The rush of cruising around on a mountain bike is like no other. That feeling of pure freedom as you glide through the singletrack, the boost of adrenaline as you hit a technical section, and that excitement of discovering what’s just around the next bend. No wonder mountain biking is one of the fastest growing segments in cycling!
With this steady growth over the last 25 years, there now exists a type of mountain bike for every style of off-road riding – and for each kind of cyclist. Want to go on a relaxed weekend tour with the family? Or how about riding downhills so gnarly that the thought of even walking them would terrify most folks? No matter your passion, there’s an MTB out there that’s perfectly designed for you.
But with so many different types of mountain bikes available, how do you choose? All modern mountain bikes share similarities such as coming equipped with disc brakes and flat handlebars, but beyond the basics, there are so many decisions to make before buying your new mountain bike! The easiest way to narrow down your choices is to first ask yourself a few questions. Then, with answers in mind, read through the different styles below to determine which is the best mountain bike to fit your unique needs:
- What style of riding interests me most? (Easy trails, technical descents, mix of uphill/downhill, tricks and huge jumps, etc.)
- How do I plan to use the bike? (Commuting, exercise, competition, dirt jumps, etc.)
- What trails are most easily accessible? Or will I be motivated to travel for specific trails?
- What type of bike best fits my current fitness level?
- What new bike works with my budget?
Mountain Bike Categories
All mountain bikes fall into one of these three categories:
Rigid mountain bikes have absolutely no suspension. This makes them both lightweight and super responsive as there is nothing to dampen handling of the bike. They are ideal for easy off-road terrain such as fire roads and light technical sections. You’ll also quickly improve your technical skills as there’s little room for forgiveness when riding over rough terrain. With the high-volume tires and upright position compared to a road bike, it can double as a comfier commuter.
As the name suggests, hardtail mountain bikes have a suspension fork in the front and are rigid (no suspension) in the rear. This is, by far, the most common MTB version because they’re a solid balance of light weight, maneuverability and capability. Perfect for every level of rider, from beginner to professional. Hardtails are flexible enough to use on most types of terrain, from fire roads to very technical singletrack. The simple nature of the hardtail also helps manufacturers hit a lower price point while still providing a solid bike. This makes it the ideal bike for growing with you as you develop your skills. What it can’t aptly handle is hardcore downhills.
Sometimes known as dual suspension mountain bikes or full squish. They have a suspension fork in the front and built-in suspension in the rear triangle of the bike. Full squish bikes are most comfy on bumpy terrain and are designed to handle a wider variety of terrain. Excellent for those who love riding a bike but don’t appreciate their bodies having to absorb all the bumps on the trail. The tradeoff is that they are often a bit heavier than hardtails and tend to cost more due to the extra components and tech that go into them. On technical, bumpy downhills you’ll be thrilled to ride this style of MTB for its increased control and ability to smooth out the bumps. Within full-suspension mountain bikes, there are a lot of different options from XC with short suspension travel all the way to downhill models with super long travel.
Types of Mountain Bikes Explained
Used by all cycling levels from beginner to pro, this is the most popular mountain bike version. It’s lightweight, agile and can handle most terrains – except for hardcore downhill and some big mountain riding. Most XC bikes are designed to go fast and many are hardtail, but more and more are full-suspension to handle more technical, bumpy tracks and to provide that extra level of comfort for long distances like MTB marathon racing. 100mm of suspension travel is standard for cross country bikes. Many XC bikes are carbon fiber, but there are a lot of great aluminum options also available. While XC bikes were originally offered in 26” wheel size, the typical size is now 29” for added comfort and easier rolling over bumpy, technical terrain.
Trail Mountain Bikes
Basically the right bike for (almost) anything! These bikes are great for general trail riding with occasional forays into other disciplines. Trail bikes are adequate in a wide range of uses; a blend between cross country and downhill bikes. They tend to be full-suspension with 120-140mm travel, with a wheel size of 27.5” to deliver the perfect balance between full agility (26”) and comfort and ability to handle technical terrain (29”). Basically, if you want to climb just as well as descend, then this bike is for you.
Downhill Mountain Bikes
Downhill bikes are purpose-built race machines, designed purely for going downhill – aptly, swiftly and as comfortably and safely as possible. Built to handle the stress of pure downhill riding like jumping off high ledges and tackling treacherous rock gardens at high speed, downhill bikes have super long travel, both front and rear, to absorb the insanely large shocks served up when aggressively bombing downhill. Their reinforced tires are ultra-wide with more volume for increased traction, handling, and built-in flat tire avoidance. Even its ultra-slack geometry is optimized for a riding position to take on downhills. Do be forewarned, though, that there is nothing fun about climbing with these monsters. Their insanely heavy weight combined with ultra-long shock absorption makes it feel like climbing on a pogo stick – where you work your butt off but get almost nowhere. Wheel sizes are typically 27.5” or 29”. On occasion, you’ll find one with a mix of 29-inch wheels in front for extra traction and minimal rolling resistance and 27.5” in rear for quicker handling with more ‘butt clearance’.
All-Mountain or Enduro Bikes
More downhill-oriented than a trail bike, its strength lies more in dominating the downhills than climbing. If you find yourself riding uphill just to get to hammer the downhills, then this is the bike for you. Enduro bikes are typically 29”, the most common MTB wheel size nowadays. Its features that favor downhill performance include descent-optimized geometry, increased suspension travel of 160-170mm, and tires optimized for traction over minimal rolling resistance.
With its distinctively oversized wheels, fat bikes are a very special breed of bikes. Just think Cadillac meets Hummer! Fat bikes deliver a plush ride that certainly stands out in a crowd, but is typically a bit limited in its technical abilities. Ideal, though, for certain types of terrain such as snow, sand and others where a wider tire can offer traction such as on frozen or very loose surfaces. Most common sizes are 26” and 27.5” and are typically 4-5" wide.
Freeride Mountain Bike
If you love the idea of playing all day at the mountain bike park, then this is certainly an MTB to consider. While not the easiest to climb on as it’s super heavy, it’s certainly fun for hitting the berms and jumps hard. Super durable, built to take a beating. Equipped with wide knobby tires for ultimate handling and traction. Higher bottom bracket than a gravity or downhill bike for clearing obstacles. Typically offered in 27.5” and 29”, both of which help to more easily roll over anything in your way.
A softened version of a full-on downhill bike, with slightly less travel. Downhill-optimized geometry with slack head angle and low bottom bracket. Perfect for bike parks – ideally with chairlift service so all riding time is spent going with gravity. Best to avoid climbing as they are very heavy, and equipped with max traction tires that don’t roll well. Offered mostly in 27.5” wheel size.
Dirt Jumper Mountain Bikes
when used for dirt jumps and pump tracks. It is set up for a BMX riding position with small frame size and low saddle height for max maneuverability. Many have front suspension for pre-loading to fly over stuff. The 26” wheel size is ideal for ultimate control at all times with some popular models running 27.5”. If doing tricks with tires on the ground (as opposed to in the air) is more your passion, then you’ll want a trial bike. With 20” to 24” wheel size and super low to no saddle (as it’s never needed), you’ll be best prepared to take on 2-wheeled obstacle courses.
Electric Mountain Bikes or eMTB
An eMTB is basically a traditional MTB but with an integrated motor that assists the rider when pedaling. Based on the level of assist you set it on, you’ll be supported very little or a whole lot! With the pedal-assist activated, you’ll climb faster and enjoy improved technical skills on challenging terrain as it offers more traction and helps you better roll over obstacles in the way. It is ideal for those who can use a bit of support for riding further to explore uncharted territory or to arrive home a bit more refreshed. It’s also quite useful in riding with others of varying fitness levels as it can even out the playing field.
What’s the difference between cross country (XC) and trail mountain bikes?
The main difference is that a cross-country (XC) bike is designed for pure performance and relatively flat terrain. If you want to ride fast and far, this is the MTB for you. But if you prefer a mountain bike that is less performance-optimized and can handle more technical terrain, then go with an all-round trail bike. A trail bike is normally equipped with full-suspension, whereas cross country bikes are mostly full-suspension but will also have some hardtail options.
Do you need a full-suspension bike for downhill?
Unless you’re riding down smooth fire roads, full-suspension is the way to go. For smooth, flowy trails, you can get away with an XC type bike in a full-suspension or hardtail configuration, but anything more than that and you’ll find the suspension bottoming out quickly on bigger drops and more technical terrain. One of the reasons that downhill and enduro bikes have longer travel is to absorb bigger and more repetitive impacts allowing you to go further before the suspension needs a moment to fully recover.
What is the best type of all-around mountain bike for beginners?
Hardtails are usually ideal for most beginners as they are typically lighter, more affordable and simpler to free up your focus on the trails ahead. As there is only suspension at the front, they also force you to work on your bike handling skills which will help you become a better rider and able to handle more technical terrain with your new found skills.
The right full-suspension mountain bike can also be a great option and if you're starting out with more technical terrain, it is frequently the better option over a hardtail as it'll give you more flexibility and a more comfortable ride, which equals more fun!
The best all-around mountain bike for beginners needs to meet three requirements:
- Comfortable: It will inspire you to get out and ride!
- Versatile: Easily explore the kinds of mountain biking you're most passionate about!
- Affordable: By opting for a budget-minded MTB, you cover yourself just in case mountain biking is not for you. On the flipside, if you absolutely fall in love with the sport, then you saved money to afford your dream MTB the next time around. Maybe you even opt for a more specialized MTB to better suit your newly discovered passion! We love the Marin Rift Zone 27.5 1 and Marin Rift Zone 29 1 for beginners as they have a ton of features and can be upgraded for a long time, making them an excellent value choice.
For more tips on buying your first mountain bike, check out our article on this. But no matter the MTB you choose, be sure you’re fully prepared for your ride. Also check out our MTB gear checklist here for some tips.
Still not sure what’s right for you?