How to Buy a Mountain Bike if You're a Road Biker

So you've decided to make the transition from road biking to mountain biking. But how do you choose a bike? Read on for a few tips from Cycling Expert Luke McKenzie!

The Niner WFO 9 bike at an overlook with mountains and trees in the background.

Rock Knob overlook in Hartley Nature Center, Duluth, MN with the Niner WFO 9. Photo by Luke McKenzie

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Road biking is your passion, but now you want to buy a mountain bike! Where do you begin? This guide gives you basic information on how to choose between different mountain bike types, frame materials, drivetrains, wheels, and tires.

Types of Mountain Bikes

Cross-Country

A cross-country (XC) bike is designed for speed, pedaling performance, and efficiency. They thrive on smoother, less aggressive trails. As a road cyclist, a cross-country bike will feel familiar to you because its frame geometry places your body in a more aggressive aerodynamic position.

XC bikes are lighter and range from having no suspension, a rigid bike, up to 120mm of suspension on the front end only, known as a hardtail, or on the front and rear, termed a full or dual-suspension bike.

Trail

Trail bikes are considered the most versatile type of mountain bike by some. If you want a bike that does it all, this may be the best choice for you. Climbing and descending functionality have equal priority for trail bikes.

The geometry of a trail bike places you in a more upright riding position than a cross-country bike. This makes it easier to tackle rough terrain such as jumps and drops but keeps the pilot in a position for maximum pedaling efficiency. Trail bikes have anywhere from 120 to 140mm of suspension and can be hardtails or full-suspension models.

All-Mountain / Enduro

All-mountain or enduro bikes can handle any aggressive downhill terrain but still provide sufficient pedaling efficiency to get back to the top of the hill. Suspension travel ranges from about 150 to 180mm. See the photo below for an example of an enduro bike. This one has 150mm of front and rear suspension.

A man stands with his bike. There is a lake behind him.

YT and I at Redhead. Photo courtesy of Luke McKenzie

Downhill

The name gives it away. These bikes descend as fast as possible and have the longest amount of suspension travel, ranging from around 180mm to 203mm. Getting back up isn’t as easy, though. Downhiller riders typically get back up the descent via a chair lift at the mountain or bike park or by vehicle shuttle.

Fat Tire

Fat bikes have wide tires from 3.7” to 5.2” in width. They are made for riding in variable conditions like snow, ice, sand, and a loamy forest floor, but can also be ridden as a traditional mountain bike.

The wide tires provide added traction, and the width prevents you from sinking in soft or loose terrain. If you plan to ride on ice, studded fat tires are the way to go and, if you’re in the snow-belt, they’ll let you ride outdoors year-round.

Fat tires are fun in snowy conditions of 6” or less, but to ride on trails with more snow than that, it needs to be packed down or groomed, depending on the width of the tire and the rider ability.

You can check out my fat bike in the photo below!

The specialized fatboy bike.

The Specialized Fatboy. Photo by Luke McKenzie

Other Mountain Bike Types

Electric bikes (E-bikes)

E-bikes are regular bicycles with a battery and a motor located internally near the cranks or in the rear hub. They are classified into three levels depending on their top speed or if they are throttle and/or pedal-assisted.

Some E-bikes go up to 28mph thanks to an onboard throttle that acts like a gas pedal in a car, meaning you don’t have to pedal at all. A bike with pedal assist function usually has five levels of support and kicks in as you pedal.

E-bikes are great for people with physical disabilities, diminished capacity with age, or people that want to ride longer and faster. E-bikes come in many variations, including commuter, road, rigid, hardtail, full-suspension, and fat tire. Depending on where you live, different classes of E-bikes may not be legal or allowed on certain trails. Verify the rules in your area before deciding which E-bike to buy.

Tandem (two-person bike)

Yes, even mountain bikes are built for two in rigid, hard-tail, and full-suspension models!

Frame Material

Aluminum

Aluminum is one of the most popular frame materials on the market because it’s lightweight and costs less to produce than other materials. These frames are quite stiff (second only to carbon), which helps with vibration dampening, bike control, and energy conservation.

Carbon

Carbon is the lightest and stiffest frame material and is often the most expensive option for many brands. It doesn’t flex or deform under load but can break or shatter if hit by a hard object the right way. Most people buy carbon frames for weight savings, which helps with endurance riding, especially up hills. See the photo below of a full carbon mountain bike.

A Pro Race bike sits at an overlook with a body of water and trees in the background.

Duluth, MN overlook at Piedmont bike trails with the YT Industries Jeffsy CF Pro Race bike. Photo by Luke McKenzie

Steel frames are dense but can still be lightweight. These frames are cost-effective, simple, and will last you a long time. Steel is an abundant material and easier to manipulate, which is why it is not as expensive as some other bikes. The material is very strong but can rust if the paint comes off.

Titanium

Titanium bikes are the rarest on the trail. They are corrosion-resistant, absorb road vibrations, and are denser and stronger than aluminum. Production of these bikes is time-consuming and difficult, which makes them more expensive than carbon frames. However, titanium bikes are comfortable and last a very long time.

Groupsets

Two brands dominate the groupset industry, SRAM and Shimano. Each brand has multiple options that differ in price, weight, and durability. Shimano has existed longer than SRAM, but both are popular in the mountain bike world.

Below is a list of their most popular options, from the least to the most expensive. Performance-wise, they shift well and give you a high-quality feel, but durability and reliability increase with price. The more money you spend, the lighter the components become, too.

A chart comparing different groupsets between brand and price.

Wheel Size and Tire Options

Wheel Sizing

  • 29 Inches: The 29” wheel is becoming the most popular option in mountain biking. The larger circumference improves momentum, helping riders roll over rough terrain and obstacles. The downfalls of a 29” wheel include difficulty maneuvering around tight corners and accelerating out of corners.
  • 27.5 Inches: Once a very trendy option, the 27.5” wheel is now less popular. However, they offer better maneuverability, accelerate faster, and weigh less than 29” tires.
  • 26 Inches: The 26” wheel used to be the gold standard in mountain biking. Now you typically see them on specialty bikes such as fat bikes, E-bikes, and jumping bikes. Their smaller size makes them more resistant to weight and landing forces.

Wheel Width

A chart showing mountain bike tire width.

Tread Styles

  • Cross-Country: A less chunky tread is used in XC to decrease rolling resistance. They usually come with little tire puncture protection to decrease weight.
  • Trail Bikes: Trail tires have longer knobs than cross-country bikes to improve traction. The rolling resistance is better than a downhill tire but not as great as a cross-country bike tire.
  • Enduro / Downhill: This tread is usually the most chunky. The tire comes with some flat protection. Each brand has a unique patented puncture protection name and design.
  • Fat Bikes: Fat tires come with or without studs for riding in icy conditions. The knob pattern/design varies from each brand and model.

We’ve covered a lot of information quickly! I hope the information above is useful and helps you find an outstanding bike to ride off-road. If in doubt, a Curated Cycling Expert would be more than happy to assist you!

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Written By
I have been riding bikes for about 10 years now, casually and competitively. I started with my first decent bike when I graduated highschool and began road biking! I did a couple sprint triathlons and enjoyed doing that for a couple years. After graduating college as a Registered Nurse, I bought my...

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