The Best Trail Mountain Bikes of 2018

There is no doubt that trail bikes are the best option for the majority of the mountain bike population. That said, terms that subcategorize the trail mountain bike can be confusing. Short-travel, mid-travel, hardtail are only a few of the tricky labels assigned to trail bikes. We are here to help you find the very best bike for your riding style and budget. A dozen testers spent one year hammering an enormous range of trail bikes thousands upon thousands of miles in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We pushed them beyond their limits to gain a thorough understanding of each bike's core characteristics as well as important subtleties. If these bikes don't seem rowdy enough, you might be interested in our review of gnar-smashing Enduro bikes. Female rider? Want to learn whether or not a women's bike is right for you? Check out our women's trail bike review.

Read the full review below >

Test Results and Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 24 ≪ Previous | View All | Next ≫
Rank #3 #1 #2 #7 #6
Product
Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018
The Yeti SB5.5 X01 Eagle Turq.
Yeti SB5.5 X01 Eagle 2017
Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential 2017
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Editors' Choice Award  Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award  Best Buy Award 
Price $3,999.00 at Competitive Cyclist$7,199.00 at Competitive Cyclist$5,699.00 at Competitive Cyclist$3,249 List$2,699.00 at Competitive Cyclist
Overall Score
100
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78
100
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82
100
0
81
100
0
71
100
0
72
Star Rating
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Pros Excellent handling, confident cornering, superb traction, spritely feelFastest trail bike overall, rolls over everything, aggressive all-mountain performanceExtremely well-rounded performance, confident and predictable descending, superb climbing abilitiesSharp handling, quick-witted personality, strong climbing skills, snappyHigh fun-factor, super playful, rides like a longer travel bike
Cons Requires an experienced rider to unlock full potential, poor build specificationSlower on smoother climbs, not the most playfulNot the most aggressive long-travel 29er, spendyWeak tire choice, disturbed by super-rough terrainWeak build kit
Ratings by Category Ripley LS NX 2018 SB5.5 X01 Eagle 2017 Hightower LT XE 2018 Meta TR 4.2 Essential 2017 Tallboy D 29 2017
Fun Factor - 25%  
10
0
10
10
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9
10
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9
10
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8
10
0
8
Downhill Performance - 35%
10
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5
10
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10
10
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10
10
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7
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5
Climbing Performance - 35%
10
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9
10
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6
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6
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9
Ease Of Maintenance - 5%
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Specs Ripley LS NX 2018 SB5.5 X01 Eagle 2017 Hightower LT XE 2018 Meta TR 4.2 Essential 2017 Tallboy D 29 2017
Wheel size (inches) 29 29 29 27.5 29
Measured Weight (w/o pedals, Medium) 29 lbs 6 oz 28 lbs 2 oz 30 lbs 2 oz (Large frame) 31 lbs 2 oz (Large frame) 31 lbs 15 oz
Suspension & Travel DW Link - 120mm Switch Infinity - 140mm Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) - 150mm Version 4 (V4) - 130mm Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) - 110mm

Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:
Pat Donahue, Clark Tate, Joshua Hutchens, Cat Keenan, Mike Thomas, Paul Tindal, Curtis Smith, Kurt Gensheimer, Kate Blake, Otto Trebotich

Last Updated:
Wednesday
December 13, 2017

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Best Quiver Killer for Smaller Bumps


Yeti SB5.5 X01 Eagle 2017


The Yeti SB5.5 X01 Eagle Turq. Editors' Choice Award

$7,199.00
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Wheel Size: 29 in | Rear Travel: 140mm

Hard-charging downhill performance
Extremely calm over small bumps
Sluggish climber
Rear end harsh on bigger hits

The Yeti SB5.5 is a hard-charging, aggressive trail bike for those who live for rough terrain. This aggressive, 29-inch machine can ascend technical terrain with impressive composure. The bike's climbing abilities are impressive, and it can ascend technical pitches with authority. Once aimed downhill, the SB5.5 keeps building speed and will not be denied by roots, rocks or deep bomb holes. Wagon wheels, aggressive geometry, and 140mm of Switch Infinity suspension is a recipe for fun. This trail smasher occupies the appealing space between an aggressive trail bike and enduro rig. Because of the stable and hard-charging nature, the SB5.5 lacks a playful attitude. It prefers to be driven at high, ground-shaking, speeds.

Read Review: Yeti SB5.5 2017

The SB5.5 and Hightower LT are both incredibly capable bikes. It's really hard to choose between the two. See our thoughts in the Yeti SB5.5 vs. Santa Cruz Hightower LT discussion below.

Best Quiver Killer for Bigger Hits


Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018


Editors' Choice Award

$5,699.00
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Wheel Size: 29 | Rear Travel: 150mm

Extremely well-rounded
Stands up to bigger impacts
Not quite as aggressive as pure enduro bikes
Slack seat tube angle

The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a well-rounded enduro bike that beautifully balances climbing abilities and descending skills. This 150mm travel 29er feels more like a long-legged aggressive trail bike compared to a full-blown long and low enduro race bike. The geometry put riders in an effective and comfortable climbing position despite a slack seat tube angle. A solid pedal platform makes for a remarkably efficient uphill experience. When pointed downhill, the Hightower LT is confident and responsive. If the going gets super-rad, this bike absorbs big hits with impressive composure. The Hightower LT is a great daily driver for that rider who wants to ride an enormous range of terrain. This high-end performance doesn't come cheap. Our XE test bike retails for $5,699.

Read Review: Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018

Best Playful/Fun-loving Trail Bike


Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018


Editors' Choice Award

$3,999.00
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Wheel Size: 29 | Rear Travel: 120mm

Incredibly playful
Sharp handling
Climbing just mediocre
Relatively easy to overwhelm on downhill
The Ibis Ripley LS is an extremely playful 120mm trail mountain bike that is a prime example of a fun-loving, modern, 29er. This bike attacks the trail with surgical precision and boatloads of traction. Handling is sharp and requires minimal amounts of body language. Climbing abilities are respectable but really shine on loose or technical climbs where the meaty 2.6-inch tires pay dividends. Our $4,000 Ripley LS NX is certainly on the spendy side of the spectrum considering that it is outfitted with a SRAM NX drivetrain and SRAM Level brakes. That said, there is no doubt that this bike provides a decisively high-end ride that will have you smiling ear to ear.

Read Review: Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018

Best Light Duty Trail Bike


Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017


Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 Best Buy Award

$2,699.00
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Wheel Size: 29 (27.5+ Compatible) | Rear Travel: 110mm

Rides more aggressive than travel suggests
Very effective climber
Limited to certain terrain
Nicer builds get expensive in a hurry
The third generation, Santa Cruz Tallboy is a fun-loving and zippy short-travel bike. This shredder has the geometry and attitude to get more aggressive than its 110mm of rear wheel travel suggests. Not only does it have a frolicsome and lively personality, this wagon wheeled speed machine is a swift and efficient climber. Even lovers of longer travel bikes can appreciate the downhill performance provided by the dialed frame design on green to blue terrain. The downside? The Tallboy D that we tested featured some less than desirable components. Higher cost builds address this issue. Regardless, this is an excellent baseline bicycle to upgrade components on over time.

Read Review: Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017

Best All-Around Trail Bike


Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018


Top Pick Award

$3,999.00
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Wheel Size: 29 (27.5+ Compatible) | Rear Travel: 135mm

Very capable descender
Highly versatile
Sluggish slow speed handling
Longer wheelbase can be tricky on switchbacks
The Santa Cruz Hightower is an aggressive and versatile mid-travel trail bike that is confident dabbling in some enduro-grade terrain. This hard-nosed 29er can feed it down gnarly terrain with a sense of confidence and attitude. The Hightower is also comfortable working its way back up the hill thanks to a calm pedaling platform and neutral rider position. There is no mistaking this bike for a shorter-travel rig as its heft becomes apparent at low speeds and through uphill corners. The Hightower feels right at home on an extremely wide range of terrain. This bike is a great companion for the rider who likes to ride a bit of everything.

Read Review: Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018

Best Value All-Around Trail Bike


Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential 2017


Best Buy Award

$3,249 List
List Price
See It

Wheel Size: 27.5 | Rear Travel: 130mm

Sharp handling skills
Enduro-esque geometry on a trail bike
Heavy
Particularly brutal on square edge hits
The Commencal Meta TR 4.2 is a quick-witted trail mountain bike with dialed geometry. The slack angles on this bike make it clear that it is a downsized version of its big brother, the Meta AM. The Meta TR is a slick climber that blends efficiency with excellent handling skills. Despite its weight, this bike can hustle up hills swiftly, leaving the rider with plenty of energy. When it is time to aim downhill, the TR operates with surgical precision. Slicing and dicing your way down the trail is sure to put an enormous grin on your face. Enduro-influenced geometry makes this bike very comfortable at speed. Make no mistake, the Meta TR has only 130mm of travel and attacking super-gnar is not its strong suit.

Read Review: Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential

Best Value Aggressive Trail Bike


Rocky Mountain Altitude Alloy 50 2018


Best Buy Award

$3,399 List
List Price
See It

Wheel Size: 27.5 | Rear Travel: 150mm

Excellent climbing abilities
Easy handling and impressive downhill skills
Shaken easier than other 150mm bikes
Less aggressive than expected
The Rocky Mountain Altitude offers a versatile, well-rounded, ride. This aggressive trail mountain bike is user-friendly and offers easy handling at all speeds. This 150mm all-mountain bike possesses excellent climbing efficiency. The Altitude works its way uphill like it has far less travel. When aimed downhill, the ride is pleasant and predictable. High-speed trails without double black diamond grade rock gardens are a pleasure. The Altitude is more easily overwhelmed by nasty or steep terrain than some other 150mm travel bikes we have tested. That said, this balanced bicycle is sporty and relatively nimble on the vast majority of trails. Best of all, the Altitude 750 we tested features excellent components at an impressive $3,399 price point.

Read Review: Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018

Best Women's Trail Bike


Juliana Furtado R 2018


The 2018 Juliana Furtado R. Editors' Choice Award

$3,899.00
at Backcountry
See It

Wheel Size: 27.5 | Rear Travel: 130mm

Well-rounded trail bike performance
Playful trail manners
Sluggish acceleration
Carbon fiber only
The Juliana Furtado is a lively mid-travel trail mountian bike that boasts nimble and playful manners. The balanced and comfortable cockpit sets riders up in an effective position to grind uphill. The stiff gearing but calm suspension make for quick and efficient climbing. When aimed downhill, this playful 27.5-inch bike bounces and boosts its way down the trail. This bike responds well with minimal rider input. The Furtado has a defined speed limit on rougher terrain where it gets overwhelmed. This high-end performance doesn't come cheap. Juliana only makes carbon fiber frames and our test Furtado R retails for $3,899. The Furtado shares a frame with the Santa Cruz 5010.

Read Review: Juliana Furtado R 2018

Best Hardtail Trail Bike


Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017


Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie Editors' Choice Award

$2,000 List
List Price
See It

Wheel Size: 27.5+ | Rear Travel: N/A

Superb traction
Plus tires take the edge off the harshness
Wide rubber creates drag
Fun on limited terrain
The Specialized Fuse 6Fattie is a well-balanced mountain bike. This bike descends with confidence, climbs swiftly and offers absurd levels of traction. The Fuse is built around spot-on geometry that makes for a comfortable ride on a wide range of trails. The 3.0-inch tires relieve some of the harsh nature of a hardtail mountain bike and offer unbelievable traction when climbing. Gravel, sand, hardpack — these wide tires hook up like velcro. It's tiring to roll velcro uphill all day. This bike is best suited for areas with rolling terrain that lacks 45 minute or longer climbs. The Fuse is a beautifully simple mountain bike that can be appreciated by riders of varying experience levels.

Read Review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017

select up to 5 products
Score Product Price Our Take
82
$7,099
Editors' Choice Award
A quiver-of-one for technical MTB terrain
81
$5,699
Editors' Choice Award
Fantastic descending and climbing skills in a balanced package.
78
$3,999
Editors' Choice Award
Lively trail bike with precise attitude and copious amounts of traction.
75
$3,999
Top Pick Award
High-end mid-travel performance with an aggressive attitude.
74
$3,399
Best Buy Award
Aggressive trail bike that offers efficient climbing and reliable, but limited downhill performance.
72
$2,599
Best Buy Award
An excellent all-around option for a rider who wants to attack a wide range of trail types.
71
$3,249
Best Buy Award
Sharp handling trail bike with extremely well-rounded performance and a peppy feel
69
$3,899
Editors' Choice Award
A balanced cockpit for both climbing and descending this bike is a great daily driver.
68
$6,599
It doesn't run away with downhill performance or fun factor.
64
$2,999
Excellent performance in flow and endurance for long rides, but, while precise steering can get you through rocks, the rear suspension will rattle you.
59
$5,999
A serious performer that's great for uphill and less hard-core descents
58
$3,500
Versatile trail bike that offers great value and a well-rounded but bland performance.
58
$2,575
A nimble ride that's a blast to weave through tricky lines or whip around turns.
57
$6,500
Super fun bike to push your limits on, whether your a newb or a MTB veteran
57
$3,299
Longer travel trail bike with decent descending skills and clumsy climbing skills.
56
$4,799
Sharp handling trail bike that feels like a cross country rig.
53
$2,600
An efficient and precise cross-country minded trail bike.
52
$2,000
Editors' Choice Award
Well-rounded hardtail performance with plus-sized tires to take the edge off.
45
$2,600
A great bike for straight lining speed, the Jet 9's slow steering makes hard work out of tech and turns.
45
$2,600
A more traditional feeling 29er, the Fuel EX can take on a lot of trails, but it isn't the most fun or confident ride.
42
$6,999
It is a rough ride that doesn't come together to be more than the sum of it's parts
40
$2,349
Frolicsome and playful ride that lacks a few important skills.
37
$2,100
This bike sports enormous wheels and carries plenty of speed but lacks agility.
35
$2,199
A traditional aggressive hardtail with a simple and straight forward approach.

Benchmarking provides hard data and lets us pressure the bikes back to back.
Benchmarking provides hard data and lets us pressure the bikes back to back.

Analysis and Test Results


After testing and racing groups of similar trail bikes head-to-head, we cross-examined the lot of them to bring you this all-encompassing trail mountain bike review. Teams of testers rode two dozen trail bikes extensively over a wide range of terrain and ranked them in terms of fun factor (worth 25%), downhill performance (35%), uphill performance (35%), and ease of maintenance (5%). We compare the best of the best below. Read about our testing methods and time trial protocols in our How We Test Article. The bikes' intended applications, build qualities, and prices range widely. We've found that our favorite bikes shine even with less than ideal components and the best are appropriate for a wide range of terrain.

The Ripley's playful manners are unparalleled.
The Ripley's playful manners are unparalleled.

Fun Factor


Thomas Aquinas once said, "Fun factor is critical when evaluating a mountain bike." Okay. Maybe he didn't, but we did. That's why fun factor is worth hefty 25% of the final score.


The Ibis Ripley LS is the epitome of a modern, zippy and fun-loving trail bike. Everything about piloting this 120mm fluorescent fun-wagon is a blast. Take some sharp handling and a quick-witted attitude, mix in a copious amount of traction. The result? Rally car handling that instills confidence to change lines in a hurry and surgically pick your way down trails. The Ripley is happy seeking out boosts and trail-side shenanigans. There are plenty of overused, cringe-inducing, terms used to describe trail bikes in 2017. Phrases like poppy, snappy, and flickable are hurled around all willy-nilly. That said, the Ripley LS is a poppy, snappy and flickable bike that truly doesn't feel like a 29er. The only time the Ripley's fun-level plummets is when we blew past its confidence threshold on rowdy descents. It's a sudden, soul-rattling shift.

The Tallboy is just fun.
The Tallboy is just fun.

The Santa Cruz Tallboy likes to party, and it will not be denied. Riding the Tallboy is a hootin' and hollerin' good time. This is another short-travel 29er that has the ability to alter the opinion of the 29er naysayers whose criticisms get quieter every month. Fine-tuned geometry encourages playfulness on the trail in the form of boosts and manuals. While the Tallboy does not possess the pure playful manners and supreme cornering abilities of the Ripley, its an incredibly capable descender. This bike can and will comfortably tackle more aggressive trails that may seem to be above its short-travel pay grade. A bonus for those of us who don't live for the climb, the Tallboy climbs comfortably and painlessly. Less pain = more fun.

An impressive blend of aggressive and playful  the Meta TR always leaves our testers with a smile.
An impressive blend of aggressive and playful, the Meta TR always leaves our testers with a smile.

The Commencal Meta TR 4.2 is an extremely fun mid-travel bike with a nice balance of capability and a ninja-like feel. Steering is direct and the 27.5-inch wheels allow this bike change directions in a hurry. The semi-aggressive geometry makes this bike feel like a mini-enduro bike while retaining very sharp handling. Navigating rock gardens is a blast as this bike encourages riders to use the maneuverability and quickness to hop in and out of lines. When the going gets rough, this 130mm bike can stand up and feels confident. Rougher black-diamond grade terrain is far more pleasant aboard this stealthy shredder compared to the shorter-travel Ibis Ripley or Santa Cruz Tallboy.

Capable and precise  the Altitude is a tester favorite.
Capable and precise, the Altitude is a tester favorite.

The Rocky Mountain Altitude is extremely versatile bike given its 150mm of travel. Here at OutdoorGearLab, we find versatility to be very fun. The Altitude has a big-bike look but its climbing abilities feel much more like a mid-travel bike. This rig is an efficient climber with a calm pedal platform. Once at the top of the hill, downhill performance is incredibly fun and user-friendly. While the Altitude is not fun on double black diamond terrain, it is a blast up to that point. This Rocky Mountain is significantly more capable than the Commencal Meta TR, Ibis Ripley, and Santa Cruz Tallboy. That said, it sacrifices much of the fun-loving, zippy, handling of the shorter- travel bikes.

Longer legged bikes can't match the playful responses of their shorter travel counterparts  but no one denies that aggressive descending authority makes for a great time.
Longer legged bikes can't match the playful responses of their shorter travel counterparts, but no one denies that aggressive descending authority makes for a great time.

Some of the harder charging options are very fun in their own way. The Santa Cruz Hightower LT and Yeti SB5.5 are both very fun options for those who value aggressive downhill performance. No, they do not climb as well or handle as crisply at slower speeds. That said, when being pushed hard down rough terrain, they are tremendously fun bikes. The Santa Cruz Hightower (non LT) takes a very well-rounded approach that blends trail bike efficiency with an impressively aggressive attitude for a 135mm bike. The Specialized Fuse is a versatile hardtail with fun trail manners. The most fun part of this bike is not having to deal with full-suspension levels of maintenance.

Confident handling at high speeds and extremely comfortable small bump compliance keep the SB5.5 at the top of the rankings.
Confident handling at high speeds and extremely comfortable small bump compliance keep the SB5.5 at the top of the rankings.

Downhill Performance


Shredding downhill is undoubtedly the lynchpin of a fun mountain bike experience. While all of the bikes in this review are categorized as trail bikes, some are more fun descenders than others. Downhill performance is worth 30% of the final score.


The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a long-legged 29er that likes to get rad. The LT stands for long travel as this bike is the beefed up version of the original Hightower. This rig shares many ride characteristics with the Yeti 5.5. Where the Yeti performs extremely well on small/midsize hits, the Hightower LT handles bigger impacts with more confidence. Santa Cruz built this bike with more conservative geometry compared to a pure enduro race bike. As a result, it requires a little more finesse on double black diamond terrain. Hammering the pedals out of corners is extremely effective thanks to a dialed suspension platform. The LT handles better at slow speeds compared to the Yeti 5.5.

The Hightower LT's confidence and stability inspire trail hijinks.
The Hightower LT's confidence and stability inspire trail hijinks.

The Yeti SB5.5 hits far harder than the 140mm rear wheel travel suggests. A 160mm Fox 36 fork paired with a 29x2.5-inch Maxxis Minion DHF make for an extremely mean and burly front end. This bike makes its money when carrying a head of steam and mowing down small to mid-size rock gardens. Steering through high-speed rock gardens is incredibly confident. The rear suspension is impressively calm over smaller braking bumps and rocks but stiffens up towards the end of the stroke. Bigger hits are jarring on the SB5.5 compared to the more capable Santa Cruz Hightower LT. Handling improves when the speedometer rises. No, this bike isn't particularly playful or nimble, but it shreds enduro-grade terrain very well. While this bike slots into the trail category, it certainly edges towards an enduro bike.

Confident and easy to control on descents  the Altitude does have a speed limit on rough terrain.
Confident and easy to control on descents, the Altitude does have a speed limit on rough terrain.

The Rocky Mountain Altitude is a balanced descender that is confident on a wide range of terrain. 27.5-inch wheels and balanced geometry allow this bike to react well at any speed. This user-friendly bike doesn't need to be driven hard to activate its talents like the Hightower LT or Yeti SB5.5. High-speed trials with fewer ultra-steep rock gardens are a blast. This bike can get into trouble on harder black-diamond or double black diamond terrain.

The Hightower's suspension is excellent at absorbing bigger hits.
The Hightower's suspension is excellent at absorbing bigger hits.

The Santa Cruz Hightower is an extremely capable descender amongst mid-travel trail mountain bikes. It places riders in a confident position to work down a steep section of trail and provides excellent stability at speed. It is more difficult to find the Hightower's speed limit compared to the Commencal Meta TR or Specialized Stumpjumper. The suspension keeps the rear end calm and feels excellent on bigger impacts. Our downhill test track featured a couple relatively harsh G-Outs and drops, the Hightower ate it up. There is no-question this bike rides more aggressively than 135mm of travel suggests. Testers are confident taking this bike down the steepest and burliest local trail that often demands an enduro bike.

The Bronson's burly 150mm suspension stands up in technical terrain.
The Bronson's burly 150mm suspension stands up in technical terrain.

The Santa Cruz Bronson slides nicely into that not-quite-enduro and not-quite-trail category. This 27.5-inch bike possesses similar downhill manners to the Rocky Mountain Altitude but requires a more aggressive rider to tap into its full potential. The Bronson is also a bit harder to rattle on black-diamond terrain. The Commencal Meta TR is a zippy and quick handling performer on the descent. While this 130mm bike isn't as comfortable straight lining rock gardens, it still feels pretty aggressive and stable. Commencal built the TR with near enduro geometry on a mid-travel platform. The result is a high level of stability at speed while retaining a nimble feel.

While shorter travel bikes have a leg up on climbing  modern trail bikes are solid climbers across the board  evidenced here by the Hightower LT.
While shorter travel bikes have a leg up on climbing, modern trail bikes are solid climbers across the board, evidenced here by the Hightower LT.

Climbing Performance


While grinding uphill may not be as adrenaline-inducing as charging a descent, it is equally important in a trail mountain bike. Being able to comfortably ascend a long climb is critical in choosing a bike. Climbing performance is worth 30% of the final score. It is no surprise the short travel bikes dominate this category. It is worth noting that some of the longer travel options provide exceptional uphill skills especially when you consider how aggressively they attack the descent.


The Ibis Ripley is a fantastic option thanks to its tremendous levels of traction. The wide 2.6-inch tires provide a nice wide footprint that allows for exceptional performance over loose terrain. Ascending technical terrain is pleasant and effective with a planted and confident feel. Just get a portion of the monstrous amount of rubber onto a rock and the Ripley crawls right up and over. The DW-Link suspension is calm and remains fairly active. Climbing positioning is upright with riders being positioned directly on top of the bottom bracket. While this bike doesn't offer the most outright pedaling efficiency, it is a clear favorite on technical terrain.

The Ripley climbs really well in a wide range of circumstances.
The Ripley climbs really well in a wide range of circumstances.

The Santa Cruz Tallboy is an extremely effective climber. Riders are placed in a comfortable and upright position right on top of the cranks. Seated climbing efficiency is impressive and standing climbing loads are calm with a very minimal amount of pedal bob. There is no need to use the climb switch on this 110mm bike. It rides fairly high in its travel to help keep your pedals from smashing rocks or obstacles. While there is no doubt the Tallboy descends like a slightly bigger bike, uphill abilities are exactly what you expect from a short-travel 29er. Uphill handling is easy and despite the relative heft of our 31-pound aluminum test bike, this rig felt especially light-footed.

Comfortable and efficient  the Tallboy is an excellent climber.
Comfortable and efficient, the Tallboy is an excellent climber.

The Yeti SB4.5 has an extremely feathery feel and efficient approach. This short-travel trail mountain bike leans towards the cross country side of the spectrum. Sitting and spinning uphill is calm and relaxing. Riders sit directly over the crankset allowing for maximum power transfer. The Switch Infinity suspension platform is calm with almost no pedal bob whether standing or seated. Every pedal stroke is productive and is effectively transmitted to the wheels. The light 30:46 gearing on our test bike only contributes to the relaxed climbing motion without demanding too much output. The Yeti SB4.5 is more a efficient climber than the Santa Cruz Tallboy, but it is jostled in the rocks even on the uphills and can't remotely match the Tallboy's downhill talents.

The Camber stays try to its cross-country roots with efficient climbing skills on smoother terrain.
The Camber stays try to its cross-country roots with efficient climbing skills on smoother terrain.

The Specialized Camber is an excellent climber, with its cross-country oriented geometry really paying dividends. The steep 68.5-degree head angle and 76.5-degree seat tube angle puts riders right on top of the cranks. These steep angles make for responsive handling and the shorter wheelbase allows it to navigate uphill switchbacks with ease. The front wheel stays planted and doesn't want to wander. Our test bike featured a 2x10 drivetrain and provided a super-light granny gear. Like the Yeti SB4.5 the Camber can pinball through technical climbs.

Stiff gearing and a firm pedal platform help the Furtado speed up climbs.
Stiff gearing and a firm pedal platform help the Furtado speed up climbs.

The Juliana Furtado is a women's trail mountain bike with a comfortable climbing motion. Modern trail bike geometry creates a balanced and efficient uphill position. Sharp handling makes navigating uphill switchbacks or technical sections of trail reasonably easy. The Specialized Fuse 27.5+ is also a sure-footed climber. While the pure efficiency isn't outstanding for a hardtail, traction really sets it apart. The huge contact patch of the 3-inch tires hooks up well over a wide range of soil types.

The SB5.5 is a long-standing tester favorite  but the Hightower LT takes it to task.
The SB5.5 is a long-standing tester favorite, but the Hightower LT takes it to task.

Yeti SB5.5 vs. Santa Cruz Hightower LT


The Yeti SB5.5 dominated our 2017 enduro and trail testing cycles. Then, Santa Cruz debuted the Hightower LT, introducing even more stiff competition to the long travel 29er field. These two rigs are among our very favorites. These bikes both offer fast rolling and rock smashing 29er characteristics. As a result, they can tackle aggressive terrain with less rear wheel and fork travel than 27.5-inch bikes require. That's why we call these two bikes quiver killers for riders who value climbing skills and the ability to get good and rowdy on descents. We raced our 2017 SB5.5 and the 2018 Hightower LT head-to-head in a shootout.

Santa Cruz Hightower LT
Yeti SB5.5
 

The Santa Cruz Hightower LT can stand up to burlier terrain with more confidence than the Yeti SB5.5. The Santa Cruz remains more composed deep in its travel where the Yeti becomes harsh and feels shaken. The SB5.5 has superior small bump compliance and has a much calmer feel over small to medium size chunder. Initially, we preferred climbing with the firm pedal platform of the Santa Cruz. After extensive testing, we found the active suspension on the Yeti climb just as well or better than the Hightower LT. The SB5.5's more supple suspension allows for better climbing traction and the suspension motion seems to keep the bike moving forward over technical features where the Santa Cruz can get hung up. Bottom line, you can't go wrong with either of these bikes.

It is important to note the entry-level Hightower LT Carbon R is available for $3949 with serviceable components. The least expensive SB5.5 XT/SLX sells for $4999. A $1000 difference in entry-level builds is significant.

The Hightower finished just ahead of the SB5.5 in our downhill time trails. The descent took 3 minutes and 32 seconds on average.
The Hightower finished just ahead of the SB5.5 in our downhill time trails. The descent took 3 minutes and 32 seconds on average.

These two bikes virtually tied in our downhill time trials with the Santa Cruz having the slight edge. Our test course favors trail bikes with its variety of terrain and absence of sustained rough or steep sections.

The SB5.5 took the win on our technical climbing trials. The course took an average of 2 minutes and 48 seconds to complete.
The SB5.5 took the win on our technical climbing trials. The course took an average of 2 minutes and 48 seconds to complete.

Both bikes are excellent climbers. As you can see, the Yeti edged out the Santa Cruz on our ultra-rough and technical climb where the active suspension paid dividends.

All those fancy parts require TLC and a consistent source of revenue.
All those fancy parts require TLC and a consistent source of revenue.

Maintenance


Mountain bikes are expensive toys. They require a fair bit of maintenance to keep them running in top shape. It is best to refer to component product manuals for service schedules. That said, you should expect to service your bike regularly.

Full Suspension vs. Hardtail


There is no doubt that a full suspension trail mountain bike possesses performance advantages in almost every ride category. The one area where hardtail bikes have an advantage is that they don't require pivot/linkage maintenance. You should clean/regrease/torque your suspension pivots multiple times a year to prolong the life of your bearings. In addition, this will keep your bike running far more quietly.

Hardtails like the Specialized Fuse offer straightforward performance with minimal maintenance.
Hardtails like the Specialized Fuse offer straightforward performance with minimal maintenance.

Maintenance Schedule


Just like keeping up with regular car services, smaller, more frequent services can save you big bucks in the long term. Here's a quick and dirty primer:
  • Before Ever Ride — Check tire pressure, brake function, axle torque levels
  • After Every Ride — Clean and lube chain, wipe down stanchions
  • Weekly — Clean off mud and debris, check spoke tension
  • Bi-Weekly — Check for and tighten any loose bolts, check headset for proper tightness, clean pivots, check shock pressure
  • Monthly — Check chain wear and brake pads. Replace as necessary
  • Annually — Complete professional overhaul

Staying on top of maintenance keeps you out of the garage and on the trail.
Staying on top of maintenance keeps you out of the garage and on the trail.

Ease of Maintenance Ratings


Some bikes are more challenging to maintain than others. We ranked the ease of maintenance for the bikes in our test based on the following criteria:
  • Suspension Pivots — How often they need to be serviced, how complicated that service is, and how expensive the bearings are.
  • Fork and Shock — These are the most expensive components on your bike and also the most complicated. Suspension products should be serviced at least once a year. Manufacturers will tell you to replace wiper seals far more frequently. This all depends on trail conditions and how frequently you ride. We rate the forks and shocks based on how often the oil and seals need to be changed, how often it requires a complete rebuild, and how costly and accessible that service is.
  • Dropper Post — The dropper post is a relatively new component. Just like any suspension product, it needs to be serviced periodically. Certain designs require far more attention than others. Mechanical droppers are often preferred as opposed to hydraulic units which have a high number of seals that wear and require replacement. Having a dropper post means more maintenance (and fun). These bikes scored a little lower.
  • Brakes — Brake pads wear and the hydraulic fluid needs to be bled to have air pockets removed from the lines. This should be done annually. We score Shimano brakes a little better than SRAM. Shimano has a long service interval and uses mineral oil and a simpler bleed process. SRAM brakes require corrosive DOT 5.1 fluid and a tricker bleed process.
  • Drivetrain — Chain, cassette, and chainrings all wear together. If you ride 2-3 times a week, expect to replace a chain a couple times a year and other drivetrain components annually. We don't account for drivetrain wear and tear in the rankings.
  • Tires — Different rubber compounds burn at different speeds. Expect to purchase one or two sets of tires per season for your trail mountain bike. We don't consider tires in the rankings.
  • Wheels — It is important to have proper spoke tension on your wheels. It is a good idea to have them trued and tensioned a couple times a year to avoid serious issues. We don't include wheels in the score either.


Our fork and shock ease of maintenance rankings reflect the manufacturers recommended service intervals. According to owner manuals, Fox suspension items require less attention than RockShox. Local mechanics we spoke with stated they have to service Fox products more often than their intervals suggest.

The wrong size can make any bike unpleasant to ride.
The wrong size can make any bike unpleasant to ride.

Fit


It can be difficult to comment on fit specifics as it often boils down to personal preference. Some folks like to ride a slightly smaller frame for added maneuverability and confidence. Other people prefer a larger frame with a shorter stem for stability and extra space to move on the climbs.

Here is a list of bikes that have unusual fit characteristics:
  • Ibis Ripley LS- The Ripley fits very tight in the top tube. Be careful if you are on the taller end of a recommended frame size.
  • Santa Cruz Hightower- The Hightower has a long and spacious top tube. Riders on the shorter end of the size spectrum should be careful and consider a shorter stem.
  • Kona Honzo- Taller riders beware. The low seat tube forces riders to raise the seat quite far to achieve a proper pedaling height. This caused the seat post to be raised above the minimum insertion line on the 100mm KS Eten post.
  • Specialized Stumpjumper- The Stumpjumper is tight in the top tube. Be careful if you are on the higher end of a recommended frame size.
  • YT Jeffsy- Taller riders beware. Consider sizing up if you are on the top end of a frame size.

So. Much. Fun.
So. Much. Fun.

Conclusion


The Ibis Ripley LS and Santa Cruz Tallboy are standouts in the short-travel category. These trail mountain bikes are ideal for the rider who doesn't feel the need to attack particularly rough or steep terrain. The Santa Cruz Hightower and Commencal Meta TR are fantastic mid-travel options. These bikes are fantastic for folks who want to ride a wide range of terrain. The Yeti SB5.5 and Santa Cruz Hightower LTare excellent long travel options. These bikes are best suited for riders who want to ride aggressive black-diamond terrain and don't mind sacrificing some climbing abilities.

Our testers. Always willing to go up the hill just one more time.
Our testers. Always willing to go up the hill just one more time.

The Testers


Our bike-obsessed testers are racers, shop owners, mechanics, and writers. These folks spend their spare time banging out epic rides and exploring new trails. These noble riders put their time into energy into our timed benchmark testings and lay their bodies on the line to push our bikes to the limits. This is hard work, but most importantly, it is fun. We do it all of you.

Pat Donahue


A truck full of bikes and double fisting hydration? Pat's happy.
A truck full of bikes and double fisting hydration? Pat's happy.
Pat loves burly downhills, long climbs, and super technical trails. This native New Englander grew up riding the wet and greasy woods of the Northeast. Pat got into the sport through downhill and freeride but has gone full-bore into the enduro craze in the past several years. He spends an unreasonable amount of time hammering his way up long technical Sierra climbs and aiming it down nasty downhills. Away from the bike, this South Lake Tahoe resident loves skiing, hockey, and seltzer. Pat's currently on a Santa Cruz Hightower LT.

Height and Weight: 6'1 and 190lbs, prefers extra large frame

Joshua Hutchens


The stoke is strong with this one.
The stoke is strong with this one.
Joshua began cranking away on bikes as soon as he could walk. He has serious bike-industry knowledge through his time as a bike shop owner and mechanic. Joshua has served as a cycling guide, racer and now father. This South Lake Tahoe resident lives with his lovely wife Hillary and super cool daughter Penny. Rarely seen on the same bike, he can be found on the local trails or enjoying the Tahoe beaches. He's got a lotta bikes but is usually on his 27.5+ Pivot Mach 429 Trail.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 165lbs, prefers large frames.

Cat Keenan


Cat gearing up for a shred sesh.
Cat gearing up for a shred sesh.
Cat Keenan likes a nice, lung-busting climb but she loves a long, rough, downhill. This enduro-minded tester is happy to power a little more bike uphill in order to party on the way back down. Cat likes to push her skills and likes to attack rock gardens with her ferocious attitude. Off the bike, this South Lake Tahoe resident is a hard-charging skier and can be found on the lake daily. She rocks her Giant Reign.

Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame

Mike Thomas


Mike getting after it as usual.
Mike getting after it as usual.
Mike "Mikey" Thomas has been hammering bikes in Lake Tahoe since 2007. This man is a ninja on the trail and can be found slaying fast and flowy singletrack or smashing bike park laps. This enduro racer travels around to California Enduro Series events all summer and trains hard in the winter. Mikey lives in South Lake Tahoe with his equally hard-charging wife, Tasha. His daily driver is an Intense Carbine.

Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame

Paul Tindal


Put Paul Tindal on a bike and he's happy. As a youngster, Paul rose through the Australian junior and senior rankings as a triathlon and road bike racer. He moved on to mountain bikes when he came to South Lake Tahoe shortly thereafter and started racing in the National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) series. He kept road biking on the side. Paul started racing in the pro category of the California Enduro Series several years ago and now races in the open class. An aggressive rider Paul averages 100 miles of riding a week on his Specialized Crave 29er rigid, S-works Crux or S-works Enduro.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 170lbs, prefers medium frame

Curtis Smith


A southern California shop kid, "Cardio" Curtis Smith had no hope of escaping a bike life. A winner of the Sierra Cup Series and podium finisher of the National XC MTB, Curtis also won the Sacramento Cyclocross Series in the Pro Open class. He races road Cat 2. Now living in South Lake Tahoe with his wife and daughter, Curtis rips up the steep and challenging local singletrack. A second nickname could be "Strava". He's got an impressive list of KOMs, putting in 10 to 30 hours a week on his Santa Cruz Bronson, Trek Emonda SLR, Boone 9, or 2017 Ibis Ripley LS.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 150lbs, prefers medium frame

Kurt Gensheimer


The not-so-angry singlespeeder: Kurt also saves baby ducks from highway traffic
The not-so-angry singlespeeder: Kurt also saves baby ducks from highway traffic
Kurt got his first mountain bike at 13. Since then his life has revolved around spokes, biking and working as a pro copywriter/journalist both in and out of the bike industry. Also known as The Angry Singlespeeder, Kurt's actually quite pleasant, so long as he's on a bike with gears. Kurt lives in Verdi, NV with his lady Elisabeth, aka Swan John. They both can be found most summer weekends at Yuba Expeditions in Downieville. He rides an Ibis Tranny 29 singlespeed, an Ibis Ripley LS and a Trek Stache with 29+ wheels.

Height and Weight: 6' and 185lbs, prefers large frame

Kate Blake


One of those rare moments when the camera kept up with Kate.
One of those rare moments when the camera kept up with Kate.
Kate jumped from the University of Nevada at Reno's triathlon team to their MTB crew. She's been bouncing between XC, Enduro, and stage races ever since. She recently completed the TransAndes Challenge in Chile and finished the Austin Rattle 100 as a Leadville qualifier. Kate's most gratifying MTB credential? Coaching the local NICA junior team. Kate rides 14 miles to work three times a week and rolls around for two to three hours on her days off, always with Cash (her dog) in tow.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame for most brands

Otto Trebotich


A local South Lake Tahoe sender, Otto can be seen flying down mountainsides year-round on bikes, skis or any other gravity focused equipment. He's too young to have racked up much of a formal racing record, but you can catch him blurring by on the trails around town. He's also one heck of a bike model. Otto rides a Specialized Stumpjumper 27.5.

Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame

Clark Tate


Introduced to mountain biking in Grand Junction, CO by her Mesa State Mountain Bike Team buddies, Clark was spoiled early on by world-class Grand Valley Trails. A move to Durango with weekend missions to Crested Butte and Cortez continued the trend. Focused more on miles than straight gnar, Clark's race days are more long-haul than speed-minded an include two ASX Moab Adventure Races. She's currently rocking a Santa Cruz Tallboy.

Height and Weight: 5'6 and 130lbs, prefers medium frame
Pat Donahue, Clark Tate, Joshua Hutchens, Cat Keenan, Mike Thomas, Paul Tindal, Curtis Smith, Kurt Gensheimer, Kate Blake, Otto Trebotich

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