How to Choose Your Perfect Mountain Bike
Mountain bikes (MTBs) have evolved a great deal over the years. Now, bikes are more specialized than ever, each type packed with features that can enhance the riding experience for you. However, with all the features and choices out there, selecting a mountain bike can be overwhelming.
While MTBs are the most versatile bikes on the market, it's also fairly easy to make the wrong choice if you don't do a little bit of research first. If you're just getting started and plan to use your bike exclusively on groomed trails and for commuting, a full suspension park bike is probably the wrong choice. However, a hardtail trail or cross-country bike may be perfect (and save you some money).
The most important questions to ask yourself are what type of riding you think you'll be doing and how you want to use the bike. Is it your all-purpose bike for the streets and trails? Have you been riding a long time, or are you just getting into the sport? Is your goal to ride aggressive downhill trails, or simply to stay active on groomed trails? These questions, along with your budget, are important to answer.
One you've put some thought into your biking budget and lifestyle, settle on the type of mountain bike you want. Then it's time to start looking at types of MTBs and features.
Type of Bike
Mountain bikes have become very specialized over the years, with different types of bikes for almost every type of terrain and rider. If you're new to mountain biking, we recommend going with something that's general purpose and fits the terrain of your local trails. As you spend more time on the trails, you may find that you want to purchase a specialty bike, but general purpose is always a safe place to start.
Trail bikes are usually the best bikes for beginners to start with. These "all-purpose" mountain bikes are fairly affordable and well-balanced in terms of features and functionality.
Trail bikes generally won't have some of the hardcore features that competitive mountain bikers are looking for, but the basics will be covered. You also won't find nuanced features for specific riding styles, but that's the point of this category - it's versatile and affordable.
Best for: beginners, casual riders, those on a budget
Cross-Country (XC) Bikes
Cross-country bikes (also known as XC bikes) are similar to trail bikes, but are more focused on speed and efficiency when riding. If the trails you're looking for are unpaved, but not terribly technical, this may be a good category for you. Cross-country bikes will be more efficient at climbing hills, maintaining speed and taking tight corners. These bikes are also a great all-purpose option if you'll be riding on pavement as well.
Best for: non-technical trails, a lot of hill climbing, multi-purpose riders
All-Mountain (Enduro) Bikes
All-mountain bikes, also known as Enduro bikes, give you versatility on the mountain. In contrast to trail bikes, this type is built specifically for mountain conditions and terrain more often found in the western part of the US. These bikes will generally have a stronger frame and a bit more travel in the suspension, which you'll need when hopping rocks and dropoffs. You'll usually find all-mountain bikes with full suspension, which helps the rider navigate this technical terrain.
Best for: steep and technical trails, high speed downhill terrain, downhill racing
This category is used to describe the width of the tires you'll find on these bikes. Fat bikes have oversized tires that are great for terrain that isn't firm, like sand or snow. This category of biking, particularly in winter states, has picked up steam in recent years. This type of bike is also great for beginners because it's much more forgiving.
Best for: winter riding, sand riding, beginners
Downhill and Park Bikes
Almost an opposite type of bike to the cross-country, which helps with hill climbing, downhills are geared toward trails with a lot of descents. These bikes are designed to get banged up a bit, and are usually bulky and a bit heavy. This is because these bikes can take a beating when you take a fall, and downhill bikes are most often found at bike parks as rentals. These bike parks oftentimes have chairlifts that run to the top of the hill, allowing riders to simply enjoy the downhill action. These are one of the least practical bikes to purchase on your own for an all-purpose need.
Best for: bike parks, strictly aggressive or park riders
The frame is the most substantial component of your bike, and where most of its weight comes from. It's the backbone of the bike, so it's worthwhile to take some time to think about what it's made from.
Once you've thought about the type of MTB you want, it's worthwhile to look at a few bike options and consider what the frame material is for each. Many newer mountain bikes on the market will be made from aluminum because it's lightweight, responsive, won't rust and is generally affordable. It's a great frame materail for the general rider. But if you're looking at low-budget bikes, or high-end materials, it's important to know the differences in frame materials.
Steel is the most traditional material found in bike frames, although its use has dropped in recent years to other materials. Steel is generally easy to bend and shape, making it a favorite for bike builders over the years. The downside to steel is that it can be heavyweight if low-quality tubing is used.
This is where chrome molybdenum, or chromoly, comes into play. This strong, light steel is durable is a great option and is usually the steel that you'll find on any mid-market bike and up.
Another thing to keep in mind with steel is that is can rust and corrode, so keep that in mind. If rust is a concern in your area, or based on the way you think you'll use your bike, consider one of the other frame materials below.
Best for: Basic riding, durability, strength
Aluminum is now the most popular frame material that you will find in bikes. The biggest complaint about steel over the years was that it created a jarring ride and didn't absorb shock well. Aluminum provides improvements in these areas, and can also cut down on weight, while it does give up some overall durability that steel offers.
Aluminum is generally lighter than steel and more affordable than other materials like carbon fiber. It also tends to wear down a bit over time, unlike tough materials like steel. If you're looking for a responsive, all-purpose MTB that won't break the bank, we'd go with an aluminum frame.
Best for: affordable performance bikes, mid-level bikes
Carbon fiber is the high-end material you'll find in almost every bike that's raced at the competitive level. This material is actually not a metal, it's technically a series of carbon sheets bonded together with an adhesive, usually an epoxy. This creates a light, stiff and durable material that's great for high-end bikes.
Carbon fiber absorbs shock extremely well, but may not be the best choice for the most aggressive mountain riders who want the durability of a metal. One thing to note is that not all carbon fiber is created equal. Make sure to do some research on the construction of the carbon fiber frame you're considering to ensure it's durable and high-quality.
Best for: those without budget restraints, ultra lightweight, hybrid road/MTB bikes that won't be ridden aggressively
Titanium has many of the properties steel is lacking, but it comes at a higher price tag. Of all the metals, titanium has the most strength relative to its weight, making it an obvious choice for bike frames that prioritize both properties.
Surprisingly, titanium also is one of the most absorbent materials on the market. It will eat up vibrations and noise as well as, if not better than, carbon fiber. It also provides a springy ride, unlike steel, that serious bikers swear by.
Because titanium is relatively lightweight, strong, absorbs vibration and doesn't corrode, it comes at a high price point. Titanium is the premium frame material on the market.
Best for: high performance, those without budget restraints, frequent riders
The suspension of your mountain bike is an important factor to consider. Unlike road biking, where you may just use your suspension for hopping a curb, your trail suspension will be in almost constant use.
Mountain bikes have three different types of suspensions to choose from:
- Rigid - zero suspension (uncommon in MTBs, other than on fat bikes)
- Hardtail - suspension only in the front fork
- Full suspension - suspension in both the front fork and rear shocks
The type of suspension you choose should depend on your bike and riding style, as well as your primary riding location and budget.
For most mountain bikers, a rigid suspension will not be what we'd recommend. Rigid bikes feature no suspension or shocks at all. The most common use case for a rigid suspension is fat biking, which provides enough cushion through its oversized tires. One thing to note about suspension in general is that it does consume some of your pedaling energy. On a fat bike, you won't waste this energy - which is especially useful when you're already pedaling a bit harder due to increased surface area of the tire.
Best for: fat bikes
Hardtail mountain bikes only feature suspension in the front. This front suspension will help you maintain control of your handlebars and absorb some of the changes in terrain you'll encounter through your front wheel.
Hardtail bikes are going to generally be more affordable than a full suspension bike and provide a great starting point for a newer rider. If you're only going to be riding intermediate trails that aren't terribly technical, a hardtail will work perfectly fine. Generally speaking, a lot of the riding you find in the US can be done on a hardtail. The main exceptions are mountain states and mountain areas, where the full suspension is very useful.
Hardtail bikes are also a better option for those looking for a hybrid mountain bike that can handle trail and city riding. Many hardtail bikes have adjustable suspension, allowing you to lock into rigid suspension. This setting is preferable for city riding because it allows you to transfer your full energy to your pedals for full utilization, rather than your suspension. Hardtails will usually be lighter in weight as well.
Best for: new to intermediate mountain bikers, those on a budget, smoother trails, all-purpose riding, cross-country
If you're looking for suspension in both the front fork and rear shocks, a full suspension mountain bike is the route to go. These bikes will absorb much more changes in terrain and rough trail than any other suspension out there, but these features come with some tradeoffs as well.
Most of the time, you're going to pay more for a full suspension bike. With the added functionality and suspension also comes more weight - especially if you go with the lower-end full suspension bikes. It's important to really think about the type of riding you'll be doing and how much you want to spend.
If you're riding out west in the mountains, or already have an all-purpose bike and want something to use exclusively on rough trails, a full suspension is likely your best option. However, if you don't need the suspension you may be simply losing pedaling energy with the rear suspension - especially when climbing hills.
Best for: advanced riders, bikes only being used on the trails, technical terrain, riders with joint issues
The 26 inch tire was the standard in the mountain biking industry for a very long time. In recent years, a couple other categories have emerged in the 27 inch and 29 inch wheel sizes.
The size of your MTB wheels will change the feel of your riding much more than you may think. With a bigger tire comes a larger contact point with the surface you're riding on. This means that a larger tire will cruise over more uneven terrain without making you feel every bump. Think about how a huge truck tire rolls over a small pothole without feeling much - same concept. However, larger tires can mean less control and acceleration, so read below to see what's best for you.
26 Inch Wheels
A 26 inch wheel was the standard in the mountain biking industry for a long time. During this period, wheel size wasn't something riders even thought about because everything was a 26 inch.
Since then, the industry has generally moved on and a 26 inch is pretty hard to find in most bike shops. These bikes, while lighter in weight, are much less forgiving on trail features and also have a slower top speed than the larger wheel bikes.
This category is generally reserved for kid's bikes and classics in today's market, so most of us will want to move on up to either a 27.5 inch or 29 inch.
Best for: kid's bikes, small riders
29 Inch Wheels
This category was the first to disrupt the 26 inch bikes that were the standard for so long. A 29 inch wheel, or 29er as they're called, offers a number of advantages over the classic 26 inch.
The larger wheel improves overall traction and also allows riders to climb over more features like rocks and slight gaps in trails. These larger tires are more forgiving in general, but also help riders gain a higher top speed as well.
The 29 inch tires may feel a bit large for smaller riders, and generally aren't the wheel size of choice for downhill or park bikes because they're a bit slower to react to the rider's movements. These bikes are also a bit slower in acceleration, but make up for it with more efficiency on hills.
Best for: taller riders, technical terrain with obstacles
27.5 Inch Wheels
The 29 inch tire disrupted the long standard of the 26 inch mountain biking tire, but the category didn't come without its drawbacks. This simple 3 inch difference changed a lot of elements of the ride, and while most riders see the advantages of a 29 inch wheel, they wanted something in the middle.
Then the 27.5 inch wheel was born. This category is still relatively new, but has gained popularity quickly. For riders that are a bit shorter, or don't feel at home on a 29 inch, this may be the perfect category for you. These bikes attempt to split the difference of the two categories - offering improved ride and efficiency over a 26 inch, while providing better responsiveness and a more playful ride than a 29 inch.
A 27 inch mountain bike will accelerate more quickly than a 29er, but it will be a bit less efficient on hills. It offers traction that's better than a 26 inch, but not quite as good as a 29er because of surface area of the tire.
Best for: smaller riders, those looking for responsiveness, a combination of the best of 26 inch and 29ers
Whether you're brand new to mountain biking or a seasoned rider, there are a lot of choices out there and selecting a bike can feel overwhelming. Those in the market for a new bike should first think about the type of riding they'll be doing, as well as their budget.
Once you know these answers, start thinking about type of MTB, and its features like frame material and suspension. From there, you can always customize down the road with accessories and parts that are custom to the type of riding you'll be doing.
Mountain biking is about getting outdoors, staying active, and most importantly - having fun. Choosing the right MTB will get you there.