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Three Mountain Bike Brands Doing it Right in 2021

The question, "which mountain bike should I buy," comes through our inboxes often. It's a legitimate question with good intentions, but the answer is never simple. Having tested a boatload of mountain bikes and products over the last decade, and because of that "which bike should I buy" question, at Vital, we're always on the lookout for bikes that provide a standout experience for riders who are spending their hard-earned (or stimulus) money.  We’ve selected a “Mountain Bike of the Year" in the past, but with so many different riding styles, riding types, price points — not to mention what may suit a rider's local trails best — picking a single bike as a “winner” for all of mountain biking may not be all that helpful in the end.  Instead, we're focusing on three mountain bike brands that are making waves in 2021 by offering great bikes at attractive prices. Riding season is fast-approaching, so let’s dig in.

We have a legacy brand, a scrappy brand with a legacy name, and a newly emerging brand name this year on our list. Based on what we’ve tested in the last year and what has been recently announced, the brands that have us most excited in 2021 are Marin, Nukeproof, and Privateer.

Marin Bikes

Marin's new Alpine Trail E2, $5,999

Marin has been around for more than three decades — they’re a staple brand of mountain biking, blossoming from the birthplace of our sport. We’ve tested a number of different Marin models over the years and quite frankly, five or six years ago, Marin’s trail bikes were in the *OK* category. They had good intentions, but on-trail performance didn’t quite rival that of their competitors. Their flex-stay IsoTrac suspension design was clean and simple, but lacked pedaling prowess and the ability to really be pushed in aggressive terrain. In 2017 Marin went a bit “experimental” by using the Naild R3ACT suspension design on its Wolf Ridge models. We had a brief and enlightening encounter with the well-handling bike, but didn’t believe the complexity of the design was worth any of the performance benefits.

While the Wolf Ridge was garnering the attention of internet bike nerds, Marin was quietly refining its more affordable full-suspension bikes, like the Hawk Hill and Rift Zone. Marin also kept its hardtail game strong with focused steel and aluminum bikes. Add to that list, the new long-travel 29er, the Alpine Trail 8, and Marin was almost there. Their bikes had a filtered vision, and the prices were captivating, but that Wolf Ridge still left a blemish on their street cred for hardcore riders.

2021 Marin Alpine Trail XR, $3,599

Looking at the line in 2021, the Wolf Ridge is gone. Marin’s linkage-driven single-pivot MultiTrac suspension is an effective, simple platform and serves all the full-suspension bikes in their range. In carbon or aluminum, the Rift Zone short-travel 29ers are true trail bikes. The Hawk Hill adopts the Rift Zone name with 27.5-inch wheels and alloy-only frame options. Riders needing more squish have the Alpine Trail models, including the alloy, coil-sprung Alpine Trail XR for $3,599 or the Carbon 1 at just $3,189.

2021 Marin Alpine Trail Carbon 1, $3,189

Marin’s hardtail line remains just quirky enough in all the right places with mean machines like the steel El Roy. Then Marin drops the banger-of-an-e-bike, the Alpine Trail E2, for only $5,999 with Shimano EP8 motor, FOX 38 and DHX2 coil shock.  We’ve been riding both the El Roy and the Alpine Trail E2 and, so far, have nothing but praise for these two completely different bikes. We’ll have detailed reviews coming soon.

2021 Marin El Roy Steel Hardtail, $2,569

Sure, Marin bikes aren’t super sexy or ground-breaking with the newest this-or-that, but to us, right now, that’s what makes Marin so darn appealing. Be it for the beginner or the experienced mountain biker, Marin’s mountain bikes deliver.

Over the last 18 months, the bikes we’ve tested from Marin have performed well and have respectable builds. There is local bike shop support through the Marin dealer network, and the pricepoints challenge consumer-direct brands. Marin’s most recent bike offerings continue that trend and they do it with appealing, modern geometry to boot. Imagine a new bike that leaves you with enough cheddar to customize along the way if you want to set yourself apart from the crowd.

Vital's short-travel 29er Test Sessions video where the Rift Zone 29 held its own against some formidable players.

Outside of a downhill bike, which they don’t offer, there’s probably something in Marin’s lineup that’s worth considering if you’re in the market for a new mountain bike…or gravel bike…or road bike… or kid’s bike…or commuter bike…

Nukeproof

2021 Nukeproof Mega 290c RS, $5,499

Thanks to some great experiences with test bikes, Nukeproof is another brand we’re excited about with the coming season. Easily confused as a “mail order” brand because of their competitive prices and presence with the massive Chain Reaction Cycles, Nukeproof actually does have a network of authorized dealers, but they’re strongest in Europe. In the USA, Nukeproof works with a total of five bike shops, four of which are on the East Coast, and one in Texas. So odds are, unless you’re near one of those five shops in the U.S., you’d be ordering your bike via phone or internet, with remote brand support. For a new rider, this may be a too much to embrace, but for experienced riders like our crew here, Nukeproof’s on-trail performance and compelling prices have us frothing. Also: Sam Hill trolling the living $h1t out of everyone on Instagram this week.

 

Nukeproof’s line of bikes is tidy with a full-suspension trail and enduro focus. They do have a hardtail, a gravel bike, some kids mountain bikes, and continue to offer their Dissent downhill bike, even in a mullet option now (heck yes!). The Reactor 275 ended up being Iceman’s go-to bike for any trail and he’s flogging an alloy 27.5 right now as he tests various components for other Vital features.

 

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The recently launched Mega 290 was lauded by our tester, Kevin Lillywhite. In an autumn run of long-travel 29ers, he picked the Mega 290 as a standout among the Trek Slash, Rocky Mountain Altitude 90 and Specialized Enduro. The Mega is well-rounded and versatile with an uncanny ability to track and hold a line. This was before he even knew the price. Our 290 carbon test bike with X01 build is only $5,499 and alloy models start at just $2,699. With the value of the U.S. dollar tanking at the moment, we can’t be certain about the U.S. pricing of this UK-based brand in the future, but for the experienced rider seeking a gravity-leaning brand with incredible price-to-performance value, Nukeproof should be at the top of the list.

Elliott Heap tortures his Reactor in *Slalom* mode.

Privateer

Privateer 141 frame, $1,759

Finally, we have Privateer. Headquartered in England with a contact in Boulder, Colorado, they keep it simple — two aluminum bike models, each named after their rear travel amounts. The 141 and 161 are offered as a frame-only for $1,759 or available in a solitary, complete-build option for $3,719. They’re a consumer-direct embodiment of why Marin stokes us out - the bikes are clean, no-frills, with modern geometry and good-on-paper suspension numbers.

Privateer’s budget build hits the spec marks, and if a couple of our Vital RAW videos with Matthew Stuttard and Chloe Taylor are any indication, the bikes do what they’re supposed to - go fast, eat bumps, and turn well. The small handful of Vital members with Privateer bikes in hand, seemed stoked so far, too.

Privateer 141 of Vital member, nollak.

We have a 141 on the way right now for a fun project you’ll see down the line. So, while we can’t officially endorse Privateer based on our experience, we’re excited by what they’re pitching and it appears that the rest of the frugal-but-serious MTB world is, too.

Conclusion

Matt Jones on the Marin Alpine Trail Carbon.

Marin, Nukeproof, and Privateer are brands that have us excited for the future of mountain biking. While we’ll always have a soft spot in our hearts for the coolest, new carbon drool bikes, our wallets have an empty spot that make these exotic builds more dream than reality. The brands we discussed make us feel like the reality of MTB is in good hands.

We’ll wrap it up by saying there are plenty of great bikes at great prices out there. Do your homework and let us know if you have any questions about buying a mountain bike. If we don’t have the answer, we’ll find someone who does because our mountain bike community is awesome and the bikes keep getting better!

All we want you to do is ride, no matter what you ride. Get on that bike of yours and go have a blast.

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