Mountain Bike Guide
Pick the Perfect Bike
The world of mountain biking is a wide and varied one, but at their core, all branches of the discipline encompass fun and fitness in a traffic-free environment. Whether that is exploring parks and trails with the kids or heading off into the back of beyond on a self-supported trip, participating in a lung-busting race series or sessioning the local jump spot, mountain biking includes them all.
The possibilities of where you can take a mountain bike vary widely, as does the type of bike that is required. Whilst all mountain bikes have flat handlebars and knobbly tyres, other elements can be very different - wheel size, suspension, geometry, weight, fixed or dropper seatpost, and frame material are all dictated by the intended end use and price.
The most obvious subdivision within mountain bikes is between bikes with just front suspension (hardtails), and those with front and rear suspension (full suspension). Typically bikes at the lower end of the market will have just front suspension, but there are plenty of highly desirable, expensive hardtails available too, whilst full suspension bikes do tend to cost more, their end use can also be very different, from 60mm travel cross country race bikes to downhill monsters with 200mm of travel. As if those options weren’t confusing enough, recent developments in e-bikes have moved them firmly into the mainstream, with most areas of mountain biking also covered by an electric bike option too.
Hardtail Mountain Bikes
Hardtails are simpler, lighter and cheaper than an equivalent full suspension bike, making them popular with beginners and riders who spend most of their time on less challenging trails. They are also more efficient at converting effort into forward motion so they are favoured by cross country racers as well as riders who prefer the challenge and feel of riding without rear suspension.
Entry level mountain bikes are great for towpath commuting and encouraging the kids around the park or along disused railways, but they are also capable of tackling local bridleways and most routes at a dedicated trail centre.
The front suspension on a hardtail typically offers 80-130mm of travel which takes the sting out of rocky, root laden trails and keeps the rider in control without them being bounced around. The more affordable mountain bikes are most likely to be aluminium with disc brakes and a drivetrain with at least 10 gears, so it is already a highly capable machine.
Aluminium continues to be popular at higher price points too, but carbon and steel also become options; carbon for its stiffness and low weight, steel for its forgiving ride and classic aesthetic. High-end hardtails can also be made out of titanium, giving the springy ride of steel at a lower weight. As well as using different frame materials more money buys better suspension forks with greater adjustability, better responsiveness and less weight along with lighter, more premium components - ideal for covering the ground as fast as possible.
Full Suspension Mountain Bikes
Perhaps the most varied category of mountain bike, ‘full suspension’ covers everything from short-travel, whippet-fast XC bikes used by the pros on the tougher XC world cup courses to the kind of heavy-duty, slack angled downhill bikes that require a chairlift or gondola to get them to the top of a hill. In between these two extremes resides the general-purpose trail bike, with 120mm to 140mm of suspension front and rear.
Trail bikes are great fun on all kinds of terrain, and can easily be pedalled uphill as well as down. They have a geometry that is slacker and more stable than XC bikes but they’re still nimble and agile enough to take on tight singletrack and steep hairpins. This type of bike will also typically feature a dropper seatpost for instantly lowering and raising the saddle whilst riding using a handlebar-mounted lever, allowing greater manoeuvrability and confidence on steep and technical terrain. Perfect for taking on anything at a trail centre as well as the toughest natural routes in the Lake District, Wales and the Peak, these trail bikes are the most ubiquitous and versatile option.
Steel and titanium aren’t often used for full suspension frames as the inherent flex that riders enjoy in their hardtail format doesn’t provide a great platform for the rear shock, so aluminium and carbon are the usual materials for full-suspension frames. The exact geometry varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model, but essentially all the bikes use a two triangle design joined by links and pivots, with the shock unit located inside the front triangle. It is worth bearing in mind that this position can make accessing a bottle in your bottle cages slightly trickier, if that is a concern.
Electric Mountain Bikes
The new kid on the block are electric mountain bikes, otherwise known as e-bikes, and although these have existed for a number of years in one guise or another they have really come of age recently. They are no longer the preserve of the old or infirm but are being enjoyed by riders of all ages and abilities. Whilst a myriad of possible e-bike options exist, the rising star is the ‘trail bike plus’, which combines the capability of a longer travel bike with the handling of a trail bike whilst the electric pedal-assist motor more than makes up for any weight gain and suspension inefficiencies.
Bikes of this ilk can happily have 160mm travel or more when it comes to front and rear suspension, so no course, jump or drop is beyond its capacity, yet it can also help propel the rider back to the top of the hill or take on cross country duties too. They offer the climbing prowess of a lightweight hardtail and combine it with the excitement of a downhill machine.
The battery-powered motor assists the rider’s power (up to a UK maximum of 25kph) rather than replacing it, so there is still effort involved and an e-bike isn’t a totally free lunch, but it can be used to ride further or faster for the same effort or to make a ride easier than it would have otherwise been. Battery life depends on the power mode selected and battery size, with some models giving the option for an extra battery to be added for greater range. Other manufacturers have opted to keep weight down and used smaller batteries, but all good e-bikes will comfortably provide some assistance for at least 25km. Arguably they provide more fun than a non-powered bike whilst still providing the potential for a good workout when required, and make mountain biking even more accessible to a wider range of riders.
Now that the old standard of 26" wheels for mountain bikes has been all but abandoned, wheel size is either 29” or 27.5”. The choice is dictated either by the bike’s purpose or sometimes by the frame size, with the smaller sizes using the smaller wheels in order to maintain consistent geometry and handling across the size range. Typically 29” wheels are used on bikes with less suspension that are orientated towards cross-country riding whereas 27.5” wheels offer greater agility and the potential for more travel. Recently however developments in geometry and suspension have blurred these lines so there is no hard and fast rule anymore, so a lot comes down to personal preference.