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What Type Of Mountain Bike Works For You : Mountain Bike Basics

Since the first mass-produced mountain bikes appeared on the scene in the early 1980s, many different types of mountain bikes, tailored to different styles and levels of riding, have become available. They are all either hardtail (front wheel suspension), or full-suspension (front and rear wheel suspension). Use this basic guide to help you learn what type of mountain bike works best for you.

What makes the mountain bike different from the road bike are the following:

  • A smaller, reinforced frame
  • Knobby, wide tires with large tread patterns
  • Larger range of gears to facilitate climbing steep hills and tackling obstacles
  • Wider, flat or upwardly rising handlebar to allow riding in a more upright position
  • Front wheel or full suspension

Because very few rides on are on pavement we will forego any discussion of road bikes. Many of the bike rides we do profile are on unpaved rail trails, carriageways and back-country dirt roads, best suited for mountain bikes and some on hybrid bikes.


Hard Tail Mountain Bike

Hybrid Bikes

The hybrid bicycle is a compromise between the road and mountain bike. It offers features of both. If you are going to do most of your riding on pavement with the occasional back-country dirt road or well-graded rail trail then the hybrid is a good choice. The gearing is similar to the road bike and does not include the low range of the mountain bike. The Comfort bike is a stodgier form of the hybrid.

Hybrids feature the following differences from the road bike.

  • More upright frame with flat or "riser" handlebars for a more comfortable riding position
  • Stouter frame that can handle more weight and absorb more punishment
  • Slightly wider tires for better traction and stability


Mountain Bikes

The type of mountain bike you ride should depend on where and how you will be doing most of your riding. Each category is designed to tackle different kinds of terrain, obstacles or styles of riding. The four main categories of mountain bike are Cross Country (XC),  All Mountain/Trail, Freeride and Downhill.

Cross-Country (XC) Mountain Bikes

The cross-country mountain bike is best for long off-road trails with climbs, descents and minimal to moderate obstacles. They are the lightest of the mountain bike types, usually between 20 and 30 lbs, for a fast ride in all conditions. Most recreational riders do XC riding and will not need the extra equipment at a greater cost. Cross country bikes are available in either Hardtail or Full-suspension.

Hard Tail Mountain BikeHardtail Mountain Bikes
The Hardtail mountain bike has no rear suspension. Most come with standard front suspension. They are usually about 2-3 lbs. lighter than the lightest full-suspension bike. The Hardtail is more efficient on long sprints and will outperform the best full-suspension bikes on hill climbs because of the lighter weight and stiffer rear end. They are also more durable and require less maintenance. A Hardtail with solid specs and performance will give you more bang for the buck than a full-suspension with lesser specs. It is also a good choice for your first bike to develop skills on moderately technical trails.
Full Suspension XC Mountain BikeFull-Suspension XC Mountain Bikes
The Full-Suspension XC bike has a front and rear wheel suspension integrated into the bike frame. This provides for more comfort on rougher terrain. It also adds weight to the bike. These bikes require more maintenance but with the advanced technology available today, it has become easier. Some full suspension bikes have a lock-out feature for the rear suspension, which allows options for a stiffer rear end similar to a hardtail. This mitigates the bounce when your are off saddle during climbing or when accelerating.

All Mountain Trail Bike

All Mountain / Trail Mountain Bikes

These bikes are basically a modification to the XC mountain bike, giving them a softer suspension to handle rougher terrain and more technical obstacles. Pedaling may require more effort because of the increased travel in the suspension. This is a good all around bike for most situations. It will take you almost anywhere without wearing you out (hill climbs will require extra effort).

Down Hill Mountain Bike

Downhill Mountain Bikes

Downhill bikes are designed exclusively for technical downhill trails with steep drops. They are heavier (average around 40 lbs) and built to take a beating. The suspension has more travel than any other bike. Hydraulic disc brakes allow for stopping at high speeds. They are hard to ride uphill so riders usually access the trails by shuttle or lift for a very fast and challenging descent.

Freeride Mountain Bike

Freeride Mountain Bikes

Freeride bikes are also very specialized, look like downhill bikes and can weigh as much, but they are designed for easier pedaling. They need to function in both  XC and downhill situations, but are not the most efficient for either type of riding. Travel in the suspension is long, usually 6-8 inches and they are also built to take a beating. They are good for hard hitting trails, jumps and stunts.

Womens Specific Mountain Bike

Women's Specific Mountain Bikes

Women's specific mountain bikes are engineered to allow maximum efficiency for the woman rider. They are made smaller and lighter, allow for a more natural riding position and wider sit bones, and provide more comfort, control and power.

If the one size fits all motto does not work for you, the features of a Women's Specific bike may make it a more comfortable ride. Features may include lighter and more flexible materials to better suit a lighter-weight rider, shorter and more upright stems, shorter top tube, short-reach STI levers and smaller diameter grips, women's specific handlebars, shorter crank arms, women's specific saddle.

Single Speed Mountain Bike

Single Speed Bikes

Single Speed bikes have a single gear ratio. Best for those of you who want to rebel against the complicated, fragile and heavy mountain bikes out there. Experience the sheer joy of riding! You are able to select the gear ratio that allows for the most efficient pedaling and power. The single speed does away with deraillers, shifters, cables, sprockets and longer chain of the standard mountain bike. This would be a great second bike to own and ride in the right conditions.

29er Mountain Bike

29er Mountain Bikes

Named for it's bigger wheel size. It looks just like any other mountain bike, hardtail or full-suspension, but has 29 inch wheels instead of the standard 26. There is some debate in the mountain bike community. Enthusiasts claim the 29er provides more momentum, stability, traction and better obstacle rollover. Detractors point to added weight, sluggishness in handling and problems with fit (high standover height). Most of the major manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and are producing a line of 29ers.


Fat Tire Mountain Bike

Fat Bikes

With their wide rims, monster sized tires and treads and wider forks are perfect for conquering soft unstable terrain such as snow and sand. They were designed specifically for winter trail riding and racing in sub-arctic Alaska and simultaneously, for touring the deserts of New Mexico.