What is a Mountain Bike?
A mountain bike is specifically designed for riding on different kinds of tracks, trails and - as the name says - mountains. They come in many different shapes but a few features are common: wide, knobbly tyres for grip, wide bars for stable handling and some kind of suspension to absorb bumps and jumps.
Unlike road bikes, 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.
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:
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.
Hardtail Mountain Bikes
Hardtail mountain bikes have a rigid frame whilst the fork includes travel 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.
Electric Mountain Bikes
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 type of Mountain Bike should I buy?
Fitness and Leisure riding
For those riders wishing to explore the local bridleways or try cycling in a relaxed environment, entry-level hardtail bikes are perfect. The wide tyres offer plenty of grip on rougher roads and front suspension gives a smooth ride.
Looking to explore the trails of the countryside and tackle some fire roads? Most hardtail mountain bikes - and some full suspension bikes - are ideal. Suspension travel of up to 120mm is enough to enjoy the thrill of this riding style.
Trail centres offer a unique space for mountain bikers to test their skills on purpose built courses that include obstacles and jumps. By design, this kind of riding is tough and requires a bike capable of handling the task. Full Suspension mountain bikes are perfect, and travel of up to 150mm should be enough for riders looking to take their riding to the next level.
Downhill and Enduro
A riding style for adrenaline junkies only. Downhill and Enduro require a tough piece of kit, capable of handling big drops, insane jumps and perhaps the occasional spill. Full suspension bikes are needed to give the necessary handling and control when going downhill at high-speed. Travel of up to 180mm is recommended and allows for fast, technical descending with confidence.
What should I look for when buying a mountain bike?
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
Due to the undulating nature of off-road cycling, mountain bikes are built with wide-ranging gears that allow riders to get up steep, technical climbs comfortably. Most will come with a double chain-ring and front derailleur, however, single chain-ring bikes with a wide-ratio cassette are becoming very popular as they allow for greater chain security on rough ground and reduce overall weight.
Most mountain bikes will come with disc brakes, as they provide the reliability and stopping power required when tackling wet, muddy trails. Hydraulic actuated discs are also very popular, offering greater longevity and improved modulation over some cable actuated brakes.
Modern mountain bikes offer an incredible amount of options when it comes to wheels. Sizes vary for different disciplines:
26-inch wheels are the oldest, most recognisable size of mountain bike wheels, but they are becoming quite rare on new bikes. Although they are very manoeuvrable, they struggle to carry speed on rough ground. Most modern bikes that have 26-inch wheels will be made for smaller frame sizes or freestyle riding.
27.5-inch wheels are currently the most common size as they provide the perfect balance between cornering and rollover speed. They can be used for a very wide range of riding styles and therefore suit a majority of riders' needs.
29-inch - or 29er - wheels are the least nimble of these three sizes, but offer the fastest rolling platform possible. Small riders may find these difficult to control, but experienced mountain bikers love these for racing and conquering rough ground at speed.
Due to the variety of riding surfaces possible in mountain biking, tyres are built for a number of different purposes. For standard widths, riders can choose tyres based on the kind of conditions they expect to ride in, although the 'plus-size' tyres found on fat bikes and plus-sized wheels offer lots of new and unusual opportunities like cycling on snow and sand (as well as being great fun to ride on normal trails too).View all mountain bikes