Believe it or not, the first mountain bikes were only produced in the 1980s. While it seems like this sport has been around forever, the reality is that mountain biking is still constantly evolving.
Therefore, knowing how to choose the best mountain bike isn’t as easy as you might think. If you’re in the market for a new (or your first!) mountain bike, the large selection can be overwhelming.
However, starting with the basics of mountain bike design – and being honest with yourself about how you intend to use the bike – can help you find the best mountain bike for your needs and budget.
Here’s what you should be looking for.
Consider the Type of Bike for the Type of Riding
Before you can understand how to choose the best mountain bike, it’s important that you realize there are multiple types and styles out there. Think carefully about how and where you intend to ride your new bike.
A few of the more common types of mountain bikes nowadays include all-mountain and enduro bikes, downhill bikes, XC (cross country) bikes, and somewhat new to the scene – E-bikes.
While there are some less popular alternatives you might also find in stores – like single speed mountain bikes, dirt jumping mountain bikes, and fat bikes – you’re best off sticking to this list if you’re a newbie to mountain biking.
An all-mountain or enduro bike is one that is designed specifically for steep, difficult trails. Usually, these bikes perform exceptionally well when traversing downhill but are also efficient and lightweight enough to perform well on the uphill climb, too.
These bikes are usually offered in a full-suspension format. They typically have double-reinforced wheels, along with air-spring suspension setups that are heavy-duty for better downhill performance.
Enduro and all-mountain bikes are best for people who enjoy tough, difficult descents. They are also best for people who plan on racing, and while they’re great at the descent, the uphill can sometimes be a bit more of a challenge.
Ask someone unfamiliar with mountain biking, and they’ll likely refer to just about any bike as a “downhill” bike. But as you probably already know, a downhill mountain bike has a very specific design for a very specific goal.
This kind of bike is designed to do one thing and one thing only – attack steep, aggressive downhill terrain extremely fast.
Of course, it’s also meant to do so as safely as possible, and as a result, it’s equipped with all kinds of features to help you navigate the steepest, technical terrain. With around 200 mm of suspension travel, these bikes typically use coil-sprung suspension systems that maximize your support and reaction.
Pedaling ability isn’t as important here – you’ll have gravity on your side. Stability is really key. Downhill bikes are fingered to tolerate a massive amount of roe. Therefore, they are heavier for rigidity and have fork legs that typically extend above the head tube before being braced back together in a double-crown or triple-clamp fork.
These are the best possible bikes if you like going downhill on difficult terrain – and you like doing it as quickly as possible. You might just need a bit of a push to get to the top!
XC (Cross Country)
An XC, also known as cross country, mountain bike is designed for efficiency. This kind of bike is geared toward covering as much ground as possible, as quickly as possible. It can be used in the mountains and on the trails as well as in a formal competitive racing.
If you’re shopping for a cross country bike, know that a hardtail (no rear suspension) is the preferred suspension of choice, but there are plenty of full-suspension designs, too. These usually have roughly 8–100 mm of suspension travel and have lockout switches to prevent the suspension from taking away your energy as you tackle easier sections of the rail.
These bikes also tend to have larger wheels – typically with a diameter of 29 inches to improve efficiency – along with light tread and fast-rolling tires. They can be more difficult to control on steep descents, especially because they have thin tires and shorter-travel suspension. However, most come with a wide range of gears to give you better control over your speed, too.
Although E-bikes are relatively new to the mountain biking scene, they are nevertheless growing in popularity. There are models for all kinds of purposes mentioned above.
E-Bike (Electric Assist)
These bikes include both a battery and a low profile, frame mounted electric motor to give you an extra boost when pedaling uphill or freewheeling down. You can adjust how much assistance you receive by adjustment of the motor controls, usually found on the handlebars.
E-bikes are heavy with the added battery powered motor, but you won’t mind the extra weight when it comes to reaching the top of the tallest mountain! They’re best for riders who want to access places that would typically be off-limits if you were traveling on a non-powered mountain bike, too.
You’ll find mountain bike wheels in all sizes, from 24” to 29”. 24” tires are pretty uncommon and usually reserved for child-sized mountain bikes. The small wheels help accommodate the shorter leg length of a young child. Otherwise, the three most popular wheel sizes include 26”, 27.5”, and 29”.
Not too long ago, almost every single adult mountain bike had 26” tires. Although that’s now a thing of the past, it’s still a size that you’ll frequently see in stores.
A 27.5” tire is the perfect compromise between a too-small and a too-large mountain wheel. It is the real “Goldilocks” of the mountain bike world. This kind of tire is more maneuverable than a 29” wheel, yet easier to use on difficult terrain than a 26”.
A 29” wheel may take a bit longer to accelerate, but once you get going, you’re going to cover ground much easier than if you had 26” wheels. They are great for long rides and traverse over obstacles with ease. They are popular among cross country bikers and can be found on bikes with all suspension types as well.
Hardtail or Full Suspension
There are technically three kinds of suspension systems you might find on a mountain bike, but one is not all that common. You are most likely to find a suspension that can be described as a hardtail or full suspension system.
A hardtail suspension bike is one that has a suspension fork setup located at the very front of the bike. The rear has no suspension, which gives it the name “hardtail”. The front suspension fork is designed to absorb all of the impact from the front wheel with this type of setup.
Since a hardtail bike only comes equipped with half of that of a full suspension, it’s usually less expensive than a full-suspension bike. Not only can the suspension get pretty pricey at times, but there are also fewer parts to deal with, which usually means less maintenance. Most cross country mountain bikes are hardtails as this makes it easier to transfer power between the rear tire and the pedal stroke. After all, efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to cross country mountain biking.
Full suspension is, as the name suggests, a mountain bike with suspension in both the front and rear of the bike. This makes for the smoothest ride, as it reduces the impact on the rider and increases the reaction on the rails as well. Many riders don’t prefer full suspension bikes because they feel as though the bike bobs up and down too much during the ride and takes away from efficiency in doing so.
In rare cases, you might also find a “rigid” mountain bike. To be blunt, this kind of mountain bike has no suspension at all. It’s a type favored by some people because it is easy to maintain, usually less expensive or for the more avid biker, the challenge it brings through rough trails. However, it’s not going to be a comfortable to ride on rough terrain if that’s what you’re looking for.
Though admittedly less important than the wheel size and suspension type, the material that your bike frame is made out is also a significant factor. Aluminum alloy is the most common material that companies use when constructing mountain bike frames. It is lightweight and durable while also being inexpensive.
That being said, you may find mountain bikes made out of other frame materials, too, including titanium, carbon fiber, and steel. Titanium is the most expensive material you’ll find, and while it’s one of the strongest and lightest, it’s only going to be found on a super high-end mountain bike.
Carbon fiber, on the other hand, is also lightweight and strong, but it can also be quite expensive. It requires a lot of time and money to manufacture a frame made out of carbon fiber. Similarly, steel alloy, though inexpensive and equally tough, is too heavy for most mountain bike frames and therefore, is typically used for downhill bikes that need added rigidity.
Mountain bikes can have two types of brakes – disc brakes or rim brakes. Disc brakes are most preferred on mountain bikes as they provide better response and stopping power, although some entry-level mountain bikes still come equipped with rim brakes.
Disc brakes are those that have pads designed to grip to a brake rotor, which is mounted on the wheel hub. There are two types of disc brakes – hydraulic brakes which are stronger and have the ability to self-adjust, while mechanical brakes need manual adjusting.
As previously described, there’s a reason why most professional mountain bikes have disc brakes. They offer more consistent braking and they also perform better in wet, steep terrain. Rim brakes, on the other hand, (though inexpensive and moderately easy to fix) gradually wear out the wheel rim and offer less stopping power.
You can usually buy a mountain bike that’s a single speed to up to 30 or more gears. The more gears a bike has, the more complex it will be – both to use and to maintain – so keep that in mind.
When deciding how many gears you actually need, think about how fit you are – and be brutally honest with yourself. You also need to consider the terrain. If you aren’t the best at climbing steep hills and the trails you’ll be riding have more of them, make sure you choose a mountain bike that has more gear variations. This will help you get to where you need to go a bit quicker and with less effort to conserve your energy.
On the other hand, if you are extremely fit and looking for the added challenge or just don’t plan on riding trails with steep climbs, a mountain bike with fewer gears may be an ideal fit.
Perhaps the most important feature to look for when you’re learning how to choose the best mountain bike is to consider its fit and size. You can have the most tricked out, expensive, and high-performing mountain bike in the world – but if not sized correctly to fit you, all the features you’re paying for will be almost useless.
A bike that fits well will be one that you really enjoy riding. It can improve your handling and make you more confident (and safer) out on the trails.
Mountain bikes are usually sized in a basic system of small, medium, large and extra large. These are similar across brands and correspond to your height. The shorter you are, the smaller your bike needs to be. If you aren’t sure what size will work best for you, the best thing to do is check with the manufacturer as some sizes differ by manufacturer. Most will include size charts that will tell you the ideal range for each size.
If you fall between sizes, size down unless you’re young and fast growing. It’s easier to make adaptations to a bike if you’re working with a too-small frame versus a too-large one.
Of course, another idea to tell how well your mountain bike matches your size is to head to your local bike store. It’s quite easy to obsess over the features of a mountain bike in-store, but unless you get to try it out in real-time, you’re not going to have any idea of how well it will work for you.
How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike
Before you pull out your wallet, make sure you are selecting the best mountain bike for your needs. Obviously, your budget will be a primary concern, but there are many other factors to consider as previously described. Make sure the bike is constructed of the right frame materials and geometry, has the proper suspension setup and wheel size, and adequate gears and brakes for the type of riding you’ll be doing most. And most importantly, be sure it is sized correctly.
And remember, lots of features on these mountain bikes can be customized. If you find a bike that meets 99% of your expectations, you may be able to make slight changes through the dealer or manufacturer to meet that last 1%, too.
Lastly, enjoy the ride!