Mountain biking is a booming industry. As a result, manufacturers have developed an increased number of specialized designs to appeal to this broad and nuanced market. There’s a lot more to consider now when choosing a bike because of the many models to choose from, but the Santa Cruz Hightower Carbon S remains the best mountain bike on the market, namely due to its versatility, price, and near-perfect precision on the track.
The Hightower Carbon S isn’t for everyone, however. Some riders prefer factors such as cornering ability and weight over approachability, which is why we’ve sifted through more than 50 models and consulted a host of professional reviews to include alternatives geared toward a range of riding styles and terrain. Below, you’ll find recommendations for the best hardtail bike, the best power-assistance bike, the best women’s bike, and the best full-suspension bike, among others.
At a glance:
- Best overall:
- Best hardtail: Salsa Timberjack XT 29
- Best power-assistance: Specialized Turbo Levo SL Comp
- Best full-suspension: Ibis Ripmo V2 XT
- Best for women: Specialized Stumpjumper Comp Carbon 27.5
- Best fat tire: Surly Ice Cream Truck
- Best for kids: REI Co-op Cycles REV 24 Plus
- Best budget: REI Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2
Best overall: Santa Cruz Bicycles Hightower Carbon S 2020
The mountain biking industry is trending toward bigger wheels, and the Santa Cruz Hightower fits the bill. It’s a well-rounded mountain bike with enough get-up-and-go for novice riders, plus impressive capability on rugged terrain for more aggressive riders. The Santa Cruz Hightower Carbon S is a great balance of speed and handling. It’s for individuals who want great handling, speed, and a calm climb. It’s as close as you’re going to get to a bike that can do it all.
Its 29-inch wheels are complemented by carbon rims, offering excellent precision, plus 150mm of front travel and 140mm of rear travel that takes you quickly down the trail. Our top pick is a solid option for both beginner and advanced mountain bikers due to an excellent combination of speed and handling. This bike takes on burly trails with ease while still traveling comfortably across easier terrain. The Santa Cruz Hightower Carbon S comes alive at slower speeds, making for an exciting bike for novice riders. Skilled riders will enjoy its efficient climbing capacity and the ability to withstand backcountry abuse. This bike could easily fit into the enduro category, too.
Santa Cruz is coveted for its carbon-fiber models, and while this one doesn’t feature its top-of-the-line Carbon CC frame, it offers the same ride quality and durability while weighing just a touch more. The Santa Cruz Hightower Carbon S is truly worth its price, especially considering the SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain and RockShox suspension. If the $5,200 cost is a bit too steep, Specialized also sells the Hightower in a variety of configurations, with prices starting at $2,900.
How much will it cost? $5,200
Best hardtail: Salsa Timberjack XT 29
Minnesota-based Salsa Cycles has an outstanding lineup of bikepacking, touring, and gravel bikes, but the company didn’t stop there. In the past few years, Salsa has been growing its mountain bike catalog, and this new focus has paid off. The Timberjack XT 29 combines top-notch components with a reasonable price to earn our pick as the best hardtail you can buy.
The Timberjack XT 29 combines beefy 2.6-inch tires with the highly adjustable 130mm RockShox Sektor RL fork. This combination provides more than enough cushion for rock gardens and rough drop-offs, at least by hardtail standards. Salsa also didn’t skimp when it came to components, equipping the Timberjack XT 29 with Shimano’s recently released XT drivetrain. The XT delivers lightning-fast shifting that is as smooth as butter, even when climbing a steep hill.
The Timberjack XT 29 may be a hardtail at heart, but Salsa has not forgotten its roots in bikepacking. Unlike most hardtails with minimal support for accessories, the Timberjack XT 29 is replete with mounting points for water bottles, emergency kits, and more. It’s not the fastest or most agile bike on our list, but it is a workhorse that’ll let you explore backcountry trails or ride rail trails with ease.
How much will it cost? $1,999
Best power-assistance: Specialized Turbo Levo SL Comp
With an onboard motor and loaded with features, the Specialized Turbo Levo SL Comp is quite literally more than just a mountain bike. It’s for hardcore bikers who like their mountain bikes like their Ferraris. It’s part classic Stumpjumper and part full-suspension, with intuitive motorized assistance that takes some of the pain out of pedaling uphill.
Similar to the other Turbo Levo bikes, the Levo SL Comp is a lightweight bike with a low-power 240-watt motor. On average, it delivers half the power of competing eBikes but weighs a few pounds less. It’s ideal for the biker who wants solid trail experience with optional assistance when needed.
The bike uses a circular series of 10 lights at the top of the display to illustrate the charge left in the 320Wh battery — each represents 10% of the total charge. Battery life is subjective and based upon how long each rider uses the assistance. A strong rider who hardly uses the assist can get up to 20 miles, while a more conservative rider may only get eight miles or less. Specialized does offer a range extender that bumps the battery to 480Wh, which is more than enough for long rides.
The handlebar-mounted controls let you shift up or down through the power settings. This isn’t some push-button accelerator that rockets you forward, though. Simply applying torque to the process (regardless of terrain) can easily result in a skid. On ascents or reckless, white-knuckled descents, a haphazard jolt of acceleration can quite literally steer you in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the Turbo Levo system uses a backend algorithm to sense your torque, speed, and cadence, then amplifies this sequence for maximum efficiency. There’s even a walk mode setting that provides just a touch of assistance when you are walking your bike up a hill.
The Bluetooth-enabled system also connects to your smartphone via the Mission Control app. This allows you to finagle a range of motor dynamics, from acceleration response to the increasing turbo. Mission Control also tracks the metrics of your ride for those so inclined.
Do you need a robo-bike? Absolutely not. Is it nice to have the option to be partially chauffeured to the top of the trail? Yes. Yes, it is.
How much will it cost? $6,500
Best full-suspension: Ibis Ripmo V2 XT
Want a bike with no downhill speed or terrain limitations? Then the Ibis Ripmo V2 XT 2020 is the bike for you. Updated for 2020, the Ibis Ripmo V2 XT has dialed-in geometry, with a longer wheelbase and a tweaked suspension curve. These minor changes improve stability at speed and handling on descents. It also is a capable climber that can power up a trail, even when it requires some technical expertise. Very similar in performance to the Santa Cruz Hightower, the Ibis Ripmo V2 XT handles technical terrain a bit better than the Hightower, even though it is heavier.
At the heart of the $5,900 Ibis Ripmo V2 XT is a carbon frame that is precision-crafted using Ibis’ progressive geometry. It is equipped with Maxxis 29-inch tires on aluminum rims, Fox float suspension with 147mm rear travel and 160mm front travel, and a Shimano XT drivetrain. These components can be upgraded or downgraded to change the final price of the bike.
How much will it cost? $5,900
Best for women: Specialized Stumpjumper Comp Carbon 27.5 Women’s
This do-it-all bicycle can handle everything from a flowy trail to the steepest rock garden. It has a long but comfortable geometry that fits women perfectly. The dual-suspension rig offers 150 mm of front and 140mm of rear travel, giving you a cushioned ride. It handles corners like a dream and is quite maneuverable on technical trails. It’s an excellent bike for beginners and experts alike. Experts can jump on the bike and start pounding the mountains, while beginners can invest in the bike knowing it’ll continue to perform even as their skillset and experience grow.
How much will it cost? $4,520
Best fat tire: Surly Ice Cream Truck
Surly is synonymous with fat bikes. Credited with kicking off the fat bike phenomena and pushing it to the limits with 29-inch tires, it’s not surprising that a Surly rig is our top pick for a fat tire bike.
The Ice Cream Truck is the go-to bike for all trail conditions. It has the highest tire clearance of Surly’s fat bikes, allowing you to conquer any obstacles in your path without hesitation. A monster of a bike, it ships with 4.8-inch tires and can accommodate up to 5-inch tires for maximum float. You can ride it in all four seasons, thanks to its massive tires.
Even though it weighs 35 pounds, the design is still nimble, allowing you to pound over roots and rock and hit features with ease. While most mountain bikes hit the storage rack for the winter, the Ice Cream Truck is ready for the trail in all four seasons.
How much will it cost? $2,000
Best for kids: REI Co-op Cycles REV 24 Plus
The REV 24 Plus from REI fills that niche between single-speed coaster bikes and adult mountain bikes. With 24-inch tires, the REV 24 Plus is small enough for an older child to ride, yet big enough to carry a tween. Like most kid bikes, the REV 24 Plus is easy to shift, thanks to a single chainring up front and a seven-speed cassette in the back. It is equipped with mechanical disc brakes that are easy to maintain and affordable to replace when upgrading or repairing.
The REV 24 Plus offers a smooth and stable riding experience, ideal for young mountain bike riders. It makes it easy for your new riders to navigate the ups and downs and twists and turns of trail riding. To encourage kids to ride, REI provides a free tune-up within the first 20 hours of use or six months from purchase, whichever comes first.
How much will it cost? $379
Best budget: REI Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2
More than just a budget option, the Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2 Bike is one of the best mountain bikes we’ve seen for under $1,000. It’s for someone looking for more than a basic mountain bike without breaking the bank. If you’re in the market for your first mountain bike or you’re a casual rider in need of more than a grocery-getter, the Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2 Bike is a solid bet.
The DRT 1.2 utilizes a classic minimalist hardtail design without coming across as wholly utilitarian. It is steady and firm on climbs (as are most hardtail designs) and competent on the road. The Shimano drivetrain is a solid performer, and the 120mm Suntour XCR dual-piston Fork is outstanding for a budget bicycle.
While full-suspension packages keep you grounded and own the descent to a better degree, the bonus mechanical elements increase the price and propensity for extra wear and part replacement. Rather than perpetually upgrading components, this bike, priced under $1,000, should give you years of performance, so feel free to ride this baby quite literally into the ground.
On rougher trails, you’ll certainly feel every inch of the descent, and depending on your preference, that may or may not be a good thing. If you live for cornering or merely love a downhill grind, you’ll prefer one of the other full-suspension models. However, the DRT 1.2 is undoubtedly more than just a casual commuter.
How much will it cost? $950
Is now a good time to buy a mountain bike?
Now is definitely a great time to buy a mountain bike, but don’t get discouraged if you can’t find one. Bike sales increase as the mountain biking season approaches. This often leaves consumers at the wrong end of the supply-and-demand spectrum.
Should I buy online or from a retailer/independent dealer?
This is a matter of preference. However, unlike online purchases, going to an independent dealer allows you to try and negotiate a lower price and/or haggle for bonus deal sweeteners such as accessories or basic upgrades.
Also, dealing with a retailer or an independent dealer allows you to see the bike in person and take it for a test ride. While a bike may appear ideal on a website, it’s better to make sure the bike meets your height and reach requirements before making a purchase.
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