Isn’t it great being outdoors?
You do a lot of other activities under wide open skies and are thinking of adding mountain biking to your list. There are so many mountain bikes out there, what do you need to know?
You’ve heard of cross-country, trail, downhill, and enduro bikes, but what makes them different?
How do you know which type is best for you?
There are different suspension options and wheel and tire sizes too. How do you make sense of it all?
In this guide, we’ll answer these and other questions to consider before buying a mountain bike.
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Should I Get A Mountain Bike?
Seriously, purchasing a first bike or adding another one to your stable is a fantastic idea. A bike isn’t just for exercise, it’s a means of transport, social interaction, and a sense of liberty.
Let’s examine a few reasons you should get yourself a mountain bike.
Mountain Biking is Seriously Fun
Cycling is a super social activity. Riding in a group with friends or family is real quality time. People on bikes feel good and it shows via the smiles on their faces.
Sharing this delightful and healthy pastime with people you care about makes it even more enjoyable.
You Bought Another Bike and Got Bit by the Bug
You’ve morphed from a bike rider into a cyclist and are ready to expand your pedaling horizons. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but when it does, it’s undeniable. Why not treat yourself to that mountain bike that caught your eye?
With a mountain bike, you’re free to explore the environment around you. You haven’t ridden on dirt before, but the smell of nature and the fresh air in the woods and fields are like nectar to your senses.
You’ll have plenty of time to work on your skills and perfect your line once you get a mountain bike.
Types of Mountain Bikes
Not sure what kind of mountain bike you want or need?
Mtbs can be rigid (no suspension), hardtail (front suspension only), or full-suspension (front and rear).
Before suspension became a thing, all mtbs were rigid.
It’s the model that launched the niche. With no suspension to weigh it down, it’s technically the lightest of the three, but these days high-end models with some suspension can be lighter than a steel rigid bike.
Any bike with front suspension only, such as a cross-country falls under the hardtail umbrella. Full-suspension bikes, like trail downhill and enduro, have front and rear suspension.
Hardtails are best suited for terrain that isn’t ultra-rugged yet includes technical sections with roots and rocks, and small jumps. They are the lightest mtb with some form of suspension.
E-bikes offer assisted pedaling and fat bikes are great for the snow, sand, or loamy forest trails.
Downhill (DH) Bikes
Downhill bikes, made for steep technical descents, have a longer wheelbase and front and rear suspension with generous travel to absorb forces from obstacles hit at high speed, keeping the wheels in contact with the ground for improved rider control.
It’s heavier than a hardtail, but lighter than an enduro. If you’re looking for thrills, a downhill bike will deliver.
All-mountain / Enduro Bikes
All-mountain/enduro bikes are downhill bikes with a boost. They weigh the most, have the most travel, slack, and longest wheelbase of any mountain bike.
They’re strong, responsive, and fast on steep downhills. The peaks are your playground and this bike will handle any terrain you find on your ride.
Trail bikes are all-around full-suspension bikes because they manage most terrains at a good tick. This versatility makes them a great first choice for any mountain biker.
They typically come stock with a dropper seatpost, have less suspension travel than a DH or an enduro, but more than a cross-country bike.
Rigid, Hardtail, Full-Suspension?
Unless you’re old-school out on yours, rigid mountain bikes are less common on the trails because of the abuse they dish out. You’ve got to have crazy skills on a rigid to keep up with a hardtail or a full-suspension on the trails.
They’re suitable for smooth hard-pack trails and make great winter and commuter bikes, or give one a second life by adding a front suspension fork. It’s the one upgrade for a rigid bike that improves its ride quality and your experience significantly. Riders prefer the comfort and control that come with having some type of suspension.
A hardtail is lighter and faster than a full-suspension, especially when climbing.
Today’s mid to high-end front forks have an enormous amount of adjustability based on rider weight and desired feel. Most come with a remote fork lockout, a practical lever that limits travel on the fly, saving energy when riding uphill or on smooth or paved stretches of road.
While front forks share a similar aspect, rear suspension systems differ. Coiled metal springs and elastomers used to dampen the ride, but advances in technology mean sophisticated air and oil systems absorb impacts, making the ride more comfortable and improving traction by keeping the wheels on the ground.
Downhill, trail, and enduro bikes take their inspiration from motocross.
Their geometry, wheelbase length, and suspension handle the greatest amount of travel, from 150 to 180 mm. The rear shock is positioned under the rider between the front and rear triangles.
No design is the same, but a link system that allows the rear suspension piston to move within the frame is common.
Fox and RockShoxs are popular suspension brands with a solid reputation. Rear coiled systems are still used in heavy-duty downhill and enduro bikes for their reliability. They create less heat, but offer fewer adjustability options than air/oil systems.
Shocks are specific to frame geometries and brands and aren’t interchangeable.
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Which Frame Material Should I Consider?
Aluminum, carbon, steel, and titanium are the four primary materials used in mountain bike frames. Each has its own riding properties, weight, and price. Let’s consider each one.
Second only to titanium in cost, carbon is the most prevalent frame material, and typically the lightest, but it depends on how it’s made.
Carbon is highly desirable because it absorbs a lot of shocks when riding over rugged terrain. Be wary of carbon frames paired with lower-end components made to meet a price point. The two don’t mix and the benefits of carbon will be lost.
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Before carbon, aluminum was king.
It’s a strong, lightweight, and desirable material, but dampens less, making the ride more aggressive. It’s the choice for entry to mid-level mtbs because of its durability, weight, and cost-effectiveness.
A quality alloy frame with high-end components has a superior ride to a carbon one with low-end components.
Titanium has its own following and is a premium material that soaks up road vibrations like a sponge. It isn’t the easiest to work with, so it comes with a hefty price tag.
Twice the strength of steel for half its weight, it falls between alloy and carbon on the scale. Rider comfort is the star of the titanium show, and a ti frame will last a lifetime.
Steel is the original frame material and the heaviest of the lot.
The push for lightweight bicycles made it less desirable, but it maintains a loyal entourage because of its comfort, low maintenance, and durability.
Riders say it feels alive and moves with you. A favorite of custom frame makers, steel showcases its craftsmanship through magnificent aesthetics. Prices for steel frames vary but remain competitive with other materials.
27.5" vs 29" Wheels
Mountain biking started on beater beach cruisers with 26” wheels and the size stuck for decades. A smaller diameter wheel accelerates faster on smooth surfaces and is stiffer and stronger, perfect for dirt jumping.
However, they aren’t as stable nor offer the same traction as larger wheels. 26” wheels are being phased out, but spares are easy to find.
27.5″ (650b) Wheels
27.5” wheels, a.k.a 650b, roll effortlessly over rugged terrain and offer better traction than 26” ones. Their handling is more balanced and intuitive, and they get up to speed faster and flex less than larger wheels. 27.5” are common on full-suspension bikes with longer travel like enduros and DHs.
29” wheels are the largest and heaviest, making them feel slower from a dead stop, but new technology is helping confront this stumbling block. Their size makes them the most stable and provides the best traction.
They’re suitable for pretty much any terrain, except for dirt jumping and pump tracks.
The table below shows the commonly used wheel sizes in each mountain bike type.
|MTB Type||Wheel Size|
Groupsets and Gearing
Shimano and SRAM produce mtb groupsets for rider levels and price points.
A bike’s group, the chain, cassette, front and rear derailleurs, shifters, crankset, and bottom bracket determine its price. (Brakes aren’t listed because we’re focusing on the drivetrain).
As weights drop and prices rise, a group’s reliability, durability, and performance do too.
Once the standard, triple ring cranksets have been replaced by 2x and 1x systems.
This is possible thanks to improved gear ratios that eliminate the need for second and third chainrings. It saves weight while still providing gears for climbing. Narrow-wide 1x systems are the new norm on high-end mountain bikes.
Having only one chainring and eliminating the front derailleur saves more weight but boosts the price.
To meet certain price points, mtbs come with 10, 11, 12-speed drivetrains. As technology improves it trickles down, so fewer speeds aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
13-speed is reserved for premium 1x systems for the moment. Count the number of sprockets on the rear wheel, then multiply that by the number of front chainrings to determine how many gears a bicycle has.
Both Shimano and SRAM offer wireless shifting via their Di2 (Shimano) and AXS (SRAM) branded products. SRAM’s 1x groups go under the name Eagle, and Shimano offers 2x and 1x options.
The table below shows the groupset hierarchy for both Shimano and SRAM models.
|$$$$||XT Di2||X01||X01 Eagle|
|$$$$$||XTR||X01 AXS||X01 AXS Eagle|
|$$$$$$||XTR Di2||XX1||XX1 + XX1AXS Eagle|
Mechical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes
While disc brakes are the new norm for mountain bikes thanks to their reliable stopping power in all weather, rim brakes can still be found on certain older models.
Disc brakes work mechanically by a cable drawn through housing (like rim brakes) or via a closed hydraulic system similar to that in cars.
Working on hydraulic brakes isn’t for everyone, but they are effortless, have greater modulation, and lighter than mechanical systems.
Brake pads (metal or resin) activated by pistons close against the disc rotor to brake. To avoid contamination, never touch the disc surface with your fingers.
Mtb brake rotors are typically 140, 160, 180, 200 or 205 mm in size. They attach to the wheel via a center lock or a 6-bolt system and aren’t interchangeable.
The size of the rotor is determined by the type of bicycle, the braking power needed, and rider weight.
Braking creates heat, which needs to be dissipated to maintain power. Larger rotors with more surface area do this better, but as they get bigger, they also get heavier. Since more of a rider’s weight is over the back wheel, some bikes have mixed rotor sizes.
Full-suspension bikes weigh the most and have the greatest amount of travel which demands impressive braking. Add rider weight to the equation and these types of bikes call for the largest rotors. Their stopping power makes them the most expensive too.
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Tire Thread and Width
Mountain bike tires have knobs designed in distinct patterns to bite into dirt and loose material for traction. A set of quality tires can make a difference in your ride, so choose wisely.
Tire feel and performance is determined by width.
Wider tires are slower and reduce clearance for mud evacuation, but are more stable and improve grip and traction.
Mtb riders mix tire sizes and many brands make front and rear-specific models with treads optimized for each. This isn’t law, your experience and taste should dictate your choice, but respect any directional arrows.
- Front tires are wider with taller knobs on the shoulders and shallow ones on the center for enhanced rolling resistance and traction in corners.
- Rear tires have raised knobs on the shoulders and center for traction when braking.
Tire patterns designed to go fast, in cross-country, for example, have a constant center ridge with smaller shoulder knobs. Tires that shed mud better have more space between the knobs. The front tire leads, so the rear can lean toward the narrow side.
Consider where and how you ride when choosing tires.
There’s no perfect choice, so if in doubt, go for an all-around predictable tire. Cross-country riders prefer tires 1.8 to 2.4″ width, while downhillers and all-mountain mtbers, 2.1 to 2.4″. Check tire sidewalls for information on the compound, recommended rim width, pressure, and directional rotation.
Contrary to logic, wider tubeless tires run at lower pressure are faster than conventional tubes and tires. They have become king on the dirt for their puncture protection, performance, comfort, and rolling resistance. Tire pressure is based on rider weight and tire volume.
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How Much Will A Mountain Bike Cost Me?
Mountain bikes come in many prices, from used and entry-level to high-end depending on its characteristics. If you have a budget, start from there, but keep your expectations in check. Shimano and SRAM are compatible with each other, so don’t be surprised if some bikes come with a combination of the two.
Now that you understand what goes into the sticker price, let’s examine what you can expect when purchasing a new race-ready cross-country mountain bike with 100 mm travel front suspension fork, disc brakes and a 1x drivetrain.
Entry-Level (Up to $2,000)
A double-butted aluminum frame with front suspension and a remote lockout, 29” tubeless-ready wheels with lower quality hubs and alloy rims, a 10,11 or 12-speed 1x drivetrain (Deore/SLX/SX/NX), hydraulic disc brakes, and internal cable routing.
Average weight of 13.2 kg (29 lbs).
Mid-Level (From $2,000 to $5,000)
A double-butted aluminum frame with front suspension and a remote lockout, 29” tubeless-ready wheels with better quality hubs and alloy rims, a mixed 11 or 12-speed 1x drivetrain (SLX/NX/GX), hydraulic disc brakes, and internal cable routing.
Average weight of 11.5 kg (25.6 lbs).
Top End ($5,000 Upwards)
A carbon frame with front suspension and a remote lockout, 29” tubeless-ready wheels with high-end hubs and carbon rims, a 12 or 13-speed Shimano XT or XTR (Di2) or SRAM Eagle X01 or XX1 (AXS) 1x drivetrain, hydraulic disc brakes, and internal cable routing.
Average weight of 9.5 kg (21 lbs).