Defining The Categories
Mountain bikes come in a variety of styles based on their intended purposes—from lightweight options that are fast uphill to bombproof constructions designed for big air. Since not all bikes are built the same, we decided to offer a helping hand to guide you through the wide selection of mountain bikes available today. Let’s define the categories and help you find the perfect bike for the trails near you.
FULL-SUSPENSION CROSS-COUNTRY BIKES
Designed with sharp handling and efficient suspension, cross-country bikes are the ultimate choice for racers looking to get from one end of the trail to the other as quickly as possible. These bikes are often the lightest option, rivaled only by hardtail cross-country bikes. They usually demand a high cost due to their race-oriented parts and design.
Weight range: Around 20-25 pounds
Travel: Between 100mm-120mm
Wheel-size options: Mostly 29 inches, occasionally 27.5 inches
Strengths: Often the first bike to make it to the top of the climbs thanks to its lightweight materials and efficient suspension systems. Riders looking to cover ground fast will find an XC bike the right tool for the job.
Weaknesses: Cross-country bikes are built for uphill speed and rolling terrain but tend to feel less confident down technical descents. Additionally, XC bikes require laser-sharp focus and smooth line choices to safely navigate trails.
Price range: $$$$-$$$$$
FULL-SUSPENSION TRAIL BIKES
Trail bikes are the most versatile option on the market, capable of conquering climbs or ripping down singletrack. These bikes will work for the majority of mountain bikers and offer a wide range of price points, components and suspension travel options. These are the Swiss-army knives of mountain bikes.
Weight range: Around 25-33 pounds
Travel: Between 120mm-150mm
Wheel-size options: 27.5 inches or 29 inches
Strengths: Depending on a trail bike’s geometry and suspension travel, it can lean towards aggressive riding or cross-country use. Either way, these bikes are designed to excel in every environment. They’re by far the most versatile bikes you can buy, meaning they work as well climbing up the trails as they do blasting back down.
Weaknesses: What makes these bikes so good at everything makes them less specific to one purpose. Trail bikes are not intended for bike-park days or cross-country racing. And while you might be able to do those tasks on one of these bikes, they will never outperform a bike built for a specific use.
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Fat bikes, with their oversized wheels and tires, are designed to float over ultrasoft conditions such as snow, sand and mud. These bikes are probably not versatile enough to be considered a do-it-all bike for most riders. Instead, they are perfect second bikes for riders who live in a place where they can take full advantage of adverse conditions. These bikes can keep you pedaling through the winter or allow you to take a ride down a sandy beach.
Weight range: Around 28-35 pounds
Travel: 140mm or less
Wheel-size options: 26 or 27.5 inches
Strengths: These bikes use tires as wide as 4 to 5 inches in order to open a whole new world for riders who otherwise wouldn’t be able to ride during some seasons.
Weaknesses: Slow handling and sluggish tires may make these bikes less fun to ride on traditional trails.
Price range: $$-$$$
Downhill bikes often require a ski lift or shuttle driver to take them to the top of the mountain, but once at the top, these bikes fly down the trails like nothing else you can buy. DH bikes are the most capable descenders on the market. In fact, riding one of these bikes will likely have you going down trails you would have never ridden otherwise since the long-travel suspension can soak up big hits and drops with ease.
Weight range: Around 32-40 pounds
Travel: 180mm and up
Wheel-size options: 27.5 or 29 inches (Older bikes and youth models may offer 26 inches)
Strengths: Downhill bikes entice riders to go for jumps and features they would have never imagined themselves doing. These bikes boost confidence and offer an extremely planted feel when blasting down the trails.
Weaknesses: Good luck pedaling up the trails on one of these bikes. They are called downhill bikes for a reason.
Price range: $$$-$$$$$
Electric bikes are just what their name implies. They use a battery and a motor to assist a rider on the trails. These machines are made for fun over fitness. Sure, you can turn down the assist to get a similar workout, but riders looking to purchase an electric bike are often less concerned with fitness and more interested in adventure. Love them or hate them, you can’t help but smile while test riding an electric bike.
Weight range: Over 35 pounds
Travel: Any amount
Wheel-size options: All of the above
Strengths: Electric bikes allow riders to explore further with less effort. They are also handy if you need to carry equipment down a trail, such as trail work tools or photography gear. These bikes give normal riders super-human capabilities.
Weaknesses: Limited trail access and the likelihood of being called a cheater. These bikes are heavier than traditional bikes, resulting in more wear and tear on components.
Price range: $$$-$$$$$
A hardtail bike is one that lacks rear suspension. Hardtail trail and cross-country bikes are designed to maximize pedaling efficiency and require less maintenance. Hardtail bikes designed for trail riding have longer-travel forks and relaxed geometry, while XC hardtail bikes are built for all-out speed over smooth terrain. Dirt-jump bikes also fall into the hardtail category, but their intended use is for riding around pump tracks or on BMX jumps.
Weight range: Around 18-32 pounds
Travel: 130mm or less (front only)
Wheel-size options: 26, 27.5, 27.5+, 29, 29+ inches
Strengths: Hardtail bikes are the least expensive and offer the best pedaling efficiency. They can range from a lightweight cross-country hardtail to a heavy-duty trail hardtail. Also included in this category are dirt-jump bikes designed to be ridden like oversized BMX bikes. Hardtail bikes require minimal maintenance since they have fewer moving parts.
Weaknesses: These bikes can be challenging to ride over rough terrain, causing a rider to fatigue sooner. Hardtail bikes are best suited for riding on smooth trails.
Price range: $$-$$$
The rise of enduro racing has pushed companies to make highly competitive enduro race bikes able to climb with efficiency and take full advantage of timed downhill sections. An enduro bike will best suit a rider looking to crawl up climbs and achieve vision-blurring speeds on the way back down. These bikes are one step short of a downhill bike, making them ideal in a bike park, yet they can climb to the top of your local trails.
Weight range: Around 27-35 pounds
Travel: Between 150mm-180mm
Wheel-size options: 27.5 or 29 inches
Strengths: An enduro bike is made for aggressive riders who don’t mind carrying a little extra weight during climbs in order to bomb back down at full speed. Whether racing or trail riding, these highly capably machines charge down the trails with authority.
Weaknesses: While an enduro bike will get you to the top of the trail, it usually requires more strength to overcome the added weight and loss of efficiency that comes with long-travel suspension.
Price range: $$$-$$$$$
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.