There’s an intimidating variety of mountain bikes on the market, and every type is suited to different terrains and riding styles. As a result, there’s a mountain bike for every rider—but which one is right for you? Read on to find out about the numerous factors that go into mountain bike design and how each can affect your ride.
Know Yourself, Know Your Bike
The title of this section is probably a little more “Zen” than you were expecting from a mountain bike guide but keep with us; understanding your riding style is a crucial first step in choosing a mountain bike. As there are so many types of mountain bikes available, knowing what you need for your particular riding style is essential for making a good investment.
Before proceeding, ask yourself: “What kind of mountain biker am I?” Do you enjoy slowly making your way down a mountain incline while navigating upturned roots and large boulders? Or, do you imagine yourself making fast, tight corners on well-packed trails? Or maybe you’re one of an emerging breed of mountain bikers who would instead navigate sandy dunes or massive snowbanks.
Whatever your riding style, there’s a mountain bike for you. However, a mountain bike made for rocky trails is usually very different from a mountain bike made for dirt paths. This fact is especially true for bikes built for dunes and snowbanks.
Many new mountain bikers assume that tires are what sets different mountain bikes apart. While this is a good guess and somewhat accurate, tire size and tread are secondary considerations; when choosing between mountain bikes, the most crucial factor is the bike’s suspension.
Mountain Bike Design: Suspensions, Frames and Tires
Mountain bikes are usually categorized by their suspensions, with most models having a suspension system on either both wheels or just one. Bikes with no suspension are also common, though slowly falling out of favor. These three styles make up the three primary types of mountain bikes, but we’ll cover those later on. For now, it’s essential to focus on the technical aspects of the mountain bike’s suspension and its frame design.
Like any bike, a mountain bike is made up of a frame, two wheels, a pedal drivetrain, and, of course, handlebars for turning. A mountain bike’s suspension, if it has one at all, is usually part of the “fork” that connects the bike’s wheels to the frame.
The job of the mountain bike’s suspension is to help cushion impact over trails. Depending on its terrain, a suspension might be either desirable or undesirable. Depending on your riding style or the type of mountain biking you do, having an extra “cushion” to absorb shocks could benefit your ride; imagine going airborne and having a hard impact on an even harder surface! In such a case, you would probably want a suspension bike.
Conversely, if you’re going up an incline and require stability, you might want little to no suspension at all. For these scenarios, many mountain bikes either have no suspension, a half or “hardtail” suspension, or an ability to “lock” their suspensions temporarily.
It’s also worth noting the differences between the front and rear suspensions. While both types of suspensions perform similar jobs, their designs are fundamentally different. Front suspensions are relatively straightforward in their design, while rear suspensions are often much more complicated and varied in their design.
Wheels And Tires
3 Major Types Of Mountain Bikes By Suspension Type
If the previous section was a little (or a lot) overwhelming, don’t worry: All of the factors we’ve discussed are covered by three major types of mountain bikes. Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t remember factors such as your bike frame’s head tube angle, but choosing from one of the three types discussed below will be more than half of your decision process.
Full or Dual-Suspension Mountain Bikes
As the name implies, dual-suspension mountain bikes have suspensions on both the front and rear tires. This type is perhaps the most versatile mountain bike available, adapting to a wide variety of terrains while providing exceptional comfort to the rider.
Many dual-suspension systems have a “locking” feature which allows riders to use a more rigid suspension for maneuvers such as climbing. Typically, however, tougher trails will demand tougher (and more flexible) suspensions. For these trails, full and dual-suspension bikes are ideal.
Hardtail Suspension Mountain Bikes
A “hardtail” suspension mountain bike has only a front suspension, resulting in a “hard” rear suspension (i.e., a hard tail). Due to the reduced weight resulting from having fewer suspension components, hardtail mountain bikes are best for riders who favor speed over maneuverability. By extension, hardtail mountain bikes are best suited for lighter terrains and smoother trails, but can sometimes be excellent for climbing.
Rigid Suspension Mountain Bikes
Despite technically being a type of suspension, rigid suspensions have no suspension whatsoever. Instead, “rigid” bars connect wheels to the frame, with any comfort resulting from the tires alone. Rigid mountain bikes may not seem to have many benefits, and frankly, they don’t; the only reason to choose one is for their lower weight and easier maintenance.
Finding the Mountain Bike for Your Riding Style
Here, riding style refers less to your personal “panache” while on a bike and more so the terrain on which you’ll be riding. In the coming sub-sections, you’ll notice that each type of riding suits a particular terrain and, as we’ve already discussed, will give you an excellent insight into what kind of mountain bike you should buy.
Cross-country riding is arguably the most popular style of mountain biking in the world, likely having been the first form of the sport ever invented. Here, bikers navigate well-packed trails explicitly meant for mountain biking, encountering various grades and the occasional obstacle.
Cross-country bikers enjoy what is likely the most flexibility of any riding style. Since most trails are well-packed and well-defined, they’re suited for a much wider variety of bikes.
Of course, trails aren’t just hard-packed dirt; cross-country trails are indeed cross-country, often including vegetation, small rocks and other types of obstacles and terrains. Typically, however, cross-country trails are relatively straightforward to navigate and have usually been human-defined (i.e., human-made) in some way.
Human-made trails can also include human-made obstacles such as jumps and planks. Regardless, due to their human-made nature, cross-country trails are especially accessible to beginners with challenges increasing in level to that of the professional. But how can you tell them apart?
Most cross-country trails are often “graded” using a color code. Green-marked paths are usually indicative of easy trails with no significant obstacles; blue-marked paths are somewhat more technical challenging; red or black paths are, as their color associations might suggest, often technically challenging and filled with many obstacles.
Full-suspension mountain bikes are best suited for cross-country trails, as they will provide the most flexibility across the variety of terrains a rider is likely to encounter. For smoother trails with fewer obstacles, hardtail and even rigid mountain bikes may also be suitable.
Think of trail riding as a “step-up” from cross-country riding; where cross-country trails are typically hard-packed and at least semi-manmade, trail riding involves riding trails—the very same enjoyed by hikers and mountain climbers. Because of this, riders can expect much rougher terrain, including large boulders, steep inclines and exposed roots.
Due to the variety of terrains encountered with trail riding, a full-suspension is again ideal. Since speed is not so much of a factor here, riders will want to select a frame with a steep head tube angle for increased stability.
Other Types of Riding
While cross-country and trail riding are the two most common types of mountain biking, “niche” styles exist as well. Popular alternatives include downhill and all-mountain mountain biking, where riders try to achieve a combination of speed and stability while going down steep – and often rough – inclines. Other alternative terrains include dunes and snowbanks, which require the use of “fat” tires and special suspensions.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a mountain bike, but as long as you know your riding style, you should easily be able to select one of the three suspension types. If you aren’t entirely sure, a full-suspension mountain bike with standard diameter tires will be capable of tackling most terrains. Happy riding!