It’s an age-old question pondered at trailheads, deliberated on long rides and debated over beers: “What bike should I get?”
While the cyclist’s answer is always, “all of them,” the bike you truly should purchase is whichever is the right one for you. Whether you’re a beginner rider looking to keep up with your new riding buddies or a longtime shredder aiming to dominate the next race or group ride, the variety of mountain bikes on the market can make any new purchase a daunting task. Should you buy a full-suspension or a hardtail? A 4-inch travel bike or a 5-inch travel bike? What about dropper posts? Wheel size? Tire width? Frame material?
Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and that’s not how mountain biking should feel. Like the different types of riding they’re designed for, mountain bikes themselves can be sorted into categories. Simply assess your riding style and consider the bikes that match it. To make an even better selection, also consider what you value most when you ride.
Let’s walk through that.
Mountain biking can be generally represented on a spectrum of the most technically aggressive riding to the least technically aggressive riding. At the most-technical end is downhill riding – jumps, drops and ungodly rocks in bike parks or on the gnarliest of trails. Full-face helmets and pads are a must, and pedaling uphill is not in the game plan. At the opposite end of the spectrum is cross-country riding, where the trails point skyward as much as downward and the goal is overall speed and efficiency. In between those two extremes are trail riding and enduro. Trail riding is quintessential mountain biking – heading out for a ride and going where the trails lead, whether that’s up, down or flat, with a focus on the overall ride. Enduro is a new name for an old type of riding, formerly called “all-mountain,” wherein riders climb only out of necessity to reach the next rowdy descent.
And with different types of mountain biking come different types of mountain bikes.
Cross-country riding is dominated by 4-inch-travel race machines designed to be as light and efficient as possible while allowing for just enough descending capability to get down to the bottom of the next climb. If you’re looking to test your aerobic capabilities or if you’re a cross-country racer, this is your ticket. Your area’s terrain and your budget will determine if you ride a hardtail, such as a Specialized Stumpjumper or Giant XTC, or a full-suspension rig, such as a Specialized Epic or Giant Anthem. A hardtail is an absolute rocket on smooth, flowy trails with few sustained technical sections. They’re also lighter and can be more bang for your buck. A full-suspension with an otherwise identical component spec as a hardtail will typically cost $800-$1,000 more due to rear suspension.
A full-suspension is better suited for most mountain bike trails, which typically feature natural technical obstacles and rough surfaces. A full-suspension also keeps your body fresher throughout the ride by reducing impacts. Being able to tackle technical terrain with significantly less rider input almost always makes up for the marginal (and in 2017 very minuscule) loss in pedaling efficiency due to rear suspension. But, as stated, full-suspension bikes are more expensive when comparing bikes of otherwise identical specs.
While ultra-light, 4-inch-travel rigs have long defined cross-country riding, 5-inch-travel bikes with slacker geometry, including the Specialized Camber and Giant Anthem SX , are rapidly becoming light and efficient enough to challenge 4-inch bikes uphill and noticeably out-descend them downhill. Modern carbon fiber frames, revolutionary geometry and lightweight components put top-end 5-inch bikes, previously ignored by racers, in the same weight class as many cross-country steeds. But if you’re looking to hop on a trail bike that weighs in like a cross-country bike, expect to pay a premium.
Trail riding, until a few years ago defined as simply riding a cross-country bike while not racing, now has bikes of its own. Ten years ago, a salesman would direct a first-time buyer toward 4-inch-travel bikes – then the standard rigs of the sport – but modern 5-inch-travel bikes are efficient and light enough that there’s no reason for an all-around rider to look to a shorter-travel bike unless they’re racing. Full-suspension, 5-inch bikes like the Specialized Stumpjumper and Giant Trance pedal nearly as efficiently as their racier brethren and hardly come with a weight penalty. But 1 inch of travel and slightly slacker geometry go a long way in descending capabilities.
If you hop on your bike not to race but to enjoy the trail – all kinds of trails – and challenge yourself, and if you enjoy climbing as much as descending, a 5-inch-travel bike is the way to go.
“That’s so enduro,” said the rider wearing baggies, a half-shell helmet, goggles and an everlasting grin. “I can’t wait to shred that section once it’s tackier in the fall, bro. Grab some IPAs at the brewery later?”
Formerly known as “all-mountain riding” and until recently devoid of organized competition, enduro riding revolutionized mountain bike components, frames, style and stereotypes as it became mainstream in the years since 2010. With more of a focus on shredding descents and less of a focus on setting personal records uphill, 6-inch-travel enduro bikes – always full-suspension frames – came of age once professional enduro racing took off and manufacturers began pouring R&D dollars into the sport. Now you can head out on an enduro bike, including the Specialized Enduro and Giant Reign, that pedals uphill almost like a cross-country bike and descends almost as well as a downhill bike. But if smashing climbs is your thing, this is not the bike for you. Even the most expensive enduro rigs can tip the scales closer to 30 lbs. than 25, and the long, low, slack geometry with a short stem and upright cockpit isn’t much for hammering up the trail. But rest assured you will (eventually) get to the top and when you do, you’d better be ready to rally the descent.
If you have to ask what downhill riding is, you likely are not in the market for a downhill bike. With 8-10 inches of travel, burly construction and obscenely long, slack geometry, downhill bikes are purpose-built for one thing: tackling the gnarliest, steepest, most death-defying descents as capably and, rider depending, as fast as possible. Dual-crown forks that would look at home on a dirt bike and brake rotors the diameter of those on compact cars adorn these engineering marvels capable of sending massive jumps and charging through terrain that the riders themselves struggle to navigate on foot. Downhill bikes are true to their name: They’re made to go downhill and are all but impossible to ride uphill. They’re even a challenge on level terrain.
If you’re lapping the lift-served bike park and shuttling chunky trails with your buddies – and if you have no desire or need to ever ride uphill – a downhill bike like the Specialized Demo or Giant Glory will serve you best and leave the rest up to you.
Have an idea of what type of mountain bike is right for you but not which model? Stay tuned for more posts breaking down wheel sizes, tire widths and frame materials.
No matter what bike you decide is right for you, be sure to stop by Peak Cycles in Golden, Colorado, and talk it over with the experts there. Everyone at Peak Cycles rides year-round and many of them race. The shop staff includes road riders, cross-country riders, cyclocross riders, gravel riders, enduro riders and downhill riders. The shop has a wide variety of mountain bikes from leading brands on the floor, ready to test ride.