There are literally thousands of different mountain bikes on the market, ranging from $100 to well over $10,000 and at every price point in between. Mountain bikes are divided into various categories based on their riding purpose and are usually reviewed within these categories.
In short, trail bikes are the most popular and most often recommended for recreational riders. These mountain bikes usually have suspension -- which is also referred to as travel -- on both the front and rear of the bike for the most comfortable ride over rough terrain. Cross-country, or XC, mountain bikes usually only have suspension on the front wheel (known as a hardtail), but full-suspension bikes are becoming increasingly common in this category. XC mountain bikes are for racing or riding over relatively flat terrain. And 29-inch mountain bikes (more commonly known as 29ers) are surging in popularity in the XC market. The last major type is all-mountain bikes. These have dual suspension and more travel than other bikes, and they often have larger wheels for maneuvering over the roughest terrain. However, all-mountain bikes are heavy.
Other popular mountain bikes categories include freeride and downhill. We don't cover these mountain bikes in this report because these niche items aren't covered as widely by reviewers. However, our Useful Links section has some ideas on where to find reviews for these bikes. We also don't cover super-pricey mountain bikes over $5,000 in this report, but interested shoppers can find buyer's guides and reviews for high-end bikes in Bike and VeloNews magazines.
Overall, we found the best reviews of mountain bikes in specialty biking publications and websites, especially from U.K.-based BikeRadar.com, which compiles professional test-based reviews from a variety of mountain bike magazines, including Mountain Biking UK and What Mountain Bike. Bikes are rated on a five-point scale, and the reviews contain plenty of detailed analysis. Mountain Bike Rider, a U.K.-based magazine, has some of the best comparative tests we've seen. In nearly every issue, editors from the magazine test a group of similar bikes and rate each one on a 10-point scale. The reviews are nicely comparative and detailed. Both BikeRadar.com and Mountain Bike Rider magazine test dozens of recent bikes; the only downside is that some are not widely available in the U.S. In addition, the reviews from Mountain Bike Rider are not available online.
On this side of the Atlantic, Bike and Bicycling magazines both publish buyer's guides with specific bike recommendations. Testing is conducted on each bike, and while recommendations are not made in each category, the sheer number of bikes reviewed makes these sources worth checking out. MTBR.com is the best source for user reviews. This site hosts thousands of reviews for a wide variety of mountain bikes, but keep an eye on the review dates -- some of the reviews go back years.
Unfortunately, reviews for women's mountain bikes are scarce. Women's Adventure magazine is the best source of information, since it conducts a group test and rates each mountain bike it reviews. Unfortunately, the last group test was conducted nearly a year ago, so it doesn't reflect the latest models. Bicycling magazine doesn't include women's bikes in its 2011 buyer's guide as it did last year.
If you're looking for a new bike and plan mainly on road rides, see our companion report on road bikes. If you need a casual bike for trips to the store or leisurely jaunts around the park, see our reports on comfort bikes and folding bikes.