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How to Choose a Mountain Bike

Whether you are new to mountain biking or an experienced rider, there is a lot to consider when choosing the right bike for your needs. Cross country, trail, enduro … what does it all mean? Not to mention that bike manufacturers are pushing the technology further with ever-evolving components, geometry, hub spacing, gear ratios and tire sizes.

Possibly the most important consideration when buying a new bike is where you will be riding it. Check out “Seven Things To Know When Buying A New Mountain Bike” as an initial guide. Once you have grasped the basics, the following will help you understand the important features of different types of mountain bikes, and you will be well on your way to a world of fun on the trails.

What’s New in Mountain Biking

If it’s been a few years since you last looked at mountain bikes, you’ll notice that a lot has changed. Basically, bikes have changed to reflect the changing way we ride them. For example, with a few exceptions, hardtail bikes have largely been relegated to cross-country racers and entry level models. 26-inch wheels are almost nowhere to be found. Stems are shorter, handlebars are wider, and the geometry of a modern bike looks radically different than bikes from bikes a few years old. What gives?

Modern bikes are orders of magnitude more capable in technical terrain, without coming at the cost of efficiency. Across categories, frame geometry has changed: head tube angles have gotten raked out (typically referred to as “slack” geometry) to maximize descending confidence, and seat tube angles have gotten steeper to achieve a balanced position for climbing.

While 26-inch wheels were once synonymous with singletrack, modern mountain bikes almost universally roll on bigger rims, with fat bikes being the one notable exception. Bigger wheels offer improved handling, giving riders the option of quicker-handling 27.5-inch bikes, or more stable 29-inch rides (more on that here), while mountain bikes with wider Plus tires are finding traction with riders who want a more surefooted feel.

Wider BOOST hub spacing has allowed for stiffer frames, better tire clearance, and in some cases, frame geometry that would have been impossible to achieve with the older standards.

Many of these changes have come from the pursuit of speed, but you don’t have to be a racer to appreciate them. Basically, mountain bikes are more fun to ride, no matter your experience level.

Choosing Between Features

Like all bikes, mountain bikes differ from one another in materials, components, and weight. They also vary in wheel size, geometry, and suspension travel. offers nearly every type of mountain bike at many different price points. For example, we carry 13 different versions of the iconic Santa Cruz Tallboy XC bike: same basic design, but different frame materials, wheels, and components. This variety can be overwhelming, but it also gives you the freedom to tailor your choice to your budget, weight considerations, and demands when it comes to componentry. Just to give you an idea, the difference in price between the aluminum framed Tallboy with ‘entry-level’ (still excellent, as good as the top end only a few years ago) components and the top-of-the-line version with carbon frame, carbon rims, SRAM X1 Eagle drivetrain, and more, is around $4500.

Speaking of carbon, I get a lot of questions as to whether or not it’s worth the extra money 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 allows for silky 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 is exponentially better than aluminum.
  • Carbon layups can be tuned to offer specific ride characteristic, which will control the ‘personality’ (e.g. snappiness, edge-to-edge recoil). Aluminum can be built to control flex but isn’t as easily tuned, from a manufacturing standpoint.

But we’re putting the cart before the horse here. Before you start looking at specific builds, you want to consider the basic mountain bike categories, to figure out where  you need to start looking.


Mountain Bike Categories

Cross-Country (XC)

Do you want to document your climbs and crush your buddies’ uphill times? You should be looking at bikes with lower amounts of suspension, larger wheels, pedaling efficiency and lighter weight. If you are riding long mileage or flowy, smoother terrain you may want to forgo rear suspension altogether and buy a hardtail. Depending on your size, 29-inch wheels generally make sense for most XC bikes. Smaller riders may want to choose 27.5 inch wheels in order to have a correct fit and more control, particularly for cornering and descending. If your main objective is being fast uphill and maximizing your pedal strokes, then a cross-country bike is right for you.

XC Bike Key Features

  • Front Suspension: 100-120mm (4-4.7in)
  • Rear Suspension: Hardtail up to 100mm (4in)
  • Weight: ~25 lbs. and below


Top 2018 Hardtail XC Bikes:

Santa Cruz Highball Carbon CC X01 Eagle Reserve

Niner Air 9 RDO 2-Star GX Eagle

See All Hardtail XC Bikes


Top 2018 Full Suspension XC Bikes:

Santa Cruz Blur Carbon CC XX1 Eagle Reserve

Niner RKT 9 RDO 5-Star X01 Eagle

See All XC Full Suspension Bikes



Are you looking to cruise uphill but still survive the white-knuckle descent? A trail bike may be your next ride. Trail bikes have a bit more front and rear suspension. Their geometry lends to quick and nimble climbing but they are still capable on the downhill. Many models of front forks and rear shocks have travel adjustment, particularly a lock-out mode, to better optimize the uphill climb. Not surprisingly, trail bikes are the most versatile choice out there and will allow you to tackle a variety of trails and riding conditions. Welcome to the Swiss Army knife of mountain bikes.

Trail Bike Key Features

  • Front Travel: 120-140mm (4.7-5.5in)
  • Rear Travel: 100-140mm (4-5.5in)
  • Weight: 25-27 lbs


Top 2018 Trail Bikes:

Yeti SB4.5 Carbon GX Eagle

Santa Cruz Tallboy Caron CC 29 X01 Eagle

Niner JET 9 RDO 29 3-Star GX Eagle

Evil Bikes The Following MB GX Eagle

Yeti SB 4.5 Carbon GX Eagle

See All Trail Bikes


Want to climb like a goat and fly on the downhill? Enduro bikes feature plush rear suspension to soften rough descents and sporty handling to angulate around corners and berms. Although they’re designed for the hard-hitting discipline of enduro racing, the combination of incredible descending abilities and surprising climbing efficiency have made enduro bikes very popular with riders who seek out the most challenging trails around. The most aggressive bikes in this category approach the technical chops of a true chairlift-only downhill bike, making them the best choice for riders who spend a significant amount of time riding lift-accessed bike parks, yet still want to ride trails that are pedaling access-only. They feature a high amount of travel, slack front angles, and can take your riding to the next level. Charge hard, get airborne, pin that switchback and do it again as fast as you can.


  • Front Suspension: 150-170 mm (5.9-6.7in)
  • Rear Suspension: 140-165 mm (5.5-6.5in)
  • Weight: 27-30 lbs


Top 2018 Enduro Bikes:

Ibis Mojo HD4 Carbon X01 Eagle
Yeti Cycles SB6 Turq Team Replica
Santa Cruz Bicycles Nomad S

See All Enduro Bikes


Fat Bikes

Dreading the cold, snowy days of winter? Constantly losing traction on the sandy trails of the desert or coast? Invest in a new fat bike and you can ride year-round no matter what the temperature or composition of the trail: sand, snow, ice, or dirt. The defining feature of a fat bike is oversize tires, typically 3.6 to 5 inches wide. More rubber on the ground means more traction, which is why these bikes excel in sand and snow. If you want a bike for the off-season or suited to the unique conditions of your local trails, then a fat bike may be the ideal choice.


  • Front Suspension: Rigid fork up to 120mm
  • Rear Suspension: Usually hardtail or minimal suspension
  • Weight: 25 lbs and above


See All Fat Bikes

In Conclusion

Have you figured out what your new dream bike will be? Probably not, but hopefully you know where to start your search. It is always good to try to attend a bike demo so check around to see if any are offered in your area, or, even better, while you’re on vacation in a mountain biking destination. When you are tired of reading specs and ready to take the plunge, contact me or another bike-certified Gearhead and we can help you with all the details. Whether you want a “bike-in-a-box” or to custom build your next bike from the frame up, we are here to guide you with the best industry knowledge and expertise available.

See you out on the trails.

You can reach our Bike Gearheads at Backcountry at 877-550-2639.


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