The 10 Best Mountain Bikes of 2017-2018
It’s Biketober folks. If you’re jonesing for a new bike to take advantage of cool temps and hard packed dirt, we’ve got you covered. We’re on a never-ending hunt for the best bikes, from the cutting edge to the proven classics. We cover trail-oriented hardtails, versatile full suspension trail bikes, and hard-hitting enduros. After researching and buying the best in each category, we run each batch through the world’s most exacting and objective testing process. A team of professional testers slam the bikes through hundreds of miles and time trial laps over a six week period. We do it to find out how each bike stacks up on the long hauls and how well each keeps its head under pressure. Our expectations are often challenged, and we never finish a test without a significant revelation to share. Two things remain unquestioned: 1. Riding mountain bikes is a blast. 2. Riding the right bike is euphoric. Here is a continually evolving list of our favorite bikes and a quick explanation of how to choose between them.
Excellent Starter Bikes
These bikes are straightforward enough to usher newbies into the sport but offer performance that even the most advanced rider will appreciate. Case in point,Danny MacAskill takes trials riding to the next level on the Santa Cruz 5010, which shares a frame with the Juliana Furtado we discuss below. While a beginner can certainly ride any bike on this page, it takes a more skilled driver to unlock the full potential of the other bikes. These three are ready to rip straight out of the box. Spending between two and four grand on a bike isn’t practical for every new rider, but bikes with the technical capacity to perform on modern trails are expensive. Investing in these high-quality frames will pay dividends in accelerated skill development.
Best Entry Level Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
The Tallboy is a well-rounded 29er that doesn't suffer anywhere on trail. The bright yellow party wagon is a swift climber and descends with more confidence than its short-travel status suggests. It corners easily enough, though it has that distinct 29er feel in the turns. This bike is more playful than many longer travel rigs. The Tallboy has a light-hearted approach to mellow trails but ramps up its rad factor for the burlier terrain.
Playful and fun to pop around
Sharp cornering abilities
Ability to ride above its weight class
Poor component spec
No dropper post
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. 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 post, burlier rear tire, and higher quality fork.
Buy it if you usually find yourself on moderate trails and relish long climbs but still want to take on the occasional harder-hitting descent. The women’s version of the Tallboy is called the Juliana Joplin. It’s the same frame with a lighter shock tune, smaller contact points. Like the Tallboy the Joplin can accept 27.5+ wheels.
Read review: Santa Cruz Tallboy 2017
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
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.
Surprisingly effective and inexpensive dropper
Feels too sluggish for long climbs
Annoying chain slap
While the Fuse pedals and handles well on the climbs, the extra traction makes it feel sluggish. While the bike performed well in our short uphill time trials, we don't want to grind it uphill all day. It’s not a problem on your average two-hour ride. Other than that, the three-inch tires don't weigh it down.
Buy it if you want a grab-and-go bike to usher you into the sport with confidence. Experienced riders could also benefit from adding this low-maintenance and straightforward bike to a quiver.
Read review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Best Women's Trail Bike
Juliana Furtado R 2018
The Juliana Furtado is the epitome of a versatile trail bike, providing a balanced and fun-filled ride. The cockpit sets riders up in a comfortable but aggressive stance, ready to attack the trail. A stellar descender, the Furtado takes high speeds and a reasonable amount of chunk in stride. The raspberry blue beast also provides excellent handling and rider comfort on the climbs. The $3,899 price tag buys you a carbon fiber frame with a dialed suspension design and spot-on geometry. While the components may be mediocre, this bike has excellent bones and is ready to rip out of the box.
Confident and fun descender
Solid and speedy climber
Comfortable cockpit and rider position
Rear end can feel harsh in rough terrain
The 30:42 gearing on the R build forces you to work for the climbs, but will get you to the top in a hurry. It also lets you crank through rolling descents and the flats.
Buy it if you are mostly on moderately technical trails but like to get a little rowdy on occasion. The Furtado is very similar in competence and versatility to the 29er Santa Cruz Tallboy. Go Furtado if you favor the maneuverability and lower standover of 27.5-wheeled bikes. The Furtado is the same bike as the Santa Cruz 5010, which rocks a stiffer shock tune for heavier riders.
Read review: Juliana Furtado 2018
Our Favorite Fun and Playful Bikes
If you love nimbly slicing and dicing through technical lines or weaving around to link every side hit in sight, these are the bikes for you. While user-friendly enough for rookies, these bikes offer next-level performance that more advanced riders can exploit. Their agile nature makes them more appropriate for airtime and precision line choices than head down, straight-line plowing. If the latter is your bag, you may want to look toward the enduro end of the spectrum where the Yeti SB5.5 resides.
Best Playful Trail Bike
Ibis Ripley LS 2018
The most playful bike we've tested, the Ibis Ripley LS won our 2017 Trail Bike Review. The 2018 frame update doesn't disappoint with its wider 29-inch tires providing velcro-like grip. Sharp handling and a lively feel will have you pushing this 120mm bike to the max. The Ripley LS is surprisingly spritely for a 29er. It also rides bigger than such short travel would suggest thanks to those wagon wheels and dialed suspension design.
Off-the-charts fun factor
Nimble, sporty and playful
Confident in a wide range of situations
Ho-hum climbing abilities
Shaken in rougher terrain
On the downside, the distractingly high fun factor and killer confidence levels can get you in over your head in a hurry. It’s still a short-travel trail bike. As such, you would expect it to climb like the dickens. Not so. The Ripley LS is a surprisingly lackluster climber. We call it average on the uphill. Just sit and spin, the flats and descents are so very worth it.
Buy it if you love confident and lively downhill performance enough to put up with mediocre climbing abilities. The Ripley LS is best for riders who enjoy a wide range of trails but avoid the ultra-rough ones. The Commencal Meta TR below is a better choice for slightly more aggressive charging on the descents.
Read reviews: Ibis Ripley LS 2018, Ibis Ripley LS 2017
Best Buy Mid-Travel Trail Bike
Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential
The multi-purpose Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential is a great go-to bike for 90% percent of trails on any given mountain. The Meta TR's exact steering skills get you right to your line and hold it with confidence. It can handle everything short of super gnarly descents. A solid pedal platform keeps you cranking, holding enough speed to hunt down every sneaky side hit in sight. This bike is a blast. The Meta TR also climbs much better than its bulky looks, stiff gearing, and substantial weight imply.
Its narrow, 2.25-inch Maxxis Ardent rear tire and 24mm rims are our only cause for complaint. A fatter footprint would soften up the ride, and more traction in the rear would grant even more confidence. While tough terrain rattles this mid-travel bike, the Meta TR's limits align with expectations for this travel range.
Buy it if you want an agile trail bike that can also charge downhill. Less playful than the Ibis Ripley LS the Meta TR keeps flow trails fun and can tackle black diamond terrain. On the rougher sections of trail, its confidence drops, requiring attentive line choices.
Read review: Commencal Meta TR 2017
The Best Bikes for Tackling Tough Trails
Overkill for your average singletrack, these longer travel bikes beg for hard days on rough trails. They balance climbing efficiency with the ability to stomp down gnarly black diamond terrain with authority. On less demanding rides, these bikes can smooth out the trail too effectively, making fun blue runs nearly boring. The shorter travel beasts mentioned above do a better job of doling out the grins on mellow runs.
Best Aggressive Quiver Killer
Yeti SB5.5 2017
Our reigning king of challenging singletrack, the Yeti SB5.5 is precisely what we want an aggressive trail bike to be. It can tackle enduro race courses 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. The SB5.5 is a pleasant pedaler and composed climber, but is tedious to haul up smoother climbs.
Smooths over the rough rock gardens
Freight train fast
Aggressive enough for enduro, Efficient enough for trail
A lot to power up smooth climbs
Takes the trail a tad too seriously
For riders who relish long days of rolling trails or tons of uphill miles without an aggressive downhill reward, the burly 160mm Fox 36 fork and 29 x 2.5" front tire might be overkill. If that's the case, consider the Santa Cruz Hightower LT discussed below.
Buy it if you're benefiting from an aggressive bike by regularly bombing black diamond level terrain, fast.
Read review: Yeti SB5.5 2017
Best Balanced Quiver Killer
Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
Among our favorite bikes of all time, the 2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a contender. Like the Yeti SB5.5, it's efficient enough to take out every day but burly and speed-hungry enough for the enduro start gate. The Hightower LT tackles downhill runs with confidence and composure, and it’s a better climber than the Yeti SB5.5. For that reason, we prefer the Santa Cruz for long days in the saddle. The firm pedal platform keeps you energized while cranking out the miles. You'll find yourself tagging on extra miles just to keep riding the Hightower LT.
Excellent and balanced performance
Confident inspiring and predictable descending skills
Efficient and composed climber
Requires precision on the most aggressive descents
The Hightower LT requires finesse to work through big-line descents that the SB5.5 just plows through. As a result, a more skilled downhill rider will get more out of the Santa Cruz. Those who’d like their bike to be a bit more confident should consider the Yeti.
Buy it if you balance long or short climbs with aggressive descending. It’s an especially good choice for riders with the skills and desire to cut a tight line through the most technical terrain.
Read the First Look: Hightower LT 2018
Best Buy Aggressive Trail Bike
Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018
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, putting all your pedaling effort to good use. Modern, long and low geometry makes the Altitude formidable when aimed down descents. The bike is a stable and predictable descender. On top of its superb skills on the trail, the Altitude Alloy 50 carries an impressive price tag, making it an excellent value. For $3,399 you get a Shimano XT 1x11 drivetrain, SLX brakes, Fox Transfer dropper post and Fox suspension front and rear.
Shaken by enduro-grade terrain
A bit heavy for the longest of rides, the Altitude also gets skittish when it is over its head on enduro-grade burly descents. This bike rides a little smaller than its travel numbers suggest.
Buy it if your rides are not excessively long and if you moderate your exposure to ultra-steep and punishing rock gardens. Its ideal terrain range is similar to that of the Santa Cruz Hightower LT, but the much more expensive LT is a more inspiring climber. Wide rubber, dialed geometry, and impressive components make the Rocky Mountain Altitude a no-brainer for the budget conscious buyer.
Read First Look Review: Rocky Mountain Altitude 2018
Excellent Options for the Gnar
While they certainly smooth out rowdy descents for any rider, these enduro bikes take aggressive handling to really shine. While they can climb serviceable enough to avoid the shuttle rig, these bikes are not the most inspiring when heading uphill.
Best Enduro Descender
Santa Cruz Nomad 2016
We reviewed the 2016 Santa Cruz Nomad V3 and it dominated our grueling enduro test. The Nomad V3 delivers more stability and grace under pressure than any other enduro bike we've tested. The faster you push the V3, the more confident and playful it gets. It spins up smooth climbs easily enough and, with hard work, can bash through obstacles on technical uphills 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.
Ridiculously confidence inspiring
Plays harder the faster you go
Excellent rear suspension
Not the best climber, but not bad
Buy it if you’re looking for an extremely confident descender that gets more stable the faster you go. It’s not a fantastic climber, but it’s got enough efficiency to get you to the top with a minimum of pain.
Santa Cruz released a redesign in early June 2017, the 2018 Nomad V4. The V4 is a different beast. It's more gravity focused than ever, with 170mm of rear travel and an adjustable head tube angle that ranges from a laid-back 65.0-degrees to a very slack 64.6. Juliana also made a women’s version of this bike with lighter shock tuning, the Strega. We’re working on getting some serious ride time aboard the Nomad V4 to be able to tell you what’s what.
Read review: Santa Cruz Nomad 2016
Best Buy Enduro Descender
Commencal Meta AM 4.2 Essential
Stability and confidence at speed come at a bargain in the Commencal Meta AM 4.2 Essential. For $3,349 you get a shred-ready enduro beast with a 170mm RockShox Lyrik fork, SRAM Guide R brakes, and a SRAM GX 1x11 drivetrain. It is a pure-bred enduro sled, i.e., it can climb, but it doesn't love to. It can get up a hill spinning nice and slow on smooth terrain. If you get your fun from vanquishing massive rock gardens with a single point and shoot, you're going to be stoked on the Meta AM.
Impressive high-speed performance on enduro descents
Bumbling at slow speeds
The Meta AM is a charger, but playful it is not. Look to the Santa Cruz Nomad V3 for a more lively and maneuverable descent. This is also not the bike for any climbing-intensive trail rides. Technical or hurried climbs are a tedious and tiring experience.
Buy it if you want untouchable descending skills at a bargain and are willing to sacrifice climbing abilities.
Read review: Commencal Meta AM 2017
How to Buy a Mountain Bike
Buying a mountain bike is a big purchase decision and can seem overwhelming. Terms like mid-travel, short-travel, and enduro are thrown in your face like confetti. OutdoorGearLab is here to help you avoid the hype and find the right mountain bike for you.
Below, we explain mountain bike types and the terrain they were created to tackle. Once you've narrowed it down to the category of bike you want, consider things like wheel size (i.e., 26", 27.5", or 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’ll walk you through those decisions as well.
Where do you want to ride?
Think about what type of terrain you spend the majority of your time riding, what kind of riding puts the biggest grin your face, and what type of terrain you want to ride as you progress. Got it? Read on.
Cross-Country Bikesare appropriate if you like long smooth climbs and don't care for comfort. This probably isn't you. Folks interested in a true cross-country bikes are probably racers who value pedaling and climbing speed over comfort and fun. 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.
Riders who gravitate to very smooth trails might enjoy the outright efficiency of these bikes. If you like heading downhill where there may be rocks, a cross-country bike lacks the confidence to hit high speeds and charge descents without feeling under-gunned.
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 these five efficient and confident short-travel trail bikes.
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 over to check out six such fantastic daily drivers.
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 five of the top 2016 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.
Wheel Size— 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
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.
We tested three of the top women's specific trail bikes, the Juliana Furtado 2018, Liv Pique SX 2018, and Specialized Women's Camber 2018. The Yeti SB5 Beti is about $1,000 more than these test bikes, so we left it out of the group test. We also considered the Women's Trek Fuel EX, but it doesn't offer a women's specific shock tune. We tested the unisex Fuel EX in our short-travel trail bike review.
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 or Local Bike Shop
More bike manufacturers are offering their products directly to the consumer than ever before, using that ultimate storefront real estate, the world-wide-web. Cutting out the middle-man, i.e., the bike shop, offers serious savings, resulting in truly unheard of component quality on low-cost complete bikes. Of course, that doesn't guarantee that you're getting a quality frame. Check out our Consumer Direct Mountain Bike Review, to find out which rise above the rest and how they compare to the higher-end offerings.
Convenience and savings come at the cost of the camaraderie and support offered by your local bike shop. Buying a mountain bike from Joe Sprocket down the street includes the price of a retainer for your local bike expert. Quick repairs, component suggestions, warranties, etc. — Mr. Sprocket is liable to help you out.
How Many Bikes Do you Need?
Not many of us enjoy the luxury of having a multi-bike quiver to tackle each trail with a precision weapon. That's why we emphasize short, and mid-travel trail bikes as the do-it-all shred-sleds for the masses. They are efficient enough for long rides and composed enough to head downhill on the majority of terrain you ride regularly. Short-travel 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 help you decide which type of bike 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 editor's' choice bikes for each of the categories. These bikes are our favorites of the hundreds that we’ve researched and 30 that we’ve tested. They're a good place to start. 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
Table of Contents
You Might Also Like