How to Choose a Mountain Bike
From XC Machines To Enduro Rigs
With mountain bike technology constantly evolving, the prospect of choosing the best mountain bike can be a lot to take on. It’s important to find a bike that feels fun and intuitive to ride, yet still leaves the door open for progression for years to come. We’ve broken down mountain bikes into four categories so that you can find the best type for your riding style, anatomy, and personal preferences.
The four types of mountain bikes we’ll cover here are cross-country bikes, trail bikes, enduro bikes, and e-mountain bikes. Each is intended for a different riding discipline, and the key differences between them are the amount of rear-wheel travel, wheel size, and geometry. In addition to this overview of MTB types, we add in a few considerations at the end to keep top of mind when plotting New Bike Day.
Mountain Bike Categories
The longest-standing member of the MTB family is the cross-country bike (aka XC bike), which is optimized for endurance and speed, rather than aggressive descending. While XC bikes are used for cross-country racing, they’re also a user-friendly option for newer riders.
XC Bike Key Features:
- Front Suspension: 100-130mm of travel
- Rear Suspension: Hardtail (0mm)-115mm of travel
- Weight: ~27lb and below
- Most Common Wheel Size: 29in
With the least amount of rear-wheel travel among MTBs, XC bikes retain as much momentum as possible under pedaling power. Some XC bikes are hardtails, which means they have no rear suspension. Hardtails are a great entry-level option because they tend to be more affordable and you can go longer without maintenance.
Rear suspension XC bikes deliver superior rear-wheel traction to hardtails, whether tackling steep climbs or loose corners. The maximum amount of rear travel you’ll usually find on an XC bike is 115mm, while front suspension forks range from 100-130mm of travel.
When it comes to wheel size, cross-country bikes typically utilize 29in wheels for their ability to hold momentum over mixed trail surfaces, from smooth singletrack to rocks or roots. From a geometry standpoint, cross-country bikes have a steep and short design, putting the rider in an efficient pedaling position that also lets them easily maneuver the bike. In most cases, XC bikes are the best option for riders who care more about logging miles than tackling gnarly terrain.
Our next category is trail bikes, which utilize a balanced design to tackle anything from lift-assisted bike parks to burly trail rides with lots of elevation gain. Their versatile performance makes them the most popular option when choosing a bike, suited for newcomers to the sport and seasoned MTB veterans alike.
Trail Bike Key Features
- Front Suspension: 130-160mm of travel
- Rear Suspension: 120-150mm of travel
- Weight: Varies
- Most Common Wheel Size: 27.5in-29in, or mixed
Trail bikes range from 120-150mm of rear travel, supplying balanced traction for climbing up the mountain and plenty of support for dropping into committing descents without sacrificing playfulness. Often described as “mid-travel” bikes, trail bikes are known for their middle-of-the-road suspension that performs equally well on undulating or near-vertical terrain.
Straddling either end of the wheel-size debate, trail bikes do tend to feature 29in wheels for their rollover ability in spicy terrain. Though 27.5in wheel options hold their own on the singletrack with their user-friendly cornering and ease of use for smaller riders. Mixed-wheel options are starting to pop up in the trail category, too, with some 29ers designed to be compatible with MX conversions. Mixed-wheel trail bikes offer a no-compromise design between rollover ability and intuitive cornering.
When it comes to geometry, trail bikes are becoming longer and slacker for stability, which is made possible by ever-improving suspension technology that keeps these big bikes playful. If you’re a versatile rider in the market for an MTB quiver of one, a trail bike is likely your best bet.
Enduro bikes are hard-hitting and descent-oriented, yet are still capable of getting up the mountain—which is what’s required in an enduro race setting. While they’re race-compatible, these shred sleds are also great for the rider who’s really in it for the descent and dabbles in the downhill parks, too.
Enduro Bike Key Features:
- Front Suspension: 160-180mm of travel
- Rear Suspension: 150-170mm of travel
- Weight: Varies, but typically heavier than trail/XC
- Most Common Wheel Size: 29in, with some 27.5in and mixed options
Ranging from 150mm to 170mm of rear travel, enduro bikes provide maximum descending traction and bottom-out resistance for rough descents. In the enduro category, 29in wheels reign supreme for their ability to carry momentum over rough and rocky terrain, but some 27.5in bikes still hold their own thanks to their intuitive cornering. Mixed-wheel setups are also becoming more popular in the enduro category, but it’s hard to match the raw speed of a full 29in setup.
Since they’re heavier, enduro bikes inherently require more energy to get up the mountain, but they offer descending stability that makes them perfect for shuttling and riding the bike park. They’re also a great option for riders who don’t mind slowing down on the ascent to make the most of the downhill. Enduro bikes are inherently big and slack, with long wheelbases to provide maximum stability for letting off the brakes in steep, gnarly terrain.
E-MTBs, aka E-Mountain Bikes
We like to think of e-MTBs as our own personal chairlift that lives in our garage. E-Bikes offer battery-powered pedal-assist technology to propel you up the mountain, leaving you with more energy for the fun part (the descent), and allowing you to get more miles in.
E-MTB Key Features
- Front Suspension: 150-180mm of travel
- Rear Suspension: 130-180mm of travel
- Weight: 40+ lbs.
- Most Common Wheel Size: Mixed wheel, 29in
Since e-bikes rely on their motors for climbing, they typically lean towards longer suspension travel numbers. Our range of e-bikes spans from 130mm to 180mm of rear-wheel travel, making them capable on both rolling trails and steep, techy descents.
The mixed-wheel size is the most popular option for e-bikes since the smaller diameter 27.5in rear-wheel adds some playfulness to these 40lb+ machines. The burly 29in wheel up front makes it easier to get up and over rock ledges and also improves cornering traction.
E-Mountain bikes are a great option for riders who want to roam further into their local trail networks. They also make the sport more accessible for people with limited mobility or heart rate restrictions from various health conditions. Not all trails are e-bike friendly, so make sure to do your research before heading out there to be a courteous trail user.
Is Carbon Worth The Cost?
You might be wondering if it’s worth the extra money to upgrade from an aluminum frame to carbon just to save a little weight. While you’re going to appreciate that lightness if you spend a lot of time climbing, there’s more to carbon than that:
- The most amazing property of carbon fiber is its ability to absorb trail input—carbon dampens the ride and creates an incredibly smooth trail feel.
- Carbon is extremely strong—frame manufacturers have built frames that their fatigue testers can’t bring to failure.
- The fatigue life for repeated normal flex of carbon is exponentially better than aluminum.
While carbon is absolutely the more premium material and worth investing in if you’re a dedicated rider or have racing goals and dreams, many riders will do just fine on aluminum. Furthermore, if you’re shredding on a budget, you can always elevate that aluminum frame with the best possible drivetrain, suspension, and brake components.
Bike Fit Is Everything
While the type of bike you buy is important, it’s also critical to remember that poor fit can transform a dream bike into a torture device. While you should fine-tune saddle height, stem length, and handlebar position, they won’t correct for the wrong size frame.
Manufacturer’s sizing recommendations are your best starting point, and keep in mind that your body is unique. Factors like your limb length, flexibility, and pre-existing injuries can influence your fit, and it’s a good idea to mention them to a Gearhead so they can factor them into your sizing decision.
Still have questions on the best mountain bike for you?
Reach out to a Gearhead by calling 1-800-409-4502 or chat online.
Happy trails to you!
Kendall Zylstra is a writer at Backcountry. Follow along @kzylstra22