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(The Gear Loop) - The best mountain bikes (MTBs) are a particular minefield for the newcomer, with highly specialised downhill monsters lurking next to all-rounders, older hardtail models, and a host of cheap junk that you don’t want to look twice at. 

Thanks to the 90s, when the only bike to buy was a MTB, there’s at least one rusting in every canal in the UK, and that’s a fact. Probably.

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However, the modern MTB has evolved enormously, offering almost infinite adjustability, top quality components and - most importantly of all - vast quantities of fun. 

That said, navigating the choices is going to be tough for someone just starting out, as even the decision between a full-suspension machine or a hard trail (front fork suspension only) will depend on the type of riding you do, the money you have to spend and general skill level.

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We’ve featured five bikes here, most of them sporting both front and rear suspension (although there is one hard trail to checkout), ranging from around £1,500 to £4,250, which covers the mid-range price bracket nicely.

If you’ve got more money to play with, it’s best to look at the premium end of the market, where you’ll receive a frame and component list that will dazzle pro riders. However, spending less than £1,500 is a gamble, as it becomes counter intuitive when you’re faced with heavy bikes laden with poor kit that either doesn’t work or breaks quickly.

Need more details on what to look for in a mountain bike? Head to the bottom of the page for some sage buying advice.

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Canyon Spectral CF 7.0

For

  • Widely-acclaimed handling
  • Top spec
  • Keen pricing

Against

  • Forks could be improved upon

The 2022 version of this popular bike might be hard to find in the wild, but there’s good reason for that. Building on past success, the newest iteration features much of the older bike’s tractability and dirt-holding ability, with some new components, thus making it a desirable beast. 

Most obviously, there’s a FOX Float X Performance rear shock, and FOX 36 Rhythm Grip forks, paired with a 12-speed Shimano SLX drivetrain. 

DT Swiss M1900 wheels, thru axles, dropper post and a flip chip full-carbon frame that allows rapid changing of the bike's geometry are just a few highlights. But the list goes on and on - as it should at nearly £3.5k.

The key to the bike’s success is the predictable behaviour of these parts when brought together - geometry and poetry in motion.

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Ribble HT 725

For

  • Old-school steel frame
  • Really robust

Against

  • Hardtail skillz required

Yes, it’s a steel-framed hardtail MTB, which might put many off immediately, but there’s plenty of old-school robustness here, and at just under £1600, you get a hell of a lot of bike for half the price of some.

For example, an SRAM SX Eagle groupset is no slouch on any climb, and Rockshox Recon RL forks with 32mm stanchions and SoloAir springs are more capable than many riders would like to admit.

Then there’s the Level 35 wheels and complete Level alloy finishing kit with dropper post.

Combined, it’s a dangerously strong package at a very keen price point, and the oft-forgotten joys of a steel frame should not be lightly ignored - especially if you’re an all-weather, year-round rider.

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Specialised Epic EVO

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For

  • Pro specs
  • Incredibly user-friendly package

Against

  • Serious bike
  • Serious money

The cool sibling to the race-going Epic, the EVO is just as single minded about singletrack, sporting a minimalist 20mm increase in suspension travel and 10mm extra stay length over its downright aggressive older brother.  

You’re still getting an industry pace-setting FACT 11m carbon frame, SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain and RockShox suspension, a package that combined with the Epic platform’s heritage, adds up to a serious tool.

The de-rigueur TranzX Dropper SeatPost and extensive tweakability (you can tune the suspension and change the headtube angle via flip chip tech by up to half a degree while lowering bottom bracket height by 10 millimetres) all point in one direction - the Epic EVO will do the job, whatever it is. 

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Vitus Mythique VRX

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For

  • A handsome steed
  • Entry level pricing
  • Versatile geometry

Against

  • Lower end components in places

As an entry level "full-suss" bike, there’s much to recommend about the Vitus Mythique - especially in the premium VRX format, which adds a Marzocchi Bomber fork (90's throwback!) and RockShox shock over the cheaper version’s X-Fusion suspension.

Available with either 27.5in and 29in wheels and a Shimano 1x12 SLX/Deore Drivetrain, WTB i30 Rims and a Brand-X Ascend dropper post, the fact that the 2022 Vitus Mythique VRX clocks in at under £1,800 is quite bewilderingly good value.

Sure, there are cost savings evident in the spec, but this is a keenly priced package that punches well above its weight.

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Decathlon Rockrider XC 900

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For

  • Good all-round spec
  • Wide range of adjustment

Against

  • No dropper post
  • It fell from the ugly tree

The Decathlon Rockrider brand might evoke the lo-fi classic hardtails of yore - and those are still a great starter option for the wallet-strapped, but the brand has grown up significantly, offering some high-end hardware at reasonable prices.

Although the XC 900 shares the Rockrider name, there’s some serious firepower here, with a lightweight 50/50 carbon and aluminium 29-inch frame, weighing in at a respectable 2.2 kg in small, and perfectly decent 120mm Rockshox Reba RL forks upfront.

At the rear, there's a wallet-friendly Radium Metric shock, 12-speed SRAM GX Eagle spiky bits, and Mavic Crossmax (29in) Tubeless Ready wheels taking care of traction.

Overall it’s a decent package for short, sharp rides, a fact illustrated by the design team’s location in hilly Lille, France. But there's no escaping the fact it looks a bit odd and that branding needs work.

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What to look for when buying a mountain bike

Money and suspension

As with anything you can go out and buy, you really do get what you pay for, and with MTBs this is particularly acute advice. 

While the top-spec bikes at £2k plus have the pick of some excellent, multi-adjustable suspension, that bargain full-suspension beefcake in your local supermarket does not. So cut your cloth accordingly. 

Cheap suspension (whether front or back) tends to be an unpleasant, weighty, energy-sapping experience, so best minimised if your budget isn’t quite at a premium level. 

Suspension travel is a key question depending on your type of riding terrain, with 60-110mm of travel indicating a cross-country race bike, all the way out to the dedicated downhill racers at 180-200mm, which quite simply won’t be pedalled back uphill without motorised legs.  

A material choice

Frame choice is - as ever - a topic for endless debate. Carbon is high end, light, premium, and sometimes prone to cracking, aluminium lightweight, low-to-midrange cost (usually), and often bulky, thanks to the greater diameters required to resist MTB impacts. 

Finally, steel is making a comeback, especially in burly situations where robustness is the main factor. Finally, titanium offers many of the benefits of steel, but in a lighter material that can offer much better pub bragging rights - but at a substantial hit to the wallet.  

Full suss vs hard tail

In terms of full suspension vs hardtail, again, the debate rages. While many may sneer at the hardtail, there’s a lot to be said for the older, simpler design that offers less to maintain, lower costs, better rigidity and - whisper it - more skill to get the best from. 

Well worth considering, especially with an eye to some of the homegrown UK steel frame makers, which offer missile-proof performance, clean, slim lines and confidence that they won’t get eaten alive by the UK winter. 

Wheel size

For many years, all MTBs ran 26in mountain bike wheels as standard, and while these are still lurking around the back of many a multiple store’s racks, better bikes tend to go for larger, faster iterations these days. 

This breaks down into 27.5in or 29in diameter wheels - the latter offering better traction thanks to a larger contact patch, and ability to deal with trail-based obstacles with greater gusto. This comes at a cost to speed handling, where the 27.5in behaves more sharply - horses for courses. 

Alternatively, some brands are experimenting with a mullet set-up, where the rear wheel is larger (usually 29in) and the front wheel smaller (27.5in) in an attempt to extract the best off both worlds.

Writing by Mark Mayne. Editing by Leon Poultney.