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

How We Tested Best Trail Mountain Bikes

Tuesday September 4, 2018
Bikes? Check. Mountains? Check. Lake? You betcha. It's photo time folks.
Bikes? Check. Mountains? Check. Lake? You betcha. It's photo time folks.


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-through. We spend 1-2 months hammering out big rides on these bikes to gain a thorough understanding of their key characteristics and subtleties. We also race these bikes against one another in our timed testing to gather hard data. This article explains our ultra-thorough bike review process.

Bike Riding

Most importantly, 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 two predetermined test courses that average 10-miles each. One of our test trails is a fast and flowy mountain with lots of sandy corners and berms. The other test trail is brutally rocky and physical. These rides are critical for understanding the key strengths and weaknesses of each bike.

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

Benchmark Testing

Our timed benchmark testing allows us to gather hard data on all of our bikes. This information often provides interesting insight challenges our initial perceptions. Our testers are asked to be robotic and exert an exact effort on each lap. The key for accurate times is for riders to put down a fast, but repeatable effort.

You will notice that our test bikes went through our benchmark testing in groups. Our bikes were grouped by their original test class before we assembled this all-encompassing trail bike review. For example, all of the hardtails were benchmarked against one another. The Consumer-direct bikes (YT, Commencal) were benchmarked against each other.

Due to weather and seasonal constraints our short-travel and hardtails underwent benchmark testing in a different location. Since the bulk of our time trials were completed on the same course, we outline those trails below.

Climbing Course

The timed climbing course is a loose and rocky course that takes an average of 2 minutes and 43 seconds to complete. The trail is quite physical and requires a delicate balance of power and finesse. The cruxes of this course are two technical switchbacks that have riders struggling for traction on decomposed granite.

Downhill Course

The downhill course is a sandy singletrack that takes approximately 3 minutes 38 seconds. This trail features a few fast straightaways with a couple technical rock pinches and chutes. The end of this trail features a harsh G-Out at the bottom of a steep rock roll that does a wonderful job testing suspension.

The Freelap Microchip
The Freelap Timing System transmitter

Timing Equipment

We use the Freelap Timing System to capture our times and is accurate down to .01 seconds. We attach a radio microchip to the handlebars of each bike. It captures the start and finish times.

Minimizing Interference

We go to great lengths to make sure we are getting accurate, objective, information.

Laps Per Day — We have found that there is a certain number of laps testers can perform at the same output and precision level before they slow down. Four uphill laps and six downhill laps are our limit.

Bike Order — We ride each bike on two different test days to equalize any drift in rider or trail condition. If a tester rides a bike first on one day, it will be the last bike on the next day.

Human Factor — We take great precautions to account for the human factor. This includes hiding times to take out tester to tester competition, using trails that testers are extremely familiar with, wearing the same kit each day, and test on the same trail conditions each day.

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 weeks and weeks of time on our bikes and have developed their own opinions. We meet with our testers to chat about key differences and come to conclusions about our bikes.

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

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 seatpost. 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 front axle to rear axle.

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