Performance level mountain bikes are better quality mountain bikes for the more serious off-road rider. Generally they will sell for over $600. They come in a variety of styles. Around Houston what currently works best are 29” hardtails. A 29” bike is a mountain bike with 700c size wheels (the same diameter as a road bike) and 2” or wider knobby tires. There are full suspension versions also available and Giant makes one of the best – the Anthem 29er. However around here the hardtail 29er seems to be the most popular choice. The larger diameter wheels roll over roots and rocks easier than 26” wheels just like a monster truck rolls over passenger cars easier than a regular Jeep would. Because they have longer spokes they also have a little more flex so hardtail 29ers still work well on rough and rocky terrain. They are also pretty affordable. For 2011 Giant makes fantastic 29” hardtails starting at $700, where the entry level for their 29” full suspension is $2200. Granted the components on the full suspension bike are a lot better than the $700 hardtail but they are both performance level bikes.
For someone that wants to race mountain bikes in Texas I recommend an Orbea Alma carbon 29er. It is a hardtail that can be speced from the factory weighing as little as 23 lbs complete with pedals in a large frame. I race one that is around 24 lbs complete. The majority of the riders in the Texas mountain bike race series are on 29” hardtails.
If you want a bike that will ride over anything no matter how rough while leaving you in complete control, get a Giant Anthem 29er. They are incredible. If you are already a pretty good technical rider, this bike will make you a very good technical rider. People who are lucky enough to own one rave about them.
Twenty six inch hardtails are becoming less and less popular at the performance level because the new 29ers kick their ass so manufacturers aren’t building many of them anymore. They still build 26” full suspension and Giant still makes great ones like the Anthem and the Trance but have have fallen out of fashion. Mountain bike styles are very regional. What is king here is not necessarily popular in Colorado or Pennsylvania so there will always be places where 26” bikes are favored but for now, Texas has gone 29”.Check out Niner, Giant , Haro and Orbea.