Many people are wondering what are the features that make a bike a mountain bike!
In this article, I will tell you what are the most important features of a mountain bike but first I will tell you what are the main mountain biking riding styles because they heavily influence the bike’s features:
- Cross-country: riding a mountain bike on unpaved country roads or forest roads, speed is the main concern here.
- Trail: riding a mountain bike on the trails found in the forest or on mountains, the terrain here is rougher and filled with tree branches and rooks so you need a tougher mountain bike that is designed for a rougher terrain
- Enduro: this is focused on downhill racing but you still need to ride your bike uphill at first (but still this portion is not timed so the bike needs to be able to climb but it doesn’t need to it fast), this is a tough environment and you need a very capable mountain bike.
- Downhill: the focus is only on downhill riding (you won’t ride your bike uphill at all) and you need a very tough bike.
Mountain bike geometry is becoming more and more important these days when mountain bikers want to ride faster and harder on very technical trails and downhill.
Modern mountain bikes are designed to have a longer wheelbase for more stability when riding straighter trails at high speed and a slack head angle to improve the bike’s downhill capabilities.
The slacker the head angle is the safer you will feel riding the bike downhill but this will be a disadvantage when riding uphill, so you need to get a mountain bike with the head angle appropriate to your preferred riding style.
|Riding style||Head angle|
|Enduro (All-Mountain)||around 63°|
Cross-country and trail bikes need to have good climbing performance and for this reason, they will have a bigger head angle than enduro and downhill bikes.
People think that a longer bike comes with a big compromise in maneuverability but this can’t be further from the truth, of course, that there is a compromise here but it’s a small one, and the benefits of having a longer bike are much more important.
An MTB with a 1300mm wheelbase is considered to be long, this will give you more stability when riding at high speed, now you see why this future is highly desired.
The bottom bracket height is very important also, the lower it is the more stable the bike will be because this will lower your center of gravity, but it still needs to be high enough that you don’t hit things with your pedals. Hardtails can have a bottom bracket high as small as 300mm but on full-suspension bikes, it varies a lot.
So when choosing a mountain bike you need to pay close attention to the head angle, the wheelbase length and try to get the lowest bottom bracket height as you can. On downhill and enduro bikes it is recommended that you don’t obsess about the bottom bracket height, it is ok to be higher because you need more clearance for pedals, so you don’t hit things on the trail while pedaling.
One of the most important features of a mountain bike is suspension. Regarding this topic, there are 3 major aspects we need to clarify.
MTB Type: hardtail or full-suspension
Regarding suspension there are 2 types of mountain bikes:
- Hardtail: a mountain bike with front suspension but no rear suspension, they are cheaper, cheaper to maintain, lighter, and require more skill to be ridden on more technical terrain, they are faster for climbing and on smooth trails and slower on rougher trails and downhill.
- Full-suspension MTB: a mountain bike with front suspension and rear suspension, they are easier to ride on technical terrain and are more forgiving on the rider’s mistakes, faster on technical trails and downhill but slower on uphill.
If you want to read an in-depth comparison of hardtails and full-suspension mountain bikes, I encourage you to read this article!
When it comes to mountain biking the suspension type and quality of your MTB is very important because they will determine the speed at which you can ride on the more technical trails.
There ate two main types of MTB suspension:
- Spring suspension: found on entry-level frocks, they are constant load suspensions, less comfortable, less performant than air suspensions.
- Air suspension: these are progressive load suspensions, far more comfortable than spring ones, and are able to absorb more consecutive bumps because they decompress quicker.
On high-end MTB’s designed for jumps and downhill the rear shock is a combination of a spring and air suspension, they are meant to handle rough landings for which a combination of constant and progressive load suspension is needed.
All mid-range mountain bikes are equipped with air suspensions but the quality is very important. There are a few suspension manufacturers that are dominating this market and their suspensions are far superior to the ones from their competitors. If you focus on RockShox or Fox suspensions you most surely will get a good quality suspension.
A RockShox suspension fork will be much more expensive than a Santour one but well worth the money, on suspension is the worst place to be cheap.
Suspension travel is very important as well but this is very correlated with your style of riding. When you ride with speed on rough trails filled with big tree roots and rocks you need more travel so that your suspension will be able to absorb the shock generated by your wheel hitting these obstacles.
As I said earlier the amount of travel you need is in direct correlation with your riding style:
|Riding style||Suspension travel|
|Enduro (All-Mountain)||130 – 170 mm|
|Downhill||170 – 200+ mm|
Practically the more suspension travel you have the harder you can ride but this will add more weight to the bike and it will affect its climbing performance.
When it comes to mountain biking breaks are very important as well, if you find yourself riding with speed on rough terrain and your breaks don’t have enough stopping power you will probably end up falling and maybe injuring yourself.
V-breaks are very outdated when we are talking about mountain bikes, they don’t have enough stopping power to be safe for trail riding, and they have even less stopping power in wet conditions, so for mountain biking, they are really not recommended.
Practically we have three types of breaks:
- Mechanical disk breaks: these are the cheap option found on low-end mountain bikes, they offer decent stopping power but they are inferior to hydraulic ones.
- Hydraulik disk breaks with 2 pistons: these are the standard when it comes to mid to high-level bikes, they offer good stopping power and are reliable breaks that can get you out of tough situations on the trails.
- Hydraulik disk breaks with 4 pistons: these are top-of-the-line breaks that offer maximum stopping power.
Now let us see what breaks are recommended for each riding style:
|Riding style||Recommended breaks|
|Casual||Mechanical disk breaks|
|Cross-country||Hydraulik disk breaks (2 pistons)|
|Trail||Hydraulik disk breaks (2 or 4 pistons)|
|Enduro (All-Mountain)||Hydraulik disk breaks (4 pistons)|
|Downhill||Hydraulik disk breaks (4 pistons)|
If you are a heavier rider then hydraulic disk breaks with 4 pistons are the best choice for you, you will need a lot of stopping power on downhill portions of your rides.
If you want to know the advantages of hydraulic disk breaks over mechanical ones, I encourage you to read this article!
Mountain bikes are equipped with wide knobby tires because you need all the traction you can get when riding on mountain trails. Losing traction at high speed is one of the main reasons for crashes and injuries.
The most important aspects of mountain bike wheels:
- Size: 29″ has become the standard in the mountain biking industry, 27.5″ are recommended for smaller riders for which an MTB with 29″ wheels are too big, 27.5″ will give you more maneuverability but in general people prefer 29″ because they make your MTB faster and the difference in maneuverability is not that high.
- Width: wider tires will give you more contact surface with the ground and that will result in more traction, MTB tires are between 1.6″ and 2.6″ wide
- Tire tread: the tire can be optimized for maximum grip for maximum speed, the bigger the knob size and the distance between knobs is the more grip focus the tire is.
- Tire setup: you can have a tube set up or run a tubeless setup (this allows you to ride at lower tire pressure increasing traction), make sure that your tires and rims are tubeless-ready, then you can easily convert them to tubeless if you want int the future.
Wheel recommendation for each riding style:
|Riding style||Wheel size||Wheel width||Tire tread||Recommended |
|Cross-country||29″||1.9″ – 2.3″||Small, tight tread|
|Trail||29″||2.3″ – 2.5″|| Bigger, medium |
spacing between knobs
|Enduro (All-Mountain)||29″||2.5″ – 2.6″|| Big, large |
spacing between knobs
|Downhill||29″||2.5″ – 2.6″|| Big, large |
spacing between knobs
Mountain Bike Gears
Mountain bikes are equipped with drivetrains that make them capable to climb almost any hill and offer high speed on smooth trails. The mountain biking industry is shifting all its attention to one by drivetrains because they offer good climbing capability and are simpler than two by or tree by drivetrains.
Downhill mountain bikes are usually equipped with a 1×7 speed drivetrain because they aren’t meant to be ridden uphill so you only need speeds designed to achieve the maximum speed while descending.
The most popular drivetrains now are 1×12 speed, but if you are on a budget a 1×11 or 1×10 speed will offer you good climbing performance. I advise you to stay away from 3x or 2x drivetrains if you can (if you have the budget).
If you are on a tight budget you shouldn’t stress about the drivetrain, get what you can afford but if you get a mountain bike equipped with a one-by drivetrain don’t go below 1×9 speed ( you may regret it in the future).
Mountain bikes need to be tough enough to be able to be ridden on mountain trails, so the frame material needs to be able to handle it. Practically the most used materials for mountain bike frames are aluminum and carbon.
Aluminum is a light material but tough enough to build a tough frame that can handle the rough conditions on the mountain trails. The most important thing about aluminum frames is that they are cheaper than carbon ones but the main disadvantage is that they are heavier.
Carbon is a light material that is very resistant to compression but breaks easily on impact. Because carbos are very light and resistant to compression it has become the go-to material for high-end mountain bikes.
So if you have the budget for a carbon mountain bike then get one but if not don’t worry aluminum ones are very good and will last you many years of fun on the trails.
Mountain Bike Weight
Mountain bike weight is important but not as important as on a road bike, mountain bikes need to be tough and reliable at first. Mountain biking is a skill-based sport and many times a lighter bike won’t make the difference.
But if you are into cross-country racing then bike weight is going to be very important for you but for the other riding styles it will not make a huge difference and you shouldn’t stress too much about it.
The weight of the mountain bike is in direct correlation with the frame material (carbon is the lightest) and the materials from which the rest of the components are made, for enduro and downhill bikes there is a big compromise in the weight of components because toughness is the main concern here.
If you are interested to know more about the average weight of mountain bikes and the price-to-weight correlation, I encourage you to read this article!
Mountain bikes are equipped with wider handlebars to improve maneuverability, it is easier to execute tight turns on trails with wider handlebars than it is with narrower ones.
Handlebar width recommendation for each riding style:
|Riding style||Handlebar width|
|Enduro (All-Mountain)||around 760 mm|
I hope that by now you know what are the most important mountain bike features to look for and this article was a good starting point to understand your mountain biking needs.
If you plan to ride your bike on trails you need to be prepared to dig deeper into your pockets because decent mountain bikes don’t come cheap, but if you decide to get one you won’t regret it.
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I started mountain biking many years ago to improve my overall health state. After my first ride, I fell in love with the sport. Now I spend dozens of hours a week researching and training to compete in local XC and Enduro events.