Editor’s Note: This article was written by Art’s Cyclery web content editor Brett Murphy, who uses his mechanical engineering background to explain the latest industry advances and breakdown component design. The original post can be found here.
So you’ve finally decided to add a little dirt to your life and buy a mountain bike? Awesome! It’s a decision you wont regret. Just know that the sport has a bit of a learning curve when picking out your new bike and its key parts, so best to educate yourself before heading to the bike shop or perusing the Internet. For starters it’s important to understand the various mountain biking disciplines and the key features of the associated bikes. Local terrain and riding style will go a long way in determining the kind of bike you need. But in general mountain bikes can be categorized into three primary categories; cross-country, trail/all-mountain and freeride/downhill. Here is a rundown of each.
Cross country riding typically consists of fire roads and singletrack that’s geared primarily toward a rider’s endurance and power output. While still requiring a fair amount of technical skills, cross country is more about efficiency and suffering than other MTB disciplines. Cross country bikes are typically lighter and usually have suspension travel between 80mm and 120mm. For years, cross country was the sole domain of the hardtail (no rear suspension), but today there are many snappy handling and fast-pedaling full suspension designs available. This additional travel provides a more supple ride at faster speeds, but usually adds some weight and expense. Road riders will likely feel most at home riding cross country, with its focus on higher cadence, clipless pedals, and less challenging terrain. Cross country bikes also have geometry that more closely resembles road bikes.
Best to look at both hardtail and full suspension bikes when doing your pre-purchase research. As mentioned above, full suspension bikes are typically more capable on more technical terrain and can still climb fairly well. But they’re likely to be heavier, more expensive and more difficult to maintain. That’s why many new riders start out on hardtail mountain bikes, which are often the most affordable on the bike shop floor.
Bigger drops, rock gardens, and more technical, winding trails usually require a bike with more travel than your average cross-country bike. That’s where the trail and all-mountain bikes come in. For this style of riding, pedaling efficiency is not a premium, although a good trail or all-mountain bike will still pedal uphill well. Full suspension bikes are a must for this style of riding, and these bikes have slacker angles, longer wheelbases, and travel ranging from about 140mm to 170mm, with trail bikes falling on the shorter end and all-mountain pushing up to the 170mm mark. Most new mountain bikers will fall into this category, where the bikes can climb capably and help keep you out of trouble when the trail gets technically tough.
Beginner mountain bikers should probably steer clear of downhill bikes, which are all about carrying as much speed as possible through obstacles that might appear to be more of a cliff than a trail. Downhill bikes have around 200mm of travel that’s designed to handle big drops and absorb violent impacts at high speeds. These bikes are typically geared strictly for going fast downhill ( seven speeds of low gearing) and don’t offer much in terms of climbing or even flat trail performance. Most downhillers also have a cross country or trail bike for days when they feel like a more rounded workout. Downhill bikes have very slack head angles (down to 63 degrees), long wheelbases, and do not handle well when climbing.