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8 best trail bikes 2020: Hardtail and full-suspension models

Tackle tough terrain with these serious cycles

Jon Axworthy
Thursday 05 November 2020 15:31
We tested these bikes on a range of trails to find the top performers
We tested these bikes on a range of trails to find the top performers

Let’s start this round-up of the best trail rides with a quick maths lesson – in particular, geometry.

A good trail bike will have what riders call well-dialled geometry, which means that all the lengths and angles that make up the bike (from handlebar to wheels) will make it feel like it was made to take on the toughest terrain.

If a manufacturer has got the geometry right on the drawing board, then it’s a given that their bike will perform on the trail, and all our chosen bikes excel in this area.

Whether you opt for full suspension (“full sus”) or “hard tail”, which, as the name suggests, only has suspension at the front, you’ll need to consider how much “travel” the bike is equipped with, meaning the amount of vertical movement that the shock absorbers are capable of when being ridden.  

Of course, going up and down the trails will inevitably take you up and down the gears, but bikes come with different set-ups for the “drivetrain” – that’s all the components needed to power the bike, from the pedals and chainrings at the front to the rear cog, or cassette, at the back.

Ultimately, the chainring and rear cassette will determine how many gears are at your disposal and most trail bikes have simple single drivetrains that offer lots of gears, with the added advantages of more straightforward maintenance and lighter weight.

To give all of these bikes a thorough review, we took them to a very popular trail centre in Devon that offered plenty of opportunity to test them on red (difficult) graded trails, before transferring to nearby Dartmoor for more natural riding tests. After plenty of miles, we were left with this line-up of top-notch trailees that will definitely put a smile on your mud-spattered face.

Of course, it’s been a tricky time for bike manufacturers after the cycle surge that happened during Lockdown 1.0, when so many people in the UK discovered (or re-discovered) the thrill of riding, leaving stock levels at an unprecedented low. This has combined with early Christmas buying to make getting hold of certain models pretty tricky, but we’ve spoken to all the manufacturers who say that these bikes will be available in the New Year if they aren’t currently.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Privateer 141 complete bike

This UK manufacturer is still a newbie in the trail-bike world but is already producing some quality rides, and the full suspension aluminium 141 is a perfect example. It has pitch-perfect geometry that translates into a feeling of great balance when in the saddle – even at speed when hurtling down a mountainside, you feel totally in control, giving you plenty of time to choose the right line and avoid obstacles. It delivers a smooth ride when you want a burst of acceleration and keeps things under control in the corners, no matter how brave you’re feeling.

Voodoo bizango

The hardtail “bizango” was a revelation for a bike in the sub-£700 category. Forks and brake-set combine to produce a superb ride, allowing the wheels to track the ground closely, while providing plenty of stopping power at your fingertips. The drivetrain shifts smoothly and crisply between the 11 gears on offer so that the bike is ready to climb in an instant and easy to control when you’re on your way back down. On the flat, the 29in wheels will easily munch up the miles without leaving you feeling like you’ve been sitting on a jackhammer, because the bike is incredibly comfortable and effortless to pedal. At the trail park, the bike was even more competent on some very technical sections than other, more expensive bikes that were clearly struggling. We also really liked the handlebar set up, which took the buzz out of the bars and dampened down the vibration that can otherwise leave you with numb hands and arms post-ride.

Canyon Spectral 6

This super-light, aluminium-framed bike is full suspension and has a 510 per cent gear range – a measure of the difference between the highest and the lowest gears. That sounds impressive and it translates on the trail to always having the right gear at your fingertips, whether you’re killing hills or trying to speed-burst your way to the front of your riding pack. We found that pedalling was effortlessly efficient, adding to the overall easy riding that the bike delivers over plentiful amounts of travel – manoeuvrable and mellow on flat sections, but with a nice mean streak on the downhills. This bike is currently out of stock, but you can sign up to get notified via email on its return.

Trek Bikes 1120

A good bike to have in the garage if you’re one of the ever-increasing numbers of bikepackers who love nothing more than to head for the hills for a couple of days with some camping gear. Bikepacking usually involves plenty of time in the saddle pedalling a bike that’s laden with kit, which makes this bike your ideal transport as it features big tyres on big wheels so that you can make a lot of progress with minimal effort. Add in some well-thought-out and well-positioned luggage racks and plenty of water-bottle storage and you have a bike that’s primed to get you to your pitch site with enough energy to get camp sorted.

Specialized stumpjumper evo

Specialized is known for releasing “evo” versions of its popular bikes (bulkier models that are designed to descend faster and ride more aggressively) and they have done a bang-up job here with the “stumpjumper”. If you’re a demon on the downhills, then you should seriously consider the latest iteration of the brand’s “stumpjumper” bike because its descending powers are astonishing. With plenty of travel to get you out of trouble, this bike is ideal if you’re an uplift addict and your local bike-park offers the service to ferry your bike to the top of the trails, allowing you to save all your energy for staying on when you’re on your way down. The bike felt secure in the corners and even when ridden aggressively we didn’t feel that we were going to part ways with our saddle, with the big “cockpit” (that’s your handlebar set-up) building confidence.

Nukeproof reactor 290 alloy

If you’re a big fan of this manufacturer, then you’ve probably been waiting for a bike like this – a full-suspension carbon model designed specifically for trail. And you won’t be disappointed when you’re onboard because it positions you in a real sweet-spot for riding and is incredibly comfortable, thanks to fantastic rear-suspension performance that easily irons out the bumps and lumps of a day on the trail.

Calibre bossnut

It’s not just tents that Go Outdoors is known for these days as it has established itself as a leading manufacturer of value trail-bikes. Calibre has improved on the winning formula of its original full-suspension bike by turning out another alloy-framed model that performs superbly on descents, over rocks and on single tracks – no matter how boggy they get – making this a bike that is set up for fun at unbelievable value. The 27.5in wheels strike a great balance between being able to turn quickly while not impacting on overall speed. Signing up for the store’s £5 discount card will also knock an astonishing £300 off the £1500 RRP too – well worth it. The bike is currently out of stock, but you can sign up to be notified via email when it returns.

Vitus nucleus 27 VRS

This 10-speed machine has two distinct 27.5in wheels – up front is a high-grip tyre that will help keep your line in and out of turns, while the tread at the back delivers speed when and where you need it. Quality components mean that this is one of the best-value-for-money aluminium-alloy hardtails on the market. Easy to control going downhill and a good climber, the bike is also well equipped for rolling terrain, where ultra-low climbing gears aren’t necessary.

The verdict: Trail bikes

If you’re after a machine to deliver all the thrills without the spills then the Privateer 141 will deliver in spades. Combine this with some bomb-proof build quality and you’ve got a British-made bike that’s worth every penny.

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