As a passionate and dedicated road cyclist, you might be asking why I’m writing a mountain biking article; well, the answer is simple, I’ve actually been supplementing my road cycling with mountain biking for nearly two decades now.
Now don’t get me wrong, my first passion is and always will be road cycling, but there’s something captivating about jumping on your mountain bike and heading out into the wilderness. It’s just something that road cycling can’t offer; unless you want to end up with two flat tires and a broken front fork.
Mountain bikes and road bikes both have two wheels and brakes, but to be honest, that’s about where the similarities end.
How mountain bikes differ from road bikes:
- The tires are fatter and have durable studded treads to protect from punctures.
- The riding position is much more upright compared to road bikes
- Suspension systems absorb the bumps from going over rocks and logs
The name mountain bike would suggest that mountain bikes are meant “exclusively” for the mountains, but many riders also use them to commute to work or school. Mountain bikes are excellent for commuters because they’re robust and durable and provide an exceptionally comfortable ride on the blacktop.
The truth is mountain bikes are just as at home on the road as on the trails, but if you want to get that adrenaline rush, heading out into the rugged terrain is the only way.
In this article, we’ll be covering everything from:
- How to choose a mountain bike for beginners
- Components and Frame
- Types of Mountain bikes
- Suspension types
- Gearing and Brakes, and
- A few final tips on choosing the right mountain bike for you
But before we get started, it’s important we look at the different mountain bike types and the riding styles they offer. Because first and foremost, you need to know what kind of trails you’ll be riding before you spend your hard-earned cash on the wrong bike.
What Are The Different Types Of Mountain Bikes
When it comes to choosing the right mountain bike, first, you need to consider the type of riding style you plan on doing and, most importantly, the kinds of trails you’ll be riding. Your main consideration will be whether or not you need a mountain bike with suspension or simply a hardtail.
Hardtail Mountain Bikes
Hardtail mountain bikes are exactly as the name suggests. They come equipped with suspension on the front fork but leave the rear with none; hence “hardtail.” Generally speaking, because hardtails only have suspension on the front fork, they’re less expensive than their full-suspension counterparts, making them the perfect choice for beginners.
Hardtails are relatively cheap to maintain, too, because they have fewer moving parts than a full-suspension mountain bike. Cross-country riders often choose hardtails because they provide a much more efficient pedaling stroke than other types of mountain bikes.
Rigid Mountain Bikes
These days, rigid mountain bikes are not that common; however, back in the day, they were really the only type of mountain bike on offer. Enter full-suspension bikes, high-tech frames, and disc brakes, and rigid bikes have almost gone the way of the dinosaur.
Rigid mountain bikes offer no suspension, although they generally come equipped with fat tires that riders can inflate to lower pressures to help absorb some of the vibrations from the road surface.
Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes
Full-suspension mountain bikes come in various styles but have the same overall goal: to protect the front and rear through state-of-the-art suspension systems. If you haven’t ridden a full-suspension mountain bike, you’ll be stunned at how comfortable they are, especially if you’re used to riding a road bike.
Full-suspension bikes do an excellent job at “soaking” up the bumps; however, the dual-suspension pedaling efficiency isn’t as good as on hardtail bikes. That said, most full-suspension mountain bikes allow riders to “lock out” the rear suspension for a more efficient pedaling stroke.
If you like riding downhill, then full-suspension bikes offer riders the most amount of comfort and safety. As a matter of fact, many bikes offer up to 8 inches of travel in the front suspension, which takes the stress off the hands.
What Are The Different Styles Of Mountain Biking
If you’re new to mountain biking, you may not know that manufacturers style and design their bikes based on the type of riding you do and the types of trails that can be found in the great outdoors.
Let’s take a quick look at the five most common styles of mountain biking currently popular with riders. There are a few other styles popular with riders, but we’ll focus on these five for brevity. Again, understanding which style of riding you enjoy will help determine which type of mountain bike to purchase.
The enduro style of mountain biking entails steep climbs and nerve-racking descents that put fear into even the most experienced riders. Generally speaking, the climbs are steeper and longer than other styles, and the downhill sections emphasize rider technique and require excellent bike handling skills.
Enduro mountain bikes are designed for climbing uphill, but they are also right at home, descending at breakneck speeds. In professional racing, the term “enduro” refers to timed downhill sections, but the style has become so popular among weekend-warriors that the word is interchangeable with almost any type of mountain biking.
Cross-country mountain biking style generally means that riders go fast, really fast. Typically, the distances of these rides and races can range from between a couple of miles to 30 miles. Cross-country bikes are perfect for those riders looking to take it up a notch and race competitively.
The bikes are lightweight and put a premium on having the best components. Put simply, Cross-country bikes are fantastic, but they can come with a hefty price tag.
Trail mountain biking is unquestionably the most common and preferred riding style amongst mountain bikers. Trail riding has no distinct style that it focuses on; instead, it emphasizes riding all types of trails and incorporates all the biking styles into one.
Trail riding is perfect for beginners because you can pick a trail that most suits your current riding level. Trail mountain biking also offers an excellent opportunity to meet other like-minded riders.
Overall, trail bikes are designed with three main characteristics in mind; being lightweight, efficient, and, most of all, fun to ride.
Downhill or “park” riding has become incredibly popular in recent years, particularly in my area, where we have a lot of ski resorts. During the summer months, many of the ski resorts now turn their runs into dedicated “mountain biking parks” with jumps, wooden ladders, berms, water, and even Japanese-style rock gardens.
Downhill riding is a lot of fun and provides an excellent mental and physical workout. Descending requires you to stay focused on the obstacles ahead. You also get a great full-body workout as you fight to keep control of the bike.
Downhill mountain bikes tend to have a lot of travel in the suspension (travel refers to the amount of movement in the suspension system). Because riders are descending and not pedaling much, the bikes have far fewer gears than other mountain bikes and are incredibly durable.
Fat Tire Biking
In recent years, fat tire mountain biking has become increasingly popular, especially with newcomers to the sport. The fat, wide tires provide a level of comfort, traction, and ultimately safety which is especially important to beginner riders.
Generally speaking, fat tire bikes are ridden on the sand and in the snow, but most people find these bikes a lot of fun to ride around town. They give riders a nice comfortable ride as the wide tires soak up every little bump, and let’s be honest, they look pretty rad too.
If you’re a beginner to mountain biking, I would consider purchasing a fat tire bike; however, keep in mind they are quite different from a traditional mountain bike. This means you won’t be able to climb or descend hills, not efficiently anyway.
Different Types Of Mountain Biking Trails
As a beginner, you’re likely going to start riding on the flat top or, at most, test yourself on some easy climbs and trails. But the beauty of mountain biking is that as your bike handling skills and confidence increase, so does the difficulty of your trails and rides; this is one of the reasons mountain biking is so rewarding.
In general, mountain bike trails are “labeled” or “categorized” according to skill level; beginner, intermediate, expert, and pro. You’ll also find three common types of trails: single-track, double-track, and bike parks. Let’s take a quick look at each one.
A single track, as the name suggests, is exactly that; a single mountain bike track that is generally no wider than the width of your handlebars. However, single tracks may occasionally be a little wider, allowing two bikes to squeeze past each other. Single tracks are also typically only opened for one-way runs and meander their way through the most panoramic parts of the wilderness.
You guessed it; double tracks are “double” the width of single tracks leaving enough room to ride with a friend or let others climb by you or descend on past. You might be asking, who builds these dedicated double tracks?
In actual fact, double tracks are generally old fire roads or sometimes even old logging roads depending on where you live. Because of that, double tracks typically have pretty smooth surfaces and gentle gradients with little to no large obstacles to navigate or jump.
Dedicated Mountain Bike Parks
Mountain bike parks are becoming increasingly popular among business owners; even local governments are chipping into building some awesome dedicated mountain bike and BMX parks. These mountain bike parks have manmade obstacles like jumps, halfpipes, banked wooden corners, and descending switchbacks.
You’ll find them everywhere, from ski resorts to dedicated bike parks and even under the bridges of expressways.
Mountain Bike Shoes and Pedals
As a beginner, you may not need or want to get all the fancy gear like cycling shoes and clipless pedals, but just in case you do, here are the must-knows for your mountain bike shoes and pedal needs.
Flat or “platform” Pedals
When it comes to shoes for beginner mountain bikers, I would highly recommend starting with the traditional platform pedal. Flat or “platform” pedals are basically the same pedals you would’ve grown up riding on your bike as a kid.
There’s no need to clip in and out, which makes the ride a lot safer and enjoyable and provides confidence, particularly for newbies who aren’t used to getting thrown side to side on their bikes.
When choosing flat pedals, try to purchase ones with a “tacky” grip; this will further help to improve your safety and make your pedaling motion more efficient. Overall, flat pedals are an excellent way to introduce yourself to mountain biking and are a good starting point for when you finally transition to clipless pedals.
Being a road cyclist my entire life, clipless pedals are second nature to me, but it wasn’t always like that. There’s a time in every cyclist’s life when they had to overcome the dreaded fear of clipless pedals. I can still remember the 1st time I couldn’t “clip-out” at the traffic lights and fell over in front of everyone; pretty embarrassing.
All jokes aside, though, clipless pedals are the only way to go if you’re a serious road cyclist or a mountain biker. Clipless pedals let you pedal more efficiently because all of your force is pushed down and through the pedals.
However, if you go down the clipless pedals route, you’ll also need to purchase some cycling shoes. Cycling shoes can be expensive, but that said, many brands offer affordable models aimed toward beginners. One advantage is that cycling shoes are well made and highly durable, meaning you won’t have to upgrade shoes for quite some time.
Different Sizes Of Mountain Bike Tires
I remember back in the day when pretty much all mountain bikes came equipped with 26-inch tires; those days are long gone. However, 26-inch tires are still available, but you’re better off going with some of the wider tires to take advantage of their comfort and safety.
Offering the best of both worlds in terms of comfort and rolling, 27-inch tires provide a much better ride quality than 26’s, and the extra width helps to absorb the bumps. You’ll typically find 27-inch tires on all types of mountain bikes, particularly hardtails and full-suspension models.
Although 29-inch wheels take a little longer to get moving, once they start rolling, they let you ride over large obstacles and are perfect on the more rugged trails. On longer rides, 29-inch tires are much more efficient and can give riders an extra 5-10 watts of power without even having to do anything.
Hardtails, full-suspension, and rigid mountain bikes all come equipped with 29-inch tires. Those riders who love cross-country trails will also benefit greatly from the more efficient rolling resistance the 29s provide.
These tires are found on kids’ mountain bikes, meaning that children can keep their feet close to the ground if they happen to come off. Children’s mountain bikes are less expensive, which is great news for us parents out there, and the components are durable and make fantastic hand-me-downs.
These tires are undoubtedly some of the most popular among mountain bikers. The wider the tires, the better the rolling resistance, which is another way of saying they offer riders a more comfortable and efficient riding experience. Big bonus; they’re pretty hard to puncture too.
Mountain Bike Gears Explained
Explaining chainrings, cogs, rear derailleurs, and sprockets to beginners can get tricky, but the concept is pretty simple. It’s simply a matter of multiplying the front chainring by the number of sprockets on the back cassette. Typically mountain bikes come with at least 30 gears which are ample for most riders to climb the steepest of slopes.
The easiest way to choose the right gearing, especially for beginners, is to factor in the types of riding you’ll be doing and, most importantly, your fitness level. Basically, the more climbing you want to ride more gears you’ll need, and the more downhills you want to tackle, the fewer gears you’ll need. If you’re riding or commuting to work, you won’t need that need many gears either.
Unlike road bikes that traditionally have two chainrings, mountain bikes can have two or even three to help get up those steep climbs. Mountain bikes come with chainrings, and rear cogs in 9, 10, and even 11 are now popular. One chainring is obviously lighter, and for most newbies, they still provide most of the gears you’ll need.
Bear in mind, too, that changing your components on a mountain is pretty straightforward these days, and most components are easily interchangeable from brand to brand. Be warned, though, cycling can get addictive and expensive, especially when trying to make your bike as light as possible.
Mountain Bike Brakes Explained
It’s fair to say that disc brakes have pretty much taken over when it comes to braking technology, with most road and mountain bikes now coming fully equipped with disc brakes direct from the factory. However, there are still a few different ways to bring your mountain bike to a screeching halt.
Similar to the brakes on your car, disc brakes include a pad that “grips” to the brake rotor attached to the hub of your wheel. Disc brakes are available in two distinct versions.
Hydraulic Disc Brakes
Hydraulics are by far the most advanced and superior of the two versions and, as such, are more expensive. That said, you get breathtaking stopping power and super responsiveness with less effort required pulling on the brakes.
Cable Disc Brakes
Cable brakes use cables instead of hydraulics to control your disc brakes, and while they are much better than traditional rim brakes, they’re a way off the hydraulic disc brake version. Cables disc brakes also need to be maintained, and the disc brake pads should be changed regularly.
Disc Brake Pros
- Consistent and superior braking
- Cheaper to replace a rotor compared to an entire rim
- Easy on the hands and fingers
- Excellent in the wet
- Excellent on steep descents.
Disc Brake Cons
- Tough to inspect and maintain at home
- More expensive than rim brakes
Now, while some riders “poo-poo” rim brakes, many old-timers like myself still prefer them. They are lighter than disc brakes but granted, the stopping power isn’t as good. With braking, it depends on what type of riding you do. Most mountain bikes are equipped with disc brakes because the need to stop with confidence on descents is critical, whereas, on a road bike, braking isn’t the priority for most riders.
Rim Brakes Pros
- Easier to maintain
- Easier to visually inspect wear and tear
Rim Brake Cons
- Wears out the rim over time
- Not great in wet conditions
- Tougher on the hands
Try Before You Buy
Before spending your hard-earned cash on a mountain bike, your best bet is to thoroughly research as much as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to visit some bike shops. Most dealers will let you take them out for a spin, with some bike shops even having dedicated testing areas where you can put your potential ride through its paces. If you can, make sure you ride over some humps and bumps and try riding on as many surfaces as possible. This will helps you get a feel for how the bike performs.
A good bike shop also has expert staff that can help you get fitted for the correct size bike. A proper bike fit will make your ride more comfortable and prevent injury, which can occur from the saddle being too high or low or the handlebars being too far forward.