A Guide To Mountain Bikes
What is a mountain bike? A mountain bike is a bike that's capable of tackling off-road terrain such as singletracks, bridleways, pumptracks, trails and downhill tracks. Although Mountain bikes come in many different shapes and sub-categories, there are a few common parts that differentiate MTB’s from other types of bicycle. These include: wider and grippier tyres, wide bars for stability and some form of suspension to absorb the harsh impacts of the terrain.
Mountain bikes have a variety of wheel sizes - 26-inch, 27.5-inch and 29-inch. These different wheel sizes offer differing characteristics depending on what trails a rider wants to explore. Suspension can also determine what riding is possible, so it's important to figure out what kind of riding suits you.
In this guide, we will look through the componentry that defines a mountain bike, the different types of mountain bikes as well as some FAQ’s in regards to the sport.
Are there different types of Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes are probably the most wild and varied category of bicycle available, with a multitude of suspension, frame and wheel combinations to choose from. Generally, they are split into these groups:
Hardtail mountain bikes have a rigid frame whilst the fork is left to absorb any shocks from the trail. They are usually a bit less capable than high-end Full Suspension models, but recent advances in frame design mean many hardtails can handle some serious punishment. Generally, they are lighter than Full Sus mountain bikes, which offers advantages for those looking to go quickly on less technical routes. With the hardtails being a rigid frame, they tend to be better at climbing and flat land sprints as you can efficiently put power down without losing momentum through a rear shock.
Full Suspension Mountain Bikes
'Full Sus' mountain bikes have suspension at the front and the rear of the frame. Front suspension is provided by the forks, whilst the rear suspension is located on the frame and allows for a certain amount of vertical 'travel' to the rear wheel. Combined, these two components mean riders can tackle more complex terrain that might include rocks and jumps. Full Suspension mountain bikes are the most technically advanced on the market, but can sometimes be heavier due to the extra parts and reinforcement required. They tend to be more expensive, but offer a plethora of riding choices.
Electric Mountain bikes (E-MTB)
E-MTBs are available as hardtails (with front suspension) or full suspension (front and rear). Hardtails are better suited to lighter trails and are more affordable; full suspension models offer more versatility and allow you to tackle even very rough ground with ease. Just as with regular mountain bikes, different frame geometries, fork travel and wheel sizes are available (including plus-size and fat wheels), to suit every kind of off-road riding. The addition of an electric motor on a high performance mountain bike allows you to attack the trails harder and faster, plus you can get another lap (or two) into your ride without getting worn out.
What is the best Mountain bike for me?
If you want to explore the local bridleways, spend time with the family and occasionally dabble into the world of singletrack riding then a Cross country (XC) MTB is probably the best option. Cross country mountain bikes provide you with between 80 - 120mm of travel and can either be a hardtail or full-suspension bike, all of which is just enough to absorb the terrain that you would tend to find on bridleways.Furthermore, XC Mountain bikes are often equipped with a faster gearing set up as you will tend to find yourself riding on flatter surfaces but you still have the low end and high end range to go up and down. They are also equipped with low profile tyres which are still grippy on the surfaces you will be riding on but are faster rolling than other MTB tyres which means you won’t lose your momentum on the flats.
Designed for bike parks, trail centres and any other trails you want to annihilate - these mountain bikes come in all different shapes, sizes and specs to match your need. You can either get a Full-sus or a hardtail and they tend to be equipped with between 130mm and 150mm of travel to get you up, down and over the obstacles. Supplied with a wide range of gear ratios, these bikes' geometry have been designed to work just as well when they are climbing as they are descending, making them near enough spot on for all occasions. A good trail bike will see you through from entry level to some pretty gnarly features on red routes and even some black trails (depending on your skill level).
If you’re ready to hit some big features then an Enduro bike is the next step up to progress your riding. Enduro bikes are where Hardtails are phased out as the travel on the fork needs to be balanced out with a lot of travel at the rear of the bike. Across the industry, Enduro bikes tend to be between 160mm and 180mm of travel.
Downhill bikes are Mountain bikes which have between 180mm and 200mm of travel and can usually be easily distinguished by their dual-crown fork. The geometry of downhill bikes tend to be long and low in the frame with a slack head angle which makes these bikes super stable over the technical descents.
26 inch Vs 27.5 inch Vs 29 inch - The MTB wheel size debate
About 10 years ago or so, 26 inch wheels were pretty much the only wheel size you could get on a mountain bike but now they are quite outdated and only really found on Jumpbikes and slopestyle bikes. Jumpbikes and slopestyle bikes are often found at big jump tracks or the local pumptrack and a really good way to improve bike control and jumping skills.
Out of the two current most popular wheel sizes, 27.5 inch wheels are often a lot more agile and playful to ride with. This is perfect for someone who enjoys flowy switchbacks and the occasional flick of the tail on a jump.
In recent years, 29 inch wheels seems to be the way most manufacturers are going as they are faster and more stable on downhill stints. As well as this on the climbs, for every rotation of the crank you will do more rotations of the back wheel making you more efficient. This season of MTB sees a lot of manufacturers equipping their bike with a mullet set up which uses a 29 inch wheel at the front and a 27.5 inch wheel at the back so you get best of both worlds.
What specifications to look out for when buying a MTB?
Like road bikes, the most popular mountain bike frame materials are alloy and carbon. Alloy is used on a majority of hardtail frames as it offers a lightweight, robust and responsive platform. However, it can be a rough ride on bumpy terrain, so the compliance of carbon may be preferable. Carbon frames are lighter, stiffer and a bit more advanced than alloy - but they come at a cost.
Gears and drivetrain
Over the past few years, the industry has seen a big shift towards a single chainring set up at the front with a larger cassette at the rear that houses all the gear ratios you need. With a single chainring, your chain has greater security and tension meaning it doesn’t slap around as much on trails.
From the £500 mark and upwards, we can see hydraulic disc brakes which offer elite braking power in all conditions making them the obvious choice for a mountain bike. Hydraulic brakes use either dot oil or mineral oil, depending on the brand, and work by pushing the oil into the calliper which moves the pads onto the rotor. If you require more braking power, there are a few ways to achieve this… you can upgrade the size of the rotors, go for braided hoses instead of rubber hoses or use 4 piston callipers which increases the strength and surface area of pad on the rotor.
Depending on what sort of mountain bike riding you’re into, there are many different tyres sizes, tread patterns and rubber compounds. If you’re more of a leisure/ XC rider then a slightly skinnier tyres with a low tread profile is probably the best option as they offer less rolling resistance. If you’re riding bike bike parks, trails or downhill sections, then a slightly wider tyre, with an aggressive tread pattern and sticky rubber compound is the way forwards as it will give you more grip and extra confidence when riding.
Forks and shocks
If you’re looking for a new bike, depending on your price range there is a lot of differences between different forks. At the cheaper end of the market, Forks tend to be coil springs which are fine but have very little adjustment in terms of rebound and pressure of fork. Most mountain bikers tend to use air forks for this reason, meaning they can tune them to their desired specs for each ride. As mentioned before, the amount of travel that the fork and shock provide determines what sort of MTB you’re riding and the trails they’re suitable for.
An absolute game changer... Over the past few years, Dropper posts have taken off in the MTB world. Long gone are the days when you would have to get off your bike and manually adjust your seat post. With a flick of a lever on the handlebars, you can slam your seats for downhill descents and raise it again for the climbs which makes your rides so much more effortless.
Read More Mountain Bike Guides
If you've got a bike that uses air suspension componentry then investing in a shock pump is a neccessity as it makes adjusting your components a lot easier. Underneath your fork and on the side of your shock, you will find a small dial which will adjust your rebound. Rebound is how fast your component compresses and decompresses so setting it up correctly is key to a smooth ride. If you're unsure where you want your rebound its worth setting it up in the middle setting and playing around with as you ride.
It all depends on your style of riding. Hardtails are better at climbing as you aren't losing momentum with each pedal stroke but when you are descending they can be more technical to control. A full-suspension bike will handle technical descents with more comfort and ease as they will absorb the ruts in terrain.
Having a carbon MTB frame will offer you a lightweight and stiffer ride which can be beneficial if you enjoy your XC riding. As well as this, the flex of a carbon frame can make a long distance ride a lot more enjoyable as the carbon lay up will diffuse impacts of the harsh terrain around the frame.
Mountain biking is a great way to stay fit and healthy as you can improve your cardiovascular fitness as well as fitness in muscles across your whole body. As well as this, you have the added mental benefits of riding a mountain bike, not only is it fun but it involves a lot of coordination and brain power. Compared to other sports, mountain biking is a lot less harsh on your joints which will reduce your risk of injury significantly.
Practice makes perfect! If you're new to the sport then heading to a local pumptrack is a perfect way to build up confidence and bike control. Once you feel confident enough then you can start taking yourself off to try some green and blue trails which will put your new-found skills into action. Getting advice from local riders and following them into features is a great way to learn as well as they can show you how much speed you need and what technique is best.
Most of us Mountain bikers tend to use a flat pedal (plastic or metal) with an agressive stud grip pattern paired with flat shoes. This combination of pedal and shoe will keep your feet fastened to the pedals, making you more confident on the bike. However, some riders like to ride clipped in using cleats and SPD pedals which are better over flat, long distance XC rides.
When riding an E-MTB, you will often find that you can get in more laps at a bikepark as you've got that little extra kick to get you up the hills which will save your energy for the downhill sections. Whilst their is a stigma that it is "cheating", this is simply not true, you are still getting the same amount of exercise as everyone else.
If you're spending the day at the bikepark, out on the trails or just exploring the landscape then water is an essential for every ride. The best way to carry your water is probably using a hydration hip pack or backpack. By using these you can carry all your spares and personal belongings at the same time. The other way to carry water is obviously just a cage and bottle.As well as this, it is worth taking a few spares and repairs on your ride as no one wants their day to be cut short because of a puncture. I would suggest carrying a spare tube, tyre levers and a few Co2 cannisters. A multi-tool always comes in handy as well in case you want to make a few tweaks to your bike or if you happen to find that something has come loose during your ride.