Types of mountain bikes

There are literally thousands of different mountain bikes on the market, ranging from $100 to well over $10,000. Mountain bikes are divided into various categories based on their riding purpose and are usually reviewed within these categories. Cross-country (or XC) mountain bikes are the most traditional; they have lightweight frames and only a small amount of suspension, so they are typically used for racing or riding over relatively flat terrain. Most XC racing bikes are hardtail bikes, which means they only have suspension in the front and not the rear. However, we're starting to see more full-suspension bikes designed for XC activities; these bikes are heavier than traditional hardtails, but they have better performance over rough and rocky terrain.

Mountain bikes with 29-inch wheels (also known as 29ers) are also becoming increasingly popular. Although these bikes are heavier and may not be as agile as their 26-inch counterparts, many riders love them because the large wheels can power over obstacles and provide good traction out on the trail. However, shorter riders -- under 5 feet 6 inches or so -- may have trouble finding a good fit on a 29er. 

Cross-country bikes are still widely used for racing, but trail-oriented mountain bikes are rapidly gaining in popularity among recreational riders. Trail bikes can travel over more rugged terrain than cross-country bikes, and they typically have sturdier and heavier frames. They also have more suspension, with most trail bikes having about 5 inches of travel on both the front and rear wheels. Many experts say that trail bikes are the best fit for the average rider because they're comfortable to ride and perform well on a variety of terrain. 

All-mountain bikes are built to handle the most rugged terrain, and they have more suspension than trail or cross-country bikes -- usually about 5 to 6 inches of travel. These bikes are rugged and durable, but they are also heavier than other mountain bikes.

Other popular mountain bikes categories include freeride and downhill. We don't cover these mountain bikes in this report because these niche bikes receive less attention from reviewers. However, our Useful Links section contains some helpful ideas on where to find reviews for these bikes. We also don't cover expensive mountain bikes over $5,000, but there are numerous resources for reviews of high-end mountain bikes, including VeloNews, Bike magazine and BikeRadar.com.

In general, experts suggest the following when shopping for a mountain bike:

  • Buy from a bike shop. While you'll pay more (generally $400 or more, versus $100 and up in a department store) there are some key benefits to dealing with a bike shop. The bicycles will be better assembled, and you will typically have the opportunity to test several bike models prior to purchase, something discount stores won't let you do. A bike shop will also take your measurements to find the right frame size for you, which is very important for overall comfort and injury prevention. Bike store employees also know how to adjust and swap out components and appropriately suggest future upgrades. Many of these venues also offer after-sale service, including adjustments and diagnostics.
  • Evaluate your riding needs. A specialized downhill bike will not serve you well if you plan to do mostly paved or packed-trail riding. Likewise, a lightweight cross-country bike is not built to handle the stresses of rough trails. If you are unsure what type of riding you will do, consider purchasing a trail bike, which can handle rough terrain but still cruise packed-dirt trails.
  • Decide how much suspension you want. Full-suspension bikes are the most versatile, but many riders say hardtail (fixed rear suspension) bikes are more comfortable for distance riding. Experts also say that hardtail bikes require less maintenance than full-suspension models.
  • Weights vary. Most manufacturers don't publish the weights of their bikes, since they can vary based on the frame size and components used. Since most bike shoppers want this information, the best way to determine a true weight is to call a bike shop and get a precise weight based on the frame size you'll be buying.   
  • Get a proper fitting. It's very important to get a good fit when choosing a mountain bike, preferably by getting a fitting at a bike shop. Fit of the frame includes standover height, meaning there's a two-inch clearance between the top bar and your crotch, and angle of the frame, which determines riding position.
  • Examine the bike's components. The most important components to consider are the forks, derailleurs, brakes and wheels, detailed below. These are also interchangeable components, so ask about the ease of upgrading to better components in these four areas. Other components, such as shocks and handlebars, should also be considered to find the bike that best meets your needs.
    • The fork is a suspension component that controls how much travel -- or flexibility -- is available in the suspension system. Coil-sprung forks are less expensive and tend to be tougher, but they also tend to make for a stiffer ride. Air-sprung forks cost significantly more and are more delicate, but they are also far more adjustable and allow for more travel and agility in the suspension system. Top manufacturers of mountain-bike forks include Fox, Manitou, Rock Shox and Marzocchi.
    • The derailleur is the portion of a mountain bike that assists in moving the chain from sprocket to sprocket when shifting gears. For a smooth ride, a quality derailleur is vital, as rough shifting can ruin the continuity of your riding. Shimano and SRAM are two manufacturers whose derailleurs are frequently used on mountain bikes.
    • Brakes must be made and maintained with uncompromising quality. Because of the high pressure put on mountain bike brakes, experts recommend disc brakes over V-style or mechanical pull brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes are preferred over mechanical disc brakes, although both can get the job done. Leading manufacturers include Hayes, Avid and Shimano.
    • The lighter the wheel weight, the smoother the ride will be and the more maneuverable the bike will feel. Tire quality also improves the smoothness of the ride, and tires designed to withstand temperature and terrain changes will be most dependable and cost-effective. The type of tire is also important, with smooth or semi-slick tires working best for paved and packed paths and trails, while knobby or deep-tread tires are best for off-road and rough-terrain adventures.
  • Determine your budget. Initial cost is a primary consideration when selecting a mountain bike, but continuing maintenance costs and potential upgrades should also be taken into account. High-end bikes require the greatest initial investment, but they also come with higher-quality components that need less maintenance and fewer upgrades. Low-end bikes are less costly upfront, but they often require frequent fine-tuning and upgrades to function well. Low-end bikes may also require replacement after a few years, while a well-maintained high-end bike can last for decades, depending on use. Many manufacturers offer limited lifetime warranties on the bicycle's frame to protect against manufacturing defects. Some bike shops will also include service packages in the price of the bike.

The most important thing to remember when purchasing a mountain bike is that riding should be fun. Choose a bike that will make you happy, something that you will enjoy riding for years to come. Consider both present and future needs when selecting a mountain bike and remember that, not unlike a car, a mountain bike is an investment that must be cared for and maintained to continue working properly.

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