The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How We Tested Best Trail Mountain Bikes

Sunday June 2, 2019
Testing trail bikes with members of our test crew.
Testing trail bikes with members of our test crew.

Background


Purchasing a new mountain bike is an expensive decision. Buying the right bike can take your experience to the next level. Also, it is far more financially efficient and environmentally friendly to buy the right bike and ride it for years. Our goal is to offer the most thorough mountain bike reviews on the planet to help you find the perfect bike. Our testing process is rigorous and ultra-thorough. We spend 1-2 months hammering out big rides on these bikes to gain a complete understanding of their key characteristics and subtleties. This article explains our thorough bike review process.

Our test laps feature healthy doses of chunk.
Our test laps also offer plenty of buffed out flowy terrain.

Riding


We gather a diverse group of bike-obsessed testers to put these bikes through their paces. We ask each tester to take these bikes on multiple trail rides on familiar test courses that average 10+ miles. Our XC style test laps feature the full range of riding conditions, climbs, and descents, buff to rough, we aim to test each bike in every condition and terrain. When possible, we switch between test bikes frequently for a more direct side by side comparison.

We ask our testers to keep detailed notes on each bike. They update their notes after each ride to monitor how their impressions and opinions change throughout our testing period.

Fun Factor


We ride bikes for fun, and we assume that you do too. Rating the amount of fun you have while riding a bike is relatively subjective in nature. We ask our testers to score each bike based on their impression of how fun a bike is to ride relative to other models they've tested. How much fun you have on a bike is influenced by many factors. Were you grinning ear to ear at the bottom of each descent? Did you clean that climb you've never made it up before? Some bikes are more fun to ride than others while some are kinda boring and leave you wanting. We do our very best to assess this.

You've gotta get up to get down  our favorite bikes tend to climb well.
You've gotta get up to get down, our favorite bikes tend to climb well.

Climbing


Since the majority of time spent riding trail bikes is going uphill, we feel that the climbing performance of a bike is critical. To test the climbing performance of each model, we ride them uphill, a lot. We ride them up climbs ranging from gradual to granny-gear steep with a good mix of smooth and technically challenging sections. We ask our testers to focus on each bike's specific climbing characteristics and to consider the way the bike's geometry and component specification relate to its uphill prowess.

We take each test to and sometimes beyond its limits on the descents.
We take each test to and sometimes beyond its limits on the descents.

Downhill


More often than not, people have a major preference for riding their bikes downhill. For most people, that's the whole reason they rode up the hill in the first place. In an effort to determine the way each bike handles on the descents, we ride them as if they were our own on a huge range of terrain. We rip down flow trails, smash through rock gardens, and try to find each bike's limit. We focus on how each bike handles at a range of speeds, where they excel and where they falter. The best bikes have no weaknesses and perform well at all speeds and in all situations. We ask our testers to focus on things like geometry, suspension performance, and component specification and relate those factors to each model's ride characteristics.

Metrics and Final Rankings


We ask testers to not discuss test bikes until the end of the testing process. At that time, our riders have had weeks of time on these bikes and have developed their own opinions. We meet with our testers to chat about key differences and come to conclusions about each bike.

We rank each bike on their relative skills/personalities on four metrics. Fun factor is worth 25% of the score, climbing, and descending skills are worth 35% each, and ease of maintenance is weighted at 5%.


Measuring Bike Geometry


Geometry is one of the most important factors influencing the performance of a bike. There is no industry-wide accepted method to measure bikes. We standardize our information by measuring each bike ourselves. These are the measurements referenced in our reviews. Our bike measuring toolkit includes a Park Tool digital scale, a digital angle gauge, sticky notes, tape, a laser beam, a six-foot box beam level, a tape measure, a digital angle gauge, a grease pen, and a six-foot and a three-foot straightedge.


Effective Top Tube Length- We take our six-foot level and straight edge to measure the level distance between the center of the head tube and the center of the seat post.

Reach- We hold a straight edge from the center of the head tube and center of the seat post. We then use a laser to bisect the bottom bracket with a vertical beam. We measure from the point where the laser crosses the straight edge forward to the center of the head tube. That is the reach measurement.


Head Tube Angle- We hold our Intercomp Digital Gauge and against the forward-facing portion of the fork stanchions and lowers to find the head tube angle.

Seat Tube Angle- We run an extended digital protractor goniometer angle finder through the center of the bottom bracket up to the effective top tube mark on the seat post. This finds a consistent seat tube angle between test bikes despite different designs.


Bottom Bracket Height- We measure from the ground up to the center of the bottom bracket.

Standover Height- We measure our standover height 7-inches in front of the bottom bracket. This is the point where riders actually straddle the frame. We set the laser beam up there and measure from the ground up to the top tube.

Chainstay Length- We measure the distance between the rear axle and the center of the bottom bracket.


Wheelbase- We use the six-foot straightedge to measure the bike from the front axle to rear axle.

Weight- We use our Park Tool Digital Scale to weigh each bike without pedals.

There's a lot to consider when purchasing a new bike. We test them so you don't have to.
There's a lot to consider when purchasing a new bike. We test them so you don't have to.

Conclusion


There's a lot consider when deciding on your next mountain bike and choosing the right one can make a huge difference. We hope that our testing process and detailed comparative reviews help you find the right model for your riding style, terrain, and budget.