Photo: Backcountry/Hearst Newspapers
From its roots as a fringe pursuit, mountain biking has grown into mainstream popularity over the past few decades and spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. The bikes have evolved, but so, too, have their prices.
Nowadays the best mountain bikes go for around $5,000, and more than a handful top $10,000. What you get for all that dough is smart engineering, a well-machined frame and strong-yet-light components with designs tested and perfected by company race teams.
I spend all summer filming pro mountain bike racers and get to see the latest offerings from the top brands—often before they’ve on sale to the public. I spoke to top pros and industry experts to bring you the top picks for when you’re ready to buy the best of the best.
Note: While bikes have been flying off the shelves during COVID and shortages abound, these higher-end bikes are easier to find than more affordable models—for now. If you’re considering a purchase, don’t wait too long, as these smaller producers often sell out of inventory, even in a normal year.
Santa Cruz Bronson
Santa Cruz Bicycles Bronson Carbon R Mountain Bike – backcountry.com
Since 2013, the Bronson has been the prototype of an all-mountain bike and the flagship of the Santa Cruz lineup. It balances beefy full suspension with stiff uphill performance to make longer cross-country riding doable while retaining the ability to enjoy rocky, technical terrain and moderate drops. The 27.5-inch wheels help roll over obstacles and are an easier transition if you’re coming from the formerly ubiquitous 26-inch wheels. The fairly long wheelbase (distance between the axles) makes for a stable, confident ride, important if you like hitting top speeds on the trail.
There are multiple configurations available for the Bronson, and this Carbon R gives you the light and responsive carbon frame with quality components while keeping the price under $5K.
Best for Bike Parks
Yeti Cycles SB150 Carbon C1 GX Eagle Mountain Bike – backcountry.com
Golden, Colo.-based Yeti Cycles has long had a cult following for its race-ready lineup of enduro trail bikes, but the SB150 epitomizes the designers’ pursuit of a gravity-oriented smasher that can still pedal uphill.
The Yeti marketing copy focuses on the benefits of it being a 29er (as in 29-inch wheels), but Yeti athlete and popular mountain bike YouTuber Nate Hills says it’s the geometry and engineering behind the 150 that makes it his go-to bike for the past 2+ years (and he owns every bike Yeti makes).
“I like taller bikes and the 150 is pretty raked out and slack and just feels really stable going fast. For me, it brings back memories of racing downhill and that style of riding which puts a smile on my face, mostly,” he said.
Hills bulked up his SB150 with even beefier front and rear shocks, pushing the 150 into freeride terrain, but even in its stock configuration, it comes with the already burly Fox Performance 36 170mm fork up front and 6 inches of travel in back, which Hills says makes it “a park rat’s trail bike that you can ride really abusively and aggressively.”
This isn’t your all-rounder if you mostly pedal rolling trail, but if you often ride chairlifts to descend big lines, you’ll appreciate the extra travel and won’t mind the extra weight in exchange. Like most Yeti bikes, the SB150 isn’t cheap, but it comes with a lifetime warranty and de facto membership in the die-hard Yeti owner community.
2020 Transition Sentinel 29″ Carbon 150mm NX / GX / X01 Complete Bike – probikesupply.com
Gone are the days when all mountain bikes came with 26-inch wheels. Now you must choose: The now “old-school” 26-inch? 27.5? 29?
More and more riders have moved up to 29-inch wheels for the increased traction and improved approach angles provided by the larger-diameter wheels. While the 29ers can be slightly heavier and slower starters, they’re great for speed and handling in chunky terrain, especially for bigger and taller riders. The newest Sentinel has added 10mm to both the front and rear suspension, expanding the charging capabilities of the wildly popular original.
Marco Osborne, a Northern California-based pro enduro rider, prefers the Sentinel as his one-bike quiver and describes it as “a very playful and fun 29er that can and will tackle anything from your backyard trail, local bike park, or enduro race track. Plus it looks like a fighter jet.”
This bike is enduro-ready, but on the more downhill end of the spectrum, perfect for bigger riders that like bigger lines. Builds on the Sentinel range from $4,499 to $6,599.
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Justin Park is a Breckenridge, Colorado-based reporter covering health, fitness, and the outdoors (and the gear associated with each). He was part of a small team covering the 2016 Rio Olympics for USA Today Sports that earned a Associated Press Sports Editors’ Award for Investigative Writing. He also co-owns a video production group and shared a Webby in 2019 and 2020 for his video contributions as part of the team at the Breckenridge Tourism Office. He’s a proud Central native who has a M.S. in New Media from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.