How much should you spend on a trail mountain bike?
£1,500, £2,500 and money no object options
The trail bike will be the steed that most riders pick for their weekend spins. But as a day on the trails in Surrey is very different to one in the Highlands, it's no surprise to hear that there is the biggest variety of them available to buyers. They also have the Widest spread of prices available to suit all budgets.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can buy something really cheap and get away with it though. We’d recommend you spend at least £1,000 to buy a sorted trail machine. Yes, this may feel like a bitter pill to swallow but it’s better to spend that money on a bike you get real enjoyment from riding rather than one that becomes a habitat for spiders as it rusts in the back of your shed after one too many bone-shaking rides. If you can’t stretch to £1,000 for a new bike you could look at going second hand to find something that suits instead.
No matter how much you spend on a trail bike you want a durable, efficient and fun ride that will be as competent for a whole day in the saddle or a session in your local woods.
Before we start it’s worth saying that if you buy direct, all the following rules are thrown out of the window as they generally come with far better kit than you could pick up from a shop floor. We see them as the exception to the rule though, so we’ve instead decided to focus on bikes sold in the traditional manner.
There was a time not many years ago when we couldn’t have looked you in the eye and recommended you buy a trail bike for less than £1,500. Simply put they were heavy, poorly damped and frankly, better sold off as scrap. Things are beginning to change though and a new range of bikes are coming along that cater to the £1000 - £1,500 market. Technology is trickling down from more expensive models to offer 1x drivetrains, competent suspension and proper geometry.
The bikes in this price range will often be the bottom of the range versions for that particular model. That may sound like a negative but don’t take it that way, it means you get the exact frame as the top models but with a lower spec - it’s effectively a great platform to upgrade from as parts wear out or you feel ready to progress your riding.
A lot of manufacturers will see this price point as “beginners", which they translate to XC. Watch out for steep, short bikes that are predominantly focussed on climbing – they won’t be as fun to ride.
The frame will be made from aluminium that provides a proven and stable platform. Keep an eye out for features that will allow you to upgrade parts such as cable routing for a dropper post or a tapered head tube. A weight of 30-32lbs (13.6 – 14.5 kgs) for the whole bike is probably about average.
If this is your budget for a trail bike, then you’re likely to be sacrificing suspension performance over anything else. It’s a pity but unfortunately the cuts have to be made somewhere and suspension is complex and therefore costly. It’s better than it used to be though with air technology replacing coils and brands looking to budget options as more of a priority.
You can still expect a fork from the big boys but don’t expect it to be their flagship model. RockShox traditionally would spec the Sketor, Recon or 30 (of which the Sektor is probably best for trail riding) but it has recently released the Yari that promises to bring the performance of the Pike to a cheaper price point, so keep your eyes peeled.
Fox has formerly avoided the budget market, but since it purchased Marzocchi it has announced the 34 Rhythm fork that will be specced OEM on budget bikes. We’re yet to give one a try but considering the quality of forks Fox is putting out at the moment it could be one to watch.
There are also options available from X-Fusion, Marzocchi, Manitou and SR Suntour at this level. Make sure it doesn’t feel like a pogo stick and if it comes with a lock out function for the climbs then all the better.
Once again it’s probably RockShox that are the big players in this market and you’ll more than likely see a RockShox Monarch R equipped to the bike however if you’re lucky you may get the RL version that’s lighter, has a better spring and a lockout function.
Also keep an eye out for the X-Fusion 02RL that is also commonly specced at this level and comes with a lock out to help on the climbs.
At this price bracket you should expect a mix of 27.5 and 29 inch wheels. Given that the wheels are likely to be cheap you may have to worry about the 29er wheels being a bit more flexy and heavy, but then they will roll much better so it's a matter of personal taste.
Wheels are traditionally a place where manufacturers will look to cut corners on a cheap bike and hope you are too dazzled by the frame and suspension to worry about them. Quite often they will be own-brand rims and hubs designed to keep a manufacturer’s costs down. Keep an eye out for any that are excessively heavy as rolling weight has a lot more of an effect on bike handling than frame weight.
The tyres will probably be a let down with a cheap, hard compound. Swap them out as soon as possible. Take a look at the Dirt 100 selection for our recommendations.
You’ll need to be an eagle-eyed detective when checking out the rest of the spec as it gives lots of opportunities to save money for the manufacturer. Drivetrains will predominantly be 2x10 from Shimano or SRAM but if you’re lucky you may be able to source a 1x system. We would say avoid 3x9 drivetrains the extra weight isn’t really worth it for the added range.
You should definitely be getting hydraulic discs at this price and the good news is brakes are pretty good at this level now - the Shimano M395 and M396 especially provide really good performance.
When it comes to the cockpit you’re going to have to be really careful. Long stems (>60mm) and narrow bars (<700mm) will really limit the control you have over the bike and should be discarded as soon as possible. The grips are also likely to be hard and a bit naff, unfortunately another thing you should probably replace when you can. The lock-on Specialized Sip grips are a favourite of ours and at £16 are a great price.
If you’re lucky enough to find a dropper post at this price then it’s a big bonus. They aren’t essential but they do make a big difference to your ride and when you try one you won’t want to go back.
At this price you won’t find all of these things at once, but you should pick the bike that has the best compromises across all its components. As we always say, you should try a bike out before you buy to see if it suits you well.
Laying down £2,500 for a push bike is no joke so you want to get the most for your money. While you may not get top-of-the-range spec at this price you certainly have loads of buying options with a huge range of travel, wheel size and intended uses available. Let’s get into it.
You could well be looking at the exact same frame that you would get for under £1,500, but with better components, or a totally different frame with refined geometry and a cut in weight.
At this price point you’re on the cusp of the carbon/aluminium boundary. It may well be that your bike ends up being a mix of the two with a carbon front triangle and rear stays. Carbon may well seem like a big plus for weight loss but don’t let yourself be ripped-off on the spec in return.
Well damped, balanced suspension with plenty of tuning options should be your goal at the £2,500 mark.
You’re likely to get mid range forks at this price. Rockshox offers the Revelation and the stiffer Yari. Some bikes may come with the standout RockShox Pike which will offer a massive boost to front wheel tracking and stiffness.
You may also get a Fox 34 but we would try to avoid the 32, it’s a bit too XC focussed for the all-round ability you want from a trail bike.
A burlier bike may be specced with the Manitou Mattoc - a hardy but well rounded fork. Keep an eye out for the Marzocchi 350CR or options from X-Fusion that also offer competent performance.
You’re most likely to find a RockShox Monarch or a Fox Float on the rear end. These are both air sprung and allow you to change the negative air volume to modify the spring rate. You can lock out both the shocks to allow for better climbing and the Float has a trail setting that means the shock has as little give for comfort – ideal for fire road or singletrack climbs.
Predominantly you’re going to be looking at an even spread of 29 and 27.5 inch wheels. If you’re running a 29er you should be looking for Boost standard hubs at this price. These hubs are slightly wider and therefore allow you to build stiffer wheels.
Rims will still be aluminium but should no-longer be own brand. They will probably be lighter and stronger than the wheels on offer at lower price brackets. Something like the DT Swiss XM1501 Spline One from the Dirt 100 should fit the bill.
You may also see Plus sized wheels at this price point. Plus wheels use tyres around 3.0" in width that can be run at lower pressures to supposedly provide better grip without sacrificing rolling resistance.
They’re a relatively new technology and we’ve only really tested two bikes that are fitted with them – the Specialized 6Fattie and the Scott Genius Plus. We definitely felt the improvements in grip but found it harder to weight and unweight through the space hopper effect of the wheels. Horses for courses? Maybe, it’s early days and it’s definitely an area to watch as more investment gets put into it.
You should expect a 1x or 2x drivetrain. A lot of people like to have the extra support of the granny ring on the front but we don’t think there’s a great need for it in most of the UK – in fact a lot of frame manufacturers are starting to get rid of front mech mounts (such as the Whyte T-130 S) at this price point meaning you’re stuck with a 1x system whether you like it or not.
Thankfully 1x drivetrains are coming down in price and up in quality. SRAM’s GX or XO and Shimano’s XT shouldn’t be out of your reach if you’re looking at this price bracket. These will shift every bit as well as the top of the range groupsets, just with a bit more weight.
SRAM and Shimano rule the roost when it comes to brakes at this level too. They’re most likely to be two piston hydraulic, but the extra power of a four piston brake is a nice little upgrade. Shimano’s SLX are a great purchase but the Shimano XT brakes that made our Dirt 100 are also viable. From SRAM you can either look for their own brand brakes, such as the Guide or those from its sister brand Avid, such as the DB5. Rotors should be at least 180mm in diameter to give that extra bit of power.
If you’re paying this much money for a bike you shouldn’t have to faff around with the cockpit when you get it home. You’re looking for short stems and wide bars that suit the longer geometry of modern trail bikes – you may still have to replace the stock grips though, but thankfully that’s not a costly change.
At this price you absolutely should expect a dropper. It may not be an infinite adjust, internally routed RockShox Reverb but it definitely should go up and down on the fly.
Money no object
If money is no object for your trail bike, then you really can pick up something special. A lot of marketing blurbs state that a bike can “climb like an XC bike and descend like a downhill bike" but it’s not until you put down a significant chunk of money that you really do get close to it. Really £2,500 is the lowest end of this price category and, with the newly released Trek Fuel EX 9.9 29 costing £6,000, you can spend an awful lot of money on one of these machines. It’s a game of marginal gains though so don’t expect big leaps in performance as you go up the pricing scale.
Super-lightweight, amazingly specced and the envy of anyone you pass this bike will surely be a head turner, here’s the very best kit you can get on a trail bike.
With money no object bikes you can expect a fully carbon fibre frame. This will be a lot lighter than an aluminium frame (for example the Yeti SB 4.5 C weighs a paltry 5.4lbs (2.45kgs)) and stiffer to boot.
The frames at this level come with a whole host of abbreviations and technologies that will be different from brand to brand. Try and cut through the nonsense as much as possible and look for internal cable routing, trail specific geometry and Boost spacing (if it’s a 29er)
The frames may well have a fancy linkage system or even extra pistons to help aid the suspension action such as Yeti’s Switch Infinity. As alluring as these will seem, bear in mind it will be another thing to maintain as the bike goes through its life cycle.
You’re going to want the very best suspension to go with your top of the range bike – that means light weight, well damped and highly tuneable. With money no object, here’s what we think you should be getting.
The best trail forks should weigh less than two kilograms while still being able to handle the burliest trails and– even if it may not have to handle as much stress as an endure fork.
It’s really a toss up between a Pike and a Fox 34 here. If you go for the Pike make sure it’s the RCT 3 version as this gives a greater range of adjustability. With the 34 you should be looking at the Factory version.
This is also the price point when chichi brands enter the fray as well. Bos, DVO and DT Swiss all offer boutique trail forks but, as we’ve not put as much time into them, we’d be cautious recommending them over and above our favourites.
The trail shock market is in a bit of flux at the moment as we await the arrival of metric shocks. Leading the charge on the new standard is RockShox with the new Deluxe that comes in three models – of which the RT3 is the top model.
If you’re buying today then the bike will probably come with a Monarch RT3, a Fox Float DPS or a Cane Creek DB Inline. The Monarch and Float are fairly indistinguishable in terms of raw performance. The Inline offers the greatest range of tuning but Cane Creek have suffered reliability issues in the past.
For this money you’re back to 27.5 or 29 wheels - plus bikes are being pushed more at beginner and intermediate riders by the industry so there are largely left alone when serious money goes down.
You should be looking for carbon rims as they’re lighter and stiffer meaning they should be sprightly on the climbs and easy to place when you get up to speed.
It will almost certainly be a 1x drivetrain at this price, the frame probably won’t even have room for a front derailleur. You’ll be looking at XTR or XX1 level kit with carbon parts to keep the weight down. Expect an 11 speed cassette from Shimano or SRAM, if you’re really looking to spend then the 12 speed Eagle gives even more range to a trail bike.
You'll probably be moving to carbon cranks at this price point too. These are stiffer and mean less energy is lost when you initiate a pedal stroke.
The brakes on a top trail bike would not be out of place on an enduro bike with four piston callipers providing immense power, although they’ll probably be paired with 180mm (not 203mm) rotors. We love SRAM Guide Ultimates that are super light, powerful and come with a carbon lever.
You will have the option to deck your cockpit out in carbon goodies too but with a carbon frame, a boutique fork and carbon wheels you’re looking at a lot of stiffness, you may want to look for parts with a bit of flex somewhere to save your body a bit of a beating. The Renthal Fatbar Carbon is a reassuring, no compromise option steeped in British pedigree.
You’ll want to top it off with a dropper post. Preferably one that’s internally routed simply because it looks neater and protects the mechanism from the elements.