The Different Types of Mountain Bike – A Dummies’ Guide

Categories: Equipment.

But it’s a just mountain bike, right?

Yes it is, and no it’s not. In an earlier article we looked at what to prioritise when buying your first bike. In this article we aim to help you get a taste for the the types of mountain bike and the type of riding each is designed to do best with some well-selected videos. Then you can make up your mind what kind of mountain bike is right for you!

Types of Mountain Bike

1.  Cyclo-cross and gravel bikes

Cyclocross is a cross between mountain and road biking. They look like road bikes with knobbly tyres, so we’re probably stretching the definition a bit by including them here. Nevertheless, they are ridden off road and local competition is organised by Mountain Bike Australia. Riders race on a variety of surfaces: through muddy farm fields, sand pits, hop over obstacles, ride down rivers and up stairs.

Originally a form of winter training and racing for road bikers during the northern hemisphere winters, it is fast gathering a cult following, and growing rapidly in the southern hemisphere as well. Gravel bikes are similar, but tend to have more relaxed/less responsive steering for ease of handling on longer rides on dirt roads. Cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes often do double duty as tough commuter bikes.

2.  Cross Country Mountain Bikes

This type of mountain bike is where most people new to the sport start, and cross country (XC) bikes are also the most versatile for general use.

XC mountain bikes come in two main flavours, being no rear suspension (aka “hardtail”) or dual suspension. The advantage of hardtail bikes is the light weight and pedalling efficiency. Because of the latter attribute, they are also quite common as general use or commuter bikes.

Dual suspension increases control and comfort on rougher and more technical courses, even though suspension is usually restricted to between 80 and 110mm (3-4.5″). A typical ride length would be anywhere between 10-160km or more, with most events being between 30km (eg Olympic XC events) to 160km marathons.

Multi-day stage racing is also starting to become “a thing”, with events such as The Pioneer and The Crocodile Trophy that anybody can enter now making it onto TV.

Geometry prioritises steering response and the ability to climb steep gradients. Recent innovations such as less upright (slacker) steering tube angles offset by increasing the fork rake,  shorter stems and wider handlebars  have improved descending capability without compromising steering response.

3.  Single Speed Mountain Bikes

This is a subset of cross-country biking and is done on a bicycle with only one gear and few other components.  This is not to be confused with a fixed gear bicycle.

It also helps to be a little crazy!

4: Trail Bikes

“Trail” is a step up from XC in technical difficulty, with the focus on mastering riding skills in often-technical terrain with a group of riders travelling point to point. Trail bikes are typically 120mm to 140mm in suspension travel with more “relaxed” geometry for improved descending capability at the expense of the instantaneous steering response typical of XC bikes. They are still capable climbers. Enjoyment of the activity is the main priority rather than racing against the clock and others. If you want one type of mountain bike that can handle a bit of everything, Trail bikes at the longer end of the travel range would be your go-to bike.

5: Enduro or All-Mountain Bikes

Stepping in between Trail and full-on Downhill racing, this is a type of mountain bike prioritises enjoying the descents, and doing the climbs because you must. There races styled this way too, where the riders are only timed on the descents but they have to ride to the top of the next descending stage under their own leg power. Solid technical skills are required and full-face moto-cross style helmets are usually required by event organisers. Easily removable body armour is also common.

Bike geometries are slacker again. Interestingly, seat tube angles have more in common with XC bikes to assist with climbing power. Hydraulic dropper posts (like a gaslift office chair but with a remote operation lever on the handlebars) are pretty much mandatory. They help get the saddle down out of the way for maximum mobility while descending. Pressing the button on the bars  allows it to come up again for maximum leg power on the climbs. Suspension is typically 150-180mm. Some bikes borrow suspension lockout from their XC cousins to make getting to the top of the next descent easier.

E-bikes are starting to make serious inroads into this segment. I’m not quite sure what I think about this development. I get the enjoyment factor but worry about the risks it poses to getting and keeping trail access. We’ve had enough trouble distinguishing mountain bikes from motorbikes in the minds of those opposed to sharing trails with riders, and e-bikes complicate matters. We will see very soon, I think.

4.  Downhill Bikes

Racing downhill the fastest is the goal of downhill mountain bikers.

The name of the game is extreme and intense riding, with very technical obstacles involving gap jumps, large drops and rock formations for maximum excitement and thrills.  Rides are typically 2-10 minutes in length, usually at the shorter end of that range. Bikes are usually pushed back uphill or carried on the back of a utility truck or trailer (“shuttling”). Suspension travel for Downhill bikes has settled at 200mm. Tyres are around 2.5″ wide with large chunky tread blocks similar to dirt motorbike rubber.

5.  Freeride Mountain Bikes

This type of mountain biking involves finding a path down the side of the mountain where you can use all of the terrain to do tricks, stunts, etc.  This is a very popular competition, because the riders can express themselves.  An elite level of skill is required. Many gap jumps are of significant length (12m or 40′ are common) and the price of mistakes is high. Quite often large wooden ramps and other trail features are used to add to the spectacle.

6.  Dirt Jump Bikes

This style of mountain biking is known for the high jumps over and onto man-made dirt ramps.  While in the air, tricks are done on the bike.  Six or more jumps are usually done in one run. The jumps are close together so that the biker can get a flow going with their trick riding.  The saddle is rarely used to sit on while riding, and is placed low on the frame for the rider to brace against in flight. It usually impractical to pedal while seated, so if you are looking for a bike to ride reasonable distances these won’t be for you.

Frames are tough, frequently made from chromoly steel, and forks have heavy springing. The bikes are made to be able to be thrown away (literally) mid-air and survive rough treatment. The rider will often toss the bike clear of his path if the trick goes wrong so they can tuck and roll on landing.

This is seven yeas old now but it’s still my favourite Dirt Jump video. (It’s also interesting to see that some of these riders have gone onto professional careers.)

7.  Observed Trials Bikes

The bicycles used in trials do not look anything like mountain bikes.  They have 20 or 26-inch wheels, no suspension, and they have smaller, lower frames than mountain bikes, sometimes without saddles.  In trials, riders jump their bikes over different obstacles, and this type of mountain biking takes a great deal of practice, focus, explosive strength and balance.  In competitions, demerit points are issued for each time the rider is forced to put a foot down.  The rider with the least points wins. Danny McAskill has made a career out of applying Observed Trials skills to urban trick riding.

Where do I start? What type of mountain bike should I buy?

The type of mountain bike you start with will depend on your objectives, your skill levels, and what styles of riding are available locally. Do you have advanced balance and bike handling skills acquired from other disciplines like BMX or Motocross? If not, starting with less technically demanding trails and trail features is a good idea. Take your time and build your skills as you ride. Get some inexpensive group skills coaching to get the fundamentals under your belt early.

Most people start with a cross-country or trail bike, depending on how much paved trails or roads will be part of their riding diet. More road would push you towards a hard tail. Less road and more dirt would push you towards a trail bike if you can fit it in your budget.

Regardless of what type of mountain bike you buy, organise yourself to take formal lessons. Skills coaches teach you the right way to control your bike. Skills classes are great fun, reasonably priced, and a great way to meet like-minded maniacs. Learning good habits first prevents you learning bad habits you will have to unlearn later, and will dramatically speed up your progression. With a bit of practice you will quickly move from “OMG I’m going to die!” to “This is really cool fun and I love the sense of flow!”

What’s next?

Have you made your decision on what type of mountain bike is for you? Hop on over to our article on what to prioritise when looking to buy a mountain bike.

We will be having conversations soon with some well regarded mountain bike skills coaches and we look forward to sharing the results with you!

Have we missed anything?

Ask questions or let us know about anything you think we’ve missed in the comments below!

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