[Buyer’s Guide] 6 Mountain Bike Types Explained. Which are you?

When Is A Mountain Bike Not An MTB?

There are many different kinds of mountain bikes (MTB).

Some of the differences are huge.

Some of the differences, not so much.

In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to explain what you need to know, what you should look out for and the common ways new shoppers get ripped off.

Road Vs Mountain

Mountain and hybrid are the two most common bicycle categories sold. The primary reason is price — you can buy a lot more mountain or hybrid than you can with a road bike. Almost everyone can buy a good machine at this price point. Road bikes tend to be thinner and lighter but must still be strong. This combination tends to drive up the price making road riding a more expensive sport.

Depending on where you plan to ride, a mountain bike may not be the best choice. Who will you ride with? Where do your friends like to go and what kind of rides do they have? Do you plan to ride off-road? On gravel roads?

If so, the mountain cycle is a great choice.

However, if you envision yourself spending most of your time on paved roads as you commute to school, you will likely be better off checking out our list of cheap road bikes, single speed commuters or even our hybrids.

Mountain tires are very sluggish for road riding because they are thicker. Additionally, their shocks bounce when you are pedaling hard and hurt your efficiency.  While you can swap those wide tires out for narrower tires, you never get the same speed when it comes to pavement pedaling

Box Store vs. Local Shop

Scenario: You are shopping along at your local chain sports store, and you see a sweet mountain bicycle. “Hey, I should take up mountain biking,” you think.

So you snag your favorite color, pay for it, and ride it around the block a few times. It rusts/gets/stolen/breaks and you tell yourself that you are “too old to ride a bike.”

At least, that’s how it usually plays out.

Buying a bicycle is a lot like buying a shirt. You need the right shirt for the job. You don’t want to wear a dress shirt to do yard work on the weekends. Furthermore, getting the right fit is important. And, finally, durability is a huge thing.

  • Quality – Box stores are big on carrying the cheapest options. The frames are mostly durable but extremely heavy. Where these bikes bite you in the butt is with their drive train and wheels. Made of cheap, flimsy material, the entire apparatus flexes too much ever to get it to shift smoothly. I often talk to customers who are dejectedly bringing their “mountain bike” in for repairs following their first real off-road experience. They are shocked to discover that a new wheel to replace the one that just folded on them costs more than their entire bike did.
  • Fit – Box stores often only carry one size, and even commit the cardinal sin of selling bicycles based on TIRE size instead of FRAME size. This means you get an uncomfortable ride. Your knees hurt. Your back hurts. Your neck hurts. All because you have the wrong size.

When you buy off-the-shelf at your local box store, it is likely that you will end up with an excessively heavy transport of the wrong size with poorly made parts.

See Also: How The Right Bike Size Can Improve Your Performance

You won’t believe me if you’ve never ridden a quality-built bike. But the difference the quality of parts used in an MTB that is made to go off-road and on that looks like it is made to go off-road is huge. And the second you ride one from a local shop, you’ll understand the difference. (If you have never ridden a bike shop quality machine, you should swing by one of your local stores for a test drive. )

These “pretend” versions are heavy, clunky nd “squishy.” They might feel ok when pedaling around the town, but you will be paying a hefty repair bill after every off-road session.

Brands to stay away from include: Mongoose, GMC Denali, Takura, Jeep

Mountain Bike Categories: XC vs. Trail vs. All Mountain vs. Enduro vs. Free Ride vs. DH…

You’re shopping along, and the shop employee says “that MTBis good for ‘XC riding.'”

Whaaaaaaa?

Suddenly you discover that “trail riding” isn’t just “trail riding.” It’s a specific category of riding.

You’d better get your terminology right!

And your entire world just got way more confusing than it should be.

The 5 Types Of Mountain Bikes:

Partially out of convenience, and partially because bike manufacturers know that good marketing starts by customizing your message for your audience, we’ve managed to create about five major categories of bikes:

  • Cross Country (Or ‘XC’) – Designed for speed, racing, and cardio fitness
  • Trail / All Mountain – Designed for a wide variety of terrain from flat to challenging. Speed is not as important as completing the ride.
  • Enduro – A series of mountain bike racing days that are typically more downhill oriented than a cross country race. The result is a mix of cardio with some of the more technical bike handling requirements.
  • Downhill – These are designed for racing downhill with the intense drop offs and rough riding conditions.
  • Freeride – Typically on a downhill course, this riding emphasizes stylistic jumps and creative bike handling.
  • DirtJump – Best described as a cross between a BMX and downhill.

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap. A downhill bike will work perfectly for someone who wants to do freeriding. Let’s dive into these categories a little bit more: 

Cross Country

With cross country bikes, speed is everything. In this category, you will often see riders choosing to give up features to save weight and gain seconds. An excellent example is the front shocks that have about 100-120mm of travel instead of the longer travel of some of the other bikes.

While full-suspension cross-country bikes are common, you also find that they come with smaller rear shocks designed to move (bounce) less. By reducing this travel, they can conserve “pedal bob,” making for faster, more efficient, cycling.

It is not uncommon to find frames made of carbon fiber in this category.

The wheels are often 29″  to gain the most roll-over possible. (We discuss tire size more below.)  The tire choice typically lean towards being light and fast with less emphasis on grip (although that is, ultimately, up to the bike rider).

Frame geometry is one of the biggest hallmarks of this bike. You typically have a steeper head tube angle for snappy handling, and the whole bike is setup so that the ride assumes an extremely aggressive position that often puts the handlebars lower than the seat, leaning the rider forward.

As a casual mountain bike rider, I find that I wreck more on this setup. Some of that is because of the higher speed I tend to ride at (these bikes are made for speed!), but I also forget to shift my weight back as I  should and go “yard sailing” frequently.

Trail Or All Mountain

This is your versatile choice and is the best all-around MTB for most riders.  Lighter than a downhill bike, it is designed to climb the mountain and then turn around and descend just as well.

The big distinctions for this category over a cross country bike are that the wheelbase is longer and the machine is heavier with longer shock travel.

You are giving up a couple of things when you go with a trail bike. Typically it is heavier, and this means you will climb more slowly than you will on a cross country bike. You are also giving up that snappy handling of the shorter wheelbase.  Frankly, if you are not racing, then this isn’t much of a problem.

What you gain is longer shock travel and that longer wheelbase which offers a comfortable, more stable ride. For me, the trade-offs are worth it. The stability means that I can more confidently traverse any terrain. This confidence translates to speed.

Additionally, off-road riding can be jarring to the joints. For the rider who is 30-plus, that extra shock travel adds a tremendous amount of comfort that can keep you riding long after the young punks have worn themselves out.  However, this travel (120-140mm front shocks)  does lend itself towards more “pedal bob” which can waste your energy and slow you down.

It’s all about trade-offs and compromise.

I’ve seen Trail bikes often chosen by local riders for their 12 and 24-hour marathon rides. Cushioning wins when it comes to a long day of riding.  >>Click Here To See Trail/All Mountain Bikes For Sale

Enduro

The enduro bike was a natural growth out of the Trail bike. Riders who wanted more of an advantage on the downhill were clamoring for a beefier, less aggressive frame geometry and more suspension.

The enduro was born and offers an excellent all-around ride for those terrains that involve a lot of downhill. However, the climbs are what will get you. The enduro bike has enough weight added that you are going to notice it on the climbs.

These typically offer 160mm of front shock travel.  >>Click Here to See Enduro Bikes For Sale

Downhill

These bikes have one purpose: going downhill as crazily and as quickly as possible. Huge suspensions are used on both the front and rear shocks. There is no concern about pedal bob on this ride: if you aren’t barreling downhill like you have a mad death wish, you won’t be riding this bike.

The wheelbase is comically long and designed to maximize stability during those high-speed descents. Every aspect of this bike is designed for intensity.

Freeride

Mountain biking is supposed to be fun. Enjoyment is the heart and soul of off road riding.

Freeride is focused on the enjoyment side of racing. How big of a jump can you make? Can you do three flips while hurtling to your certain death?

That’s free riding.

Typically you will see more wood features on a freeride course, and an emphasis on the thrill of the ride that technical skills can bring.

You start seeing some overlap with slopestyle. However, slopestyle is more of a downhill ride that focuses on the smoothness of riding, big air, and style (FOX-branded baggy shorts are mandatory).

Technically the difference between a downhill and a free ride bike is that the Freeride has a steeper head angle and higher bottom bracket to keep the pedals off the ground. Freeriders also typically prefer flat pedals over clips.

We’re getting to a lot of stylistic differences, here. Manufacturers tend to use these terms interchangeably for their models.

Dirt Jumpers

This is the closest thing to the “bridge” between BMX and mountain bikes. Typically the bikes have an aggressively sloped top tube to keep the seat low and out of the way of any tricks you are planning on doing.

However, they also have a huge front suspension to handle the 15+ foot drops that you might be doing.

One of the unique aspects about these rides is that most models have hung on to the 26″ wheel. Where most mountain bikes are switching to 29″ or 27.5″ wheels for the faster-rolling speed, the 26″ wheel is smaller and more maneuverable for tricks, while also offering some added strength for hard landings It’s the best of all worlds for the dirt jumper.

This is a highly-specialized bike and is typically only sought by those who are looking to do serious dirt jump riding.

Hardtail Or Full Suspension?

At first, all mountain bikes were hardtails. In fact, they completely rigid bikes with no suspension.

Mind blowing, isn’t it?

Is a full-suspension bike worth it? Here’s the run-down.

Rigid

We’re talking about a rigid frame and a rigid fork. No bounce. No cushion. A real bone breaker.

You still see these available on the used market, and I’ve helped the occasional rider swap out their broken, leaking, fork for a cheap rigid one (…and vice versa).

There are some cool benefits to riding rigid. I have a rigid bike that I use for commuting. Because it has no front shock, I don’t waste energy on bouncing the shock.

Because it has no front shock, I don’t waste energy on bouncing the shock when riding on smooth asphalt.

For the off-road rider, the lack of shocks forces you to be a better rider. It’s just you and the dirt. And if you take a line wrong, there is no forgiveness. For the rider who wants to take their game to the next level, yanking the shock off of one of their bikes might just be the way to force some new skills.

(Life and death, baby!)

Rigid frames ARE to be expected (right now) with fat tire bikes. But the extra cushion from the bigger wheels helps make up for the lack of shock.

Hardtail

Thankfully we aren’t required to ride rigid bikes. Pretty much every off-the-shelf mountain bike is going to have at least a front shock. It’s the rear shock that drives the price up.

One of the big advantages of a hardtail is that the frame doesn’t flex. So when you are pedaling, 100% of the power is going to the rear wheel. This translates to pure speed.

Plus, because you have fewer moving parts, it is much easier to get a lightweight bike at a lower price point.

If you are on a budget, I’m going to push you towards spending every penny on a high-quality hardtail. If you can get one that is lightweight and has great components, you are going to love the ride it offers. I mean, it is still common to see hardtails at Cross Country (XC)  races.

Full-Suspension

Too bad it isn’t as easy slapping a shock on your hardtail. And there are a couple of reasons for this. One of the biggest problems with full-suspension rides is the “pedal bob.” Anyone who has tried to climb a hill on a full suspension knows just how maddening it is to try to climb a hill when your ride is bouncing and bending with every pedal stroke.

It’s like pedaling in sand.

Bike manufacturers spend millions on trying to invent frames that don’t bow and cave with every stroke. Going so far as to come up with nearly identical designs (until a court ruling, a lot of us were wondering if the designs weren’t blatant thievery).

It’s a cut-throat industry.

The good news is that the bikes keep getting better.  Less bounce during climbing and better handling on the downhills.  So much so, that you are seeing Full-Suspension bikes being used in almost every class of racing.

If you can afford it, Full Suspension is an overall advantage that serious riders need. 

Most of you will likely be shopping the Trail/All Mountain full suspension models (which I love for riding off the road in our Ozark mountains) or the Enduro models. If you want me to ballpark it, you can expect to spend at least $1,100 on an All Mountain ride and $2,000+ on an Enduro model (refer to my discussion above for the differences)

The lie that traps a lot of people when it comes to cheap full-suspension bikes is that just because a bike looks like a full suspension doesn’t mean that it is. Please don’t fall for that trap and drop a few hundred dollars on a cheap ride that is pretending to be full-suspension. Believe it or not, cutting a bike in half and adding a spring does not make it a more awesome ride.

If you are planning on riding off the road, you don’t want to shortchange yourself. Save up  (or use a credit card) to make sure you get a bike that will last. The right bike can be an investment that you love riding for the next ten years.

>> Click Here For Some Of The Best Deals On Full Suspension Bikes

Fat Tire Bikes

Cyclists hate snow. You get enough of that powdery stuff on the ground, and it is impossible to ride in.

That’s when Northerners took the initiative and invented the fat bike. Armed with oversized tires, these bikes are ready for swamps, sand, snow and are gaining traction (pun intended) among many middle-aged riders returning to the sport.

The added stability offers a huge amount of forgiveness for the novice rider and allows one to ride in sloppy conditions that would be unconscionable to traverse on a normal mountain bike.

Granted, there is a speed trade-off. While they aren’t nearly as slow as you would expect, they aren’t going to be as fast as a trail bike.  You can read our in-depth discussion of fat tire bikes by clicking here.

Wheel Sizes

29er Versus  27.5 inches Versus 650b Versus 26 inches Versus 24 inches

Ok, so there are a lot of confusing tire sizes and even more confusing nomenclature to describe them.

  • 29 inches – bigger tires roll over bumps better. I mean I could get into diagrams and use big words like “angle of attack,” but you know it to be true. If you are rolling a model car along and it hits a stick, the tires get stuck where a bigger tire will roll right over it. The downsides with a taller wheel are that cornering becomes less nimble. You still find a lot of riders who love the 29-inch wheel, but you are seeing more manufacturers switch to the popular 27.5 inch or offer bikes that can handle either size.
    • 27.5 inches – we first started seeing these wheels (originally marked as 650b) show up on a few bikes here and there. It started off being a random fringe trend chased by guys who bought their bikes online. I remember the first time someone asked me for a 650 mountain tire. I looked at him like he was crazy. It turns out that this is an optimal size. It gives you the faster cornering and acceleration similar to a  26″ tires but with a slightly better rolling advantage when you get up to speed.
  • 26 inches – for the longest time this was the only tire size for mountain bikes. It is still a favorite used in entry-levels and dirt jumpers. Otherwise, it seems to be rapidly disappearing from the new bike market.
  • 24 inches – this size is used on youth bikes. Inbox stores you will see 26″ and 24″ bikes sold as the only “sizes.” Bikes should never be sized based on how big of tires they have. A proper fit should be based on the bicycle’s frame size.

Do I Need A Women’s Mountain Bike?

We are seeing more women-specific models. There is a lot a love about this. If you are a short woman, there is way more to choose from than ever before.

The biggest advantage of female-centric frame design is that the distance “reach”  from the seat to the handlebars is shortened. This offers better control and seriously increased comfort.

However, you do not need a woman’s bike just because you are a woman. You can always ride a “men’s” frame if it properly fits you.

The increased focus on women’s cycling started off as a clever marketing move, but the bikes being produced are phenomenal

This is one of those articles where there is enough overlap that folks can debate endlessly. However, I hope that this overview helped you find a solid interpretation that will help you on your next mountain bike purchase.