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A buyer’s guide to trail mountain bikes

All you need to know for buying a short travel ripper

Of any bike category, trail bikes are the hardest to define. XC, downhill and enduro all refer to specific race categories, and the bikes in them are suitable for those EVENTS. Trail bikes offer something a bit more ephemeral, after all, what is a trail?

Is it rocky Lake District pass or a Glentress blue route? Fresh, loamy singletrack or the A470 line? Well, in truth, it’s all of these and the best trail bike should be able to tackle them with aplomb. This bike is designed to be a turncoat that can take on all conditions, be that all day adventures or just a thrash in the woods, without ever feeling like it’s hard work or under-gunned.

The only problem is nobody has yet perfected what this bike looks like and, as such, the trail bike market is wideopen with a variety of travels, geometries and wheel sizes, so picking the perfect bike for you is always going to be tough.

It should be your go-to bike for all conditions and will probably take a lot of abuse in its lifetime – don’t worry though as it will probably be the bike you love the most, your companion through thick and thin, able to take you where no other bike can.

Versatility is the word you’re looking for. You want enough travel to keep you out of trouble but not too much that it bogs you down on the climbs. You want geometry that is aggressive enough to tackle technical trails while being comfortable enough for a full day in the saddle. Not an easy compromise to strike by any means, but recent advances in bike technology have made trail bikes more capable than ever.

Should you buy a trail bike?

In truth, probably.

Unless you plan on zipping between race tape then we’d hazard a guess that a sorted trail bike will be competent enough for 90 per cent of the riding available in the British Isles – and it will be best suited to everything from bike park flow trails to all day yomps.

If you do what a purist would call “just mountain biking” then a trail bike will be your first port of call. It may be tempting to be sucked in to the enduro hype but you could end up saddled with a gravity fed machine that will be too cumbersome for the majority of riding you do.

How much should you spend?

There was a time when, in good faith, we wouldn’t have been able to recommend you spend less than £2,000 on a full suspension trail bike – they were heavy, poorly damped and specced with components that had the durability of an abandoned kitten on the outside lane of the M6.

Times are different now though. We were recently blown away by the Marin Hawk Hill and other publications have spoken highly of the Calibre Bossnut, both of which come in around the £1000 mark. They have sorted geometry, decent suspension and are specced with robust components, all you’re missing is a dropper post and you’re good to go. Bikes this good at this price make us question why you’d ever even look at a hardtail, unless you enjoy getting beaten up and ending the ride with an elevated sense of self importance.

At the other end of the scale, you really can spend as much as you like on a trail bike. As you move up through the scale you’re going to be looking at lightweight carbon goodies, the very best in suspension and, if you’re lucky, SRAM’s new Eagle drivetrain that offers 1×12 gearing. Check out the new Trek Fuel EX 9.9 29 for the very latest in trail tech.

So with the basics covered let’s take an in depth look at what to look for when you buy your next trail bike

Frame 

The frame is the most important part of any mountain bike, but unfortunately there’s no blueprint on which all trail frames are based. Travel can range from 110mm through to 140mm with wildly different schools on what the best geometry or material is – and that’s before we even touch on wheel sizes.

Unfortunately it may be a case of buying the bike that best suits the conditions you ride most often and then compromising on the rest. So, if you ride a lot of trail centres then a short travel whippet would be your first port of call, alternatively a 140mm cruiser might suit someone who rides a lot of natural stuff. It’s horses for courses though and buying one certainly won’t exclude you from any form of riding.

Geometry and sizing are incredibly important and this is where some bikes shine and others are a let down. Get this right, and choose the right size frame and you’re onto a great start. This is one area where buying from a bike shop has an advantage – you should be able to sit on (and possibly test ride) the bike of your choice, although some of the direct-sales brands do have demo days where you can try before you buy.

There are no hard and fast rules for geometry but expect a head angle of 66-68°, a wheelbase a touch shorter than an enduro bike and bottom bracket a shade higher. Modern trail bikes will be built around a short stem and wide bars so will compensate with a long reach. The latest fad is for short chainstays, especially on 29ers, that will increase maneuverability.

Thankfully, if you can’t quite pick a bike with perfect geometry, then a lot of trail bikes now have adjustable geometry with high and low settings to give you one version for climbing and then a totally different one for descending. Some systems, such as Canyon’s Shapeshifter, even allow you to change geometry on the fly.

Check the warranty on the frame – it’s an expensive part of the bike and it is reassuring to have it covered for more than a year or two. Some brands will offer a crash replacement scheme too.

Suspension

Mid travel bikes don’t require the hard-hitting suspension of enduro or downhill bikes but they still need to be controlled and composed by excellent damping.

Forks

Travel will range from 110 – 150mm on a trail bike so single crown forks will be the order of the day. A lot of modern bikes are run with asymmetrical travel where the forks have greater travel than the frame and shock. The heavy duty, wide forks of enduro bikes will be shed at this level and instead you’ll get trail forks with slimmer stanchions and less travel.

It’s a tough call between the Fox 34 and the Rockshox Pike at this level but neither will leave you short changed. Below this is a furiously competitive market that includes the RockShox Yari, the Manitou Mattoc, Marzocchi 350 and a number of options from X-Fusion.

There are different versions of forks for different wheel sizes and amounts of travel but as long as the internals are the same you won’t notice significant performance variation.

Shocks

Once again you won’t be hauling around an ultra-hard hitting shock on your trail bike. It’s very uncommon to see piggyback reservoir simply because the progression isn’t needed (although if you find yourself needing a bit more you can still use volume reducing tokens), instead you’ll have a traditional style shock to save weight. The shock is most likely to be air, not coil, as it is lighter and more adjustable.

Once again Fox and Rockshox rule the roost but there are competent offerings from X-Fusion, Marzocchi, Bos and Manitou. You’re looking for something with a good range of adjustment and some way to firm it up for long climbs. Most shocks will have a tune that is appropriate to the frame’s design – all part of a thorough design and development process that adds up to a high performance bike.

Wheels

Trail bikes have the biggest variety of wheels on offer for any bike category. A few years ago it seemed like 650b had the market sewn up but the introduction of Boost (and now Super Boost Plus) hub spacing has made 29ers viable again. 29ers offer superior ground covering abilities and float over small holes while 27.5 wheels offer better maneuverability, but don’t be fooled into thinking 29ers are the ‘wagon wheels’ they’re often derided as, you can still get a flickable bike with big wheels

There’s also the emerging Plus bike market that fits large volume tyres up to three inches wide on wheels with 27.5 inch diameter. At the moment Plus bikes are being pushed towards the beginner and intermediate market for their superior grip and cushioning, but when the tyre tech starts to become more refined we could see them become more ubiquitous.

Tyres

Tyres will be a bit lighter than on an enduro bike but still durable enough to handle the rigours of all day riding. They will probably also be a bit narrower (maxing out at about 2.3 inches) so that they aren’t too draggy. An aggressive tread pattern up front with a faster rolling lower profile tread at the rear is a good set up once conditions dry up and speeds increase. The Maxxis High Roller 2, Schwalbe Magic Mary and Rock Razor are all recommendations from us here at Dirt.

Brakes 

Lightweight two or four piston hydraulic disc brakes are standard kit on a modern trail bike – reliable, powerful and with good controllable modulation. Rotors sizes will be 180mm with maybe a larger size up front. Shimano, Hope and SRAM are favourites but we’ve just found favour with the new MT5 from Magura.

Gears

It’s still a toss up between 1x and 2x drivetrains for trail bikes. Top end bikes are starting to move away from 2x but a lot of consumers still like having the security of the extra low gears for getting up climbs easier.

You will likely have a ten or 11 speed cassette at the back, however the recently released SRAM Eagle has introduced 12 speed for the first time.

Controls

The bike industry is finally catching on the idea that the short stem/wide bar combo works as well for trail bike as it does for enduro and downhill bikes. No longer are trail bikes equipped with shoulder with bars but confidence inspiring ones between 720-780mm wide.

Modern trail bikes are made with long reaches so should be fitted with a short stem to compensate – think 35-50mm. The Dirt 100 has our pick for equipping your bike’s cockpit.

Dropper Post

This won’t be a universally popular statement but if you’re riding a trail bike you really should fit a dropper post. Yes, people used to cope just fine without them, but when you’ve ridden one you won’t ever be tempted to go back. They don’t have to break the bank, with the Orba Digit starting at £60, but if you really want to push the boat out the RockShox Reverb Stealth takes some beating. 

Pedals

Pedals are very much a personal choice here. Objectively being clipped in will give you a mechanical advantage if you’re on a long ride, simply because you’ll have better pedalling efficiency. But if you don’t get on with them then there’s no point in forcing yourself to ride them.

All pedals need well sealed reliable bearings and a good build quality to put up with plenty of knocks and abuse and will need to work well with your footwear choice. Budget for £60 upwards for a pair of pedals – check out the Dirt 100 for our choices.

Where to buy a trail bike

You have two main choices when buying a trail bike. Do you go to a local bike shop or buy online?

The biggest advantage of buying from a shop is the ability to demo a bike before you buy it. For a small fee (compared to the price of the bike) you can take the bike out to your local trails and really get a sense of how it feels. This experience is priceless because you can never truly understand a bike from spec sheets and geometry charts alone.

A shop will also be the first port of call for any warranty issues you might have with it. Check what the shop offers in the way of after care servicing that goes with a bike sale. Make the most of what is available to you and build up a relationship with them.

If you go online you’ll probably save yourself a packet but remember you won’t be able to size up the bike or resolve any issues easily. Take a look at the YT Jeffsy and Canyon Spectral for capable and great value direct sales trail bikes.

Not enough travel or ability? Then check out our buyer’s guide to ENDURO bikes HERE.

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