Buying a new mountain bike is hard, even for the seasoned mountain biker and the sheer number of options can be dizzying. Before you even get into the different component specs, there are decisions to be made about wheel size, full-suspension or hardtail, how much travel and the biggest question, the cost. For someone who has never mountain biked; when a shop employee asks these questions to try and steer them to the right ride, they may not know the answer.
If you are unsure of what you want or have some questions of your own about buying your first mountain bike, check out our guide for what to look for in a beginner mountain bike.
Best mountain bikes beginners can buy today
Specialized Fuse Comp 29
Long, slack with a sliding dropout
Travel: 130 | Wheel size: 27.5 or 29 | Sizes: XS-XL
Specialized relaunched the Fuse in 2019, and it's now designed to keep up with even gnarlier terrain. Made from the brand's M4 Aluminium, the new Fuse is longer, lower and slacker, with improved standover height throughout the range.
Rolling on stout Roval Alloy SL wheels wrapped in a 2.6in Butcher at the front and 2.6in Purgatory at the back, the Fuse sees a sliding rear dropout so it can be run as a singlespeed, or the wheelbase and handling characteristics can be tailored slightly. There is also room for a 29 x 2.6in tyre for rollover and speed or a 27.5 x 2.8in for heaps of traction over slippery rocks and roots.
Trek Roscoe 8
Everything you'd look for in a trail-focused hardtail with a light price tag
Travel: 120mm | Wheel size: 27.5 | Sizes: XS-XXL
Trek's Roscoe is built around a 27.5+ tyre with the idea that a rider of any level can experience a fast and flickable trail bike in the form of a wallet-friendly hardtail. The frame is made from Trek's Alpha Gold Aluminium which also sees a tapered headtube to eliminate flex in the front end and improve steering accuracy.
Devoid of any rear suspension there is a 120mm RockShox 35 fork at the front complete with the SoloAir spring and Turnkey hydraulic lockout. The cockpit is bound by Trek's Knock Block to prevent the levers from impacting the frame in a crash, and sees a short stem and wide bars for heaps of leverage in the corners.
There are 12-gears to get you up the climbs, with SRAM's NX Eagle drivetrain looking after the chain. Even better, this Roscoe 8 even comes with an internally routed TransX dropper post.
Nukeproof Scout 290 Expert
Stable and balanced ride with a top-notch spec
Travel: 140 | Wheel size: 29 | Sizes: M-XL
Nukeproof is a consumer-direct brand sold through Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles. You may know them as the brand that supplies Sam Hill with his EWS World Championship winning ride; although you probably won't find Hill aboard the Scout, the trail hardtail that leans on the brand's experience making enduro bikes that win championships.
With a long and slack geometry, the Scout will handle steep and deep riding with no sweat, and the slack head angle combined with a short stem and wide bars makes the handling manageable when the trail is not.
There are quite a few models of the Scout, but this one in particular caught our eye, fitted with the brand new 1x12 Shimano SLX group, four-piston brakes, a 140mm Fox 36 Rhythm and a dropper post, this Scout 29er is poised to be an absolute hooligan on the trails.
Vitus Sentier 29 VR
Confidence inspiring trail bike that will push your skills
Travel: 140 | Wheel size: 27.5 | Sizes: M-XL
Vitus is another direct-to-consumer brand you'll find available through Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles. The geometry is a tad more conservative than the Nukeproof, but it's still plenty capable and can hang in when things get fast and loose.
This model comes with a 1x12 SRAM SX Eagle groupset and 140mm Marzocchi bomber fork. With 27.5in wheels and tyres, everything is based around boost spacing, and all up, the bike is claimed to weigh a hair over 13kg.
Commencal Meta HT AM Origin
For the beginner who wants to get rowdy
Travel: 150mm | Wheel size: 27.5 | Sizes: M-XL
Based out of Andorra, Commencal is a direct-to-consumer brand that has long sold bikes through its own website offering well-specced rowdy rides at prices other brands have struggled to match. It now appears they are branching out to sell through other retailers like Wiggle.
Commencal technically classes the Meta HT as an enduro bike, likely due in part to its 150mm fork and super slack 65-degree headtube angle. If you're planning to tackle an EWS course, a rear shock is a must, but the Meta HT is a hardy hardtail that is a capable descender. The geometry encourages descending at lightspeed and provides enough front suspension to get you out of a lot of trouble.
For the money, the Meta HT AM Origin is hard to beat with a RockShox Recon RL fork and SRAM 10-speed group. The only thing missing is a dropper post.
Santa Cruz Chameleon D 29
Arguably the most fun you will have on two wheels
Travel: 120 | Wheel size: 29 or 27.5 | Sizes: S-XL
Santa Cruz's Chameleon is a ball of fun, and while it's been a part of the brand's line-up for two decades, it's been kept up to date while maintaining its spirited feel and can-do attitude.
The Chameleon is a trail bike that can handle 27.5+ and 29er wheels and tyres and is just as comfortable cutting laps in the bike park, as it is loaded down with bike-packing bags for an overnight adventure.
It's got an alloy frame, and the D build kit comes with a 120mm RockShox Recon RL fork and a 12-speed SRAM NX drivetrain.
Kona Honzo 29
Light on the wallet, heavy on the fun
Travel: 120 | Wheel size: 29 | Sizes: S-XL
Credit where credit is due, Kona is the brand that shifted hardtails from just being for beginners and XC whippets, to do everything trail munching machines.
The Honzo has come a long way since the original, and now there are nearly a dozen versions between the Honzo and Big Honzo. Based around an alloy frame with a relatively slack geometry, the Hanzo has a similar reach figure to the full suspension Process 153.
There's a 120mm RockShox Recon RL Solo Air fork out front, a SRAM NX/ SX Eagle drivetrain and a Tranz-X dropper post.
GT Zaskar Alloy Elite
Hans Rey-approved hardtail
Travel: 100 | Wheel size: 29 | Sizes: S-XL
The Zaskar has been around in one form or another since the early '90s and was Hans 'no way' Rey's weapon of choice for many years. Although the numbers on the geometry chart appear to lean towards the cross country side of things, once you swing a leg over it becomes clear this is a trail bike through and through.
This model comes with an alloy frame and sees floating seat stays to help take the bite out of big bumps — a couple of hundred bucks more and you get a carbon frame. For 2020, the Zaskar has been upgraded with both front and rear thru-axles, boost spacing and routing for an internal dropper post.
At the front, there is a 100mm RockShox Reba RL, and a SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain cycling through the gears as the terrain undulates.
What to look for in a beginner mountain bike
1. XC? Trail? Enduro? Downhill?
Mountain bikes are divided into categories based on their geometry and the amount of suspension travel, and each class is designed to excel in distinct terrain and riding situations.
On the one end, we have the cross-country bike; these have steep angles, limited tyre clearance, between zero and ~100mm of suspension and come in hardtail or dual suspension varieties designed to excel on the climbs. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have downhill bikes; super-slack angles, with ~200mm of suspension designed to take a beating and rumble down the steepest gnarliest terrain, but not so much for pedalling.
Unless you're planning on racing either of these disciplines or the trails in your area massively favour of one end of this spectrum, we think you should spend your money on a trail bike.
Trail bikes are available in dualies and hardtails and are designed to do everything well. With between ~120mm to about ~140mm of travel this category of bike has stable handling and the geometry is such that you can happily ride it on an all-day epic, or even laps in the bike park. A bike in this category is a generalist and will grow with you as your skills improve.
2. Speaking of suspension
Modern suspension is genuinely amazing and can smooth out bumps that would rattle your fillings loose only a few years ago, while also providing a stable pedalling platform so you don't lose watts bobbing up a climb.
Even at the beginner level, you should look for air suspension, as this allows you to tailor the sag to your weight. We'd also err more on the side of hardtails over dual suspension for riders just starting out. With a more straightforward frame design, a hardtail will have nicer components than a full suspension bike of the same price. A hardtail will also help you to develop stronger fundamentals which you will build upon as you get better on your bike.
3. How much should you spend on your first mountain bike?
While we could throw out a number and include a whole bunch of bikes that hit that price range, we don't necessarily think that's how you should pick your first mountain bike — ultimately the decision will come down to how much you have to spend, and the value you may attach to riding your bike.
There aren't many genuinely bad bikes nowadays, however you get what you pay for in terms of quality. If you buy a $500 bike, it's going to be specced with inferior parts, and in the long run, it will likely end up costing you more, because they will inevitably break and need to be replaced. The reason seasoned mountain bikers can justify spending the price of a 2016 Honda Civic on a mountain bike is they will spend hundreds of hours riding it, and the comfort and ride characteristics that come with such a product over that period of time are worth it.
Having said that, if you're getting into mountain biking. remember the bike itself isn't the only cost of entry; you're going to need a helmet, multi-tool, track pump, shock pump, pedals — you get the idea. When you do decide to pull the trigger, make sure to budget those costs.