Bike manufacturers have expanded their lines to offer a bike for every situation. It’s great to have so many bikes to choose from these days, but things have become confusing as standards change and different categories blend together. Here we break down ten of our favorite bikes by category and provide you with some useful information when making a choice for your new mountain bike.
The Rift Zone is a great all-around trail bike. With 130mm travel up front and 125mm in the rear, it provides plenty of suspension to get aggressive on the downhills while still being efficient on the way back up. The Rift Zone frame is offered in both aluminum and carbon fiber and has a modern geometry that is great in all conditions. The bike is also available in 27.5” and 29” versions. The 29” is optimal for all out speed and efficiency while the 27.5” model offers that little extra agility for smaller riders, those that like to jump, and for tighter sections of trail.
What we love:
We particularly like the Marin Rift Zone for its value. It’s hard to beat the Rift Zone 2 with its 1x12 drivetrain, dropper seatpost, and great suspension at this price point. The carbon models are also a great value starting at $3700.
The Diamondback Release is another awesome trail bike that plays in the same category as the marin Rift Zone. The Release features 140mm of travel in the front and 130mm rear. This frame is also offered in both aluminum and carbon and a modern geometry with a long front end and short rear end that make this bike a ton of fun. Both frame materials feature Diamondback’s Level Link suspension which allows the bike to climb and accelerate like a race bike while still handling big hits and drops like an all mountain or enduro rig with much more travel. The aluminum Release models have 29” wheels while the carbon Release 4c and 5c are 27.5”.
What we love:
The Diamondback Release just feels incredibly nimble. The bike just feels like it has so much pop. We would choose the Release if we wanted an all around trail bike that was completely at home hitting jumps, riding the pump track, and still able to tackle daily trail use.
The Diamondback also comes with extras that other brands expect you to purchase after buying a new bike. You’ll get tubeless valves, a front fender, a spare derailleur hanger, tool kit, and a shock pump with your Release!
The Niner Jet 9 RDO still fits into the all around trail bike like the previous two bikes, but in a slightly more efficient package. The Jet 9 is only offered with a carbon frame and 120mm of travel front and rear. The frame is still a little slack up front, but has a steeper seat tube angle than the bikes mentioned above. The steeper seat tube angle puts you over the pedals when climbing and hammering on fast sections of trail and prevents that feeling of being too far behind the bottom bracket that you sometimes get on a more slack bike.
What we love:
The JET 9 RDO is a great choice for those looking for cross country weight and efficiency with the ability to tackle tough trails with confidence. The Constantly Varying Arc (CVA) linkage that Niner specs with their bikes means that even with 120mm of rear travel, the bike doesn’t squat or bob even when climbing but handles everything you can throw at it. Niner also has some of the best paint in the business and the bike oozes that little bit of extra quality.
The Alpine Trail is our first choice in the enduro segment. Bikes in the enduro category are going to be a little heavier and a little less efficient going uphill, but offer ultimate durability and ability to get aggressive going downhill. The Alpine Trail has 160/150mm of travel front and rear. Marin still offers a great value in the AT. Frame material is your choice of aluminum and carbon again, but the aluminum bike is also offered in a more sturdy option, the XR, that comes with a Rock Shox Super Deluxe coil rear shock and is ready to really send it down tough downhill trails with jumps. You won’t find a bike that provides a more stable ride than the Alpine Trail.
What we love:
Again, Marin beats everyone on value here. The Alpine Trail at each level is well-equipped and ready to ride at a price that can’t be matched.
The AT is also confidence inspiring and handles steep sections of trail with ease. We feel the AT punches well above its weight on really tough trails.
The Marin San Quentin is a hardtail for the rider who likes to send it! The San Quentin features a beefy aluminum frame and a slack head tube angle that creates stability when pointed downhill. Marin pairs that slack head tube angle with a short rear center bringing the rear wheel forward and a steep seat tube angle so that you’re centered over the bike. This makes the San Quentin a great dirt jumper and allows you to carve through corners with ease.
What we love:
This bike is bulletproof. The San Quentin allows you to get into downhill and dirt jumping at the bike park with limited maintenance and still has the ability to be used for general trail use.
The Niner RKT 9 RDO is a rocket ship. This fits into the XC category, but we feel it offers enough stability that it’s still a fun bike while performing daily trail duty. The RKT is offered in multiple build packages but two flavors. The regular RKT has 120mm of travel up front and 90mm in the rear. This gives a little more bump absorption and a little less aggressive feel while still being fast. The RS, or Race Spec, is the short-travel version with 100mm of travel in the front and comes with a lockout for both front and rear suspension. We recently made a video review of the RS which can be found here.
What we love:
First, you can’t beat Niner’s build quality. Second, the RKT offers so much speed while still being a fun bike to play on. The Fox suspension is plush and soaks up the trail while not giving up any efficiency with the CVA linkage and the overall geometry of the bike. The “Pedal Damn it” slogan on the top tube reminds you every time you look down that you’re on a rocketship!
You’re a beginner who wants to dip your toes into the MTB world or just a budget conscious cyclist: the Marin Bobcat Trail is the bike to look at. The Bobcat Trail comes in a variety of configurations ranging from $800 to $1150, but they all come in at a great bang for your buck. The small Bobcat has a 27.5-inch wheel, the medium can be purchased in either 27.5 or 29", and the large and extra large come with 29-inch wheels. The bigger wheels help get over obstacles and roll a little better on the flats but make the bike handle slightly slower. Smaller rides sometimes prefer the 27.5 for this reason. The bike handles well, is reasonably light, and is built tough to help you tackle any trails you ride as you get into the sport.
What we love:
The Bobcat is a great budget bike. Even the lowest spec'd Bobcat comes with features like hydraulic disc brakes. Marin does not skimp on the important bits. The build quality, component spec, and overall ride compare extremely well against the competition in this category.
Cross-country bikes don’t have to be expensive. The Team Marin is ideal for someone looking for a hardtail XC bike with a lightweight aluminum frame that also has general trail riding capability. The geometry of the Team Marin is a mix between XC and modern trail geometry. With a long reach, 67 degree head tube angle, and 120mm of travel the bike is great for all around riding and will still feel nimble in your next cross country race. This is the sweet spot in aluminum hardtails: upgrades you get over a more entry level hardtail such as a Bobcat Trail include an air suspension fork.
What we love:
As with the other Marin’s, the Team Marin is a great value. The Team Marin 1 is the best hardtail mountain bike to get you into racing without hurting your wallet. The Team Marin 2 steps up in price but is a great value with a Fox 34 StepCast fork, SLX/XT build, and a dropper seatpost.
The Haibike AllMtn is an e-bike made for every terrain. The AllMtn features 160/150mm of travel front/rear, a mullet setup (29” front wheel and 27.5” rear), and a powerful Bosch CX motor. Both the AllMtn 3 and 5 both come equipped with a high end build package with Rock Shox suspension. The Haibike setup coupled with the electric assist makes getting over rough terrain easy. We’ve been impressed with the build quality of Haibike. Little things like the linkage bolts having circlips preventing the bolts from backing out show that extra attention to detail.
What we love:
We love the handling of the Haibike AllMtn. The Bosch motor providing 250w to get you up the next climb coupled with the geometry and setup of this bike allow you to have fun on the way up and down!
All of the good things said about the Alpine Trail can be said of the e-bike version also. The Alpine Trail E comes with the same 160/150mm suspension travel but a 29”/27.5” wheel combination. Marin chooses to go with a Shimano STEPS motor that provides 250w of power. You have two choices of build packages. The 2 comes spec’d with slightly better components and suspension and a battery with a little more capacity at 630Wh vs. the 504Wh of the E1. The E2 has been a huge hit with our customers and has everyone smiling at the top of big climbs.
What we love:
We love the versatility of the Alpine Trail E. The bike is great out on the trail, the jump line, and everything in between. The Marin can blitz through rock gardens and remain planted in the toughest conditions. We can confidently say the Marin compares well to any eMTB out there.
The Best Trail Bikes: FAQs
What is the best trail bike brand?
This is a tough question as we love all of our brands. We’ll break this down a little further.
Marin is our favorite brand for those trying to get a bike on a budget. We feel Marin does a great job of providing value to the customer and choosing a build list that maximizes what you get for the money.
Niner is our favorite brand for higher end bikes. Niner is an American brand that makes great quality mountain bikes and adds a lot of details and “flare” to their bikes that we really like. Their CVA linkage provides a great ride that we enjoy.
Mondraker is our choice for a boutique, high end bike. Mondraker does not compromise in any area. Their Podium RR SL feels like a road bike. It’s that light and fast.
Ultimately there is no “best mountain bike brand" but we try to carry brands that provide a great value and quality product at every price range.
What is the best trail bike for the money?
If you’re looking for a hardtail, we don’t think you can go wrong with a Team Marin. The Team Marin is a budget conscious bike that can hit the trail, race XC, and get you started without needing to quickly upgrade.
For a full suspension bike, the Marin Rift Zone is the choice for those who don’t want to break the bank and want a bike that can do it all. It handles and climbs well and does all the things a new cyclist needs it to do.
What is the best trail bike for beginners?
Our rule for beginners is this:
If you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy the bike, the best first mountain bike is the Bobcat Trail. At that price, if you don’t like it you’ll be able to sell it on the used market without too much of a financial hit. If you are bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll likely want to upgrade down the road. That’s ok, because again, you’ll sell it on the used market and not lose much.
If you have the money to spend, look at your local terrain and choose a slightly upgraded model that matches what you think you want to do with the bike. If you’re in a flat area and would like to get into racing, go with a Team Marin. If you’re in an area with rocks, roots, and climbs, we like the Marin Rift Zone or Diamondback Release. These are bikes you will not feel the need to upgrade for a long time after purchase, and they are of a quality that you’ll only need to upgrade the wheels and a few components to really maximize the performance instead of needing to replace the complete bike.
If you need help finding choosing your next MTB, give us a shout. We'd be glad to help answer any questions you have. Alternatively, check out our post on Types of Mountain Bikes and tips on how to buy your first mountain bike.