The term ‘mountain’ bike covers a multitude: cross country (XC), free ride, downhill, and then there’s hardtail suspension (just like it sounds), full suspension, even rigid-fork bikes.
As for wheels, the 26-inch variety are the most popular but 29-inch models are becoming more common.
There are also gender-specific bikes – if you’re a woman, or a man with a smaller body, you’ll be able to find bikes with a women-specific design (WSD). These bikes have shorter top tubes to reduce reach to the bars, narrower bars, short-reach brake levers and wider-set, female-friendly saddles.
The TW test team took some entry-level bikes for a serious spin in the woods above Oxford.We tested five beginner-friendly bikes in the £450-800 price bracket to see what you can get for your money. They are all are ‘proper’ mountain bikes, designed to give a novice rider a great start on real trails.
Giant TALON 2 (rrp £549)
The company Giant is one of the biggest players in the industry, producing good-value bikes with solid specifications. The Talon 2 is an established model from this brand.
The bike The Talon 2 looks great - understated black with small but dramatic flashes of red detail, and white graphics. The main frame tubes are hydroformed, which enables the manufacturer to produce a stress-reducing and strength-increasing shape. The minimum amount of material can be used to produce the frame, thus theoretically reducing the overall weight of the bike.
However, as I picked the bike up I was a little disappointed to find it was quite heavy. Looking deeper into the makeup of the bike I quickly found the reasons.
Component choice is enormously important when it comes to bikes, as there must be a balance between quality, weight and cost. So we expected to see a mix of groupsets throughout this test. For example, the Talon 2 runs a Shimano Alivio front mech and Shimano Deore rear - Alivio is the lowest model in the Shimano range we saw on this range of bikes and it represented a cost-limiting exercise. The kit worked just fine - Shimano invariably does - but it definitely lacked a little refinement and could be better on a bike of this price.
The brakes are Giant's own 160mm Root branded hydraulics - they worked fine, but the look of the lever-control units harked back to those of more than a few years ago. The tyres are the trusted Kenda Nevegals - while heavy, they offer all-round traction in the slippery winter conditions.
The ride All our testers found the Talon 2 to be quite short in reach and high at the front end. The frame geometry isn't noticeably different to the other bikes. However, the combination of a 100mm fork, angled stem and riser bar results in a 'sit up and beg' position. This is quite comfortable for beginners but encourages a tendency to lift the front wheel when taking on steep climbs, which could quickly knock confidence.
The Suntour XCM V2 suspension tended to pogo on the rebound, offering less control than we'd have liked. The Talon 2 certainly looks good, but the mix of components and some basic handling issues mean it finishes down the list.
Sizes 13.5, 16, 18, 20, 22 inch
Frame New Giant AluxX Aluminium, Fluid formed
Wheels CR18 double wall aluminium/ Formula disc hubs
Tyres Kenda Nevegal 2.1”
Saddle WTB saddle
FOCUS Fat Boy (rrp £650)
The company Every FOCUS bike is hand-built in the company's factory, near Hamburg in Germany. A relatively new brand to the UK, FOCUS works solely with online cycle-product providers Wiggle to control the import and distribution of their bikes. FOCUS is keen to hit all the major price points with a suite of good-looking and value-for-money offerings.
The bike Once again this is a classy-looking bike, though the name does lack a little sophistication. It featured a robust hydroformed frame, and we were impressed to note the quality Shimano XT rear mech and Shimano SLX gear triggers on geartrain duty. These sort of components are usually reserved for bikes costing £700 or more, so we expected some refined shifting and good feelings from this bike. Stopping power is supplied by some all-white (very cool if slightly bulky) Shimano disc brakes. This was more like it.
All the bikes in this bracket carry home-grown (or own-brand) finishing kits - bars, stem and seatpost. On the Fat Boy the kit is ergonomically pleasing - it's black anodised, and it suits the bike well, creating a tidy-looking package.
The ride On the trail this bike felt different to the rest of the pack. Stepping up onto the pedals and pushing away, it felt secure, well balanced and light on its Schwalbe Racing Ralph tyres. It almost seemed keen to get down the track.
The cockpit on this machine is great, wide enough risers with a good sweep offer comfort and good handling. In fact it's hard to pick many faults with this machine - even the RST Omega T RL 100mm fork does terrific work for the cost, providing smooth bump absorption and no nasty noises.
As a novice jumping aboard the Fat Boy, you can expect to find a delightfully neutral yet encouraging ride - the combination of a great set of components hung from a lighter frame and fork option makes for a sound starting point.
Colours Polar White and Magic Black
Frame Alloy frame - zero stack headset
Wheels Shimano RM65, Disc on Alex EN24 rims
Tyres Schwalbe Nobby Nic
Saddle Concept SL MTB
On-One Inbred (rrp £799)
The company On-One is a UK-based company designing and building bikes primarily for the home market. The company produces a niche set of bikes and each can be customised from the purchase - the buyer selects all the parts, from the frame onward, via an online-purchasing website.
The bike At £799 the Inbred is at the top end of the price bracket for our test, but it is still marketed as an entry-level bike.
At the heart of this machine is a quality set of TIG welded double butted 4130 chromoly tubes. It was probably the best-looking bike on the test; it was certainly the lightest. There were other striking differences, too.
Firstly, there are no disc brakes on this bike. It has all the mounts it needs to take them - the frame, fork and even the wheels are disc compatible. Instead, the On-One Inbred has been dressed with a set of traditional Shimano Deore V brakes. This is quite disappointing because discs are usually standard these days on mountain bikes, but on the plus side, the bike can be upgraded at any time, an indication that it's a bike to grow into after the initial purchase and settling-in period.
Secondly, it has a rigid carbon fork. Budget suspensions can be there just for looks, and On-One has chosen to go with an old-school rigid setup rather than risk a set of pogo sticks. The forks can be changed if desired.
The ride On the trail the bike was easily the most nimble and advanced on test. The 26 x 2.1-inch Continental King tyres come up narrower on the rim than some others; combining them with the rigid fork gives this bike a particularly raw and pure feeling.
Although not necessarily the best for a novice, our test riders soon settled onto the machine, enjoying the smooth Shimano SLX transmission and more stretched-out position. On-One has supplied something called the Fleegle bar with this bike - a flat bar with a forward bend, and it gives the bike a slightly odd look, but riders enjoyed the racy feel of this machine.
After an hour or so in the gritty conditions, the bike was working very well. Apart from the brakes, that is. V brakes have been superseded so well by disc brakes that on this bike it would be a mistake not to upgrade. That said, this was a very strong showing from the British brand.
Sizes 14, 16, 18, 20 in
Frame On-One Custom Steel Inbred Frame
Wheels Shimano 505 26" Wheelset Disc and V Brake
Tyres Continental King 2.1
Saddle On-One Bignose
Specialized Myka HT Comp Disc (rrp £450)
The company Specialized has been in the mountain bike business since the company was formed in 1974 and has always been at the front of the pack when it comes to producing innovative mass-market winners. The US manufacturer has always had a strong bike at the entry-level price point, setting the bar for the
other companies. Now it has a bike in both male- and female-specific markets - for this test we looked at the women-specific design (WSD) model.
The bike The Myka is a subtle WSD bike. It comes in a lovely satin-red finish, with overlaid grey graphics on the flared-down tube to give it a slightly arty appearance. The geometry is tweaked to better fit the average female form - with a shortened
and low stand over top tube. Paired in red up front are some Suntour SF10 80mm forks - with customised women's spring rates, a lock-out switch, and a combined spring/elastomer damping system.
The only bike on test to use SRAM shifting gear, the X4 triggers worked well enough, although the X4 rear mech and Altus front were a step down on this test and slightly harsh in their shifting ability. This is, after all, a £450 bike and the equipment is matched to suit the price tag.
The ride This bike quickly inspired confidence in our female rider, who was soon taking small drops and greasy corners with ease. The gears were a bit clunky on the test bike, but we put that down to a poor setup, which was soon rectified with a little TLC. The forks seemed well adjusted to suit a lighter rider, soft and compliant without springing back too fast and hard.
Up front a narrower riser bar than normal and a wider saddle are designed with the target market in mind. They were given a
nod of approval from our tester, as was the absence of pointless pink finishing: the Myka HT does not scream 'girl bike' and this is a good thing. Overall there are no major faults with the Myka - but it doesn't gleam, either. It's a fine all-round performer for the price tag.
Sizes 13, 15, 17, 19 in
Frame Myka A1 Premium Aluminium, fully butted, women's geometry, low stand over TT, ORE DT
Wheels Alex RHD, 26", pinned, alloy double wall, 32h front and rear
Tyres Specialized Fast Trak LK Sport tyres use a reduced knob height for lower rolling resistance
Saddle Specialized XC women's, front and rear bumpers, 155mm width
Merida Matts 60-D (rrp £549)
The company Merida has been producing bikes for nearly 40 years, beginning by manufacturing Japanese U-type mini-bikes. It has also been heavily involved in the background, licensing product for Raleigh as well as investing time and money developing products for Asian markets. More recently the company has moved
into the European market and now has a full suite of machines, from full-suspension international race-spec bikes to sport-level XC hardtails (no rear suspension), one of which we tested.
The bike Matt's 60-D is the same price as the Giant Talon 2, so we could compare like for like. The frame was, once again, a hydroformed aluminium number, with a curiously fluted down tube to aid stiffness and shock absorption. The bike is largely kitted out with Shimano Deore equipment on the geartrain front, as you'd expect for this price, and it all worked well on the test bike. We had Hayes Stroker brakes fitted but these have been changed to Tektro Auriga Comps for 2010, with a 180mm disc up front and 160mm at the rear - to increase stopping power. Like the Giant, this bike felt heavy when we picked it up, but what was most noticeable was the ride.
The ride As soon as I jumped on, I had the feeling I was on a bike more suited to women - the riser bar was incredibly narrow and the grips were hard and quite uncomfortable on bare hands. I would
switch to a wider bar if I owned this bike. Heading off down the trail the bike behaved fairly well, but with the bars being so narrow the machine always felt a little twitchy on the track and the front end was heavy, giving poor feel for the trail through the stiff 100mm RST Gila forks. The forks do, however, have a lockout switch, which is a useful feature - especially if you're travelling on the road or on particularly flat tracks where suspension becomes a hindrance.
With the simple turn of a switch on the top of the fork, the suspension travel can be locked out, making a rigid fork that's
more suitable for road riding. Overall the Merida Matts is decent value for money - the own-brand finishing kit is neat enough, and the frame feels sufficiently stiff and responsive. I was also impressed by the own-brand tyres, which gripped well in the slippery conditions.
Sizes 16, 18, 20, 22 in
Frame Matts Pro-D Aluminium
Wheels Disc-F Alloy/Disc-R Alloy
Tyres Merida RACE 2.1
Saddle X-Mission Sport
We're aware of the spread of prices of these test bikes but even bearing that in mind, one machine stood out.
It seems obvious from the test that up to £500 the entry-level bikes that can be bought, such as the Merida and the Giant, come with certain weaknesses - weight being the most obvious.
They also call for a more relaxed riding style than a competitive triathlete might look for. But as entry-level rides, they're fine. The On-One Inbred, while a little outside the boundaries of what we were looking for, whispers "potential" to anyone wishing to trade up as they become acquainted with off-road riding and racing.
But our favourite is the FOCUS Fat Boy, thanks to its decent frame, racy look, great components and a ride that matches that of a bike far above its price ticket