If you’re new to mountain biking then deciding on your first “serious” trail bike is hugely important – because if it isn’t set up to impart confidence, while still satisfying the adrenaline junky within, your time with the sport will be short lived and you’ll end up missing out on a lot of fun. And these days, you don’t have to pay a small-car price tag in order to tick those boxes, as more affordable options become available every season that deliver on excitement and adventure without leaving a dent in your bank balance.
Of course, because of the nature of the riding you’ll be doing, you need a bike that can soak up the abuse that the trails will dish out. A full-suspension bike has shock absorbers at the front and the back, but there aren’t too many around for under £1,000. However, you will be able to afford a hardtail for under a grand, because they only have suspension at the front, and they are usually lighter because they don’t have to worry about the extra tubes and pivots needed to offer rear suspension.
And while we’re on the subject of suspension we need to talk about “travel”, which is the amount of vertical movement that the shock absorber is capable of when being ridden – look for around five inches to give you the best ride quality over rough terrain at high speeds, especially when going downhill.
Of course, going up and down the trails will inevitably take you up and down the gears, but bikes come with different drivetrain setups – that’s all the components needed to power the bike, from the pedals and chainrings at the front, to the rear cog or cassette at the back.
Ultimately, the chainring and rear cassette will determine how many gears are at your disposal. Two chainrings will give you more gear choices (20-plus), however some bikes will sacrifice a chainring and have fewer gears, usually 11, to make the bike more lightweight.
Disc brakes are standard to deliver you from the top to the bottom without it feeling like you’re out of control and wheels come in at either 27.5in or 29in. The hoops you choose will depend on your height and what kind of riding you’re up for. Choose the larger diameter and what you’ll gain in momentum and speed you’ll lose in some manoeuvrability.
So, whether you’re taking on miles of moorland track or pulse quickening inclines, here are the bikes that will put a smile on your mud-spattered face.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
Voodoo Hoodoo mens mountain bike: £550, Halfords
If it’s cheap thrills you’re after then this Halfords hardtail will deliver in spades. With a ride quality that you’d expect from a bike that’s twice the price, the Hoodoo can handle itself on the trails, taking tight turns with ease and getting up to speed quickly on the straights with an excellent 1x10 transmission.
The 27.5in tyres and Shimano brakes add to the “go anywhere” feeling and the gears are fitted with what the manufacturer calls an “in-built friction damper” – this means that you won’t have to worry about your chain misbehaving when you’re out on the trail. But the best thing about this bike is the confidence that it gives the rider as soon as you’re on board.
Vitus Nucleus29 VR mountain bike: £499.99, vitusbikes.com
The first thing that you’ll notice when you climb on this hardtail is that the 29in wheels offer up some serious rollover, making it easy to build up speed even over rough ground. Highlights are the excellent stopping power and the forgiving suspension forks that are air-sprung and hydraulically damped, which translates into increased control and ensures that when you climb off, it won’t feel like you’ve been operating a jackhammer all day. A proper trail hardtail with a 2x9 transmission that’s ready to get stuck into serious riding, at a pleasing entry-level price.
GT Sensor Alloy Sport: £1,600, Evans Cycles
This entry-level trailer was one of the smoothest rides over rough ground, with the 29in wheels combined with some quality suspension to deliver a really enjoyable riding experience over the roughest trail. Wet, muddy conditions didn’t suck the life out of the bike and actually made the riding even more fun.
Calibre Two Cubed mountain bike: £399, Go Outdoors
Once again the Go Outdoors bike brand has come up with another belting hardtail for the money. For under £400 you’ll get a 3x9 transmission, excellent suspension and disc brakes that will arm you for all kinds of terrain. However, it’s in taking on the downhills where this bike really comes into its own and allows you to deal comfortably with root and rock on the trickiest of descents.
Combine that with a smooth, speedy ride on the flats and you’ve got a real all-rounder that’s so much more than a beginner’s bike. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to shell out a fiver for a Go Outdoors discount card to get the bike for the discounted price (it’s £499 without the card) but this is a small price to pay for such a fun bike.
Pinnacle Kapur 2 mountain bike: £475, Evans Cycles
A great looking hard tail from Evans Cycles that protects the rider from aggressive trails with excellent suspension, comfortable grips and a well designed saddle that won’t turn your rear raw after hours of riding. Great handling and control on winding natural trails means that you never feel like the bike is about to get away from you – and for a sub-£500 ride, with a 3x9 transmission, this is a bike that delivers the thrills without the spills.
Voodoo Bizango 29er mens mountain bike: £650, Halfords
The latest incarnation of the hardtail Bizango (which was launched in 2013) improves on the handling of the original as well as coming complete with a 1x11 transmission. You can go really hard in complete confidence with the larger wheel size taking the sting out of tough, toothy trails. Fast and fun, this is a real all-rounder.
Marin Rift Zone 1 full suspension mountain bike: £1,349.99, Sprockets Cycles
This is a well designed full suspension bike that handled excellently and soaked up the bumps and grind of a day’s riding, thanks, in part, to the 29in wheels that offered up good traction. The 10-speed drivetrain converted our pedal power efficiently and the four frame sizes (small to XL) mean that no matter what your height, you will be able to find the right setup for you. Quick release wheels add to the user-friendly feel and mean that if you’re new to trail biking, you won’t have to fork out for a bike rack as the bike will squeeze into the back of your car.
Canyon Spectral AL 6.0: £2,249, Canyon
This manufacturer sells direct so you’ll need to get the bike set up yourself, but Canyon makes the process as painless as possible with plenty of instructions and tools thrown in. And it will be worth the effort, as the fact that Canyon can bypass the bike shop with online sales means that it can load its bikes with components that you would normally see on bikes costing twice the price. The Spectral doesn’t disappoint on this front – from saddle to suspension, the bike is loaded with well-known brand names that ensure supreme ride quality and agile handling that will satisfy even the more advanced riders.
The verdict: Trail bikes
The Voodoo Hoodoo has so much to offer riders for the money, from tyres you can trust to the kind of suspension you would expect to find on a bike that’s twice the price. If you’re serious about the sport, this bike will give you the confidence to ride hard and you’ll have so much fun on it that you’ll forget that it’s a hardtail.