A Mountain Bike: How To Choose One

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Get ready for adventure! Mountain bikes can go where road bikes, hybrid bikes, folding bikes, and city bikes could never dream of going. Want to take the trails? No problem! Want to take the rough backroads? Again, no problem! You can even climb those huge inclines on the back of that mountain you’ve always imagined riding up. All you need is a mountain bike, of course.

With this super helpful, and in depth guide, we’re going to help put you into mountain bike stardom. There’s different types of mountain bikes available for the type of terrain you’re going to be riding. Along with different features such as disc brakes, wide handlebars, full suspension, etc.

But first, let’s establish what a mountain is. How it compares to a regular bicycle. What it’s used for. And why it’s such a popular type of bike.

What is a mountain bike?

Riding a mountain bike.
Riding a mountain bike.

An adventurers dream come true, here’s what makes a mountain bike (MTB) or mountain bicycle so special. Built like a tank, this bicycle can handle anything you throw at it. Or put in front of it. This is a bicycle designed for off-road cycling.

It’s true that mountain bikes share some similarities with other bicycles. But don’t let that fool you. With it’s super solid frame. Tough, heavy tires that roll over rocks and roots. And simple but more than adequate 1x drivetrain. It incorporates features designed to enhance durability and performance on rough terrain, making them heavy. But unlike any other type of bicycle in existence.

What is the difference between a mountain bike and a regular bike?

For fast riding on tarmac, nothing beats a road bike. Known as the speedsters of the road, road bikes are fast and easy to pedal on pavement.

Unfortunately, when the terrain get’s rough, they are not as well suited for operating off the road. This is where  Mountain bikes excel, even though they are harder to pedal and slower on pavement.

But their cushy ride, and upright riding position, makes it possible for riders travel easily on a wide variety of surfaces.

What is a mountain bike used for?

These types of bikes are super durable. Rugged as in tough as nails. And able to easily ride on narrow dirt trails.

With wide, flat handlebars for control. Two-inch or wider tires with knobby tread for traction. Wide-range drivetrains. And hydraulic disc brakes for handling steep climbs and descents. These are definitely impressive bikes for riding the roads or paths less taken.

Why are mountain bikes so popular?

Used by both professionals and regular riders, (a.k.a commuters) mountain bikes are super versatile. Slap some wide tires on it for riding the trails. Or install some smoother, lighter tires for everyday commuting.

Another benefit is the upright riding position. This not only allows you to see the road ahead better and everything that’s going on around you. It also gives you better control while riding over rough surfaces, or dodging moon sized potholes that could literally swallow a car whole.

And let’s not forget that parts for a mountain bicycle is cheaper, because they are more commonly available in bike shops. Plus, more standard.

Let’s get started

As you can see. Trying to figure out which mountain bike is right for you takes a little bit of research? That’s why we’re going to provide everything you need to know.

So that you can find the perfect mountain bike for you:

  • Bike style: Different riding styles require different bike styles, so your first consideration is where and how you plan to ride. While there are plenty of different terms manufacturers use to describe their bikes, there are 4 basic types: Cross Country (XC), Trail, All Mountain (Enduro), and Downhill (DH).
  • Key features: Suspension type and wheel diameter are two key attributes that determine the type of terrain a bike is capable of handling. You’ll also want to consider things like frame material. Number of gears. And type of brakes as you narrow down your bike choice.
  • Fit: Last, but not least, be sure your bike fits you well. This is best done in person at a bike shop that you like.

Note: This article covers the basics of mountain bikes. (See below for a brief glossary of terms used in this article.) For a more detailed discussion, talk with the bike pros at your local bike shop.

Types of Mountain Bikes

Trail Bikes

Trail bikes.
Trail bikes.

The largest and most omnipresent category in the mountain bike scene, Trail bikes are best described as the all-rounder of singletrack, designed to be efficient on the climbs, while still providing plenty of confidence and control on rough and technical descents.

Bikes in this category place equal emphasis on fun, efficiency and sensible overall weight.

Typical specs: 120–140mm of suspension travel; 67–69° head-tube angle

(Suspension travel is the amount of movement offered by the bike’s front and rear suspension. Head-tube angle is the angle that the head tube forms with the ground. A steeper head-tube angle generally indicates that a bike will turn faster and climb better. A slacker (lower) angle generally indicates that a bike will provide better stability at high speeds. But won’t climb as well.)

Cross-Country Bikes

Cross country bike.
Cross country bike.

Cross-country bikes, or XC bikes for short, are generally ridden on forrest paths, smooth roads, singletrack (bike-width trail through the woods), and paved roads. XC riders generally prefer twisty trails and hills instead of the more mountainous paths that trail bikes generally go on.

This style of riding typically implies riding fast, with an emphasis on climbing prowess. Distances vary from just a few miles to 25-plus, and bikes tend to focus on efficiency and low weight. These bikes can be great if you’re considering getting competitive or would like a racier ride for your local trails.

Typical specs: 80–100mm of suspension travel; 70–71° head-tube angle

Fat-Tire Bikes

Fat tire mountain bike.
Fat tire mountain bike.

Thanks to the improved grip the fat tires provide, no terrain will be a match for these tires. Fat tires are designed to reduce the overall pressure of the bike and the rider by adding extra contact surface. That’s the reason a fat bike will leave a good impression even when the ground is not good.

Oversize tires, from 3.7 in. to 5+ in. wide, give these bikes excellent traction, especially in sand or snow. Fat-tire bikes are great for beginners because the wide tires are reassuringly forgiving as a rider picks a line through rough terrain.

All-Mountain Bikes

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Also known as trail bikes, are the workhorse category of mountain bikes. An all-mountain bike is designed to handle almost everything a mountain biker will run into on a full day of riding, including steep ascents, rough descents and all the unexpected discoveries that make mountain biking so great.

Think of all-mountain riding as trail riding on steroids, with bigger leg-burning climbs, longer, scarier descents and more technical features—both man-made and natural.

Bikes for all-mountain riding are designed to perform well on steep descents while also being light and nimble enough to pedal uphill.

Typical specs:140–170mm of suspension travel; 65–68° head-tube angle

Downhill/Park Bikes

Downhill/Park Bikes.
Downhill/Park Bikes.

Downhill riding is intense and fast-paced, and requires precision and focus. Most traditional mountain bikes have little use for the extreme absorption and slacker geometry of a downhill bike, since downhill bikes are usually much heavier than a traditional mountain bike.

Downhill bikes are big and tough, and riders wear full-face helmets and body armor as they encounter jumps, berms, rock gardens and wooden ladders.

Typical specs: 170–200+mm of suspension travel; 63–65° head-tube angle

Mountain Bike Features

Suspension type and wheel diameter are two key attributes that determine the type of terrain a bike is capable of handling. You’ll also want to consider things like frame material, number of gears and type of brakes as you narrow down your bike choice.

Suspension Types

Rigid

Rigid.
Rigid.

Not the most common type of mountain bike, “rigid” mountain bikes don’t feature any suspension. They are easy to maintain and usually less expensive, but most riders prefer bikes with suspension for greater comfort.

Most fat-tire bikes are rigid because riders find that the wide tires and low tire pressure provide all the squish needed to absorb bumps on the trail.

Fully rigid classic mountain bikes allow the rider to appreciate their environment and recognize trail changes. Cyclists who use fully rigid classic mountain bikes, for example, may be more likely to recognize slippery or dangerous riding surfaces than their counterparts who rely on suspension systems.

Hardtail

Hardtail.
Hardtail.

On less technical terrain, hardtails often provide a more direct, involving ride. The rigid back end offers superb power transfer to the rear wheel when climbing and sprinting. Hardtail bikes enable riders to feel more connection with the trail.

These bikes have a suspension fork in the front to help absorb impact on the front wheel, but the rear of the bike has no suspension—ergo a hardtail.

Hardtails are typically less expensive than full-suspension bikes and have fewer moving parts (which often translates into less maintenance). Most hardtails have the ability to lock out the front fork for times when a fully rigid bike is desired.

Cross-country riders typically gravitate toward hardtails as these bikes allow more direct transfer of power between the pedal stroke and the rear tire. Hardtails can also be at home on all-mountain trails, and the lower cost and easier maintenance make them a solid option for everything except serious lift-serviced downhill trails.

Full suspension

Full suspension.
Full suspension.

There are many variations of full-suspension bikes, but the general idea is for the front fork and rear shock to absorb the impacts of the trail. This drastically reduces the impact on the rider, increases traction, and makes for a more forgiving and enjoyable ride.

A full-suspension mountain bike will soak up most of the jarring bumps that would otherwise be sent to your body (and in some cases, buck you off your bike). This can help reduce fatigue, which in turn can allow you to ride faster, for longer, with greater comfort.

A full-suspension bike can soak up a lot of a trail bumps and chatter, but the bike can also “bob” a bit and you lose some of the energy transfer when climbing uphill. As a result, most full-suspension rigs have the ability to lock-out the rear suspension to offer better power transfer and more efficient climbing.

Wheel Size

26 inch

In the not too-distant past, all adult mountain bikes were equipped with 26 in. wheels.

The 26 incher is lighter than the 27.5 or 29 inch, largely because, well, there’s less of it. Being smaller, lighter and more agile, bikes with 26” wheels offer much better acceleration than their larger counterparts, making it great for short, steep climbs and fast-flowing, quick-turning trails.

It still is an available wheel size, but now when you walk into a bike shop and inquire about mountain bikes, you are likely to be asked, “26 in., 27.5 in. or 29 in.?”

27.5 inch (650b)

27.5″ wheels hold their speed better so once you get moving, you stay moving. A larger wheel also has a larger contact patch with the ground, and that means more traction. Wide tires and low tire pressures are used for the same reason, to increase the size of the contact patch.

Offering a middle ground between standard 26 in. wheels and 29ers, these bikes apply a “best of both worlds” solution, more easily rolling over terrain than the 26s, but more maneuverable than 29ers. 27.5 in. wheels can be found on both full-suspension and hardtail rigs.

29ers

These bikes feature 29 in. wheels that are a little slower to accelerate, but once you start moving you can conquer considerably more terrain far easier than on a bike with 26 in. wheels. They are more efficient for longer rides as they keep their momentum up and they have a higher “attack angle,” meaning the wheel rolls over trail obstacles easier.

The larger wheels on a 29er gives the rider the ability to reach a higher top end speed. They also improve overall traction with their larger footprint and they roll over objects such as rocks, roots, ect…. much easier than smaller wheels.

These bikes have become extremely popular for the cross-country crowd. 29ers can be found in rigid, hardtail and full-suspension rigs.

27.5+ inch

The plus symbol simply indicates extra-wide wheels and tires, typically 2.8 in. or more in width. Wider tires offer a more comfortable and forgiving ride.

The 27.5+ inch tires also offer riders a lighter-weight wheel and tire combination, allowing for quicker acceleration out of corners. This plus-size bike can go into corners faster without sliding, but its heavier weight could prevent a racer from making up that speed out of the turns.

They also encounter less rolling resistance, so the trend is for bikes to have wider wheels and tires these days.

24 inch

Kids’ mountain bikes typically have 24 in. wheels to accommodate the shorter legs of children. Most are less-expensive versions of adult bikes with simpler components.

Generally speaking, these suit kids ages 10 to 13, but this depends more on the size of the child than the age. Younger/smaller children can get started on mountain bikes with 20 in. wheels.

There are also plenty of adults who are no taller than many children. Such adults would fit a 24″ bike better and not have their knees impacting the handle bars. 24″ bikes with taller seat posts and raised handlebars will accommodate some taller adults.

Mountain Bike Frame Materials

The frame influences a bike’s weight, strength, longevity, ride quality and price.

Aluminum alloy is the most commonly used material for mountain bike frames. Some more-expensive models have lighter aluminum frames as a result of the manufacturer expending more dollars and effort in the selection of materials, tubing design and the manufacturing process.

Other frame materials include steel, titanium and carbon fiber. Steel is tough, inexpensive and offers a smooth ride, but is relatively heavy for a mountain bike. Titanium is light and strong but too expensive for all but high-end mountain bikes.

Carbon fiber is fairly common on cross-country bikes, fat-tire bikes, and high-end trail and all-mountain bikes because of its strength and low weight, but it is relatively expensive because it requires labor-intensive manufacturing.

Mountain Bike Gears

Gears.
Gears.

The number of gears a bike has is a result of the number of front chainrings multiplied by the number of sprockets on the cassette. Mountain bikes are available with everything from a single speed to 30 or more gears. When you factor in the many combinations of chainrings and cogs and the numbers of teeth on them, things can get complex.

To keep it simple, the most important things to consider are your fitness level and the terrain you’ll be riding. If you’ll be riding lots of steep hills and you find climbing challenging, then you’ll want to opt for more gears.

If you’re a strong mountain biker or you only ride flat terrain, you won’t need as many low gears to power up a hill so you can get away with fewer gears, which will also help keep your bike light.

Mountain bikes have traditionally come with two or three chainrings to provide a variety of easy gears for climbing. However, mountain bikes with single chainrings and a wide-range cassette with 9, 10 or 11 cogs are now very popular.

Bikes with one chainring are lighter and simpler because you need only one shifter to move through the gears on the cassette, and they offer most of the gears you’ll need.

Keep in mind that bike gearing is fairly easy to modify after you buy a bike, so it doesn’t need to be your primary concern when choosing a bike.

Mountain Bike Brakes

Brakes.
Brakes.

Disc brakes have replaced rim brakes on all but entry-level mountain bikes.

Disc brakes: These feature brake pads that grip onto a brake rotor mounted to the wheel hub.

They come in two versions: Hydraulic Disc brakes offer more progressive and stronger braking with less finger effort, and they self-adjust for brake pad wear. Cable-activated (mechanical) brakes need manual adjusting as the pads wear.

  • Advantages compared to rim brakes: More consistent braking in all conditions; much cheaper to replace a worn rotor than a whole wheel; superior performance in steep and wet terrains; less finger strain.
  • Disadvantages compared to rim brakes: More difficult to inspect pad wear and replace pads. Hydraulic brakes are more expensive to service.


Rim brakes:
Some entry-level mountain bikes come with rim brakes. Rim brakes feature pads that grip onto the wheel rims.

  • Advantages compared to disc brakes: Economical; easy to observe brake pad wear and replace worn pads.
  • Disadvantages compared to disc brakes: Gradually wears out the wheel rim, requiring the wheel to be replaced; less stopping power; less effective in wet or muddy conditions; requires more finger effort on the levers to brake aggressively.

Mountain Bike Fit

A bike that fits well and is right for your height, flexibility and riding style is a bike you’ll love riding. A properly fitting bike can improve your handling and confidence on the trail to help you tackle more technical and challenging rides.

How mountain bikes are sized

Mountain bikes come in standard sizes (S, M, L) and are generally similar across brands. Sizes generally correspond to your height. Many bike manufacturers include size charts that list a height range for each bike size.

If you’re in-between sizes, it’s best to err on the smaller side as more sizing accommodations can be made with a smaller frame than with one that’s too large.

Get the best fit by going to a bike store

Armed with a general sense for what kind of bike you’re looking for, now is a good time to head to a specialty bike retailer to identify some suitable models and try out a few bikes. That’s the best way to get the best fit.

Go for a test ride

Ask to ride several bikes. With the help of a sales specialist, you should be able to narrow down your selection to two or three bikes. Though they may have similar prices and components, each will feel different to ride.

Take each on a five- to 10-minute ride over some varied surfaces, including up a short hill. In most cases, one bike is just going to feel better for you than the others. You want a bike to feel like a natural extension of your body.

Mountain Bike Maintenance

A mountain bike takes some serious punishment when you’re tearing up the woods. Mud, sand, grime, and water. Mashing the pedals up a climb, thundering down hills, smashing through deep holes and gutters… it all causes wear and tear on your beloved bike. This makes it especially important to perform regular maintenance.

So what can you do to ensure your mountain bike keeps running like a dream?

Any bike shop will give your bike a final mechanical safety inspection before you wheel it out the door. Also, ask for the suspension settings to be adjusted for your body weight.

But, here’s some other important things you can do to keep your bike running smoothly:

Wash your bike

Don’t use a high pressure washer, but lather the bike instead. The pressure of a high-pressure jet can cause grease and lubricant to be pushed out of bearings and moving parts. This allows water and dirt to corrode and damage the bearings.

After a wash, it’s best to clean the chain and cogs with a clean rag while you’re at it.

Washing the bike is a perfect time to thoroughly inspect the paint on your bike, and look for any indications that there might be structural damage to the frame or components.

Maintain your bike

Regularly clean the chain with a dry cloth, keeping it shiny and silver. Lubricate the chain with oil at least every two rides. WD40, teflon, or silicone spray alone aren’t resilient enough to lubricate your chain!

You only have to lubricate the chain, and not the cassette as well. It’s best not to use a spray-based lubricant, as this will also settle onto your brakes which is the one place you definitely don’t want to apply lubricant!

Check your bike

Check the brake pads of your disc- or V-brakes regularly. If you hear a grinding noise, then replace the pads before damage can be done to other components. If you’re not sure how to do so visit your local bike store.

YouTube clips can also be a great help! Cleaning agents for brakes can only be used on separate rotors or pads, and should never be used on or in the caliper!

The right tire pressure

Regularly check the tire pressure. The maximum pressure is denoted on the side of the tire. Normally, a mountain bike tire is inflated to between 2 and 2.5 Bar.

Check your components

Regularly check the bolts on your bike. The many bumps and vibrations can easily cause something to come loose. Simply retightening them will suffice.

We recommend using a torque wrench especially with carbon frames, but it’s preferable with aluminium ones as well.

Assembly Paste!

If you need to re(assemble) your pedals, seat post, or stem then do so with a little assembly paste, which ensures you’ll be able to remove the components again later should you have to. It also helps to protect your frame from water and dirt.

Checklist

Before you jump on your bike and set out for the trails, just quickly run through the checklist below:

Check:

  • Tire pressure (approximately 2 Bar).
  • Brake check (is there enough pressure in the system and are your pads in good condition?).
  • Check for any play in the front or rear wheel.
  • Bounce the bike a few times to check for any loose components.
  • Apply some force to the saddle and bars, testing whether they can be twisted or turned.

Make sure you have at least the bare essentials for repairs and maintenance: spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, pump, multi-tool, chain lube and something to carry it all in. And, don’t forget a helmet.

Many bike shops provide a free first tune-up. Be sure you bring back your new bike to take advantage of that offer.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MOUNTAIN BIKING: HERE

WHERE TO BUY A BIKE:

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