You've heard rumblings at the brewery from mud covered friends about an amazing ride they just had or from a co-worker inviting you on an after work escape to get some fun exercise. The smiles and enthusiasm these individuals share is derived from the two-wheeled, ridiculously blissful experience called mountain biking. Before we talk brands and components, it is important to understand the types of mountain biking and what makes a bike right for you.
A few early mountain bike pioneers had the great idea in the late 1970s to bomb down a mountain in Marin County, California on beach cruisers. Needless to say the bikes could not withstand the rough and steep terrain of the old fire road and promptly fell apart. This would become known as the birthplace of mountain biking. Since conception, companies have been engineering mountain bikes to be safe and highly capable off road machines. Instead of the industry trying to market a single do it all bike, designers have built a range of bikes that fit the individual and their surrounding terrain.
Mountain bikes are primarily designed with two things in mind, the terrain and rider intention. For example, are we looking to pedal long distances on winding clean single track or ride challenging features on rock and root strewn trail? Here we will breakdown the types of mountain biking into four categories. Cross Country, Trail, Gravity and Fat Bikes. These four bike types have been built for specific terrain, rider and ride styles.
The head tube angle is the degree in which the frame holds the steer tube. The steepness or slackness of the head tube angle will affect the bikes performance on the trail. For instance, a steeper 71-degree head tube angle benefits the frame's climbing efficiency but makes it less stable while descending. A slacker 65-degree head tube angle increases the frame's stability while descending but the bikes climbing efficiency is compromised.
Most mountain bikes are designed with suspension. Suspension travel is the maximum distance the suspension can compress in its stroke. Travel is shown in millimeters or inches. For mountain bikes a small amount of suspension travel is 80mm and a large amount of travel is 200mm.
A Cross Country mountain bike is designed to be efficient on fast and flowy single-track loops intertwined with climbs and descents. The rider is focused on getting good exercise and maintaining a quick pace throughout the ride. A Cross Country rider finds equal amounts of joy in climbing as well as descending. You will also see these bikes referred to as XC for short.
Cross Country bikes are designed with that rider, and trail in mind. The frames are constructed with steeper head tube angles (70-72 degrees) and longer reaches that benefit the rider's body position while climbing. XC frames can be hardtails or dual suspension designs. The suspension travel for a Cross Country bike ranges from 80 to 120 millimeters. These bikes will be the lightest of the four categories, with an average weight between 19- 25lbs. The lighter the bike equals less energy exerted on climbs and longer distance rides.
A Trail bike is designed to handle varied terrain including berms, jumps, rocks and roots but still pedal efficiently up climbs. A trail bike rider is focused on sensations found while carving through turns and navigating through technical terrain including root splays and rock gardens. Trail bike riders generally have a relaxed paced ride with friends and hopefully beers awaiting you in a cooler at the end of the ride.
Trail bikes are designed to aid riders in changing terrain. They come equipped with slacker head tube angles (66.5-69 degrees) than a Cross Country frame and most come with a dropper post to improve the riders descending position. The majority of bikes in this category are dual suspensions with travel ranging from 120mm to 170mm. The average weight ranges 27-32 lbs.
All Mountain and Enduro are a sub category of Trail bikes. This burly end of the trail bike spectrum is designed for when the trail is steep and slack head tube angles (66.5-67 degrees) are needed for stability. They fall into the 150-170mm range of suspension travel. The extra suspension is helpful to navigate technical terrain.
Pro Tip: Having an All Mountain/Enduro bike does not grant you the ability to ride hard terrain. Hours should be spent refining your skills on features you are comfortable riding before riding more advanced terrain. Always look at features you are unsure about and know it is ok to come back and try next time. Stay Safe. Shred Smart!
A Gravity or Downhill bike is designed to handle the steepest slopes, largest jumps and most technical trails. A Downhill bike is not designed for pedaling up hill. Most rides on a Downhill bike involve a shuttle truck, converted ski lift or simply pushing the bike to the top of the trail. The main goal for riders in this category is to refine descending skill and navigate technical trail with speed and grace.
Downhill bikes have the slackest head tube angles (63 – 66 degrees) to aid in safety and stability on steep trail. The suspension travel for a DH bike is 180 to 200mm. DH bikes are the heaviest of the four categories, built to withstand abuse. The weight ranges 35-41lbs.
The Fat bike is the newest member to enter the mountain bike family. Equipped with ultra wide knobby tires these bikes have earned a go anywhere at anytime reputation. The ultra large tires and minimal tire pressure allows the Fat Bikes to travel across snow, sand, mud and whatever else can be thrown in the way with ease. The fat bike rider likes to put a twist on normal trail scenarios, wander off the beaten path and isn't afraid to enjoy adverse weather and trail conditions.
Fat Bikes have a moderately slack head tube angle comparable to most trail bikes (67-69 Degrees). The majority are hardtails with 100-120mm travel forks. There are a few manufactures making dual suspension fat bikes as well. With the extra weight in the tires and beefy frames the bikes average weight ranges 28-35lbs.
Hopefully this short guide into mountain biking's categories has given you insight into a riding style that is right for you. To learn more about other considerations when purchasing a mountain bike, take a look at our articles about the basics of Mountain Bike Suspension, Frame Materials, Wheel Size and Mountain Bike Drivetrain.