best solution as they are comfortable on a huge variety of terrain. Long rides, some shuttle laps, after-work hot laps, these bikes can do-it-all. You can always rent a longer travel bike for the occasional trip to the bike park.
This guide should help make your big mountain bike decision a little bit easier. Be sure to think through the process in its entirety. The most important thing about deciding which mountain bike to buy is to be realistic about your trails, skills, and desires. The above-mentioned list of bikes are the best of the best. Rest assured, OutdoorGearLab will keep buying, riding, and ridiculing the best bikes in the industry to keep this list current.
— Pat Donahue