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Mountain Bikes - All You Need to Know 

February 23, 2015
Mountain Bikes - All You Need to Know

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The very name gives the game away – mountain bike (MTB) riding is off-road. It’s all about taking the bike away from the village and into the big wide expanses, the bush scrub, the lush forests, down rocky slopes, up hard-slog ascents, over obstacles… It’s off the beaten track. But just how beaten a track are we talking? When it comes to mountain biking, there’s not a single square peg to fit the round hole. On the contrary, as mountain biking has evolved, so too have the niche types of mountain bike riding that can be done. Adding further confusion, many brands offer bikes labelled as 'mountain bikes' at entry-level prices that aren't even suited to off-road use.

First, let’s check out the different types of mountain bikes on the market

What are rigid mountain bikes?

Rigid mountain bikes have no suspension at all, which means they are lighter, more affordable and need less maintenance than their suspension co-orts! Suspension has become a near standard on modern mountain bikes, and so rigid bikes are typically rare.

What are hardtail mountain bikes?

These are mountain bikes that only have suspension at the front of the bike, so the name comes from the fact there’s no shock absorption in the back. Hardtails are typically more affordable than full suspension mountain bikes and will be lighter as well.

The majority of riders tend to prefer hardtails for less challenging terrain as well as paths with uphill riding. They can also make for a handy commuter too.

What is full (dual) suspension?

These are mountain bikes with suspension at both the front and rear wheels. Because of the rear suspension, these bikes are able to perform more efficiently downhill, provide additional traction and a more controlled ride. Due to the additional complexity, prices are higher.

Mountain bike wheel sizes explained

You’ll hear a lot of talk about numbers when it comes to mountain bikes and their wheels. Basically the numbers refer to the size of the wheel.

26"

The original MTB wheel size – this wheel size is strong, nimble and light. In recent years the industry has moved away from this size, and so finding a new mountain bike with 26in wheels is rare.

27.5" (aka 650B)

The decided replacement for 26in wheels, these 'mid-sized' wheels sit somewhere between 26in and 29in. Offering slightly improved roll-over ability, traction and air volume than 26in wheels, 27.5in remains lighter, stronger and typically more nimble than the 29in wheel size.

Generally measuring just shy of 27.5in in diameter, 27.5in bikes will typically perform closer to the mark of 26ers.

29" (or 29ers)

With more traction due to a larger footprint, greater roll-over ability on technical obstacles and a smoother ride from increased air volume, 29er wheels have become a popular choice in many mountain bike disciplines. Their increased stability also means they’re good on the descent. They do, however, weigh more than the smaller wheel sizes, can be cumbersome in small frame sizes and are slightly limited in the amount of suspension that can be incorporated into them. For this, 29er bikes are best used in cross country and trail-type riding, where generous suspension travel is usually not needed.

Fat

Not meaning to be rude, these wheels are built to handle tyres ranging from 3.5 to 5.5in in width. Such an enormous tyre is designed to add flotation when riding in sand and snow.

Plus-Sized (or +)

The very newest trend in mountain bikes, Plus-Sized wheels sit somewhere between normal and fat and claim to offer improved traction, control and comfort over a standard wheel. Offering a large volume 2.8 to 3in width, Plus Sized wheels are available in either 26, 27.5 and 29in rim diameters but add further height beyond that. For example, a 27.5+ tyre measures close in diameter to a standard 29er tyre.

What are the different types of mountain bike riding?

Cross Country (XC)

Mount Wellington

This is the 'original' form of mountain bike riding and is done on naturally occurring trails or trails that have been purpose-built. The terrain can be almost anything – hard-packed, muddy, rocky, gravel, tree roots, soft from vegetation. Along the way you might come across naturally-occurring obstacles, or in the case of trail centres you’ll also encounter man-made challenges (seesaws, bridges, jumps etc) specifically placed along the path to make things interesting!

Trail centres, which have either been enhanced, altered, maintained by human influence, may be graded as per the degree of technical proficiency required to ride the course. Green gives you a pleasant family-style journey, blue indicates the path is rollable (no major obstacles to get over). Red is for more technical riding and black is for way more challenging paths – bigger drops, obstacles in your path, gaps, etc – the stuff for serious riders.

XC also refers to common types of racing, with the two most common forms being 'XCM' and 'XCO'. XCO refers to Cross Country Olympic, an Olympic sport that typically consists of 1-2 hour long races held on technical and hilly loop courses. XCM stands for cross country marathon, with races covering varying terrain for distances ranging from 50 to 150+km in length.

What kind of mountain bikes do XC riders use?

Once upon a time, it was unspoken tradition to cut your teeth mountain biking on a hardtail, and then graduate to a full suspension. Current thinking is less rigid. Typically modern XC bikes offer 90-120mm of suspension travel with either 29 or 27.5in wheels. Lightweight and efficient pedalling are key factors, but cross country bikes are forever becoming better at descending too.

29er Hardtails & 29er dual suspension are XC monsters - Click to learn more

Trail

Trail riding is arguably the non-racing aspect of cross country riding. This is simply 'mountain biking' to many and will generally cover trails with greater technical difficulty than those designed for cross country.

What is a trail bike?

A trail bike sits somewhere between a bike designed for cross country and Enduro. These are designed to perfectly balance both climbing and descending, a jack of all trades if you will. Many trail bikes can be raced in cross country events, but may be heavier and slower on climbs. Look for 120-140mm of suspension travel, 27.5, 29 or Plus-sized wheels and a wide gear range.

Enduro / All Mountain

Enduro Mountain Biking

Enduro is one of the fastest growing disciplines in mountain biking. The jumps are more challenging, the drops are bigger, and the trails are more likely to be black level.

What kind of mountain bikes do Enduro/All Mountain riders use?

Enduro bikes are designed to take the rider uphill, but then shine on descents. Look for a bike with 140-170mm of suspension travel front and rear, a 'dropper (height adjustable) seat post and tyres over 2.3in in width.

Two shocks are better than one - Check out 27.5" Dual Suspension

Downhill Riding

One for the adrenaline junkies, as the name suggests, this type of mountain biking is all about flying down. Riders will either get a lift up to a certain mountain point, or they’ll sometimes even walk up with the bike. Ski resorts around the world are starting to operate chairlifts throughout the year – not just during the snow season – which makes downhill riding a little more accessible. Once at the top, it’s all about getting down to the bottom of the hill as fast as possible while handling the drops and jumps, gaps and rocks, slips and slides as you go.

What kind of mountain bike do downhill riders use?

For this type of riding you’re looking at a bike designed for the descents and little more. Look for a bike with front and rear suspension travel between 170-210mm, a long wheelbase for high speed stability, secure hydraulic disc brakes and tyres at around 2.5in in width. Gears don't matter as much, with the top pro's typically racing with just seven. 27.5in wheels have overtaken 26in as the new standard for this type of bike.

Don't forget to budget for body protection when doing this type of mountain biking. A moto-style full face helmet, goggles, and knee protection are typically a minimum.

Try looking for 27.5" Dual Suspension or 26" Dual Suspension mountain bikes for down hill riding

Fat Biking

With less than 10psi in the tyres, fat bikes roll on massively wide 3.5-5.5in tyres. Designed to tackle soft sand and snow, fat bikes have become a popular 'extra bike' for those looking to take their mountain biking to new terrain or new seasons (winter).

What kind of bike do I need for fat biking?

A fat bike. These are purpose built to provide clearance for the extremely wide tyres. Fully rigid fat bikes are the most common as the big tyres act as suspension, but hardtails and dual suspension fat bikes are growing in popularity.

Dirt Jumping

Dirt Jump Mountain Bike

Welcome to a dirt park packed with dirt jumps. Depending on the technical level, jumps will be set at different heights and with different length gaps. Taking dirt jumping to the next level is slope style riding – where cyclists head out into mountains, hit enormous jumps and show their style through tricks.

What kind of Mountain Bike do Dirt Jumpers use?

Dirt jumping bikes are usually somewhere between a BMX and freeride – around 4-6 inch suspension, typically hardtails for simplicity, not many gears needed. 26in wheels remain the standard here, with even smaller 24in wheels appearing on occasion. Some short travel full suspension bikes have started to become available, but availability is rare.

What kind of mountain bike do four cross riders use?

"Riders watch the gate". Similar to BMX racing, four cross is a hard and fast competition where four riders race to the bottom of a hill together on a course filled with jumps and tight corners.

Built a little like a short travel enduro bike, four cross bikes feature short chain stays, low bottom brackets (helps with the corners and with acceleration) and gears on the back.

Try 26" Hardtails or 27.5" Hardtails for dirt jumping

Freeride

Freeride Mountain Bike

This riding is all about berms, skinny ladders, bridges, big drops – technical riding! Freeriding blurs the lines between enduro and downhill and so has become less popular in recent years.

What kind of mountain bike do freeriders use?

Freeride bikes typically overlap with many downhill race bikes. Sharing similar components to downhill bikes, freeride bikes offer a more nimble wheelbase, even stronger components and less focus on speed.

'Boing boing' is key for freeride try 26" and 27.5"

Pump Track

Pump Track Mountain Bike

The terrain for pump track riding is all about continuous rollers so riders can easily gather and maintain momentum. Pump tracks have grown in popularity as a means to build skills for trail riding.

What kind of mountain bike do pump track riders use?

Any type of mountain bike can be used, but a dirt jump hardtail is the ideal.

Pump track is hardtail heaven try 26" Hardtail mountain bikes

What is Trials?

Trials is a form of riding originally from motorbikes. Here, riders negotiate obstacles with balance, skill and power. Mountain bike trials is both a competitive and recreational sport.

What kind of bike do trials riders use?

There are typically two types of trials bikes. 'Modified trials' bikes are used in competition and typically are fully rigid, offer no saddle and limited gearing. 'Street' trails are more popular for recreational riding, offering a saddle and sometimes front suspension. In both cases, brakes that lock the wheel fast and firm are one of the most crucial components.

Mountain Bike Gear

Mountain Bike Gear

OK so we’ve determined that the type of mountain bike riding you do will dictate the type of bike you need; and it’s a similar situation with what you wear and the accessories you need.

Obviously at a base level the mandatories will be helmet and suitable footwear. Riding glasses, padded shorts and a fast wicking jersey will greatly increase the ride experience. As experience grows, you may consider 'clipless' pedals and shoes for a greater connection to the bike, but flat pedals and grippy skate-style shoes remain the choice for dirt jumping, freeriding, trials and pump track.

The more technical and risky the mountain biking, the more ‘armour’ is usually worn. This can include full face helmets, goggles, limb protection and even neck/spine protection.


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