Everything you need to know about mountain bikes
I have been cycling for about ten years. I am a semi-professional Ultra Distance cyclist and have spent many years working in bike shops. For years though, I spent a lot of time on Road Bikes, Time Trial bikes, and even Gravel Bikes. I eventually ended up getting Mountain Bikes. That’s all I have been riding since.
Who is Mountain Biking for?
Mountain Biking is for anyone. If you like to get outdoors and into nature away from noise and want to avoid traffic it’s great. The beauty of Mountain biking is unlike many cycling disciplines it doesn’t come down to how fit you are. It’s about technique, confidence, and skill as well. Anyone who can ride a bike will enjoy mountain biking.
What’s the purpose of Mountain biking?
There are many different reasons to mountain bike. Some will use it for fitness and to maybe burn some calories. Others it is a competitive sport or a personal challenge. The main reason for most is to get outdoor and have some fun.
In this Article
Mountain biking is a complicated part of cycling. You have many different types of Mountain bike events such as Downhill, Trail riding, Enduro, and then many kinds of bikes to suit. Mountain Biking is a fantastic sport and should be tried by everyone. In this article I want to tell you;
What makes Mountain bikes different from other bikes
The different Mountain Bike disciplines
- Cross Country
- All Mountain
Buyers Guide to Mountain Bikes
- What should I buy?
- What to look out for?
- How much should I spend?
What makes a Mountain Bike different from other bikes?
Just as in the name, Mountain bikes are exactly what they say on the tin. They are bikes built to go over mountains, but what makes a Mountain Bike different from other bikes. The best way to explain this is to break the bike down into its parts explain what they do and how they differ from other types of bikes you can buy.
Mountain Bike Frames are designed not just for speed but also for control. They are unique because they need to provide the user not just speed but control and comfort on a variety of different terrain. So what makes a good Mountain bike frame?
Firstly we look at the geometry. This has changed drastically over the last twenty years, and we now have the most efficient bikes ever. Mountain bike frames will generally be very low slung, and this means they will try and keep the weight close to the ground to help control. They will also have a high bottom bracket to help you get over obstacles such as large rocks. Depending on what style of riding you do, they can be made for comfort or aggressive for speed. When it comes to the Geometry of Mountain Bikes, it varies over the different disciplines within Mountain biking which we will go into more later.
Mountain bike frames can also come in many different materials. We mainly see them in Steel, Aluminum, and Carbon. Steel Frames are cheap to produce, heavy, comfortable, and strong. Aluminum Frames are lightweight, stiff, and affordable to construct. Carbon Frames are incredibly light, very stiff, and expensive to produce. Each different material will deliver a different experience for the user. Steel Bikes will be the heaviest but will give you the most comfort. This is due mainly to the flexibility of the steel. Aluminum Bikes will be lighter but will have less comfort due to being much stiffer. Then Carbon Bikes will be extremely stiff and produce a much sharper ride but will transfer the power better and be faster due to them weighing much less. There are other materials on the market, such as Titanium which has the flexibility of steel and is lighter than Aluminum. It is not too often seen in bikes shops because the cost to produce is very high, and it has to be welded in unique conditions.
Hardtail or Full Suspension bikes?
Unlike other bikes, Mountain bike Frames come in two main styles. Hardtails Bikes and Full Suspension bikes. Hardtail Mountain bike frames will only have suspension at the front. They are made for lighter off road work and usually are more lightweight and cheaper than a full suspension Mountain Bike Frame. A Full Suspension bike Frame will have suspension front and rear. They are made for really technical terrain and typically slightly heavier than hardtails but are much more effective on rough terrain.
Forks and Suspension
The forks on Mountain bikes sometimes cost more than the frame. A good fork can completely change the user’s experience riding a mountain bike for the better. There are many fork manufacturers on the market, such as RockShox, Fox, Marzocchi, and Suntour, to name a few.
Front forks are pretty straightforward when it comes to picking one for your bike. What most people look at first is the size. You will have them to suit 29”, 27.5”, and 26” wheels. Then we look at the travel they produce. This ranges from about 100mm for light trails to 210mm for downhill racing.
Then we have the rear shock. These generally come in two types. Air shocks use compressed air to create rebound on the rear of the frame. Then we have coil suspension, which works like a spring to create rebound. Like the front forks, they will have a different range of travel depending on the discipline of Mountain Biking you are riding.
When it comes to Wheelset on Mountain Bikes, you will find a few different sizes. Firstly the 29” wheelset. This is the largest size you will commonly see and is the same diameter as a road 700c wheelset. Then you have the 27.5” wheelset, which is the same as a road 650b diameter wheelset, and the 26” wheelset, which is quite an old school technology now and not seen on many production bikes after 2010. Each different size will have slightly different characteristics, and next, I want to explain them.
The 29” wheelset is larger in diameter than any of the others. Due to this can roll over obstacles much more efficiently than the other sizes. It is easier to hold at higher speeds and typically suits mountain bike tires from 2.0” to 2.3” in width. Although this sounds amazing, being bigger does also have some drawbacks. The acceleration is slower, it is not as agile as smaller wheels in technical terrain, and the wheels being a little bigger can sometimes make them heavier.
The 27.5” is slightly smaller than the 29” wheelset and will typically have a wider tire, anything between 2.2” to 2.6”. It will accelerate quicker than the 29” and is better suited to slower, more technical terrain. In high speed races, it is hard to hold the wheel at higher speeds, and the more significant objects can be more challenging to get over.
Very old sizing but worth mentioning as it can still be seen on older bikes. You will struggle to find 26” to fit modern bikes these days. They are great for control but, at high speed, you will struggle.
What size is best?
My general rule of thumb is that I will use 27.5” wheel bikes for very technical terrain, and long distance less technical terrain, I will use a 29” wheel. It does come down to many factors, such as rider height and personal preference.
Groupsets and Gearing
Mountain Bike Groupsets are pretty straightforward. The leading brands you will see on bikes are Shimano and SRAM. Mountain bike gearing is designed to be very low. This helps with rough terrain and steep climbs.
You will typically have a single or double chainring at the front. This will be very small in size and have very few teeth compared to a road or gravel chainring. If it is a single chainring, you won’t have a front derailleur. If it is a double, you will so you can switch across the rings.
Then the rear, generally cassettes on Mountain bikes are huge this again helps with climbing and technical terrain. It means the user can get into a much lower gear. Typically, on a single front chainring, the rear cassette will have 10 teeth on the smallest cog and 50 on the largest. You will find a smaller cassette on a double front chainring, commonly 10 teeth through to 42 teeth. Groupsets advance year on year, so this will probably change soon.
Unlike road bikes, they will have trigger shifters to change gears, which will be situated on flat bars at the front of the bike. They make them cable operated and electronic operated. Some are even entirely wireless.
Brakes are a pretty important part of a bike, as you can imagine. On Mountain bikes, you will many types from previous years, but only two types are now sold on the market nowadays.
The first is a cable operated disc brake. These, as in the name using a cable to clamp the caliper onto the disc to slow the bike down. They work well and are very cheap to buy and easy to maintain but do need regular maintenance.
The second is a Hydraulic disc brake system. This is where instead of cables, the bike has fluid. This is a more expensive system to buy and fit, but the braking power is much better, requires even less maintenance, and is self-adjusting.
You also have disc sizes. 160 mm is the smallest and seen on basic bikes. Then you get sizes up to about 200mm for bigger, more aggressive downhill bikes.
Most Mountain bikes are filled with tech and often come with some cool accessories. The first to mention is a dropper post. This gives the bike the ability to drop the seat post down while riding. It means you can get lower and have more control over the bike. Then we have fork lockouts. This means you can lock the fork, stopping the suspension from working. This is great for the rider who finds themselves on roads often where suspension isn’t required. The Mountain bike world is full of new Mountain bike tech, it’s always worth keeping up with the latest news.
Mountain Bike disciplines
One thing very unique about Mountain biking is it has a few different disciplines involved in the sport. Depending on which discipline you are riding, your bike will have other parts and characteristics. In this next section, I want to speak about the different disciplines and give an example of a bike that would suit it.
Cross Country or XC Mounting Biking is probably the most popular of the disciplines of Mountain biking. It requires the cross country riders to go either long or short distances of light technical terrain. You will find light Gravel roads and forest trails very popular on XC Races. Cross Country riding is excellent for beginners and is fast and fun.
On cross country riding, you will see light Hardtail bikes and some light full suspension bikes. The key is to be light and fast on an XC Race. As the route are generally not too technical, you can get away with less suspension as you require less technical ability. You will see lots of 29” wheel bikes with fork travel of about 130mm.
An excellent example of a bike for XC is the Vitus Sentier 29. It’s a Hardtail Mountain Bike. It has some Marzocchi Bomber 29” Forks with 130mm travel of suspension. It has a 1x groupset with an extensive range and runs a 29” wheelset equipped with 2.3” tires. It also has hydraulic disc brakes and does look the part. It’s a great bike for cross country riders.
All Moutain Bikes are very similar to XC but require more technical ability. The races might not be as long, but the terrain will be much more challenging. This would suit a Full Suspension bike but could be done on a Hardtail. Mountain bike trails and the bike park are the home of all mountain bikes.
Bikes used in All Mountain are typically full suspension and will have to travel up to 150mm front and rear. It really helps to be on full suspension mountain bikes with a rear shock. They will be either a 27.5 or a 29” wheelset and heavier than an XC bike. These races will throw the rider around much more and challenge the ability of the bike.
The Nukeproof Reactor is the perfect bike for some All Mountain riding. It is full suspension. It has suspension travel up to 150mm on the front and 140mm on the rear. It is paired with 27.5” wheels, oversized tires, and a full SRAM Eagle GX Groupset with hydraulic disc brakes. As far as full suspension Mountain bikes go this is excellent.
Enduro riding is like all Mountain but more technical and challenging. Imagine bigger hills to climb, more arduous descents to come down, really technical routes, and very demanding work all round for the rider. Not only does Enduro require a lot of skill, but it also requires a lot of fitness. This is for people who have a lot of experience Mountain biking and want to challenge themselves. The races tend to be short and very fast.
Most bikes you will see on Enduro Races will be Full Suspension and have the ability to travel up to 180mm. Wheels usually are 27.5”, but 29” wheels are also seen on races. The bike geometry is much more aggressive, and accessories like dropper posts are a must. You will also see the brakes will be bigger and have more stopping force on Enduro bikes.
This is the Nukeproof Mega 275 Elite. This is a Carbon bike. It has 165mm travel in the frame and 170mm on the forks. A 27.5” wheelset paired with some 2.4” tires. The Groupset is a 1×12 Speed, and it has 180mm rear and 200mm front hydraulic disc brakes. It’s a beast!
Downhill Mountain biking is precisely what it says in the name, going downhill. It is incredibly technical and very challenging for the most experienced riders. This discipline takes a lot of confidence and is very hard to master. The races usually are time trails and are very short, as little as a few minutes sometimes.
The bikes need to be well equipped to do this. They are the heaviest Mountain Bikes typically. The suspension will go up to 200mm plus in travel. The brakes are usually 200mm rotors and have colossal stopping power. The geometry is super aggressive and puts your body in a place where control and aerodynamics is the most important thing. You will also see mismatched wheels, such as a 29” on the front and 27.5” on the rear.
The Nukeproof Dissent is a Downhill bike, and it has some serious kit on it. The Frame is Carbon Fibre, and the rear suspension has 200mm travel. It is paired with RockShox Boxxer 200mm Travel front forks, a 29” wheel on the front, and a 27.5” on the rear. It has a SRAM Groupset with 7 Speeds and some 200mm front and rear monster hydraulic disc brakes.
Mountain Bike Buyers Guide
What bike should I buy?
It is very personal when it comes to picking a bike for yourself. The best advice I can give you is to think about the riding you will be doing.
I always think about what the end goal is. For example, if I eventually want to ride Enduro, but I am new to Mountain Biking, I will go full suspension and buy the bike to suit that. If you are not sure what kind of Mountain Biking you’re going to be doing, I would probably go for a light full suspension bike.
What to look out for when buying a Mountain Bike
Always look at what makes the mountain bike up in parts. I have seen some fantastic Mountain Bikes in shops and online and found corners cut for the essential parts. A good example is I was looking at a Carbon All Mountain bike recently. It had terrific wheels, a fantastic groupset, but unfortunately for some reason, they had gone cheap, and it had cable brakes, because of this I didn’t buy it.
Before you buy, make sure you know what all the parts are and make sure you are happy with what makes the bike as a whole. Also, make sure that if buying second hand, nothing has been swapped out for anything worse, it’s common practice, and I personally only buy new or from a trusted seller.
How much should I spend?
How much to spend is really up to you. Everyone has a different budget. A good bit of advice is to start with cheaper bikes while learning, so if you happen to break the bike or need to replace parts, it will be much more affordable. Then as you gain more experience, upgrade your bike as your ability grows.
In my experience, I have seen many people come into the sport and bought very high end bikes, which have unfortunately broken fairly quickly due to the user not knowing how to ride or maintain each such a technical bike.
Most Popular Brands
There’s many brands of Mountain bikes on the Market, some of the main ones you will hear about are;
- Stanta Cruz
Which MTB is best for beginners?
I think to start Mountain Biking, the best bike you can start with is a Hardtail. It will give you a good taste for Mountain Biking and be much cheaper than a full Enduro Bike.
Are Mountain Bikes ok for the Road?
They are very sluggish on the road, but they will work for short commutes. You will find yourself slowly wearing through tires reasonably quickly as they are not designed for tarmac.
Where can I learn to Mountain bike?
I recommend looking at some videos on YouTube, going out with friends, joining a club for a low-cost option. A higher-cost option is to hire a coach. In my experience, the more you ride, the better you will get. Just make sure you get the basics right.
What are the main things to look for on a Mountain Bike?
Frame, Suspension, brakes, and Wheels. These are the big ticket items when buying a bike. Everything else is pretty straightforward to change. If you have the main parts right, the rest you can work around by upgrading later
I get scared of falling off. How do I stop this?
Just ride more and grow your confidence. Try not to force it. Naturally, let yourself get better. Try not to take too many risks where you could hurt yourself. I found myself getting much better when I started riding with others. Seeing what other people did and were capable of on other bikes made me much more confident about controlling my bike.
What is the best Mountain Bike?
It’s a very tough question to answer. Mountain bikes are made for specific jobs. The best Mountain bike would be the best equipped for the job that it needs to do.
What about after I get the bike?
After you get the bike get some safety Mountain Bike gear.
Mountain Biking is an excellent Sport, and I can highly recommend it to anyone no matter what level of fitness you are. You will get outdoor, make loads of friends, and constantly be challenging yourself.