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How to Choose a Mountain Bike: Buyer's Guide & Bike Types


The sport of mountain biking has evolved dramatically since the first mass produced mountain bike in the 1980s. Today’s mountain bikes are incredible machines that are purpose-built for incredible confidence and fun on all different types of trails. To get the most out of your hard-earned dollars, it’s important to understand the basics of mountain bike design and be honest about your own riding style and ability as well as know what kinds of trails you’ll be spending most of your time on. Once you’ve settled on the correct type of mountain bike, there are many more factors to consider, ranging from price to the individual parts that make up your bike. We’ll break down all of these factors, and more, helping you choose the best mountain bike for you and your trails.

 

How to Choose a Mountain Bike

  1. Choose the type of mountain bike that is right for you.
  2. Compare specs and stats across models.
  3. Determine which size will fit you best.
  4. Pick a build kit and components that fit your goals and budget.
  5. Ride some bikes! Demo models that you’re deciding between.

Types of Mountain Bikes

So what’s the deal with all these mountain bike styles these days? While there are plenty of different terms manufacturers use to describe their bikes, there are 4 basic types: Cross Country (XC), Trail, All Mountain (Enduro), and Downhill (DH).

Cross Country (XC) Mountain Bikes

Cross country mountain bikes are built for riders who want pedaling performance as their top priority. These are uphill crushing, lung-busting machines bred for endurance and efficiency. The geometry of cross country bikes is the most similar to road bikes. The focus on efficiency and lightweight doesn’t come without tradeoffs, however, cross country bikes trade out downhill performance for efficiency and weight. Cross country mountain bikes are great for riders that are going to put in long miles pedaling, and those who prioritize climbing over descending.

  • Modern XC bikes are trending towards the largest mountain bike wheel size, 29”. This is the same rim diameter as the 700c road bike size.
  • Ultra-lightweight builds (less than 24 lbs. in some cases) with 4.7"/120mm or less of travel make for the lightest mountain bikes you’ll see anywhere.
  • Hardtails (front suspension only) can be preferential in this category in some cases.
  • Longer chainstays & wheelbases, steep head angles (69° or steeper) as well as longer stems put riders in efficient climbing positions.
  • Tires on these bikes are likely to favor reduced weight, efficiency and faster rolling resistance rather than traction, control or durability.

Trail Mountain Bikes

This category is what most people relate to when they think “mountain bike.” Trail bikes are the Swiss army knives of mountain biking and are both great climbers and capable descenders. Trail bikes add more suspension, more gravity oriented components (like chunkier tires for better traction and bigger brake rotors), and more relaxed geometry than their XC brethren to make them more capable on all kinds of terrain. Do you see yourself on all-day backcountry epic rides as well as banging around town and your local trails? Do you measure your rides in grins and smiles rather than seconds? If you’re into mountain biking uphill just as much as downhill and are looking for the occasional drop or jump, a trail bike is probably what you’re looking for.

  • Trail bikes come with 27.5” or 29” wheels. Suspension can be anywhere from 4.7"/120mm to 6"/150mm of travel (front and back).
  • Trail bike geometries are typified by "neutral" head angles (66° or 68°) but vary widely to suit different riding styles.
  • Tires on trail bikes will strike a balance between durability, traction and rolling efficiency.

All Mountain or Enduro Mountain Bikes

You could call this category the burly cousin of the trail bike. all-mountain bikes are the centerpiece of the race format called “Enduro,” where climbing is necessary, but only the downhill sections are timed and scored on. An all-mountain or enduro mountain bike is the perfect rig if you’re willing to earn your ride by pedaling up, but are really in it for the downhill with technical terrain and airtime in mind. That being said, if you want to skip the pedaling and do a couple of laps at a bike park or even some shuttle accessed terrain, an all-mountain bike can handle that too.

  • Enduro mountain bikes come with 27.5” or 29” wheels, or even mixed “mullet” sizes with 29” in the front and 27.5” in the rear.
  • All-mountain bikes have slightly more suspension travel than trail bikes, ranging from 5.5"/140mm to 6.7"/180mm.
  • Geometry strongly favors descending to climbing. Head angles in the 65°- 67° range can require some finesse when it comes to steep climbs.
  • Long wheelbase and reach, low bottom bracket and slack head angle are key terms when talking about modern all mountain/enduro geometry.
  • Tires on all mountain bikes are likely to favor aggressive knobs for cornering and traction since the important part of the ride is gravity assisted.

Downhill & Freeride Mountain Bikes

Downhill bikes are designed for steep, gnarly terrain, speed, big drops, and jumps. With these bikes, you’re usually looking for some other way to the top of the trail whether that’s hiking, shuttling or a chairlift. They simply aren’t made to go any direction but down. If you’re not even remotely interested in pedaling uphill, have the trails & terrain to support high speeds and airtime, and the skill level to handle yourself in these situations, a downhill bike is what you’re looking for.

  • Burly frames sporting 6.7"/170mm - 10"/250mm+ of suspension travel in the rear and 7"/180mm - 8"/200mm in the front with dual-crown forks that resemble something you might see on a motorcycle.
  • These bikes tend to be extremely slack (less than 65° head angle) and sport a very low center of gravity (bottom bracket) for confidence on steep terrain and aggressive, brown-pow roosting corners.
  • Tires on downhill bikes are geared for traction and durability with 2-ply (think double-thick) casings for traction and durability.

Mountain Bike Geometry & Specs

Once you are in the right neighborhood, having chosen the type of mountain bike you want, how do you narrow down between the different bikes within these categories? Brand and price definitely factor in here, but if you want to be more scientific, you can compare geometry and specs. For a full breakdown of these measurements, check out our guide to mountain bike geometry. The key takeaway is, differences in specs like reach, head tube angle, and chainstay length influence the fit of the bike and the way it rides. If all of this talk sounds like a foreign language, your best bet is to write down some general notes on these differences, and go hit the trails! Actually riding a bike is the best way to see what works for you.


Mountain Bike Sizing

We have a full guide on mountain bike sizing, but here’s the gist - a properly fitting bike is essential to having a good time out on the trails. Start with a size chart, and work from there, and remember that sizing can vary between brands. Factors like riding style, body dimensions (long legs, short torso, etc.), and ability level all factor into sizing decisions. These are all good things to remember throughout the process of picking a mountain bike.


Mountain Bike Build Kits, Components & Pricing

Mountain bikes are complicated machines, they’re made up of tons of smaller pieces, or components as they’re called. These components not only have a huge influence on the performance of your ride, but they also have a big influence on the price of your bike. Unless you’re building up your bike from scratch these components come packaged with the frame as a “build kit.” One bike model from one manufacturer will usually have different build kits that hit different price and performance levels.

Mountain Bike Frame Material

The first thing to consider when looking at the spec and build of a bike, and sometimes the starting point for riders looking for a new mountain bike, is what the actual frame is made out of. For most mountain bikes, the decision is simple, aluminum alloy, or carbon fiber, though other materials like steel or titanium are rarer. Different materials have different ride characteristics and weight.

Carbon vs Aluminum Mountain Bikes

So, which frame material is superior? It’s complicated. There are tradeoffs with each. On a basic level, carbon fiber is lighter and stronger, but more fragile and expensive. Aluminum is cheaper and more durable, but heavier. As far as the quality of the ride, carbon fiber is damper and more torsionally stiff. Choosing a frame comes down to deciding which of these factors above are most important to you.

Mountain Bike Components

Building up from the frame, each component on the bike, from its wheels to suspension contributes to the final package. As you gain experience as a rider, you will likely gain more knowledge around these parts, and figure out what is most important to you. For example, some mountain bikers prefer the feel of a particular brand’s brakes or suspension over others. Generally, as you increase to the price of the bike, you get parts that are lighter in weight and give you better performance and adjustability. Choosing the correct kit for you comes mostly down to how picky you are about these parts and your budget.

The most important components to focus on are the drivetrain and suspension. Like different build kits on bikes, drivetrains come in different performance levels. These affect your gearing, shifting, and weight. Modern mountain bikes have eliminated the need for front derailleurs and come with 1x or “one by” drivetrains. As you increase in price across builds and drivetrains, you get lighter weight and more precise shifting performance. As for suspension, compare the models of fork and shock across bikes and builds. As you step up to nicer models, you get better performance (less friction) and more adjustability.


Testing & Demoing Mountain Bikes

It’s easy to obsess over every measurement and component of different models of mountain bikes when looking at them on a computer screen, but there is absolutely no substitute for some real time in the saddle. So, once you’ve narrowed down the candidates and you’re ready to choose your next mountain bike, it’s time to do some riding. Demoing a mountain bike is the only true way to get a feel for how it rides, and how it suits you. Each unique combination of geometry, design, and build gives a bike different characteristics that suit different riders best. Find what works for you!

When demoing a mountain bike, it’s good to ride trails that you’re already familiar with. This will help you focus on the bike and not route-finding or riding blind. Our favorite place to demo bikes is at skills parks rather than on big backcountry rides, this way you can ride a bunch of short laps, playing with settings or even trying out and comparing different bikes. Look for manufacturers demo tours or local mountain bike festivals for demos if you’re not in the area of an evo store.

If you’re not able to demo, the good news is that it’s pretty hard to go wrong these days, mountain bikes have gotten so good. Use the info above to make the best-informed decision you can, then go out and enjoy it!

Demo bikes are available at evo Seattle, evo Portland and evo Denver. (Note: The cost of up to three evo bike demos can be applied toward the final cost of purchasing a new or used bike from us.)

 
Need a tune up? Bring your bike in for maintenance at any of our flagship locations for assistance:
 

This is evo. We are a ski, snowboard, wake, skate, bike, surf, camp and clothing online retailer with physical stores in SeattlePortlandDenver, Salt Lake City, and Whistler. Our goal is to provide you with great information to make both your purchase and up-keep easy.

evo also likes to travel to remote places across the globe in search of world-class powder turns, epic waves, or legendary mountain biking locations through evoTrip Adventure Travel Trips. Or, if you prefer to travel on your own, check out our ski & snowboard resort travel guides, and mountain bike trail guides

 

Still have questions? Please give our customer care team a call at 866-386-1590, Customer Care Hours. They can help you find the right setup to fit your needs.