How to Choose a Mountain Bike? [Beginner’s GUIDE]

How to Choose a Mountain Bike

Hardtail or full-suspension? Trail vs. enduro? 27.5″ or 29″? These are probably just some of the questions you ask yourself when browsing online stores with mountain bikes.

In this How to Choose a Mountain bike guide for beginners, you find out what type of MTB is the best for you based on your needs and riding style and also answers to all your questions.

Let’s dive in.


Mountain Bike Type

The first thing, to begin with, is the MTB type. There are 2 basic types of mountain bikeshardtail and full suspension.

  1. A hardtail mountain bike is a bike without a rear suspension. It only has a front suspension (suspended fork). Mostly, these are cross-country mountain bikes, but there are also hardtail enduro, hardtail trail, or hardtail fat bikes. These types differ in geometry, front suspension travel, wheelbase, and other features (more about them below).
  2. A full-suspension mountain bike is a bike with a front (suspended fork) and a rear suspension (shock). There are full-suspension trail, enduro, or downhill bikes on the market.
mtb bike icon
A hardtail mountain bike
full suspension mountain bike icon
A full suspension mountain bike

The table below shows benefits and disadvantages of hardtail and full-suspension mountain bikes.

 ProsCons
Hardtail• Lower overall weight of the bike
• Lack of rear suspension maintenance
• Lower price
• Lower energy loss when pedaling
• Better for uphills
• Right riding technique for rough terrain needed
• Not as comfortable as full suspension
• Doesn't handle rough terrain as well as full suspension
Full suspension• Better comfort in rough terrain
• More versatile (jumps, drops, rock gardens, roots...)
• Easier to ride in more difficult terrain
• Better for downhills
• Higher price
• Higher overall weight of the bike
• More parts that can break
• Rear triangle maintenance

Once you get some idea of whether you want a hardtail or a full-suspension bike, you can start looking for the mountain bike type.

types of mountain bikes
Basic types of mountain bikes | Product pictures were used with permission of canyon.com

Cross-country

Cross-country bikes (also called XC bikes) have a geometry that allows easier pedaling than, for example, downhill bikes. They also feature a shorter wheelbase that allows easy handling. During cross-country races, the bike has to be agile enough to allow the rider to ride through a large variety of obstacles.

XC bikes are fitted with 90-100mm of front suspension travel, with some models offering up to 120mm, according to BikeExchange.

Cross-country bikes are very versatile. They are perfect for cross-country races, but you can use them for trail riding, casual trips to the countryside, forest & dirt roads, gravel, and MTB-like terrains.

Trail

Trail bikes are designed for riding trails, singletracks, and technical descents. They allow you to pedal pretty easily and efficiently.

There are full (dual) suspension trail bikes and also hardtail trail bikes. Their wheelbase is wider compared to the XC mountain bikes. They have larger suspension travel (it ranges from 120-150mm) somewhere between the XC and enduro bikes. This travel absorbs larger impacts, bumps, and rocks that you can come across on the trails.

According to the BikeExchange, trail bikes are the type of mountain bike that will excel in most terrains.

Enduro

Enduro bikes have a longer wheelbase than XC and trail bikes, and thanks to their geometry, they have an even lower center of gravity. Singletracks.com further explains that enduro bikes have slacker head tube angles. This means that the front wheel is further out ahead of the handlebars (which increases the wheelbase). This increases stability at higher speeds and in steep descents.

Their suspension travel ranging from 150-180mm, so you can hit big drops, rocks, and other obstacles with confidence.

Downhill

Downhill bikes‘ geometry pushes the rider backward to lower the center of gravity in downhills. Downhill mountain bikes will allow you to hit big jumps, drops, and the roughest types of terrain. Due to their geometry, they are not suitable for riding uphills. So, most downhill riders take a hike, shuttle, or chairlift.

The suspension travel of downhill bikes is the longest, usually 180-200mm. They are designed to tackle the most difficult terrains you can imagine.

Fatbike

Fatbikes are specific for their ‘fat’ tires that are 4″ to 5″ wide. There are hardtail and full-suspension fatbikes on the market, so you have an option to choose from. Fatbikes were designed for terrains demanding wide tires like snow, mud, sand, or even bogs.

Their suspension travel varies a lot but usually it ranges from around 100mm to 150mm.

Check the following table to see standard suspension travel ranges for different types of mountain bikes.

Type of MTBSuspension Travel
Cross-country bikes90-120mm
Trail bikes120-150mm
Enduro bikes150-180mm
Downhill bikes180-200mm

NOTE: There are also other types of mountain bikes that are very niche-specific. These include dirt jump bikes and single-speed bikes.

Frame Material

Another feature to consider when choosing a mountain bike is its frame material. There are 2 mainly used materials (aluminum and carbon) and 2 less used (steel and titanium):

  • Aluminum mountain bikes are the most affordable, thanks to the lower manufacturing costs. They are stiff and durable but not as much as carbon bikes. At the same time, aluminum is heavier than carbon. The downside of aluminum frames is that aluminum may corrode over time.
  • Carbon mountain bikes are stiffer, lighter, and more flexible than aluminum bikes. The flexibility means that the frame can absorb minor vibrations while maintaining great power transfer. The main downside of carbon mountain bikes is their high price.
  • Steel mountain bikes are very durable and relatively stiff but heavier than aluminum or carbon mountain bikes. Riders also appreciate their unique look, craftsmanship, and thin tubes. Steel mountain bikes are ideal for people who can appreciate details and are not as performance-focused.
  • Titanium mountain bikes share a lot of characteristics with steel bikes. They are stiff, rust-resistant, and comfortable to ride. Their thin tubes, shiny finish, and precise welds are something you won’t be able to overlook. The downside is the price due to labor-intensive work and higher costs of titanium.

Sources: CyclingWeekly, SheldonBrown, ScienceDirect, Rodbikes

Wheel Size

Most modern mountain bikes use 27.5″ or 29″ wheels. But there are also mountain bikes with 26″ wheels on the market. So how to choose the correct wheel size?

26" vs 27.5" vs 29" wheels
Comparison of 26″, 27.5″ and 29″ wheels

26″ wheels are outdated these days. They don’t provide the benefits of 27.5″ and 29″ wheels. Their only advantage is that they accelerate quickly, but they are not as comfortable and stable as the following two sizes. Yet, they are used mostly on dirt jump, freeride, and kids’ bikes, eventually on some downhill, trail, enduro, or some entry-level mountain bikes.

27.5″ wheels are much more widespread than 26″. They are ideal for shorter people or those riders who want to have an “agile” bike that is easier to handle in tight spaces. They offer better traction, stability, and contact area than 26″ wheels.

29″ wheels are better for taller riders, but shorter people can use them too. They have bigger inertia, so they are better at maintaining speed. They are also more comfortable on rougher terrain, more stable, have better traction thanks to a larger surface area. Their only downside is that they accelerate slower than 26″ and 27.5″ wheels.

So, should you go for 27.5″ or 29″ wheels?

Well, this depends. Some retailers use different wheel sizes for different bike sizes. For example, sizes XS-M come with 27.5″ wheels and L & XL with 29″ wheels.

If you can, feel free to take a test ride. If you can’t, the general rule of thumb is that shorter riders prefer 27.5″ wheels and taller riders 29″. The 26″ are not very widespread anymore.

Drivetrain

The drivetrain is one of the most important things to look for when choosing any bike. It is put under pressure every time you pedal and shift. This means that if the drivetrain is low quality, it wears out easily, and you get a poor riding experience.

Mountain bikes use one of the following 3 types of chainrings – 1X, 2X, or 3X.

1x chainring
1x chainring
2x chainring
2x chainring
3x chainring
3x chainring

1X chainrings are lighter, easier to maintain, and beginner-friendly because you don’t have to think about cross-chaining. Their downside is that the jumps between individual gears are larger than on 2X or 3X chainrings. Thanks to their simplicity, you can quickly change gears. This is a plus in sections that often require speed changes.

With 1X chainring, there is a lower risk of a dropped chain thanks to tall, unramped teeth and alternating tooth widths, as Bikeradar explains. A thing to consider with 1X chainring is its size. The larger the chainring – the heavier the gears and vice versa.

2X and 3X chainrings offer larger gear selection and smaller jumps between individual gears. It is handy if you need to tackle steeper sections. Their main downside is the weight, complexity, and more things that can go wrong. There is also a higher chance of a dropped chain.

3X chainrings are more common on entry-level mountain bikes. Good mountain bikes come with 1X or 2X chainring. Depending on the terrain you want to ride, go for a 1X or 2X drivetrain.

In the table below you can see the most popular mountain bike groupsets by Shimano and SRAM.

 ShimanoSRAMType
Entry levelTourneyMechanical
Entry levelAltusMechanical
Entry levelAceraX5Mechanical
Mid rangeAlivioX7
X9
Mechanical
Mid rangeDeoreNX
GX
Mid rangeSLXGX EagleMechanical
ProXTX1Mechanical
ProXT Di2X01Electric
ProXTRXX1Mechanical
ProXTR Di2X01 Eagle
XX1 Eagle
Electric

To find out more about individual groupsets, visit this extensive guide from Bikeradar.


Brakes

Mountain bikes come with rim or disc brakes. Nowadays, only cheap mountain bikes come with rim brakes. More expensive bikes are almost exclusively equipped with disc brakes.

  1. Rim brakes are cheaper, lighter, and easier to maintain than disc brakes. Their stopping power is easily affected by elements like water or dirt. This means that rim brake mountain bikes are better for casual rides or commuting.
  2. Disc brakes provide you with better stopping power at any conditions and effectivity, but they are heavier and more expensive than rim brakes. There are 2 types of disc brakes:
    • Mechanical disc brakes are cheaper and easier to maintain, but you have to put more pressure on the lever to stop.
    • Hydraulic disc brakes use a different technology that allows you easier brake control. They are more expensive than mechanical disc brakes and require more complicated maintenance. On the other hand, you don’t need to apply as much force for equal stopping power as on mechanical disc brakes.

Dropper Seatpost

Some bikes feature a dropper seatpost. A dropper seatpost a cool nice to have feature. It allows you to drop your saddle anytime you need. This is useful in downhills or technical sections where you need a lower center of gravity and more space to control your bike.

Pros

  • Quickly drop/raise seat
  • Better riding convenience
  • Better riding experience

Cons

  • Higher price
  • Added weight
  • Added complexity

Mountain Bike Size

The last thing to consider when buying a mountain bike is its correct size. With the correct bike size, you prevent injuries and maximize ride comfort. It is always better to try it in person, so you get the feeling.

If you plan to buy your next mountain bike online, you can use several methods for selecting its size. To find out more about the correct size, visit the How to Choose a Mountain Bike Size.

TIP: Use Bikeinsights tool to compare different mountain bike frame geometries.


Final Thoughts

When choosing a mountain bike, think about the type of terrain you want to ride in and your riding style. Mountain bikes are very versatile but also available in a large variety of types, so it may be tricky to pick the right one.

Depending on your budget, you can get a hardtail or a full-suspension mountain bike made of aluminum, carbon, steel, or even titanium.

Based on your preferences and height, consider getting 27.5″ or 29″ wheels. 27.5″ MTBs are more agile while 29″ more stable, and the ride feels smoother.

Make sure to buy a bike with a quality groupset from Shimano or SRAM and disc brakes (ideally hydraulic).

And last, but not least, make sure to get the right size to maximize your comfort and prevent injuries.


How to Choose a Mountain Bike FAQ

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