How to Choose a Mountain Bike
Mountain bikes have diversified greatly, and with so many options out there, it can be hard to choose the right bike for you. Manufacturers have provided us with a specialized bike for every riding situation, but there are many bikes that act as a Swiss Army knife and can be used for multiple purposes. Your next mountain bike purchase doesn’t have to be confusing. To help, we've created a guide for you to use when making decisions about choosing the best type of mountain bike for you!
The first thing to think about is your riding style. What type of trails do you want to ride? You need to think about the trails close to you and the type of riding you most enjoy doing. If you live in a flat area and/or want to race XC, go with a cross country bike. If you want to do those same things but need a little extra comfort, downcountry is the best option. As you decide to ride more technical trails, downhill courses, etc. you will need a bike with more suspension travel and a more slack geometry. We’ve broken down the options below from least amount of suspension/most efficiency to the absolute most aggressive downhill options.
Cross country, or XC mountain bikes, are designed to be fast on the flat sections of trail while being able to tackle small obstacles. They will tend to have steeper angles and less suspension travel. This makes them fast while climbing and cornering. You will find XC bikes in both hardtail and full suspension.
These bikes are basically XC frames and components with just a tiny bit of extra suspension. This combo is great for those looking to go as fast as possible but with just a tad bit more comfort.
These bikes are made for a little bit of everything. They are still efficient on flat sections of trail but have angles that are a little more slack and more suspension travel than an XC bike. This makes them suitable for hitting bigger obstacles and providing increased comfort while trail riding.
Now we’re getting a little more aggressive. The frame may be similar to a trail bike, but the bike will feature more suspension travel. These bikes start to get a little heavy and the suspension is less efficient when pedaling vs. a trail bike, but the all-mountain bike still has the ability to climb up to your destination so you can bomb back down.
Once you’re on a downhill bike, you’ll no longer be pedaling up. These bikes are reserved for a bike park with lifts to get you up the mountain where you’ll then drop back down on the bike. These bikes are sturdy and very heavy, but their particular frame geometry means they will provide the ultimate experience in pointing downhill at higher speeds while tackling technical terrain.
Bikes in this category are generally cross country bikes and good for flat high speed trails, small obstacles, and climbing. The rear suspension on bikes in this category is usually designed to prevent bobbing or unwanted movement when climbing.
These bikes are considered “downcountry” bikes. Take the characteristics of the XC bike above but add a bit more suspension travel for comfort.
Bikes in this category are great for general purpose trail use. This isn’t so much suspension that they are heavy and inefficient, but it is enough that you can have a ton of fun on rough terrain and pointed downhill.
All-mountain/Enduro bikes are starting to get a little heavier and more aggressive. They will make it up climbs, but are designed to handle the toughest trails and are great when you really get going downhill. This is a little too much suspension to be highly efficient, but you can still climb when needed.
Once you’ve reached 180mm or more of suspension travel, things have gotten extreme. These bikes are 100% downhill weapons and can hit the biggest jumps and obstacles with ease. You’ll always be pointed downhill and only pedal on short sections of trail.
This wheel size is largely obsolete but still comes on some XS mountain bikes. This was actually the most common wheel size for many years, so you may still find a used bike with 26” wheels.
27.5” or 650b
You could say this is a happy medium between the lightweight and maneuverability of 26” wheels and the speed and ability to get over obstacles of 29” wheels. This wheel size is great for smaller riders and those wanting the bike to feel more lively. For those into jumping, the 27.5” wheels have shorter spokes and therefore build into a stiffer wheel also.
29” wheels do not accelerate as fast as 650b but once rolling they maintain speed better and get over roots and rocks easier. This wheel size is great for larger riders where the slight loss of maneuverability isn’t noticed, XC bikes where speed is the main goal, and for those who need to get over lots of obstacles on the trail.
An aluminum frame is what you will find on most budget bikes, but you’ll also find many well spec’d bikes made of aluminum too. Bike manufacturers have learned to do very creative things with aluminum to modify ride quality and produce a lightweight, high performance bike.
Carbon is the top tier frame material. The main benefit of carbon fiber is that tube shapes can be modified in both shape and thickness to create exactly the ride quality the manufacturer is searching for. The frame can be made to absorb hits and vibration vertically while remaining stiff torsionally. Carbon is also lightweight. It is slightly less resistant to impact, but it can also sometimes be repaired if damaged.
Steel has a loyal following as a frame material. Steel is heavier than the other two materials and is not as stiff, but it does provide good vibration dampening, is used often by custom frame builders, and has an old school aesthetic that people enjoy.
We get lots of questions about weight when people ask about purchasing a new mountain bike. Our opinion is that if you are racing cross-country and want the most performance possible, go for a lightweight bike. In other categories, most of the manufacturers build a bike that is competitive in the respective segment. An enduro bike will be heavier than an XC bike, but the features which add that weight are 100% worth it on the trails it is designed for.
If you want to make upgrades to your bike to lose weight, wheels are almost always a good upgrade. Some tires can shave a lot of weight while providing better rolling resistance, and this is unsprung and rotating mass, and makes a big difference in ride quality. Other parts where weight can be shaved is in the cassette and crankset. Adding carbon handlebars, seatpost, etc. will shave small amounts of weight but at a high cost. These upgrades start to make much more sense when you’re also adjusting the fit and getting a secondary benefit other than achieving a lighter weight.
All bikes will need basic maintenance. You will need to lube and replace chains, grease headsets, suspension fork service, etc. A full suspension MTB has pivots that need to be lubricated and a rear shock that will need routine maintenance that requires specialty tools. You may choose to do suspension service yourself or work with a local bicycle shop. Some suspension components must be sent to the manufacturer or a suspension shop to be serviced. Most of the products we sell use either Rockshox or Fox suspension that is easily serviced by you or a local bike shop.
Some shy away from electronic shifting in fear of adding complications. The truth is besides charging the batteries just like you would your cycling computer, electronic shifting has slightly less maintenance. You no longer need to tend to cable/housing. If the bike doesn’t shift correctly, you have a worn chain or a bent derailleur hanger.
Check out our mountain bike maintenance post here.
Mountain Bike Sizing
Getting a bike that fits is the number one priority. You would much rather have a lower end bike or a different suspension setup than what you consider ideal vs. a bike that doesn’t fit correctly. Most brands will offer mountain bike frame sizes between XS and XL. It is important to do your research here, as two brands’ mediums may fit slightly differently. You definitely want to spend extra time in determining you are on the right size bike.
Some of the important frame measurements are listed below:
Reach - This is the distance between the point directly above the bottom bracket and the headtube if you were to draw a horizontal line. This gives you an idea of the reach to the handlebars and how stretched out you will feel on the bike, and allows you to compare the sizing of bikes from different manufacturers as this value is always measured in the same way. Keep in mind you want to be very careful in not buying a bike that is too long for you. As top tubes have gotten longer and stems have became shorter, it is very hard to make a bike that is too big fit correctly.
It does NOT account for seat tube angle and stem length which will also affect your reach to the handlebars.
Effective Top Tube Length - This is the horizontal distance between the head tube and the seat post and also gives an idea of how stretched you will be on the bike. It is important to note that two bikes could have the same effective top tube length but feel much different due to differences in seat tube and head tube angles so you can’t depend on only the effective top tube measurement for bike fit.
Seat Tube Angle - The angle (measured from horizontal) of the seat tube. The more slack this number (smaller angle) the further behind the bottom bracket the saddle will be. This puts the pedals further out in front of you and increases the reach to the handlebars. A more steep seat tube angle puts you over the bottom bracket and brings you closer to the bars.
Standover Height - The distance from the ground to the top tube. This can be a factor with shorter cyclists as they may have issues putting a foot down in technical terrain. Most tall cyclists or those with long legs do not factor this into making a fit decision.
Dropper Seatpost Length - The dropper length is becoming more important to look at. Seat post length is obviously the length of the post, but you also need to factor in the drop of the post. Ideally the post will be set up where in the extended position your saddle height is correct for flat, fast parts of trail. A long post can lead to shorter riders having the post bottomed out in the frame but the saddle still being too high when fully extended. Most smaller frames come with less drop to prevent this, but we occasionally have customers want to run a post with too much drop and this problem arises.
FAQ’s: What Mountain Bike Should I Get?
How Can You Tell if a Mountain Bike is Not High Quality?
There are varying levels of quality, and we try not to be dismissive of any bike someone wants to ride. That being said, very entry level mountain bikes tend to only look capable of going off road but are not built to reliably tackle trails.
Most entry level and lesser quality bikes will have a few common features:
2x or 3x drivetrains - most quality MTB’s are now 1x
Cable pull brakes - almost all quality MTB’s built to handle trails feature hydraulic disc brakes
Rear derailleur without a clutch - the clutch is there to maintain a tight drivetrain and prevent the chain from flopping when hitting obstacles and derailling. Again, most modern, quality MTB’s built to tackle off road terrain will have a clutch derailleur.
Steel wheels - Steel wheels are heavy and cheaper to produce. A good quality bike will have aluminum or carbon wheels.
How Do You Choose a Mountain Bike for a Very Tall and Heavy Person?
If you’re very tall and/or heavy we suggest you get a bike that is as sturdy as possible. A quality 1x drivetrain with a clutch derailleur is a must as you will be putting more load on the drivetrain and want something that doesn’t flex under load.
We suggest making sure you get a bike with good air suspension. Most beginner level bikes that come with a coil spring fork will not be set up to handle heavy riders.
How Do I Choose a Mountain Bike for Seniors?
We generally recommend senior riders look at riding a full-suspension MTB. You likely don’t want to go for an XC bike, and instead search for a trail bike with 130mm or more suspension travel. Most of these bikes will have a relaxed geometry with a longer wheelbase and an upright riding position that is stable and smooth riding over rough terrain.
Can Mountain Bikes be Used for the Road?
You can use anything you want on the road! That being said, the gearing of a mountain bike will have large jumps. This isn’t ideal on the road where you want to be able to pick a gear to give you an ideal cadence at any speed. The tires will also be slow, make a lot of noise, and wear quickly.
That being said, I personally enjoy riding my mountain bike on the road to get to the trails instead of driving, and if you only have a mountain bike do not let that deter you from riding where convenient and as much as you want!
Here at GovVelo we have a wide selection of mountain bikes to choose from. Check out our Top 10 Mountain Bikes article to see some of our favorites.
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