The 10 Best Mountain Bikes of 2018
We are constantly on the lookout for the most compelling mountain bikes on the market. We buy the most intriguing options and have multiple testers push these bikes to the limit to find the right bike for you. We test everything from heavy-hitting long-travel enduro race bikes to attainable and simple hardtails. We run each group of test bikes through our scientific and thorough testing process to provide you with the most useful information possible. Each bike gets scrutinized by our testers as these bikes are smashed on a huge range of terrain from 30-mile epic rides with thousands of feet of climbing to bike park laps. We have compiled the following list to highlight the best options on the market.
Best All-Around Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018
The Hightower is a very well-rounded trail bike that is a solid choice for aggressive and novices alike. This bike has a surprisingly high threshold for gnar and could even slot into the enduro-light category for some skilled riders. Newer riders will enjoy the fact that this bike doesn't require blistering speeds to come alive. Small bump compliance is okay but this bike is very supportive in the mid-late stages of its travel. A manageable head tube angle and reasonable wheelbase beautifully balance high-speed and low-speed handling. The Virtual Pivot Point suspension provides a nice pedal platform due to significant levels of anti-squat. A semi-slack seat tube angle puts the rider slightly behind the bottom bracket but doesn't seem to drastically effect efficiency. Uphill handling is solid but this bike can feel difficult to work around tight uphill switchbacks when compared to some short-travel options. At the $3999 price point, the build kit leaves something to be desired but doesn't detract from the frame's excellent performance.
Aggressive attitude given its travel
Slack-ish seat tube angle
Buy it if you want a balanced trail bike that climbs pretty effectively and gets a little on the way back down. The Hightower feels right at home on the vast majority of singletrack. It's perfect as a do-it-all bike for an aggressive trail rider or as a lighter duty piece of a quiver for an aggressive rider.
Read review: Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018
Best Light Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
The Tallboy is a well-rounded short-travel 29er that doesn't suffer anywhere on the trail. It is a swift climber that descends with more confidence than its 110mm of travel suggests. Its strongest trait is its fun and playful attitude. There was a time when bikes in this travel crass were boring with steep geometry and a supreme focus on efficiency. The Tallboy is a blast charging around on mellow to the mild terrain. This bike offers okay small bump compliance but it stands up pretty well on bigger (for a short-travel bike) impacts. Whats the catch? The build kit that we tested is lacking. The RockShox Recon fork is harsh and it is extremely difficult to tune it to feel supportive and supple. In addition, there was no dropper post on our test bike. This is a very big deal in this day and age. Still, this is an excellent frame design and is a great chassis to build from.
Playful with sharp cornering
Ability to ride above its travel class
Poor component spec
No dropper post
Buy it if you want short-travel efficiency while retaining a fun-loving attitude and capable descending skills. 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.
Read review: Santa Cruz Tallboy 2017
Best Women's Trail Bike
Juliana Furtado R 2018
The Juliana Furtado is a versatile, balanced and fun bike. The cockpit offers a comfortable stance with an aggressive feel. The Furtado is a solid descender given its 130mm of 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 $3899 price tag gets you a dialed frame with a superb design. The components are mediocre, but this bike has excellent bones and is no-doubt trail-worthy right out of the box. The 30:42t climbing gear forces you to work harder on the climbs, but this can be easily altered with a smaller front chainring.
Fun, confident, comfortable descender
Solid and speedy climber
Rear end harsh on small bumps and chatter.
Buy it if you are ride a wide variety of terrain. This bike is happy on rolling trails, technical trails, and likes to have fun. The Furtado shares a frame with the Santa Cruz 5010, which has a stiffer shock tune for heavier riders.
Read review: Juliana Furtado 2018
Best Playful 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.
Off-the-charts fun factor
Nimble, sporty and confident
Shaken in rougher terrain
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 1
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.
Excellent and balanced performance
Confident inspiring and predictable descending skills
Small bump compliance not the best
The Hightower LT is a bit more capable and supportive on aggressive descents compared to the SB5.5. The Santa Cruz may lack the super burly front end of the Yeti but the rear end feels significantly more supportive. Those who ride choppy and chattery trails with fewer big hits will love the exceptionally calm and muted suspension on the Yeti.
Discerning the climbing differences between the Hightower LT and SB5.5 leaves more to personal preference. We found the Santa Cruz has a firmer pedaling platform that may sacrifice traction. The Yeti has a more active suspension design that moves more under climbing loads. While this may not feel quite as efficient, it offers better traction.
Read Review: Hightower LT 2018
Best Quiver Killer for 2
Yeti SB5.5 X01 Eagle 2017
The Yeti SB5.5 is precisely what we want an aggressive trail bike to be. It can tackle enduro race courses and serve as your daily driver. The 5.5 has 140mm of Switch Infinity suspension and has an excellent feel over small bumps. Small and midsize impacts are tremendously calm but things get jarring on bigger hits. The SB5.5 is a pleasant and composed climber that offers plenty of traction. The active suspension moves a bit under pedaling loads which keeps the tire glued to the ground. This bike is likely overkill on smoother terrain. One look at the 160mm Fox 36 and 2.5-inch DHF make it clear this bike prefers rough trails.
Excellent through small to medium chunk.
Aggressive enough for enduro races, efficient enough for trail riding
Can feel like overkill on smoother and flowy trails
Not particularly playful
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT has a more supportive and composed feel of bigger impacts but cannot match the small bump compliance of the Yeti SB5.5. Climbing abilities come down to preference between these bikes. Those who like active suspension and traction will like the 5.5. Riders who like a firmer pedal platform might prefer the Hightower LT.
Read review: Yeti SB5.5 2017
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.
A solid climber, confident descender
Very high-quality build
Poor engagement in the rear hub
Long head tube results in a high front end
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.
Spectacular capability on rowdy terrain
Sharp and confident high-speed handling
Inefficient and tiring climber
Overkill on most trails
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 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. 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.
Fun, confident bike
Surprisingly effective and inexpensive dropper
Feels too sluggish for long climbs
Annoying chain slap
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 Expert 6Fattie 2017
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.
Fast rolling and aggressive
Not the most playful
Poor brake specification
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.
Nimble and playful
Long battery life
Abrupt power-assist cutoff
No digital display
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
Buying a mountain bike is a big purchase decision and can seem overwhelming. Terms like mid-travel, short-travel, and enduro are thrown around left and right. We are here to help you make sense of all of the hype and technology.
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 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.
We tested three of the top women's specific trail bikes, the Liv Pique SX 1 2018, and Specialized Women's Camber 2018, and the review winning 2018 Julianan Furtado. 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 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 vs. 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 the YT, Commencal, and Intense consumer direct options in our trail bike review, to find out how they compare to the high-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.
— Pat Donahue
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