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11 best trail bikes that’ll help you tackle tough terrain

We hunted down sets of wheels for both the uninitiated and regular riders alike

Jon Axworthy
Thursday 07 July 2022 17:22 BST
These machines got our pulses racing and offered all the thrills without the spills
These machines got our pulses racing and offered all the thrills without the spills (The Independent)

The best kind of exercise is the kind that doesn’t feel like exercise, so when you’re hurtling down a knife-edge trail on two wheels with your heart in your mouth, it’s about as far away from the treadmill as you can possibly get. It’s this adrenaline rush that’s one of the big appeals of trail riding and why it’s such a big sport in the UK, attracting more and more rookie riders every year. That’s why we started hunting for the best bikes across a range of price points.

Now, there’s more terminology to get your head around when buying a trail bike than you could possibly imagine. You’ll hear all about the geometry of the bike (its head angles, seat angles and reach), whether it has boost spacing and how progressive the suspension is. However, we’ll leave that to the specialist mags, because what we’re aiming to do here is concentrate on the main categories that, essentially, every bike can be broken down into: frame, suspension, spec and overall ride.

The frame is where the aforementioned geometry comes in, but let’s swerve the maths lesson because what we were looking for was how all those frame angles combine to position you on the bike and keep your weight well-balanced between the wheels. This means you can ride confidently, whether you’re enjoying a nice, relaxed blue trail or going hell for leather down a techy track.

Modern trail bike frames are designed around suspension (or travel) and you can choose between hardtails and full-suspension bikes. Hardtails may not be as fast over the rough stuff as full-suspension, but they shouldn’t be any less fun to ride. They’re usually more affordable, too, because there’s no rear shock absorbers to add to the cost, and frames are less complex. Bikes with short travel tend to be “poppier”, which, as the name suggests, makes for a livelier bike.

When it comes to the spec, we’re referring to everything fitted to the frame, from the group set (which comprises all the components that drive and stop the wheels), to the wheels themselves. Finally, we quite simply wanted to experience how well the bike performed out there on the trail. For example, did it cope with going up hills and down hills equally, or was it more geared to one rather than the other?

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A quick word on dropper posts, which in our opinion, are one of the biggest innovations in trail riding. They simply raise and lower the seat by way of a cable and lever located on the handlebar, but can revolutionise your riding, as they make for a more natural, fluid experience out on the trails. This will make your time even more enjoyable, so we’ve made sure that most of the £1,000+ bikes in this round-up have dropper posts fitted as standard.

How we tested

We took all the bikes we could get our hands on out for a spin in all conditions – dry, wet and even wetter. We had a range of testers – from total novices to battle-scarred vets – to get to know the bikes over stiff hills, technical trails and single-track woodland before reporting back over a cup of Bovril.

Individual brands often prioritise different ride characteristics, giving each machine its own feel. That’s why the most important metric for a trail bike isn’t always a tangible one – it’s a result of the bike being greater than the sum of its parts, so that it imparts confidence.

Finally, after testing throughout the muddy months, these are the bikes that got our pulses racing and offered all the thrills without the spills.

The best trail bikes for 2022 are:

Trek top fuel 8

Trek top fuel 8.png

Best: All-rounder

Rating: 9/10

We loved the geometry of this full-suspension bike, with its aluminium alloy frame. It effortlessly set the rider up and offers good weight distribution, particularly on the climbs.

Don’t let us give you the impression that it means you’ll be in trouble when you’re coming back down, though. The bike is unbelievably agile and supremely reactive, whether you’re putting in a burst of pedal power at the trail centre or carving your way through the forest.

With 120mm of travel at the front and back end, the bike does have a lot less travel than is commonplace. However, you really won’t miss it, because the outstanding suspension set-up will turn almost any kind of riding into an exhilarating rollercoaster ride.

Well specced out with quality components and four piston brakes that offer up all the stopping power you’ll need, the bike allows you to climb with gusto and never stutter on the descents. This means you can really develop your skills as a rider, no matter what level you’re starting from.

The top fuel features what the manufacturers call “down-tube” storage (which you don’t get on many bikes) and consists of a neoprene case that slots into the frame itself and can hold tools and snacks. The bottom line, though, is that this bike is a tonne of fun and quite literally bounces down the trail.

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Speicalized stumpjumper comp alloy

Specialized stumpjumper comp alloy.png

Best: For versatility

Rating: 9/10

After the reintroduction of the stumpy by Specialized in 2020, we waited patiently for an alloy version, and when it finally arrived, we were mightily impressed. It’s so much more than a budget copy of its carbon alter ego, though retains a lot of the same characteristics, componentry and adjustable geometry. The latter means that you can really dial into your ride style, but even if you don’t touch anything, the stumpjumper can deliver epic thrills going up and down.

With 150mm travel at the back and 160mm at the front, the full-suspension bike is capable of taming a range of terrain, and we felt right at home and well balanced whether we were in the saddle or out of it.

The spec, as you’d expect from Specialized, doesn’t disappoint and the bike has plenty of surprises up its sleeve – or hidden away in its tubing. These include the unique SWAT storage system, which pops out of a door in the down tube and can be used to carry anything from tubes to snacks.

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Voodoo braag

Voodoo braag.png

Best: Value hardtail

Rating: 9/10

The Halfords brand has decided to go back to the drawing board for its 2022 bike range and has come up with something quite special with this aluminium-framed hardtail. The bike is composed going down hill, really digs in on the hills, and smooths out even the trickiest of corners.

The geometry puts you in a secure riding position but allows for all the right moves when you decide to put the power down through the pedals. Plus, you can really shift, thanks to a 1x drivetrain with a nine-speed cassette – this is an unusual find for a bike in this price category, which usually comes with a double chainring and smaller cassette. The single-ring also makes it easier for new riders to quickly find the right gear.

The build quality of the braag echoes that of a bike twice the price, and the spec backs this up with a good tyre combo, hydraulic brakes and a well-thought-out cockpit, which makes the bike easy to control at speed and imparts confidence as you mature as a rider.

Talking of rider progression, this bike will grow with you, as it’s easily upgraded, with the potential to swap in a dropper post, go for tubeless tyres and change the fork, which comes with 120mm of travel as standard.

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Trek roscoe 7

Trek roscoe.png

Best: Hardtail

Rating: 8/10

The updated Roscoe hardtail has an aluminium alloy frame loaded with brand-new kit, including a 1x12 drivetrain, Shimano gears and a dropper seat post for aggressive trail riding, if that’s your thing. This means if you’re a fast-learner, you won’t outgrow the bike too quickly because all the components will continue to back you up as you become more confident and adventurous.

The bike’s geometry is set up to give you the confidence to tackle a range of trails, and this is backed up further with Trek’s own well-cushioned, large-volume tyres, which offer plenty of cushioning – a particular benefit on a hardtail. What’s more, the air-sprung 140mm travel in the fork really helps to smooth out uneven ground, and is easy to set up for your riding style and weight.

The roscoe 7 is currently unavailable online, but you can order it in-store at a retailer near you.

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VooDoo bizango

VooDoo bizango.png

Best: For control

Rating: 8/10

Another hardtail offering from Halfords for 2022, the bizango’s aluminium frame does a great job of setting the rider up for all-day riding, thanks to some confidence-boosting geometry that allows for plenty of movement in the saddle. This means you can easily set yourself up in a position that will take the sting out of any climbs that come your way, as well as make you feel stable enough to burn down the hills and remain stable in the corners.

The bike can hold its own on techy sections of the trail, too, and the air-sprung 120mm fork soaks up plenty of punishment, so it’s another great starting point if you’re looking to get into trail riding for the first time.

The drivetrain converts pedal power efficiently, while the hydraulic disc brakes are always on hand if you need to ease off. The tyre combination gave a good balance of grip and support, and roll well over uneven terrain.

The bizango comes with a rigid seat post, but you can swap that out for a dropper as and when you need it. Shifting gears was effortless and just added to the fact that this bike is a ready-to-ride all-rounder.

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Saracen ariel 30 pro

Saracen ariel 30 pro.png

Best: For ride quality

Rating: 9/10

We’ve had a lot of excellent experience with bikes from this legendary UK manufacturer, which relaunched in 2020. This homegrown full-suspension with aluminium frame is no exception – Saracen has clearly put a lot of thought into what kit it wanted bolted to the bike, as well as the stability of the geometry.

The ariel 30 pro is beautifully balanced and the components will put a smile on the face of aggressive riders, as well as anyone who just wants to get off the beaten track and have some fun.

With 130mm of travel front and rear, the bike will have no problem eating up the ground ahead – even when you’re going flat out – and will get you from top to bottom without you ever feeling like you’re out of control.

The stop and go kit was extremely effective, with the four-piston hydraulic disc brakes delivering plenty of stopping power when needed, while the 12-speed gears meant that we were never found wanting on the ups or the downs.

Throw in a dropper seat post and a comfortable, confidence-inspiring cockpit, and you begin to understand why Saracen has such a good reputation. The fact that the brand is now online-only also means it can deliver bikes without inflating its prices, which is why you’re getting a helluva lot of bike for your money with the ariel.

It’s out of stock at the moment, but you can easily sign up for an email notification for when it’s back on the website.

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KTM ultra evo dim

KTM ultra evo dim.png

Best: Aggressive hardrail

Rating: 7/10

When bike manufacturers suffix a bike with EVO, it usually means that it’s a more aggressive bike when it comes to going down hill, and this demon hardtail from Austrian manufacturer KTM certainly lives up to that billing.

Tyres can make or break a bike and the KTM is sporting a mullet, which is delicious bike speak for a model with mixed wheel sizes. These really add to the fun factor of the overall ride, thanks to the smaller back tyre, which makes for some great handling – we were never in danger of being stuck in a trail’s turns, even when we entered with more speed than we probably should have.

The aluminium alloy frame’s geometry makes the bike feel very agile – with the 130mm of travel out front adding to the enjoyment – while the hydraulic disc braking is sharp enough to make us feel secure.

The 150mm dropper post makes it easy to find the optimum position whether you’re climbing, descending or just making progress over the flat. The 1x12 drivetrain offered up plenty of pedal efficiency, while the lovely wide handlebar added to the reassuring sense of control you have in the saddle.

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Merida big train 500

Merida big train 500.png

Best: Up-hill bike

Rating: 8/10

If you’re heading for the hills, then you’d better make sure you take Merida’s big trail with you. The geometry of its aluminium alloy frame is such that it allows you to power down on the pedals while keeping your weight forward, which is perfect for those lung-busters.

Having said that, we had no problem finding a nice natural position on the flat, and the 150mm dropper means you can concentrate on any descents without worrying about hitting either the frame or the saddle. Plus, there’s more than enough room to manoeuvre when the riding gets more technical.

Hardtails are all about having fun, and this bike definitely lives up to that billing. It’s bolted with all the tools you’ll need to keep going all day – from hydraulic discs and a fork with 140mm to a wide handlebar and a 1x12 drivetrain.

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Orbea laufey H30

Orbea laufey H30.png

Best: For quick learners

Rating: 8/10

This hardtail sports confidence-inspiring geometry, which places you in a well-balanced position in the saddle, while the 140mm fork means you can take on the trail without having to keep backing off. Having said that, there are hydraulic disk brakes should you need them to cool off a particularly hair-raising descent, and the dropper post means you can find a stable position going down and pushing up.

The rest of the bike’s spec is pretty special, too, with a quality drivetrain and a wheelset that’s grippy and good for acceleration and rolling speed.

The components are well suited to ensure you can push your limits safely as you progress up the learning curve and become more experienced. 

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Vitus sentier 29 VR

Vitus sentier 29 VR.png

Best: Confidence booster

Rating: 8/10

It’s obvious how important confidence is when it comes to riding two-wheels, especially when those two wheels are being asked to do more than just go in a straight line. So, step up the sentier, with a geometry and general purpose that seems to be all about strengthening your skill set and making you a better rider.

A lot of thought has gone into outfitting this bike, with a quality group set and a front fork that offers 140mm of travel with good progression, so the suspension seems to become more effective, the more you ask of it.

The brakes performed well in both wet and dry conditions, while the tyres were good for both rolling speed and grip. It’s all topped off with a nicely set-up cockpit, which adds to the overall feeling of control going up, down and in the turns, too.

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Nukeproof giga 290 carbon

Nukeproof giga 290 carbon.png

Best: For the bike park

Rating: 8/10

If there’s one thing that you need to tackle a bike park, it’s good brakes. That’s why the impressive four piston stoppers fitted to this version of the giga 290 offer power, reliability and the option to get you out of trouble.

At a bike park, one of the things that you can almost guarantee is that you’re going to be spending quite a lot of time in the air, so suspension suddenly becomes your best friend. The giga 290 gets airborne very easily, and is equipped with incredibly versatile suspension, which does an amazing job of taking the sting out of your landings, while also providing plenty of grip in the corners.

In order to get the most out of a bike park, you need a ride that oozes confidence, and that’s exactly what you’ll feel in the saddle of this beauty.

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The verdict: Trail bikes

Trek has pulled off a neat trick with the top fuel 8 by building on the bike’s roots as a racer and evolving the geometry. In doing this, Trek’s turned it into a trail bike that still retains that super-quick pedigree but is bolted with components that will appeal to a huge cross-section of riders, from those who like to attack from the first pedal stroke to those who are just out to end the day spattered with mud and grinning from ear to ear.  

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