Everything You Will Ever Need To Know About Mountain Bikes
Mountain Bikes: Everything you will ever need to know about Mountain Bikes
So, you’ve decided you want to buy a mountain bike.
A great decision that you will not regret, ever!
Well, maybe occasionally when stuck half way up a mountain trail with a broken chain or a flat tire. All part of the experience….
Check out our advice on how to look after your MTB to make sure you do the utmost to stop that happening by the way!
But now you’ve got some serious decisions to make as there are so many things to consider when choosing your new rig.
For most people, an MTB (that’s short for mountain bike by the way) is a big investment and not something to be taken lightly.
It pays to have a good think about what you really want it for. Not just right now, but what sort of trails and terrain you plan to be riding in a year or so.
Maybe you have a group of friends who already ride and now want to join them, which is a great way to start out. Just ask them about the type of bikes they have, where they like to ride, what new challenges they plan on taking on, that sort of thing.
When you have gathered all that information together, then come back here and check out our reviews and comparisons. We can help you find the best models around at your budget.
We’ve also taken a look around the forums and review sites to find out some of the questions people are asking about mountain bikes. The top ones are listed below, and we have pulled together some straightforward answers to help.
- 1 Mountain Bikes: Everything you will ever need to know about Mountain Bikes
- 2 Why Mountain Bikes?
- 3 Which mountain bikes are best?
- 4 Cross Country (XC) or Trail Mountain Bikes
- 5 All Mountain or Enduro Mountain Bikes
- 6 Downhill Mountain Bikes
- 7 Mountain bikes – hardtail vs full suspension
- 8 Mountain Bikes-vs-Road Bikes
- 9 How mountain bike frames are measured
- 10 How do mountain bike forks work?
- 11 So how does the shock absorber work?
- 12 Carbon mountain bikes vs aluminum
- 13 Mountain bikes 26 vs 29
- 14 When are mountain bike tires worn out?
- 15 Where do you go from here?
Why Mountain Bikes?
Unless you are going to ride your bike just on the road and nowhere else then, an MTB is your best, if not the only, option.
Of course, if you ride BMX trails or do tricks then you will need something else. But as far as plain old riding a bike to get you to where you want to go, then you either choose a mountain bike or a road bike.
Mountain bikes have come a long way since they first appeared on the biking scene in the late 1970s. The guy is generally credited with inventing what we know as a mountain bike today was Joe Breeze from Marin County, California.
The first MTB models he built were the original Breezers, a brand that is still around today. Although there were people before him who adapted road bikes to cope with off-road trails, his was the first purpose built MTB.
Mountain bikes have since become some of the most versatile and adaptable bikes on the planet.
There are many different styles of MTB available so let’s take a look now to see which one is best.
Which mountain bikes are best?
There is no correct answer to that question really as it will depend mostly on the type of terrain and trails you want to use the bike for.
What we can do, though, is take a quick look at the main types of MTB and give you a brief overview of what each one is best at.
We had to go for some generalization here to make it easier to explain, but you should get a feel for what type of bike is right for you.
Cross Country (XC) or Trail Mountain Bikes
These bikes are similar, but XC bikes tend to be used for competition riding while Trail bikes are for the typical recreational rider.
They are both at home on most of the dirt trails and roads you will usually find around the typical mountain bike trail center.
Quite often Trail bikes are the starting point for most new MTB riders. These are the bikes you will tend to find lined up at your local bike shop.
The terrain they can tackle can be as diverse as you want it. From muddy tracks to hard-packed dust trails, and from tree root strewn descents to challenging technical rock gardens.
The XC and Trail bikes have to be versatile to handle all these different types of terrain. That’s what makes them the best all-rounder when you are starting out.
They come in either hardtail or full suspension and a budget to suit most buyers. It does pay to get the best you can afford though so don’t go straight for the cheapest you can find.
Normally they will come with a strong but light frame made out of oversized aluminum tubes. There are carbon fiber framed versions out there that are gradually coming down in price, so it may be worth keeping an eye out for these too.
Disc brakes are fairly common on these bikes and are great for performance in the mud and wet. Older V type brakes that operate on the rim are also still around and will offer some cost savings over disc braked bikes.
The XC bikes are very sturdy, light and built for quick ascents plus rapid descents. Usually, they are the hardtail and will have a suspension travel of between 2.5 and 4 inches to get the best performance.
Trail mountain bikes are similar in nearly every way but usually have full suspension of between 5 and 6-inch travel. This provides a more comfortable ride and is more forgiving around the technical trails and obstacles.
All Mountain or Enduro Mountain Bikes
Much the same as Trail bikes, the difference is that Enduro bikes tend to have stronger frames and a longer length of travel in the suspension, usually around 5-7 inches. They also have wider tires to get extra grip.
You will find these bikes being ridden up mountain trails and then flying back down, hence the All Mountain or Enduro name. Riders will be wearing more than the usual amount of body armor as it can be a punishing sport.
The world of Enduro racing is very popular right now. There are new models coming out all the time to cater for the many varieties of trails and competitions.
Enduro or All Mountain racing can be as diverse as lung-busting mountain climbs to high-speed downhills with chairlift access to the top.
That means the bikes have to be able to cope with many types of terrain and be ultra-reliable too. Quite often, there is little backup support allowed in the racing world, so they have to be!
Disc brakes are the norm for Enduro bikes as V-Brakes just would not provide enough stopping power on those steep rides downhill.
Downhill Mountain Bikes
The DH bikes are for those crazed individuals who love rocketing down a steep descent with little regard for their safety. Or so it seems to us mere mortals!
More of an MTB niche sport than the first couple of types above, downhillers usually catch a ride or walk up to the top so don’t have to worry so much about riding uphill.
Their rigs will usually be made of the strongest materials and have full suspension with a travel of over 7 inches!
They need that to soak up some serious shocks so will be fitted with the best gear money can buy. The gearing will also be set up to allow for pedaling at high speeds.
That’s about it for the main types of bike you will find easily available.
Of course, there are some more niche disciplines such as Freeride MTBs and Dirt Jump bikes out there. If you are just starting out, though, it’s unlikely you will want one of those so that we will leave that for another article.
Mountain bikes – hardtail vs full suspension
You have by now come across the terms ‘hardtail’ and ‘full sus’ (or ‘full suspension’).
Full suspension means the bike has suspension on the front forks and at the back which is incorporated in the frame.
There is also a third option, a rigid bike which has no suspension at all.
This is one of your first decisions, but what difference does it make?
Like most things, it comes down to personal preference in the end, but here’s some guidance to help.
Hardtail bikes allow for a more direct transfer of power from the pedal to the wheel.
This means you may find a hardtail more fun if you do a lot of hill climbs as it just feels more natural when pedaling hard stood up. It’s also going to be the lighter option as well. If you are riding mostly on flat terrain or roads, a hardtail will give you a better ride.
Hardtails also have a more classic line compared to the slightly aggressive look of a full suspension bike which some prefer.
Historically, it was seen as the right way to progress up the MTB ladder by learning the ropes on a hardtail and then moving up to a full sus bike.
These days that does not apply so much as full suspension bikes have become much more common.
Full suspension is great for tackling tricky, bumpy trails and it’s very forgiving for the novice rider. Bikes equipped with it just soak up all those bumps and potholes, meaning you will feel more like giving that tricky trail another go the next time.
Full suspension is going to be something you want if serious downhill racing is your sport.
The downsides? Well, it will make the bike heavier and usually more expensive for a start (when compared to a hardtail). If you do a lot of hill climbing, you may also find that full sus is not the best option.
Having said that most people will likely go full suspension in the end.
It just offers the most comfortable ride, and with suspension tuned to the type of bike you are riding, the performance is great too.
Mountain Bikes-vs-Road Bikes
When thinking whether to go for a road bike or not, the answer is straightforward.
If you are only riding your bike on a smooth road surface, then you will be best served with a road bike.
For anything else, get an MTB!
Road bikes will usually have drop handlebars and thin tires for less rolling resistance. This makes them very comfortable and efficient to ride on the road, but pretty useless on even the smoothest of dirt tracks.
How mountain bike frames are measured
One of the important things to get right is to make sure you get the correct size of frame for your body.
The most important measurement as far as frame size goes is similar to an inside leg measurement for buying clothes.
To get this right, make sure you are wearing the shoes you intend to wear for biking.
Stand with your feet at shoulder width apart and measure from the point in between your legs, just behind the genitals.
Measure from there all the way down to the floor at your heel, following the inside of your leg.
Now take this measurement and look for a frame size that has a Stand Over Height (SOH) of just less than your result. You may have to refer to a manufacturer’s website to get this information or check with your local bike shop.
The SOH is the height that you can comfortably stand over the top tube of the bike frame (the one that goes between the seat post and the tube that holds the front forks).
If you find you fall in between two frame sizes, compare your arm span with your height. Your arm span is the distance between the tips of your fingers with your arms stretched straight out to each side.
If your arm span is greater than your height, go for the larger sized frame. If it’s less, go for the smaller sized frame.
This measuring system will generally work for both sexes but note that there are frames made especially for women.
This is because on average, a woman will have a shorter torso and longer legs and so will need a shorter top tube length than a man.
As for children’s bikes, these are usually supplied by age and wheel size. As children seldom conform to the generic sizes, it’s best to check the same measurements to make sure the bike is the right size.
How do mountain bike forks work?
In both hardtail and full suspension bikes, the most important suspension component is arguably the front forks.
As a very basic overview, the front forks are made up of two tubes at the bottom that holds the front wheel. These fit over the tubes that form the top part of the fork and that attach to the bike frame.
Inside each bottom tube is a shock absorber so that when the wheel moves up (e.g. when it hits a bump) then the shock absorber compresses and dampens the impact.
This allows the wheel to stay in contact with the ground and prevents those bone-jarring jolts of the front handlebars. Your wrists, arms, and shoulders will forever thank you!
So how does the shock absorber work?
Each shock contains two essential components. The spring and the damper.
The spring is either a coiled piece of metal or a compressed air chamber. This soaks up the bumps and knocks, and in many cases, the spring rate or air pressure can be altered to provide a harder or softer ride.
If we just used a spring then the shock absorber would just bounce several times every time it hit a bump, so the damper is there to stop this.
Usually, the damper is an oil-filled device with a piston that pushes the oil through a small hole. This dissipates the energy in the compressed spring and provides resistance to stop it bouncing.
The harder and faster you compress the spring, the more resistance is created in the damper so the two work perfectly together.
Of course, you also have rear suspension on a full sus bike, and this features a single shock absorber built into the frame. This works the same way to soak up the bumps for the rear wheel.
Carbon mountain bikes vs aluminum
Carbon frames are becoming increasingly affordable these days and are appearing on mid-range bikes more and more.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone will agree about this. Some people find carbon frames offer the best riding experience to be had. Others don’t notice anything remarkable about them at all!
However, what most of the press and informed opinion report as the differences are:
Aluminum frames are heavier than carbon frames with very few exceptions. Carbons are also easier to form into a lighter style of frame which helps with the weight.
It is possible to buy a very expensive aluminum bike that is lighter than some cheaper carbon bikes of course. But comparing like for like, the carbon frame version will be lighter.
Generally, most riders would agree that a carbon framed bike is more comfortable to ride.
This is due to the fact that an aluminum frame transmits the bumps in the road through to the rider more than a carbon frame.
Some say this is not that noticeable but is a factor nonetheless.
Resistance to impact
It has been reported that carbon frames are more likely to be damaged by impact and also, that once damaged they are impossible to repair.
The first statement is not necessarily true as there are so many ways you can damage a bike that even an aluminum frame would not survive.
The second is certainly not true as these days; carbon frames can be repaired. They may not look as nice anymore and be slightly heavier, but they can be repaired.
As prices of carbon framed bikes come down the difference in price narrows. In general, though, for a bike with the same components, a bike with a carbon frame will cost more than one with an aluminum frame.
Mountain bikes 26 vs 29
The 26 or 29 refers to the wheel size and can make quite a difference to the ride and performance of your bike.
Choosing which wheel size used to be so simple. There was only one, and that was a 26″ wheel!
They are lighter and stronger than a 29er. They work better on tight twists and turns and are great for quick acceleration.
It’s also worth remembering that spares are easier to get hold of for a bike based on a 26″ wheel. That could be a consideration if you like riding in remote areas. It will not be such a big thing in the future though as the 29er is now becoming more popular.
The big downside, when compared to a larger wheel, is that they hit potholes and roots at a steeper angle. This makes for a less comfortable ride in general.
The 29″ wheeled bike, commonly known as a 29er is the one that broke the hold the 26″ wheel had on the market.
People began to realize that a larger wheel was great for a smoother ride over rough terrain. They also generally provide a lot more control and grip.
You will also appreciate that once moving, they are much easier to keep rolling so require less effort to stay up to speed.
Some people find these oversized wheeled bikes awkward to look at, though, so you might want to check them out first.
When compared to 26ers they are not so good at doing quick turns on a tight run as well so think about what sort of riding you will be doing.
When are mountain bike tires worn out?
Part of the fun in mountain biking is getting insane grip out of those huge knobbly, or knobby, tires.
But there comes the point in their life when they need replacing or at least swapping to the rear wheel.
Usually, the guide we use for when to replace a tire is as follows:
- They are damaged or showing the casing, particularly on the side walls.
- Have large numbers of the knobs torn off.
- They are so slick they wash out on corners (if this is a front tire, you could put this on the back instead).
- You notice you are getting more flats than usual.
You may want to keep the tires that are not actually damaged; you never know when you might need a spare.
Where do you go from here?
There are of course loads more questions you will have about mountain bikes so have a look around our site, and you will probably find we have covered most of them already.
If there are any questions you would like us to answer or anything else you need to know, please use the comments section below.
If you are in the market for a good mountain bike for a good price, click here to check out Amazon.