Deciding which mountain bike you should buy is not an easy task, particularly if you’re a first-time buyer. For starters, these bikes aren’t cheap, and there are so many options to choose from. There are a few key questions you can ask yourself in order to get started on your purchasing journey:
1. What type of riding do you plan on doing?
2. What’s your budget?
Types of Mountain Bikes
There are several mountain bike styles. The main disciplines include: XC, Trail, Enduro, and Downhill/Freeride. There are different types of mountain bikes designed to perform best in each of these categories, but the differences between some categories of mountain bike can be a little blurry.
Cross Country (XC) Mountain Bikes
XC style riding is centered around racing, with lots of pedaling and climbing involved throughout your ride. This MTB discipline is heavy on the cardio, and XC bikes are designed with that fact in mind. XC bikes are known for being lightweight and extremely efficient at pedaling. These bikes are typically front-suspension or full-suspension with minimal travel, topping out at about 120mm. They are designed with steep tube angles that put the rider in a great position for pedaling uphill. The components of XC bikes are all as light as possible, while still being durable enough to ensure you can descend confidently and smoothly.
Trail Mountain Bikes
Trail riding is pretty similar to XC, just without the racing aspect. Since there’s no need to accomodate for the constant speed, trail bike designs are a bit more comfortable, with geometry that does not favor climbing but instead favors all-around riding. Trail bikes are essentially the most neutral option of all the MTB categories. As a result, a trail bike is the best beginner mountain bike option. They can handle any type of mountain biking, but they don’t necessarily excel at any one discipline. Trail bikes offer short-mid travel suspension, usually about 130-150mm of travel. Much of the industry favors full-suspension options for trail bikes, but hardtails have recently been making a comeback, too. Trail bike hardtails differ from XC hardtails; they’re regarded as being more aggressive, on account of their geometry and heavy-duty components. One added bonus of buying a hardtail is that you can often get higher quality components for a cheaper price than with the added technology of full-suspension. Hardtails in this category often come with wider tires to soak up some of the chunk. Even with all of these bells and whistles, a hardtail will never compare to the ride of a full-suspension bike.
All-Mountain & Enduro Bikes
Enduro bikes are for enduro racing (unsurprisingly). This type of racing discipline typically has about five stages in a day that involve time trials on downhill terrain. Enduro bikes share many similarities with trail bikes, but they’re designed to be as fast as possible on the downhills. This calls for slightly more aggressive geometry on enduro bikes, and suspension travel in the mid-long range, typically 150-170mm of full suspension travel. Some progressive bikes these days can even see numbers up to 180 mm of travel, mainly in the front fork.
Downhill Bikes (DH)
Downhill and freeride bikes share many similarities, as they are both made with super aggressive slack geometry and heavy-duty parts. DH bikes also feature long suspension (around 200mm) in the front and rear to handle anything thrown their way. Where they differ from freeride bikes is in their main use. Downhill bikes are made for downhill racing, where speed is the priority. Freeride bikes are made for the big jumps and heavy hits associated with big mountain riding (think the RedBull Rampage, for example). Downhill bikes have a gear ratio that is designed to allow you to go down fast, as well as maintain your high speed. These bikes are not made for pedaling, though some freeride bikes actually blur the lines with an enduro bike and have a gearing ratio that can be pedaled around -- albeit not very efficiently. Taking this notion into consideration, some freeride bikes may come with only 180mm of suspension travel, which is still more than enough to handle the intended abuse. All downhill bikes come with a dual-crown fork, while some freeride bikes may be found with a single-crown fork to make them easier to pedal around to different freeride zones. These bikes are so heavy-duty that beginner riders may struggle to use and maneuver them.
What about all-mountain bikes?
You may also come across “all-mountain bikes” when conducting your search. All-mountain bikes are basically a generalization of trail and enduro bikes, and they blur the lines between the two.
What are fat bikes?
Fat-bikes are also a thing these days, with “fat” referring to the significant width of the tires. Fat bike tires range from about 3.8”-5”. Fat bikes, also known as rigid bikes, are typically found without any suspension. Their tires are run at a low PSI to act as the suspension. Many rigid bikes these days have wider tires (starting at a plus size of about 2.8”) to smooth out the ride a bit. Front-suspension on these bikes are becoming more common, with full-suspension available too. Fat bikes are designed to float on top of the surface of the terrain you’re tackling, making them the best option when it comes to riding in snow or sand.
If you are a beginner and still aren’t too sure which type of bike to get, you should most likely look to buy a trail mountain bike. This will allow you to start off with easier XC-catered trails, until you’re ready to work up to gnarly tech. Trail bikes will be able to handle everything you want to ride, without being “too much bike” for you.
Mountain Bike Safety Gear
A helmet, knee pads, gloves, and a good pair of riding shoes will go a long way towards giving you the best MTB riding experience possible. Mountain bike helmets come in a half-shell or full face option. A half-shell helmet is designed more for the pedally rider, while a full face helmet is reserved for more aggressive riders, or racers. All downhill races use full face helmets, most freeriders do, and even a majority of enduro racers prefer the added protection of a full face helmet. Full-finger gloves are the best option to protect your hands. Your shoes will depend on whether you want to be clipped in, or ride on flats. Regardless, a mountain-biking specific shoe will always give you greater traction on the pedals compared to just a general shoe. In terms of protective padding, knee pads are really all that is necessary for most types of mountain biking. When it comes to more gnarly riding (downhill racing, enduro racing and freeriding), many riders opt to use a chest and back protector, and can even be seen with a neck protector as well as elbow, wrist, and ankle protection. Within all these categories is a bike for everyone at a wide range of price points.
Should I buy my bike online?
Buying a bike online may sound daunting, especially since you cannot test ride your chosen bike before you buy it. That said, one big advantage to buying a bike online is that it’s usually a cheaper option overall. Buying a mountain bike online takes out the middleman, and the need to visit a bike shop. You also get the convenience of having the bike delivered directly to your door, without the need to drive around to multiple different bike shops in order to find your desired option.