Have you been bitten by the mountain biking bug and decided to take the plunge and buy your own mountain bike? You’ll want to make sure you get the right bike for the riding you do, so we’ve broken down the different elements of the bike you’ll need to know about, then the main questions you’ll need to consider to decide which bike is right for you.
Full suspension vs hardtail
The vast majority of mountain bikes will have built-in suspension which helps the bike roll over uneven ground, maintain traction on ascents and descents, and absorb the forces generated from landing drops or jumps.
Full suspension bikes have forks at the front and a shock at the rear. They allow you to cover technical terrain with more speed and confidence.
Hardtails as the name suggests have a rigid rear and a set of forks.
Generally speaking, hardtails are excellent at climbing, efficient at pedalling and a good choice for cross-country riding and the majority of trail centre riding. They are often a more affordable option for many people looking to get a first bike without splurging loads of money.
Wheel and tyre size
There are three main wheel sizes on mountain bikes.
29” wheels, also known as 29er wheels, are the biggest. Their large size gives them more momentum and also means they roll more easily over rough terrain and technical features. On the downside, the wheels are often heavier adding weight to the bike, and can have a lot of flex in the frame, unless you up your budget and opt for a lighter and stiffer option. They can also be less manoeuvrable through tight, twisting trails, and may not suit smaller riders.
27.5” or 650b wheels are incredibly popular, particularly for trail and enduro riding. They are more agile and responsive than 29” wheels, but still roll well through technical terrain.
26”, which was the dominant size has now been almost entirely replaced by 29” and 27.5”.
Another increasingly popular option are plus-sized wheels. These are usually 27.5+, and involve a 27.5” wheel size but with a significantly wider rim and bigger tyres. This bigger, wider tyre profile created as a result gives loads more traction, making them ideal for snowy or muddy conditions.
Different types of mountain bikes
Mountain bikes are also designed to suit specific types of riding and environments. The main elements that vary here are the frame geometry – in particular the head angle and the seat tube angle, the amount of suspension travel, the suspension design and componentry like gears, handlebars and brakes.
Cross-country bikes: Cross-country (XC) is all about efficiency going forward. XC bikes will tend to be lightweight, with minimal travel and a suspension system that’s designed to provide maximum forward momentum as a priority, working alongside gearing that maximises speed and efficiency. Hardtails are a popular choice for XC racers, though full-suspension bikes are available and becoming more popular, with travel in the region of 90mm to 120mm. The geometry is designed towards more efficient climbing, which can make them a little more difficult to handle on descents.
Trail bikes: A great option for all-purpose riding, trail bikes are designed to be good at climbing and descending, and are suited most trail centres and wild singletrack. Suspension travel is usually in the region of 110mm to 140mm travel, with head angles around 67 degrees.
Enduro and all-mountain bikes: Designed for the rigors of enduro racing, these bikes are suited to long rides covering large distances, and bigger terrain than typical trail centres with technical climbs and descents. These bikes have slack head angles of 65 to 66 degrees for confidence on technical descents, combined with steeper seat tubes (around 73 to 75 degrees) which gives power and traction on climbs. Suspension travel is usually in the region of 140mm - 160mm.
DH bikes: Designed for going downhill fast and tackling big features such as jumps, drops, and rock gardens. These will typically have DH specific suspension, with massive 200mm-plus travel on the forks, and 200mm to 220mm on the rear shock. The geometry is incredibly slack, placing the centre of gravity far back on the bike which provides stability on steep terrain. Brakes are powerful, with big disc rotors giving maximum braking ability.
Three questions to help you choose your mountain bike:
1. What’s my budget?
Mountain bikes cost anything from £200 to £10,000, though as a general rule you can expect to get a decent entry-level hardtail around £500, and a full-suspension bike for around £1,000.
As you go up in price, the performance and quality of the bike and its components will get better. You’re looking at lighter, stronger parts, hydraulic disc brakes, single-ring or 1x11 chain sets, and carbon components such as seat posts, handlebars and cranks.
Carbon frames start at the £1,500 mark for hardtails, and £2,000 for full-suspension bikes.
2. Where am I going to ride it?
The terrain you are going to ride your bike on will determine what bike you go for – it’s worth being completely honest about your riding ability with this one. Yes, you may have grand plans of riding out in remote mountains but if most of your riding is actually going to be around trail centres then you’re probably better off getting a bike that suits that terrain.
Also bear in mind that bike geometry and suspension is so good now that a decent trail bike or enduro bike can take on terrain far bigger than the suspension numbers might suggest.
3. Can I take it for a test ride?
If you’re splashing out a bundle of cash, it makes sense to see if the bike really does feel right for you and the only way to do that is to ride it. Many bike shops will have a demo fleet, so you can take out a potential bike for a proper ride. Keep your eyes out for demo days and weekends, which will usually have a range of bikes on offer. Expect to pay a fee and/or deposit to take the bike out – they want to make sure they get it back, after all!
We’d also recommend taking out a few different bikes to get a feel for the differences.