Mountain Bikes Buying Guide

Alex Godbout Simard
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Mountain biking has evolved a lot over the last four decades and with that came the apparition of multiple sub-categories of mountain bikes. That’s why it’s important to understand the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences between them to ensure an informed buying decision. Let’s start with what defines a mountain bike before exploring the different types and which one is the best suited for you.

What is a Mountain Bike?

Mountain bikes, or MTBs, are tough, versatile, and designed for off-road cycling in challenging environments. Compared to road bikes that are designed for maximum speed and efficiency on tarmac/smooth surfaces, mountain bikes are dedicated machines built for mountain trails, fire roads, single tracks, and other types of unpaved roads. Key attributes of mountain bikes include:

  • Designed to take the punishment of challenging terrains
  • Usually include a front and/or rear suspension to absorb shocks and vibrations
  • Large knobby tires
  • Durable wheels
  • Powerful brakes
  • Lower gear ratios that help when climbing steep grades
  • Straight handlebars
  • Heavy-duty construction and strong rims
  • Up to 200mm suspension travel

Who Should Buy a Mountain Bike?

MTBs are primarily designed for narrow dirt trails and off-roading, and a great way of exploring the local surroundings. People looking for a middle ground between road riding and easy single tracks may consider cyclocross or gravel bikes which can also be used on a variety of terrains.

Cons of Mountain Bikes

Since mountain bikes are primarily designed for stability on challenging terrains, they are not as fast or as light as other bike types. Suspensions also soak a bit of pedaling power, making them less efficient on the road. Riders also need a certain degree of fitness, experience, and skill to undertake the most challenging tracks.

You have to be careful when dealing with potholes and rough terrains when riding a road bike as they are not designed for challenging terrains. On the other hand, mountain bikes are built to be ridden hard and designed to serve a different purpose. Whether you want a bike for off-road adventures, fitness or just moving in and out of town, mountain bikes are a well-rounded package.

Road bikes are more suitable for people who travel on paved roads and smooth surfaces. Although road bikes are faster and more efficient, they belong to the roads, which limits your options when it comes to riding on different terrains.

Choosing the Right Size

Determining the correct bike size is very important in ensuring a comfortable riding experience. Buying an improper size can cause many issues, including muscle pain, inability to ride for long periods of time, and increases the chances of injury.

Although manufacturers provide bike geometry and height charts to make it easier for buyers to pick the right size, not all manufacturers use the same sizing schemes. That’s why it’s recommended to read the specifications carefully and pick a bike that corresponds to your own body and riding style. One of our customer service agents will also gladly help you through the process.

Types of Mountain Bikes

Choosing the right type of mountain bike depends on different factors, including your riding style, the terrain, and your objectives. Many MTB subclasses have emerged over time since the upbringing of ''new'' disciplines like Enduro. Each subclass is designed with a specific terrain and discipline in mind. Broadly speaking, there are five major subclasses of bikes ranging from the climbing oriented Cross Country bike to the uncompromised downhill bike. Understanding the differences between them and matching their key features with your requirements remains the key to picking the right bike.

Cross-Country (XC) MTBs: For Going Far and Fast

  • Also referred to as ‘original’ mountain bikes or XC Bikes, Cross-Country mountain bikes emphasize speed, climbing, and low weight. XC MTBs are suitable for almost all terrains, including muddy, gravel, rocky, vegetation, and tree roots. Key characteristics of Cross-Country bikes include:
  • Usually 29-in wheels, which is almost the same diameter as 700C road bikes
  • Lighter than other types of mountain bikes for better speed and efficiency
  • Usually less than 120mm of suspension travel (80-100mm)
  • Steeper head angle (69-degree or more, usually between 70-71 degrees)
  • Longer stems for more a more aggressive position on the bike
  • Tires are usually lightweight to reduce rolling resistance, but this also makes them less puncture-resistant

Hardtails are a popular type of cross-country bikes that comes without a rear suspension. These bikes weigh less and also require less maintenance because of fewer moving parts. The front suspension on some models can be locked, essentially making them a rigid bike. This reduces the amount of power loss during hard climbing efforts. Mountain bikes that lack any kind of suspension are termed as rigid bikes, which are meant for the easiest of trails with tires providing most of the ''suspension''. They are not very common anymore.

Who Should Buy Cross-Country MTBs?

If low weight, pedaling performance and uphill crushing is your top priority, cross-country bikes make more sense than trail and All-mountain/Enduro bikes. With an aggressive geometry, these mountain bikes are designed for maximum efficiency and speed. Although the suspension is limited, it still provides comfort and is good enough for off-road trails, except very steep downhill sections and the toughest of terrains.

Cons of Cross-Country MTBs

Minimizing weight and focusing on efficiency comes at the cost of lesser downhill performance. Hardtail MTBs lack the kind of suspension needed to conquer descents and are more suitable for subdued terrains. However, being lightweight, hardtails compensate for that when it comes to flying uphill.

Trail MTBs: The All-rounder MTB

Being the most common and popular type of mountain bikes, trail bikes are not limited to any specific style of riding. These bikes are a sensible choice for people who want a bike that offers a good balance between weight, efficiency, and speed. A typical suspension travel of 120-140mm and a head-tube angle of 67-69 degrees makes them an all-around MTB suitable for a mix of activities, including climbing up and carving down most trails with ease. Key characteristics of trail bikes include:

  • Usually come with full suspension (front and rear)
  • 120-140mm suspension travel
  • 27.5-29 inch wheels
  • Neutral geometry (neither too aggressive, nor too relaxed)
  • 67-69 degrees head tube angle

Who Should Buy a Trail MTB?

Anyone who wants the Swiss army knife of mountain bikes and an MTB that can climb and descent well. Chunkier tires, gravity-oriented components, and relatively relaxed geometry make them suitable for almost all terrains. These bikes are the right choice if you want to have some fun and don’t measure your ride quality purely in terms of performance and seconds. Trail bikes sit somewhere between Enduro and Cross-Country bikes and more like a jack of all trades (balanced climbing and descent).

Cons of Trail MTBs

These are good all-around bikes, but you might want to consider All-mountain/Enduro bikes for the most challenging of trails or Cross-Country bikes for better speed and efficiency.

All-Mountain/Enduro MTBs: For Challenging Descents and Steep Rides

These bikes are all about shredding challenging and remote trails where the chairlift can't take you. Being burlier than regular Trail bikes, Enduro bikes can take big hits and handle difficult terrains while still having the gearing to get to the top of the mountain.

Full suspension is mandatory in Enduro bikes with travel ranging from 140-180mm and wheel size ranging from 27.5 to 29 inches. These are downhill-dominant bikes and suitable for events in which only the downhill sections are timed. Key characteristics include:

  • 27.5-29-inch wheels
  • More suspension travel than Trail bikes (140-180mm)
  • Descending-focused geometry with 65-67 degree head angle
  • Slack head angle and long wheelbase for stability during descents
  • Tires usually have aggressive knobs for better traction

Who Should Buy an Enduro MTB?

With drops becoming bigger and jumps becoming more challenging, the increasing popularity of Enduro bikes should not come as a surprise. Enduro bikes are downhill-focused bikes but still have the ability to climb slowly to the top. But if descending fast is the only thing you are looking for, Downhill MTB could be a better choice. If cycling is the only way to reach the top of the gnarliest downhill trails, the Enduro bike will take you there. The ascent won't be very fast, but once gravity takes over, you'll be flying.

Cons of Enduro MTBs

These bikes are bulkier and require more force to climb uphill. There are sometimes overkill for the local trails and single tracks, rendering them too easy, which can be a good thing for some but underwhelming for others.

Downhill Mountain Bikes: The F1 Machines of Downhill Racing

As the name suggests, Downhill bikes are designed to offer the best performance on steep and technical trails. These full-suspension bikes prioritize stability and durability over other features and are built for downhill riders who want a purpose-built machine for high-speed descents. Riders usually take a chair lift or a quad bike to reach the top of the mountain with their bike. Key attributes of downhill bikes include:

  • Full-suspension
  • Strong and overbuilt frames designed to take the beating of high-speed descents
  • Slack head-tube angles (65-degrees or less)
  • Long wheelbases (usually more than 45-inches)
  • Can accommodate up to 2.5in knobbed tires
  • Although heavier than other MTBs, modern downhill bikes have broken the less-than-30lbs./13.6 KGs barrier
  • 180-250mm suspension travel
  • Biggest brakes of all MTBs
  • Strong wheels and tires
  • Gearing designed for speed, not climbing

Who Should Buy a Downhill Bike?

Compared to Enduro bikes that take a more balanced approach and are designed for both uphill and downhill performance, Downhill bikes are like F1 machines designed specifically for high-speed downhill riding. Downhill racing events usually last for a few minutes, while Enduro racing events can last for days (multiple stages), which is what makes Enduro and Downhill bikes different.

Cons of Downhill Bikes

Downhill MTBs are expensive and designed for a particular purpose therefore, not a good option for people looking for an all-rounder. Because of the weight and the gearing, it is almost impossible to cycle back to the top of the mountain and it usually requires a chair lift.

Fat MTBs: Putting Fun Back into Mountain Biking

Oversized, fat tires (3.7 to 5+ inches) help differentiate Fat bikes from other types of mountain bikes. Fat bikes have gained popularity in recent years and are no longer a fringe novelty. Key characteristics of Fat bikes include:

  • Large tires (Usually 3.8in wide, but can be up to 5 inches or even more)
  • Designed for unstable and soft terrains like snow and sand
  • Wide forks/stays
  • 26-27.5in wheels

Fat MTBs work well for fun-seekers and beginners who just need to pick a line and stick to it in sand, snow, loose rock, and mud. These bikes make mountain biking a 12-month affair and are designed to put fun back into biking. Most of them are no equipped with front and/or rear suspensions, leaving the tire to absorb the vibrations.

Who Should Buy Fat MTBs?

A fat bike is a great option for people who live in regions where they cannot ride on other types of mountain bikes year-round, especially in winter. These bikes are mainly suitable for people who want to ride on terrains otherwise very hard (or impossible) to access on regular mountain bikes.

Cons of Fat MTBs

Fat bikes are on the heavy side and not built for speed and efficiency. Moreover, they are suitable for a handful of terrains such as snow and sand and are not that useful for other terrains where other types of MTBs provide better performance.

The Wrap-up

Hardtail mountain bikes are an easy recommendation for people on a tight budget and who plan on riding on not-so-rough terrains for the most part. Enduro/All mountain MTBs are like trail bikes on steroids and suitable for scary descents and hard climbs.

Trail bikes take a more balanced approach and are recommended as a good all-around option. Full-suspension MTBs are designed for those who have to deal with the most challenging of terrains and want the best traction and control. Fat bikes are very limited in functionality and can only be recommended for riding in snow and sand.