How to Choose the Right Mountain Bike for You
Buying a new mountain bike can come with a daunting litany of questions. This explainer breaks down the key things you should know.
Are you looking to get a new bike but unsure what kind of bike is going to suit you best? Keeping up to date with all the latest industry trends and standards can be overwhelming, so I am going to break down everything you need to know about the current state of mountain biking.
Most people looking to get a new mountain bike are met with a litany of questions: What size wheel are you looking for? How much travel do you want? Do you want carbon or aluminum?
These questions can be confusing, but they all represent important technological changes the industry has undergone, so we will be addressing these questions from an industry standpoint as well as a consumer.
It is always important when considering a future bike purchase to be honest with yourself and your intentions on the new bike. Are you going to be bunny hopping every little obstacle in the trail, or looking for a faster, smooth-rolling, bigger-wheel bike? Are you going to prioritize your downhill capabilities, or your climbing potential? Do you need more help clearing obstacles, or an easier bike to handle? All of these questions, along with the info below, should help you establish what bike will be best for your riding style.
What's New in Mountain Biking
Over the past decade, the industry has seen several changes on the fringes, as well as to the norms of riding. Full-suspension bikes are more sophisticated and capable than ever before, cross-country bikes now have dropper posts and carbon fiber forks, and new styles like full-suspension fat bikes and electric downhill bikes have exploded onto the scene. With so many big changes happening, like new wheel sizes, wider tires, and the enduro full suspension takeover, it’s been easy for lots of other technology to slip under the radar. So really quickly, we’ll touch on some of the biggest technology and component developments to hit the market lately.
Remote actuated seat posts that can be raised and lowered via a lever on the handlebars. An excellent upgrade for a new rider and experienced rider alike.
Referred to as “one-by” drivetrains, these are drivetrain setups with only one gear up front and between 11 and 12 gears in the rear. This gives riders greater gear range options and customization, as well as slimming the bike by removing the front derailleur and shifter.
When it comes to which drivetrain setup is the best or which is best for you, the answer is typically price related. High-end groupsets like Shimano XTR and SRAM XX1 will deliver top-of-the-line performance and offer longevity far superior to the lower-tier groupsets, but you are guaranteed to pay more. Luckily, the very same companies - Shimano and SRAM - manufacture several lines of high-performance drivetrains, and with hydraulic disc brakes and 11- or 12-speed setups, it’s easy to get a technologically-current groupset without draining your vacation funds.
Over the past few years, a new style of racing has dominated the cycling landscape and completely redefined full-suspension bikes for the industry: enduro racing. Enduro bikes are typically full-suspension mountain bikes, and sometimes hardtail bikes, that have around 150 to 170 mm of front travel. Their slack headtube angles and short chain stays make for very capable descenders without taking all the climbing potential out of the bike.
Electric Mountain Bikes
Whether you’re looking to get the most mileage possible out of your rides, or want the ability to control how strenuous the ride gets, electric mountain bikes are a great option for anyone. Most electric mountain bikes have a “pedal assist” mode, meaning the motor only engages when the rider begins to pedal, but nevertheless this boost gives riders the ability to increase their overall mileage and reach top speeds of over 20 mph, often even uphill!
The easiest decision for some and the hardest for others: determining which style of bike you want is as equally dependent on your preference as it is on your budget. Bottom line, full-suspension bikes cost more.
The preferred bike for most cross-country riders and climbing enthusiasts, hardtail bikes have only front suspension and no rear suspension, meaning there is no compliance in the rear of the bike aside from the material compliance of the frame. But no rear suspension means no power loss, which is why a hardtail bike has always been known to be more efficient uphill.
Probably the most popular type of bike, full-suspension bikes are equipped with front and rear shocks to give riders maximum control when encountering obstacles. Most riders would be better off on full-suspension bikes simply due to their increased control - because with that greater control comes greater safety in the ride.
Rigid bikes are bikes with no suspension, front or rear. They are typically more of a niche market these days and should not be considered as an option unless the rider knows that they’re looking for that exact style. Despite not having a front suspension fork or rear shock, rigid bikes are often used for touring as they have more available frame space to mount cargo.
With so many different styles of mountain bike racing come that many styles of mountain bike frames, setups, and overall styles. Most riders researching what style of bike they want to get next typically run into questions about frame geometry, head tube angles, chain stay lengths, wheelbase lengths, and so on. While these aspects of a bike are indeed important, it’s easy to get bogged down in details about specific measurements until you’re more aware of what it is you’re looking for. For the sake of our guide, we’ll forgo trying to explain all the intricacies of frame geometry and angles and focus on the purpose of each bike style.
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes
Because cross country is focused on speed, cross-country bikes have to be as lightweight as possible, in addition to maintaining efficiency through proper power transfer. Since the focus is on speed, cross-country bikes often have a more aggressive posture and are equipped with 29-inch wheels.
One of the most notable features of this bike style is that the suspension is much smaller than other styles, and some riders elect for a hardtail mountain bike to minimize the efficiency loss. Suspension travel on cross country bikes is typically between 80 to 120 mm.
Perhaps the most popular bike style, trail bikes and all-mountain bikes are more balanced bikes that are capable of both technical climbs and descents. Because of their more moderate geometry and suspension travel, these bikes are excellent for riders who like to do a bit of everything. Trail bikes and all-mountain bikes are typically available in a wider range of wheel and tire sizes, and will usually have suspension travel between 120 to 140mm.
Enduro Mountain Bikes
With enduro racing exploding onto the scene, so too have enduro bikes become a staple of any mountain bike manufacturers lineup. With more laid back or “slack” geometry and more suspension travel than cross-country and trail bikes, enduro bikes are built with an emphasis in their descending capabilities while still attempting to stay efficient climbers. Enduro bikes come in all wheel sizes and are typically found with suspension travel around 150 to 170 mm.
Downhill bikes are exactly what they sound like: bikes that are intended to just go downhill. With no emphasis placed on the bike’s ability to climb, gravity and downhill bikes are often used at bike parks or other trails where the rider is shuttled or lifted to the top of the trail, due to their large amount of travel. Downhill bikes are becoming more diverse in terms of wheel size and are typically found with suspension travel between 180 to 220 mm.
In the past decade the cycling industry has seen arguably its biggest technological change in the introduction of 29-inch wheels. With bigger wheels came greater momentum build up, improved obstacle clearance, and a larger contact patch of tire tread on trail. Below we will dive into the pros and cons of both wheel sizes.
Bigger wheels hold momentum better, making them faster on straight away trails and with better traction due to their bigger contact patch. Because of their bigger profile, 29-inch wheels are harder to control in very tight and technical downhill sections, but will offer more stability when rolling over obstacles because of how the bigger wheels make contact with rocks, roots, and ruts. As a result of the bigger wheels, the cycling industry adopted “boosted” spacing which increased the width of both the front and rear hubs, once again changing the entire industry standard for wheels.
- Upsides: Better momentum, easier obstacle clearance, bigger tire contact patch.
- Downsides: Harder to maneuver in tight corners, bigger wheels are harder to get moving initially.
Introduced shortly after the 29-inch wheel began to gain traction (pun intended), the 27.5-inch wheel was produced as a response to the 29’ers large profile that some found to be too bulky. By making a wheel bigger than the traditional 26-inch wheel, but smaller than the 29-inch, the industry found a wheel size that was at once faster than a 26-inch but also nimbler than a 29-inch. The new 27.5-inch wheel size quickly became the go-to choice for riders who liked a more lively wheel size that was more maneuverable, and easier to get moving from a stand still. Despite still being slower than 29-inch wheels and not having the same ease clearing obstacles, the 27.5-inch wheel size gives riders more ability to flick their tires around obstacles and make quick adjustments to their line.
- Upsides: Easier to maneuver in technical sections, more playful wheel size, easier line corrections.
- Downsides: Slower momentum than 29-inch wheels, slower on straightaways, less efficient climber.
Mullet bikes, or 29-inch/27.5-inch duo bikes are a newer take on an old concept of having a larger-diameter wheel up front with a smaller diameter wheel in back. While this design was played with in the past, some modern-day companies, such as Intense Bikes, are revamping this idea on their new product lineup. While the benefits of such a setup are not without a bit of debate, the theory behind the technology holds up as the bigger wheel up front will be able to clear obstacles, while the smaller wheel behind keeps the bike more maneuverable.
Because these bikes are still somewhat new to the scene and have not been produced and reviewed as extensively, we’ll hold off on the pros and cons of mullet bikes to avoid being speculative.
Not long after 29-inch wheels debuted as a revolutionary new wheel concept, an entirely different tire concept emerged: the fat tire bike. While traditional tire tread widths were anywhere between 1.5 to 2.5 inches, the emergence of “Fat Bikes” brought about a new concept of extra wide tires that were often between 3 and 5 inches in width. Putting a much wider tire on mountain bikes gave riders the ability to ride on super soft surfaces like snow and beach sand, without losing so much efficiency.
- Upsides: Better traction, ability to ride on snow and soft sand, tire cushion gives some suspension over difficult terrain.
- Downsides: Greater rolling resistance, heavier-weight tires mean bottom heavy bikes.
Just like the industry made a smaller version of the 29-inch wheels shortly after they were introduced, so did the industry introduce “mid-fat” tires shortly after fat tires. Mid-fat tires are tire widths that offer riders a bit more cushion, contact, and control when compared to traditional tire sizes. Whereas most standard-mount bike tires are between 2 and 2.5 inches in width, mid-fat tires are typically anywhere between 2.8 to 3.5-inch tires (depending on the bike clearance). With the slightly wider tires, riders found that they cornered better, although having a bit more rolling resistance due to the wider tire.
The “mid-fat” category - often denoted as “27.5+” or “29+” - is still in production and because they aren’t as style specific as the fat tire bikes, they often are ridden in a much wider variety of conditions.
- Upsides: Greater traction than standard sizes, more cushion from bigger tires, better obstacle clearance.
- Downsides: More rolling resistance, slightly more weight.
Bike Frame Materials
While carbon fiber is hardly new to mountain biking, lots of cyclists are unsure really what the benefits are of having a carbon fiber frame. We are going to quickly cover the benefits of both frame materials, as well as any negative externalities that may arise. In the past there has always been an unspoken rule that carbon fiber was better, for components and frame materials alike. However, high price points and a negative environmental impact have begun to push more riders back to alloy gear to stay both economically and environmentally minded.
The two biggest attributes of carbon fiber that get mentioned are the lightweight frames as well as the stiffness of carbon fiber frames. Because of the stiffness of high-quality carbon weaves, carbon fiber frame bikes have a more responsive handling, due in large part to the lack of flex in the material. Carbon fiber wheels and frames have the same benefits, and the same weaknesses. When discussing carbon fiber, most riders stress their concern about damaging/cracking the carbon fiber frame. For the majority of riders, the biggest threat to carbon fiber is going to be a direct impact, much like aluminum frames. The only real guarantee of carbon fiber components and frames is that they are going to be more expensive.
- Upsides: Stiffer frame, lighter weight, better handling.
- Downsides: Carbon fibers take longer to break down in landfills and mostly cannot be repurposed, much more expensive than aluminum components.
The cheaper of the two frame materials, aluminum has been the staple frame material for bike companies for decades. With its lightweight frames and torsional strength, aluminum components and frames are the first pick of frame material for many riders because of its reliability as well as affordability.
- Upsides: More affordable, less harmful to the environment.
- Downsides: Heavier than carbon, more torsional flexibility.
How Much Should I Spend?
Finding your first mountain bike or even trying to ensure your next ride is a good bike for you can be tricky, especially when you’re unsure of what to spend. While the best advice would be to spend only what you feel you want for the bike, most full-suspension frames are more expensive and as a result start around $2,000 for a full bike. Riding disciplines and price are important considerations that typically contribute the most to a person’s decision, and a good rule of thumb to avoid constant upgrades down the road is “buy once, cry once.”
Buying a bike is a big decision that must be made after you’ve done enough research and self-examination as to what style of bike is going to work best for you. Hopefully now that you have a bit more insight into the buzzwords and technology of the cycling industry, the choice for your next bike should come a little easier!