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Beautiful Sycamore Canyon right behind Jenson USA's main warehouse in Riverside, CA.
A mountain bike is a bicycle designed for off-road use. Riding style and terrain determine the type of mountain bike one needs. Those riding mixed road to light single track might find themselves on a Cross-Country bike. Riders ready to tackle any terrain experienced on the trail such as steep climbs, steeper descents, and everything in between may need an All-Mountain trail bike. The most extreme side of the sport is the Gravity bike: pushing the limits of riding downhill and tackling the biggest obstacles nature has to offer. Other bikes made for off-road use such as the Dirt Jumper are more concentrated categories, which are purpose-built for dirt parks and not intended for trail use.
Bicycle suspension is made possible by what are referred to as shocks. These shocks can be found in the frame (most commonly the seat tube) and in the fork. Shocks can use either use an air or coil spring suspension system to absorb the irregularity of riding off-road. If a mountain bike has a suspension fork yet does not have rear suspension it is referred to as a hardtail. When a mountain bike has no suspension at all (front nor rear) it’s referred to as a rigid mountain bike. However, most mountain bikes have some sort of suspension. When a bicycle has suspension, the suspension travel is measured in millimeters and can vary slightly from front to rear (though usually slightly more in the front). The more extreme the discipline and the rougher the terrain, the more travel is required to absorb the bigger hits from the larger drops. Bicycle suspension generally ranges from 80mm to 200mm depending on the category; for example endurance-based Cross-Country mountain bikes generally feature around 100mm of suspension travel while a pure Gravity Downhill bike will require up to 200mm of suspension travel.
Fig. 1. The lower an object is relative to the axle of the wheel, the easier it is to roll over.
Traditionally, mountain bikes use 26” wheels. This, being a standard for many years, is still exclusively used in certain categories such as Dirt Jumpers and Gravity bikes. Over the past several years, manufacturers have been experimenting with wheel sizes; most notably the 29” wheel. This larger wheel size has become extremely popular with taller riders and Cross-County racers; many claiming the larger wheels compensate for the shorter amount of suspension travel due to the angle at which a larger wheel approaches an obstacle on the trail (see fig. 1). Though many riders enjoy this newly adopted wheel size, some riders feel the wheels are too big and prefer the agility of 26” wheels. In response to this feedback manufacturers have revived the classic 650b wheel size (also commonly referred to as 27.5”), which has been used on touring bikes for over 50 years. The 650b (27.5") wheel size has recently been gaining traction in the All-Mountain trail bike category and has been filling the void between 26” and 29” wheels with much success.
For a more in-depth look into wheel sizes, Episode 8 of our Ask a Wrench video series evaluates the pros and cons with side-by-side comparisons of the 3 most popular wheel sizes. You can check out that, and all of our Ask a Wrench videos, by clicking HERE.
Head Shop Mechanic Seth taking his Ibis trail bike off some sweet dirt jumps.
Warehouse Manager JB shredding in Sycamore Canyon on his fully rigid mountain bike.
Inventory Analyst Mike manualling out of a turn on his trail bike in Park City, UT.
Sales Associate Jon ‘Tater’ on his Giant downhill bike in Big Bear, CA.
As the name suggests, these bikes are built for dirt parks and designed for catching air off massive dirt jumps. Built like an elongated BMX bike with a suspension fork, a Dirt Jumper (DJ) commonly features disc brakes and uses 26” wheels in place of standard 20” BMX wheels. As DJ bikes commonly only have one gear and only a rear brake, these are not ideal for trail use.
Cross-Country (XC) bikes cover a wide range of terrain: from paved roads to fire roads and even some light single track. The XC bike is ideal for endurance racers, riders new to the sport, or recreational riders who stick to tame trails and don’t require much suspension travel. These bikes use a relatively low amount of travel, usually about 80-120mm, and come in either hardtails or full-suspension designs. Some XC racers choose a fully rigid bike to save weight and eliminate pedal-bob, which improves pedaling efficiency when climbing but sacrifices stability on harsh terrain. A typical XC bike will generally position the rider above the bottom bracket, providing superior pedaling efficiency over longer distances and relatively flat terrain. Over the past few years, manufactures have been experimenting with wheel size in this category so it’s not uncommon to see XC bikes with 26”, 27.5”, and 29” wheels, although it seems most companies are shying away from the 26” wheel size in this category.
The All-Mountain (AM) trail bike bridges the gap between XC and Gravity bikes. These full-suspension mountain bikes generally offer suspension travel ranging from 140-160mm. The name is befitting as these bikes are designed to be able to climb, descend, and anything in between. All-Mountain bikes, also referred to as Enduro or simply Trail bikes, position the rider further back keeping the center of gravity primarily over the rear wheel which is ideal for steep downhill sections. The AM category has also experienced some changes in wheel size, although it seems the 27.5” wheel seems to be gaining the most traction. Modern AM bikes are built to withstand the abuse of trail riding, commonly seen with 15mm front thru-axles, 12x142mm rear axles, and tapered steerer tubes for strength and stability.
The Gravity category is undoubtedly the most extreme in the mountain biking world. Gravity bikes are made to push the limits of mountain biking, constantly innovating new technologies to go bigger and faster than before. The Gravity category is comprised of Downhill (DH) and Freeride (FR) bikes, both with which use 180-200mm of suspension travel. These bikes are made for descending and are not necessarily meant for climbing; you’ll often see these bikes on a lift or in the back of a truck being shuttled to the top of the hill after each run. For the most part, this category has stuck with 26” wheels yet the tires are often much wider and feature a much more aggressive tread pattern. Gravity bikes will position the rider further back over the rear wheel as this is found to be the most efficient and comfortable position on steep descents. Gravity bikes are commonly seen with 20mm front thru-axles, 12x142mm rear axles, and triple-crown forks: all in an effort to build a more stable platform to come flying down the mountainside.
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