From the Toyota Tacoma of the mountain-bike world to the punked-out younger brother of the Surly Krampus, these six trusty steeds will get you off-road—and keep you there all day long.
Santa Cruz Bronson C XO-1 AM 27.5 ($6,305)
The Bronson, with its tweener 650B wheels, was that rare bike that didn’t just win over both 29er devotees and 26er zealots, but also made us forget about wheel size entirely. That’s because it’s laugh-out-loud fun to ride, especially on moto-style descents that beg for you to get those WTB Frequency wheels off the ground. It’s the prototypical enduro bike, with a short cockpit, de rigueur dropper seatpost, and slack geometry (67-degree head-tube angle). And yet the svelte, 27.5-pound build weight didn’t cramp our legs on climbs. As one tester summed it up: “I’d ride this bike anywhere, on any terrain—as long as there’s downhill.” 27.5 lbs.
Ellsworth Absolute Truth ($8,385, or $3,500 frame only)
Best for: Upgrading
Once known for painstakingly crafted aluminum bikes, Ellsworth has expanded into carbon in the past few years. In refashioning its Truth as a five-inch carbon-fiber trail ride with 27.5-inch wheels, the company held to its boutique heritage by using aerospace-grade materials. What hasn’t changed is Ellsworth’s ICT suspension—a four-bar linkage that provides some of the most efficient climbing performance of any design on the market, yet still feels plush in the rough. And while it pilots like a cross-country machine, especially with the flawless Shimano XTR group set and lightweight Kenda Slant 6 tires, it’s a bit heavy for racing. 25.3 lbs.
Surly Instigator 2.0 ($2,650)
Best for: Noncomformists
The Instigator is the punked-out younger brother of Surly’s 2013 hit, the Krampus. Like its sibling, this bike advances the idea of mid-fat tires, with house-made 2.75-inch Dirt Wizard rubber running on massive 50-millimeter rims for exceptional grip and the same effective rolling circumference as a 650B wheel. Coupled with the 5.5-inch Fox Float 32 fork, it behaves like a dirt jumper, bounding up scree-covered trails. “It’s more fun than jumping into a mosh pit,” one tester raved. It isn’t light, nor is it cheap for what you get, but you can’t put a price on fun. 32.1 lbs.
Salsa Spearfish XX1 ($5,500)
Best for: Racers on a Budget
Long known for producing low-key, hard-riding, affordable bikes, Salsa jumped into the big leagues by licensing the Dave Weagle–designed Split Pivot rear suspension for the latest version of its Spearfish. So while this four-inch aluminum 29er shares its name with the original, it’s more supple and feels stiffer in the back end. It’s a catlike ride, sluicing through tight singletrack and pouncing around corners. The 11-gear XX1 drivetrain is optimal for racing speeds, and the ZTR Crest wheels are the ultimate workingman’s lightweight hoops. The Spearfish is pricey by Salsa standards, but it’s high value compared with its peers. 23.7 lbs.
Trek Fuel EX 9.7 29 ($4,200)
The Fuel EX 29 is the Toyota Tacoma of the mountain-bike world: tough, reliable, and reasonably sexy. This five-inch carbon steed (with an aluminum rear triangle) is every bit as lively as the 26-inch Fuel, the company's bestseller for years. And thanks to the relaxed positioning and terrain-crushing wheels, it's an even easier ride. “It’s not the lightest climber, and it's no burly shredder,” said one tester, “yet it keeps up with both.” The Fuel also packs a ton of value, including Fox suspension in front and back and a mix of Shimano XT and SLX components throughout. Pity about the clunky Bontrager Duster wheels. 27.2 lbs.
Lenz Sport Mammoth ($4,900, or $2,350 frame only)
Best for: Rock Crawling
By the numbers, the Mammoth looks a lot like the Trek, with big wheels and five inches of travel. But this small-batch aluminum bike is a specialist. In spite of the comfortably slack 69-degree head-tube angle, it clambered monkey-like up the trickiest rock features on Tucson’s La Milagrosa Canyon and was pool-cue accurate on hardscrabble descents. However, the Mammoth wasn’t as comfy on fast, cruising terrain, where its high bottom bracket had some testers feeling tenuous. Our test bike was built with a mishmash of SRAM parts and an older Fox RP23 shock; owner Devin Lenz prefers to sell the Mammoth as a frame and shock alone, letting buyers customize to their needs. If it were us, we’d equip it with some burly parts to build the ultimate tech-sessioning machine. 28.6 lbs.