Mountain Bikes: One Sport With Lots of Options
So you want to buy a mountain bike. If you’ve just started your search, the first thing you’ll realize is that there are a lot of different types of mountain bikes to choose from. What are the differences, and which ones will work for the riding you want to do?
Different types of mountain bikes
- The original mountain bike
- Extremely heavy
- Prone to breaking
- Poor performance compared to modern bikes
Mountain biking got its start in the 70s with enthusiasts riding on dirt paths in the mountains around Marin County, California. The first riders began with old American cruisers, but quickly found they were inadequate for the terrain. To compensate, they added any part they could find to improve their rides; common modifications included multi-speed freewheels, motorcycle brake levers, and drum brakes from tandems. The sport’s premier race was called the “Repack” since riders would have to repack the grease in their bikes’ brakes after it had boiled out after tackling the twisty downhill course. The competitors at this race reads like a “Who’s Who” of mountain biking, including future builders like Gary Fisher and Tom Ritchey.
While this style of bike has long been made obsolete, there are still classic cycling enthusiast who build and ride these bikes to get a taste of what it was like in the early days of the sport.
- Low cost
- Bumps can upset the wheels, making technical courses difficult
After breaking several cruiser frames, Charlie Kelly asked his friend Joe Breeze to build him a heavily strengthened custom frame for off-road riding. The result was a set of 10 frames based on the dimensions of Breeze’s ’41 Schwinn cruiser, adding a set of tubes that run from the head tube to the chainstays. Breeze took first place at the ’77 Repack race, then the premier event in this oddball sport. That bike kicked off a whole new industry that would create the modern mountain bike.
Specialized built the first mass-produced mountain bike, the Stump Jumper, in 1982, and other manufacturers quickly put together competing models. These early bikes were a surprise success with casual riders who loved the bikes’ upright seating position, strong frames and low gearing. There were plenty of experimental designs at first, but eventually companies settled on a traditional diamond frame design built using high strength steel or aluminum tubing with occasional forays into titanium and carbon fiber.
These bikes eventually fell out of favor as cyclists moved to bikes with suspensions, but they’ve seen a recent resurgence due to their simplicity and low weight.
- Front suspension gives better control and increases comfort
- Handles more like a standard road bike
- Not as good on technical terrain as a full suspension bike
A hardtail has a rigid frame and a front suspension. Hardtails are the most popular type of mountain bikes since they’re cheap, readily available, and easy to ride. Almost everyone who gets into the sport starts with one of these bikes since they have everything a new rider needs to start tackling dirt trails.
- Near BMX agility
- Great for doing tricks
- Uncomfortable for long rides
A dirt jump bike blends together the features of a hard tail mountain bike and a BMX bike. That means front suspensions and dirt tires combined with unobtrusive cable routing, low rolling resistance tires and low seatposts. The result is a bike that works well on dirt while allowing the rider to move freely around the bike to perform tricks and do bar spins. Some designs use 24 inch wheels for better maneuverability.
- Absorbs bumps for better control when covering rough terrain
- Bounces up and down during sprints, reducing power and making the bike difficult to control
By adding a suspension to the rear, the bike is able to better soak up impacts. This means a softer ride and better control on rough terrain and drop offs. This makes them ideal for technical terrain. The bouncing of the rear suspension during sprints can feel odd to new riders, and this movement reduces efficiency.
- Extremely durable
- Great high speed stability
- Can withstand large drops
- Too heavy to be pedaled uphill
- Difficult to control at low speeds
This variation of full suspension bike is built to go down hill over difficult terrain as quickly as possible. That means strong frames to handle big drops, long frame tubes and a slack head tube angle to improve high speed stability, and high gearing for pedaling during descents. All that size and durability comes with a major weight penalty with complete bikes often weighing over 40 lbs. That makes them impractical for riding uphill for any length of time.
- Tight frame dimensions mean great low speed stability
- Great for tackling technical courses
- Unstable at high speeds
- Not comfortable for long rides
Like the snowboarding style it shares its name with, freeriding emphasizes tricks and technical skill over speed. Freeride bikes have strong frames like downhill bikes, but they’re shorter and use steeper head tube angles to make them more agile when tackling obstacles at low speeds.
- Easily rolls over obstacles like rocks and tree roots
- Floats over soft surfaces like snow and sand
- Very heavy
- Slow steering
These bikes use giant tires that can be as much as 5 inches wide, letting the bike float over soft surfaces like snow and sand, making them a great choice for riding on these surfaces; in some cases, they can tackle terrain that would be impossible on a regular mountain bike. These tires can also maintain momentum over rough terrain, rolling over rocks and tree roots like they aren’t even there. However, the added weight and rolling resistance makes these bikes heavy and makes steering sluggish. Although their use in racing is limited to the surfaces they excel on, there are plenty of people who buy these bikes because they find them fun to ride.
- Can tackle any type of riding
- Not as good as a purpose built bike will be for specific challenges
The terms “All Mountain” and “Trail” are used on bikes built for a little of everything. There isn’t one standard design, but they generally blend traits of a standard hardtail or full suspension bike with a downhill bike. The result is something that handles high speeds, low speeds, trails and technical riding, but can’t match the abilities of specialty bikes in any one area. While you might not see one in a race, they’re often the best choice for serious recreational riders.
Cross Country (XC)
- Built for maximum speed on any terrain
- Less durable than similar
Cross country racing mixes single track, rough trails and occasionally paved roads. This is the type of mountain bike racing that you’ll see in the Olympics. Like All Mountain bikes, there isn’t one single formula for XC bikes, aside from an emphasis on minimizing weight. Smaller components, particularly the pivot linking the rear shock and frame, can’t take as much abuse as those found on an All Mountain or Downhill bike.
- Brings the advantages of mountain bike design to the street
- Not suited for serious off-road cycling
Hybrids are sometimes lumped in with mountain bikes by manufacturers, but they’re really intended for riding on pavement. These bikes combine mountain and road bike features to create something that works great for commuting, allowing easy steering, a comfortable riding position and the ability to accommodate fenders and cargo attachments. However, lower strength frames and narrow tires make them ill suited for serious off road riding.
Categories Different Types of Mountain Bikes By Equipment
There are a few categories that are defined by the type of equipment on the bike, not what the bike is built for. These categories can be found in combination with any design from single speed fat bikes to 29er trail bikes.
Single speeds: Single speed bikes force the rider into choosing a single gear ratio, which will often be lower or higher than ideal for the terrain and speed they’re riding at. However, by eliminating the derailleurs, there’s no chain slap, little chance of the chain falling off, and the drivetrain is kept well out of the way of obstacles.
1×9 and 2×9: Wide range gear cassettes allow enough flexibility without needing the standard triple chainring crank, so these bikes use one (1×9) or two (2×9) chainrings to reduce complexity and weight.
29ers and 27.5: The standard 26 inch mountain bike tire is a holdover from the clunker days when tires were adapted to fit cruiser rims. To improve shock absorption and roll over obstacles more easily, 700c wheels, commonly seen on road bikes, were adapted to use mountain bikes tires. These “29ers,” named after their 29 inch diameter, are heavy, require longer forks which reduces stiffness and can be a difficult fit for frames designed for smaller riders. The 27.5 was created as a compromise between 26 and 29 inch wheels. It’s based on the 650B wheel, a size originally used on French utility bikes.