Although they haven’t always been around, mountain bikes are arguably the most popular type of bike in existence.
Since their inception just a few decades ago, mountain bikes have gone through constant progression and innovation, perhaps more than any other type of bike.
What was once a shrewd bike invention of sorts has rapidly evolved into a very versatile, all-around type of bike that is enjoyed by hobbyists and professionals alike, on a variety of age and skill levels.
Mountain bikes are capable of handling a variety of terrains depending on the type, and continue to be the go-to choice for biking enthusiasts who crave a little more adventure and action with their riding.
Like other bike types, there’s a lot to learn about mountain bikes in regards to how they work, how they vary, what to look for when shopping, and a variety of other aspects.
This guide will discuss all of the vital information you need to know about a mountain bike, making you an instant expert in pretty much every last detail you should know before purchasing the best mountain bike available, and getting deeper into the sport.
We’ll start by defining what a mountain bike is in the first place.
Despite what the name suggests, mountain bikes are for more than just mountainous terrain.
A mountain bike is is a bicycle designed mainly for off-road cycling. Mountain bikes do have some similarities with other types of bikes, but incorporate strategic features that are designed to enhance durability and performance in rough terrain.
Mountain bikes typically include a light frame, front or full suspension, large knobby tires, durable wheels, powerful brakes, and lower gear ratios for climbing steep grades. These bikes are typically ridden on mountain trails, singletrack, and a variety of other unpaved surfaces.
A mountain bike is designed to be fast, nimble, and responsive, but also incorporate certain features that allow it to take on various obstacles you can encounter with off-road terrain. This includes bumps, potholes, large rocks, tree roots, and a wide range of other variances you can encounter on off-road trails.
While some types are more geared for rougher terrain than others, all mountain bikes share similarities that revolves around providing better traction, shock absorption, and overall comfort in off-road settings.
They are also far more durable than other types of bikes, as the stress of off-road biking can take a toll on frames and other components due to impact and vibrations from rough terrain.
Mountain bikes actually come in more than a few different types. Each one has its own specific designs that allow it to provide a more suitable ride for the matching conditions and terrain.
Trail bikes are the most common type of mountain bike, and are the best for general usage. They are very versatile in design, and aim for an all-around mountain bike that is equipped to handle tough trails, but also provide adequate seed, a relatively low weight, and an added measure of comfort.
These bikes can come in both front and full suspension, and can range from very affordable, to very expensive. They are decent at descending, but are more geared towards climbing and flatter terrain. While they can handle rough singletrack and mountain trails, they are quick on smoother off-road surfaces when the need arises.
Also known as XC mountain bikes, cross country bikes are more geared towards competitive cross country riding. This style of riding does involve some rougher terrain from time to time, but mainly consists smoother, more flat off-road trails.
Speed and endurance are emphasized in cross country riding, which reflects in the bike’s design. XC bikes are usually very lightweight, and have a less-aggressive frame design that is more suitable for climbs and flat terrains.
The majority of cross country mountain bikes have front suspension, but the travel amount on the shocks is usually on the shorter side, in order to retain pedaling efficiency and speed.
Carbon fiber frames are gaining popularity among competitive cross country riders, who may even elect to have full suspension due to the lightness of the frame.
Fat bikes are a relatively new style of mountain bike that has been increasing in popularity as of the last few years. A fat bike has oversized tires, typically 3.8 in (97 mm) or larger and rims 2.6 in (66 mm) or wider. This is designed for low ground pressure to allow riding on soft, unstable terrain, such as snow, sand, or mud.
These bikes are widely used in snowy areas, and parts of the word where there is lots of sand to traverse over. The wide stance of the tires provides a much better level of overall traction and efficiency when riding on loose ground.
The frame of a fat bike can vary between models, but the more traditional versions have a similar design to a trail bike, only with wider forks and stays that can accommodate the wider wheels and tires.
As the name suggests, all-mountain bikes are made to handle a wide range of terrains in mountainous or hilly areas. They are essentially a sort of cross between trail bikes and downhill bikes, offering a bit of both to result in a well-rounded mountain bike that can hold up to steeper drops and aggressive trails.
The frame of an all-mountain bike has mostly the same build of a trail bike. The main differences reside in the suspension, and perhaps the stem and handlebars as well. The travel amount on the suspension of an all-mountain bike will be more than a trail bike, and full suspension is almost always present.
All-mountain bikes will also have stronger brakes, and wider wheels and tires. The end result is a bike that is better equipped to hold up on the occasional steep descent, while still offering adequate quickness during less-demanding parts of the ride.
Downhill bikes are designed almost exclusively for descents. They utilize a slack frame design that keeps the rider in a more comfortable and controlled position that allows for easier handling at high speeds.
A downhill bike will always utilize full suspension, with a large amount of travel on both the front and back. The extra travel amount is needed to give the bike resistance to impact at high speeds, along with handling the stress from high drops off of cliffs and jumps.
Downhill bikes are not intended for flat surfaces, or even heavy trail riding. Any rider that tries to use a downhill bike on anything but aggressive, downhill terrain will find it very difficult to operate, and incredibly inefficient. Most downhill bikers will walk or carry their bikes to the top of a course or trail, rather than ride it up.
Mountain bikes do share some similarities with their bikes, but have far more differences. Here’s how they compare to three other popular bike types.
Mountain bikes are basically the opposite of road bikes in just about every aspect.
They are intended for light to heavy trail riding, and in some cases, actual downhilling.
Road bikes use a smaller frame, with thinner tubing. Mountain bikes have thicker frames that are intended to provide stability and absorb shock. A mountain bike frame is also shaped in order to provide the rider with a more relaxed riding position, as opposed to road bikes, which encourage leaning forwards.
A road bike offers no form of suspension, both in the front and back. Any shock absorption from the road is left to the tires and the slight flex of the frame, leading to a very rigid ride in most cases. Mountain bikes almost always have some sort of suspension, at least on the front fork.
The seating is a little more plush on a mountain bike, and provides a wider amount of coverage as well. Road bikes have very small seats, often with little padding.
A mountain bike has straight handlebars, rather than the downward drops on a road bike. While a mountain bike may have bullhorn attachments on the end of the handlebars, these are actually for periods when the rider wants to sit more upright during flat portions of a trail, rather than the downward leaning that drops on a road bike facilitate.
As far as the shifting system and drivetrain goes, road bike gears have more range for everything from steep climbs, to fast speeds during flatter sections. Mountain bikes have multiple gears as well, but different ratios, and sometimes a lower amount.
Brakes are the only common feature on road and mountain bikes in terms of similarity. Either type will use either rim caliper brakes, or disc brakes.
A mountain bike’s wheels are much more durable and strong when compared to a road bike, and the tires are wide with knobby treading for better grip and added shock absorption. Road bikes have skinny, smooth tires.
Road bikes are made exclusively for paved roads, making them much more fast and efficient than a mountain bike. Although mountain bikes can certainly be used on pavement, or even for commutes, they are not very ideal, especially if it’s a mountain bike that’s intended for rough terrain.
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Mountain Bikes vs. BMX
BMX bikes and mountain bikes don’t really have much in common, other than being bikes.
A BMX is much smaller than a mountain bike, and has a very compact, thick frame that can also be heavier per inch. The seating is very low, and the overall riding position is very different as well. In fact, most BMX riders are rarely ever on the seat.
While a BMX is made to handle stunts and jumps, it has no shock absorption, relying on thick, oversized tires instead. BMX bikes are really only intended for courses and parks, rather than traveling long distances or trails.
A mountain bike has multiple gears, but a BMX is only one speed.
Both bikes have hand brakes, but a BMX often only has a rear brake, although some certain types will have both front and back.
Mountain Bikes vs. Hybrid Bikes
The best hybrid bikes are a sort of mashup between a road and mountain bike. They are intended to offer more speed and efficiency than a mountain bike, while still retaining some of the ruggedness and more comfortable ride positioning.
A hybrid’s frame is an equal combination of the two. You get a thicker, more sturdy frame of a mountain bike, combined with the lighter, skinnier profile of a road bike. This saves on weight, while still giving the bike a more casual riding position, and the ability to handle uneven terrain easier.
The gear systems and braking are more similar to a mountain bike, giving you a sufficient amount of gears to match pretty much any riding scenario. The handlebars and brake levers are essentially the same as a road bike, although the stem may be a little longer.
The tires and wheels on a hybrid bike are also more similar to a mountain bike, but they are on the skinnier side of the spectrum. Hybrid tires will also have some light treading as well for better traction on dirt, or in wet conditions.
Hybrid bikes are very much intended to be commuter bikes, while still being able to handle some light off-road riding when needed. They are more or less a stripped down version of a mountain bike, while offering some added speed and maneuvering that you would fine on a road bike.
A mountain bike is defined by its many different components and characteristics. Here is a complete breakdown of the anatomy of a mountain bike, and what differentiates it.
A mountain bike frame is built to be rugged, and withstand plenty of abuse. The actual shape and design of the frame can vary greatly depending on what type of mountain bike it is.
For instance, a standard cross country or trail bike frame will have a more traditional design, using a flat top tube, triangle rear stays, and an inclined bottom tube.
Full suspension bikes come in many different designs and shapes, depending on the manufacturer.
For the most part, a mountain bike’s frame encourages the rider to sit in a more upright position when seated, which provides better control and comfort. It is also helps with climbing up inclines, unless it’s a downhill bike.
Materials can vary among models, but aluminum is the most prevalent metal used. It’s the cheapest to produce, and it also has an acceptable weight range that ensure the mountain bike is on the lighter side.
Steel is another material sometimes used, although it’s the heaviest of them all. Titanium is a very durable material that’s very light, but limited to expensive higher-end models.
Carbon fiber has been popular with road bike makers for awhile, and is starting to become popular in the mountain bike world as well, especially for cross country bikes that are trying to be as light as possible.
These components are a big priority with mountain bikes, as they are the only thing between you and the ground.
Mountain bike tires are very durable, and feature knobby tread designs that can help with traction. Front tires will often have an angled tread in the center for better steering, while the rear tires will have horizontal tread that helps dig into the ground when accelerating.
The majority of mountain bikes use the standard tube system to remain inflated, but tubeless tires are becoming more popular due to their resistance to pinch-flats.
Mountain bike wheels come in many different formats, but the traditional spoke design remains the most utilized. These wheels are usually made from aluminum alloy, and offer increased resistance to bending from stress and jumps.
The common choices for wheels sizes on mountain bikes include 26, 27.5 27.5+, and 29 inches.
- 26” - This was a common size for many years, but many are now making the switch to larger sizes.
- 27.5” - This size acts as a compromise between 29” and 26” wheels. You get a bit of the maneuverability of the 26: size, with the rolling resistance and speed of a 29” size.
- 29” - These wheels are a little slower to accelerate at first, but after getting going they provide a more efficient ride while allowing you to reach top seeds easier. They aren’t as easy to maneuver, but are great for easier trails and long cross country rides that offer little in the way of obstacles and difficulty.
- 27.5+” - The plus symbol simply indicates extra-wide wheels and tires, which is usually 2.8 in. or more in width. Wider tires do provide a more comfortable ride, and some added shock absorption. They also encounter less rolling resistance.
The gear systems of most mountain bikes feature multiple speeds to choose from, giving you the ideal setting for everything from fast speeds during flatter sections, to higher gears for grueling climbs and more treacherous portions of the ride.
The chainset is the large wheel that connects to the pedals, while the cassette is the collection of sprockets on the back wheel that holds the most amount of gears. Some bikes may have three cogs on the chainset, but the standard is two, with a total amount of speeds anywhere from 12-17. The best mountain bike chain gives an amazing experience of bike riding.
The derailleurs are responsible for physically moving the chain to different cogs when shifted. There is a front derailleur for the chainset, and a rear derailleur for the cassette
Everything is controlled via shifters, which are mounted to the handlebar. The most common shifter type uses a trigger-like mechanism that is operated with your thumbs while gripping the handlebar.
Mountain bike handlebars may seem like a rather simple component, but the different sizes and style can play a huge role into the overall comfort of the bike, and its maneuverability.
Mountain bike handlebars are flat all the way across, although some may have slight curves or indentations in the middle where the stem is connected.
The stem is what connects the fork to the handlebars. Shorter stems keep the handlebars close to the front of the frame, while longer ones extend the handlebars out slightly. This is usually ideal for cross country bikes that need more speed and positioning, rather than the more nimble steering offered by a shorter stem.
Some riders may elect to place bullhorn extensions on the ends of the handlebar, which lets the rider more upright while coasting during flatter sections.
Mountain bike riders spend a lot of time off the saddle when riding, but it is still an essential component.
Saddles on mountain bikes tend to be wider than road bike saddles, and can offer a bit more padding as well.
The seatpost is responsible for the positioning of the saddle, which includes the height and angle. Some seatposts include a small shock absorber for added comfort, instead of a rear frame suspension. Some cross country riders prefer suspension seatposts.
Rim brakes were the standard for many years on mountain bikes. These brake systems utilize a dual-pivot caliper system that applies pressure to each side of a bike’s rim when the lever is pulled. Brake pads them make contact with the rim, causing it to slow or stop.
Over the last decade, disc brakes have become the standard brake type for anything other than entry-level. Disc brakes work much better in wet and muddy conditions, and tend to be easier to control as well. They also offer less finger strain, and don’t damage your rim if something goes wrong.
Pedal types can depend on a rider’s preference, but the most common type for serious riders is clipless. These pedals require special biking shoes that allow the rider to “clip” into the pedal, which essentially attaches the shoe to the pedal, and by extension; you.
Clipless pedals give you an increased amount of control over the bike, and can help improve pedaling efficiency as well.
If you aren’t willing to go all-in with clipless pedals, holster and strap pedals are the next best thing. These provide a sort of cage for you to slip your feet in, which can still keep your feet locked in on the pedals, without the need to wear special shoes.
Entry-level mountain bikes will simply have platform pedals.
Downhill mountain bikes are commonly equipped with fenders that will prevent mud and water from splashing up on the rider. While these are popular with downhill bikes, some cross country riders and all-mountain bikes may have them as well, depending on conditions.
There is a broad range of accessories for mountain bikes that can be used to improve a ride on any level.
Water bottle holders, phone mounts, lights, seat covers, saddlebags, bike computers are just a few examples of some extra items you can accessorize a mountain bike with.
MTB Suspension -- Hardtail, Hardnose, or Full Suspension?
One of the biggest characteristics of a modern mountain bike is its suspension system. The earliest version of mountain bikes lacked this aspect, but at least some sort of suspension is included with the majority of mountain bikes now.
A suspension system on a mountain bike serves a variety of purposes. For one, it adds a measure of comfort to the rider, providing a sort of buffer between the impact on the ground and the body. Shocks on a bike help to absorb the constant impact effects from riding over rough terrain, and also from any impact resulting from jumps and landings.
Without suspension, this kind of riding can take a much larger physical toll than it should. The constant impact and vibrations from a mountain bike trail can wear down a rider in a hurry, especially in the arms.
Suspension systems also help to protect the bike. The constant wear of mountain bike trails and paths can be very grueling on everything from the tires and wheels, to the frame itself, resulting in bends, cracks, and breaks. Front and rear shocks take the brunt of this impact, adding to the longevity of the main components of the bike.
You have some options when it comes to suspension. Many trail, cross country, and all-mountain bikes offer a front suspension fork. This is known as a hardtail bike, since the rear part of the frame is lacking any suspension.
This lets the bike absorb all of the impact in the front, where most if the impact occurs.
There are a few advantages to a hardtail bike:
- Less Parts to Worry About - Shocks require maintenance, just like other parts of your bike. This can include cleaning the shocks, which requires taking them apart, followed by lubricating them properly. If you have a full suspension bike with rear shocks, you’ll have twice the amount ot deal with.
- Lower Weight - Rear shocks weigh more than just having a part of the frame in its place. If you are trying to keep the bike’s weight down, a hardtail bike is the best way to go.
- Better Pedal Efficiency - Having any type of suspension on your bike is going to take away some of your pedal efficiency, as the movement of the shocks will absorb some of it. A rear suspension bike will take away even more.
- Less Expensive - Front suspension mountain bikes are typically cheaper than full suspension versions.
Full suspension bikes do offer plenty of advantages as well.
- Comfort - Having shocks in the front and back of the bike provides you with the full amount of impact absorption, letting you ride over rugged terrain without having your body take as much punishment.
- Downhill Ability - Hardtail bikes can be troublesome on more advanced downhill trails and paths. With a full suspension, you can tackle aggressive descents much easier.
- Durability - A full suspension bike is going to have more longevity within the frame, and other components such as wheels, tires, and even the drivetrain. The dual shocks helps shield the rest of the bike from the long term effects of constant impact.
Some riders still opt for the old-fashioned hard nosed mountain bikes, sometimes referred to as “rigid” mountain bike.
While these bikes lack any measure of shock absorption, they have outstanding pedal efficiency, and are more maneuverable as well. They are usually much lighter as well.
Quality hard nose mountain bikes are hard to find these days, but they do exist. If you want to take the full-on traditional approach, this is the way to go.
So, Which is Better?
There really isn’t a right or wrong answer as to whether full suspension or front suspension is better. In most cases, it all depends on the type of riding you plan to do most often with the bike you are considering.
Front suspension will suffice on singletrack trails, cross country, most all-mountain paths, and some light downhilling. If you are doing some backcountry riding, or treacherous bike trails full of drops, boulders, and other obstacles, a full suspension will be needed.
Disc Brakes vs. Rim Brakes
Another choice you’ll have to make when purchasing a mountain bike is whether you should get disc brakes, or rim brakes.
For the most part, disc brakes are considered better, as they offer a more controlled level of braking, and avoid wearing down the rims entirely. Disc brakes are more expensive however, and are more complicated when it comes to maintenance.
We recommend disc brakes overall, but it shouldn't be a deal-breaker when choosing a bike. Plus, you can always upgrade later if you’d like.
Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Mountain Bikes
In the past, there used to be some core differences between men’s and women’s mountain bikes, but as frame shapes and designs continue to evolve and change, the differences are becoming less apparent.
For the most part, women’s mountain bikes will be slightly smaller in the frame, and sometimes thinner as well. Saddles and seatposts may have different shapes and angles as well, to better fit their anatomy.
Some women favor women’s mountain bike’s, while others are perfectly fine on men’s bikes. It all depends on preference and body type.
Mountain Bike Sizing
Mountain bikes come in standard sizes (S, M, L) and are usually similar amongst other brands. For the most part, the size will correlate with your height. Lots of different bike manufacturers will include size charts that list a height range for each bike size as well.
If you find yourself in between sizes, it’s usually best to just go with the smaller size, as it’s easier to make adjustments elsewhere that will help compensate, rather than with a larger frame.
Aside from the frame’s stated size, there are some other effective ways to properly gauge the proper size for your body: Effective top tube, reach, standover height, and seat height.
Effective top tube (ETT) is the horizontal distance between the head tube and the seat tube, regardless of whether you have a straight top tube, or one that slopes down. ETT very standard, and serves as a good indicator of how long a bike will feel when you are seated on it.
Reach is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the head tube, using a horizontal line. Reach is a great way to measure length on mountain bikes because it shows how long a bike will feel while you’re riding when off the saddle, which is a very common position to be in when either descending or climbing.
Standover height refers to the distance between your inseam and the top tube. This used to be useful with mountain bikes, but now that frames are changing so often with their designs it may not apply, especially on a full suspension bike.
Finally, the seat height will make a huge difference in how the bike feels. You should adjust the seat height to where your legs are 80 to 90% extended when you are pedaling in the saddle, and at the bottom of the pedal rotation.
Mountain Bike Gear
If you’re going to ride a mountain bike, you’re going to need the right gear to go with it. Here is a good list of both essential and recommended items.
If you’re going to use clipless pedals, you’re going to need the right shoes. Even if you are just using holster pedals, or even just normal platform pedals, bike shoes can still be worn to give you a better grip on the pedals, and even aid you when carrying the bike across certain parts of the path.
Biking shorts and pants are designed to give you maximum breathability, while also being comfortable. These best bicycle shorts and pants both fit snug against the body, so you don’t get them caught in the drivetrain, or on tree limbs, brush, and whatever else might come your way on the trail.
This is the most essential gear item you can have. A helmet is not an option, regardless of what style of biking you are doing. Never ride without one.
Look for a helmet that feel comfortable on your head, and fits snugly and securely. Higher-end helmets will be very light, and offer maximum ventilation to keep your head dry and cool.
Biking gloves are another item that can be considered essential. These gloves not only make riding more comfortable, they improve your grip, and provide some extra padding on your palms for shock absorption. Also, if your hands are prone to blisters, gloves can be your best prevention.
Knee pads are definitely optional, but highly recommended if you are doing any kind of downhill mountain biking, or riding anywhere that has dangerous terrain that may lead to some pretty gnarly crashes.
Top Mountain Bike Brands
There’s certainly no shortage of mountain bike manufacturers these days, but these five brands are among the oldest and most popular, who have earned a pristine reputation for continually putting out the best bikes on the market.
Specialized has been a widely respected and revered name for over 40 years, especially when it comes to manufacturing high-end bikes for mountain biking. The company resides in Morgan Hills, CA, and started off as a parts maker, and later moved to making full bikes.
The company has been very innovative in the sport, pioneering the earliest forms of mountain bikes when the movement first began, and later becoming one of the first to embrace carbon frames. Specialized sponsors many successful professional riders, and continues to out out certain bike lines that made their original debut decades ago.
Trek began in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1975 with a handful of men building handmade steel touring bike frames. In just a few short years, Trek expanded, and later became known as industry innovators in both road and mountain biking. Today, they are one of the most popular mountain bike manufacturers, and have bikes for every price range.
Trek now manufacture bikes under the Gary Fisher, Bontrager, and Diamant Bikes brand names as well, giving them an even larger presence in the industry.
Mongoose in another Wisconsin-based bike company that has roots going back to 1974.
Originally a part of BMX Products, Inc, Mongoose eventually became a part of PAcific Cycle Today, they make two separate lines of mountain bikes: a more entry-level line of bikes found in department stores, and higher-end bikes only available online and through specialty bike retailers.
Diamondback was formed in the late 1970s in Kent, Washington, and initially started out as a BMX bike company. They later delved into mountain bike manufacturing, which proved to be very successful.
The company continue to put out some of the most quality and affordable mountain bikes on the market, and has been known to incorporate some BMX aspects every now and then as well. The sponsor a number of international mountain biking advocacy groups in addition montain bike production.
Giant is the world’s largest bike manufacturer, and is based in Taichung City in Taiwan. They are well known for their affordable bikes that are available in stores and online outlets all across the world,and also for their bold innovation over the last few decades.
Giant is the first mass producer of carbon frame bikes, and continues to expand and improve upon their technology every year. They have mountain bikes in many different price ranges, including some very high-end models.
Now you should have a much better idea about all the ins and outs of mountain bikes, which will aid you in your purchase down the road.
If you’re looking to buy a new mountain bike, head over to our buying guide, which covers a wide range of mountain bikes for every budget! You’ll be sure to find a recommendation within your price range.