Mountain biking is pure versatility. In the mood for a leisurely countryside ride? Entered a multi-day stage race? You will find a suitable bike. Prefer the rush of wind on your face by racing downhill at tear-inducing speeds? You guessed it, there’s a bike for that. It doesn’t end there.
The five mountain bikes discussed here can be categorized by ride discipline: Cross country, trail, enduro, downhill/free ride, and fat bikes. Each type displays characteristics appealing to a specific kind of rider. We will highlight strengths, and the differences in geometry and suspension, and explain the different disciplines.
Get to know which bikes are the fastest, toughest, and most versatile.
Cross Country (XC) Mountain Bikes
Cross-country bikes are for you if you like to ride fast, and cover a variety of off-road tracks and trails with a degree of technical difficulty. Cross-country riding requires all-around skill and fitness.
Cross Country Mountain Bike Categories
Cross-county bikes can be divided into two categories with subtle differences.
- XCM or Cross-Country Marathon mountain bike: The terminology implies that it loves long-distance riding and diverse terrain. This is borne out by the mid-travel front fork suspension with 5” travel. Just enough to stay agile uphill and ace the gentler or nontechnical downhills.
- XCO Mountain bikes: The bikes are associated with the Olympic circuit racing known as XCO, which is raced at high speed over short laps of approximately 3 miles in length. Traditionally these circuits were not exceedingly technical. A short-travel (3 to 4”) front fork suspension was enough for stability over obstacles. An evolution is occurring in this sport with increasingly technical sections which may influence component choice in the future.
More features of XC mountain bikes
- XC mountain bike frames are lightweight and commonly manufactured from carbon fiber, aluminum, or a combination of both materials.
- The 29” wheel size helps smooth out bumps and roots on the track, thereby carrying more speed which saves much-needed energy
- Both hardtail and full suspension versions are regularly seen in action. Rear suspension travel ranges between 2 to 3”.
Cross-country bikes represent the lightest mountain bike on this list. A complete bike can weigh under 22lb. It’s built for speed, agility on the ascents, and responsive handling. Cross-country bikes are not suited for high-impact downhill terrains and jumps.
Trail Mountain Bikes
Trail bikes are capable of a wide variety of terrain, from cross-country (XC) to more aggressive downhill sections. The frame geometry is somewhere between an XC and Enduro mountain bike, it is a do-it-all bike for recreational riders.
More features for Trail Mountain bikes
- Frame: Manufactured from carbon fiber, aluminum, or, rarely, steel. It is a more robust build demanded by the impact of technical terrain.
- The headtube is slacker at an angle of 64 – 66 degrees.
- Hardtail and full-suspension options are available. The front fork carries a mid-travel suspension of about 5” travel.
- The 29” tires used are the wider variety between 2.25 and 2.35”. Some trail bikes are fitted with 27.5” wheels and the corresponding wide (plus) size tire.
The frame and components are more durable, and the bike’s geometry offers a balance between climbing efficiency and descending ability.
Trail vs. Cross Country Mountain bike
Distinguishing a Trail from a Cross Country mountain bike is not always that easy. The subtle differences create a different riding experience. It’s good to know the main differentiators.
|Cross Country MTB||Trail MTB|
|Handlebars||Shorter width for agility||Longer width for stability|
|Stem Length||Longer length for a correct riding position||Shorter for safer downhill riding|
|Suspension travel||Shorter for a stiffer ride experience||Longer for stable descending|
|Brake Rotors||Smaller Diameter||Larger diameter for stronger breaking|
|Tires||Thinner for more speed||Wider for grip on technical terrain.|
One of the pleasures in life is taking this type of bike out into unknown trails and exploring, fully trusting the machine to do what is asked of it. They may be slower on the uphill than the XC bikes but make up the fun factor by descending faster.
If you want to read a more in-depth comparison, I encourage you to read this article!
Enduro Mountain Bikes
An Enduro Moutain bike is for you if:
- You love speeding downhill at breakneck speeds
- You must pedal back uphill through diverse terrain for the next section
- You are looking for all-day ride comfort
Enduro bike geometry can be placed between trail and downhill bikes. A good enduro bike needs to be as capable as a downhill bike and as efficient as a typical trail bike on all other terrains.
The bike has a predictably slack headtube angle for confidence on steep terrain. The seat tube angle is essential. It keeps the rider centered over the bike, not too far back. For the same reason, the bottom bracket is a low set. The relatively short chainstays are vital for agility and cornering typical of this discipline. Suspension dampening choices contribute towards an easier pedal over different terrain.
|Enduro Mountain Bike General Info|
|Frame||Aluminum or Carbon fiber – Full Sus – Front and back suspension with air or coil shocks|
|Average bike weight||28 to 30lb|
|Head tube angle||Slack – between 63 and 65⁰|
|Handlebars||On the wider side for stability – carbon or aluminum|
|Seat Angle on average||74 degrees|
|Suspension travel||Long-travel: 6 – 7” front travel, 6” rear travel|
|Break type||Disc breaks|
|Pedals||Clipless / Flat|
|Wheel size||27.5” and predominantly 29”|
|Optional||Full Carbon cockpit for lighter weight and slightly easier on hands|
Essential Kit for Enduro Mountain biking
Riding enduro has its thrills, and spills so its worth investing in some essential protective gear to help keep you safe:
- Helmet – open or full face (check event rules) depending on terrain
- Goggles – full-face goggles offer higher protection value than glasses
- Knee and elbow guards – ensure a snug fit. They shouldn’t be able to move mid-ride.
- Hydration pack: Many packs are designed to clip on a helmet and guards.
Downhill & Freeride Mountain Bikes
A downhill mountain bike is for you if your thing is racing steep downhill as fast as possible on the roughest trails, including jumps, drops, and rocky sections. Downhill bikes cannot be ridden uphill without superhuman effort, they are commonly transported back up to the trailhead by other means.
A freeride mountain bike is for you if pushing the boundaries and extreme technical riding over manmade and natural obstacles sets your heart aflutter. For instance, dropping off cliffs or high structures, negotiating narrow raised pathways, and jumping over roads. Big air obstacles provide an opportunity to showcase hair-raising tricks. It’s often called the skateboard park of mountain biking.
The differences between the downhill and freeride bikes are not that obvious at first glance but certainly set the bikes apart performance-wise. Generally seen differences are:
|Downhill Mountain Bike||Freeride Mountain Bike|
|Frame||Longer wheelbase Aluminum or carbon||Compact wheelbase. Aluminum and /or steel|
|Head tube angle||Slack – 60 to 65 degrees||62 to 63 degrees|
|Drivetrain||‘One-by’ with 7 – 10 gears||Single-speed, short-range, long-range|
|Average Suspension travel||Coil/air rear suspension and double crown fork Long travel: 7 – 10” rear suspension travel, 7 – 8” fork travel.||Long travel (5 – 6”) single crown fork Often single-pivot rear suspension system|
|Pedals||Flat or Clipless||Flat|
|Wheel & Tire Size||27,5” or 29” wheel size, 2.5” width, or plus tires up to 3” wide. (Some brands fit 27” back wheel and 29” front wheel)||27” wheel size with at least 2.5” width|
Required gear for Downhill and Freeriding
Many bike parks will require you to wear protective gear, including a full-face helmet, kneepads, shoulder pads, and armored gloves. For freeride biking add neck braces, chest, and back protectors.
Fat bikes are likely the ultimate multipurpose bike – able to conquer the broadest range of terrain and conditions. A common snow-covered winter scenario: It delivers extreme traction in snow conditions letting you float over both soft or iced areas, then, in the same ride, race across pavements eating up just about every light obstacle in the way. It’s just as at home on sandy beaches and loose gravel roads. Some have even taken them bike-packing.
Wide tires and a comfortable ride
Fat bikes remain head turners with their extra-wide tires starting off at 3.8” up to 5” in width. They run a 26” or 27.5” rim, which effectively inflates to a 29″ diameter because of the tire size. The rim width is also extra wide at 2.6”. Tire pressure is low, between 5 and 14psi. The key is in experimenting with what pressure works best. The tire transforms when it encounters a bump or root and just runs over it, providing a smooth ride.
Ride the fat bike all year round
Put thought into the correct drivetrain if all-year riding is planned. A more comprehensive than usual range of gears may be suitable. Fat bikes were renowned for chain line clearance issues, meaning the smallest gear is sacrificed so that the chain doesn’t move too far inward. The problem is minimized by using a 1 x 11 system where the rear cog is fitted with an unusually small and large ring option.
Exchange wheels – make it a multipurpose bike deluxe.
Most fat bike rims allow you to fit 2 – 3” wide mountain bike tires. Even better, exchange the entire wheel for mountain bike wheels, and you have a mountain bike.
Fat bike riding is great exercise.
Burn more calories than riding a mountain bike. It’s possible to burn up to 1000 calories in an hour, making it an excellent workout for strength, fitness, and stamina. Many participants in winter sports use a fat bike for cross-training purposes.
Ride off-road with increased confidence
Fat bikes confidently transition to off-road trailing. Overcome sandy sections, rocky areas, and loose gravel sections with greater ease than expected. This beast is a confidence builder for any rider, especially a rider with minimal off-road experience. They are suitable for low, technically tricky rides.
To get the most out of your fat bike, ride it! A few times in various conditions and dial in the tire pressure for those conditions. It will be the difference between a bouncy and smooth, efficient ride.
Mountain bikes come in such a variety that new and experienced riders are bound to find something to suit their needs.
Bike design geometry seems to have settled to such an extent that the categories of at least cross country, trail, enduro, downhill, and fat bikes are clearly defined, for now at least. The technological advancements regarding build material and accessories are reaching shop floors at ever-increasing speeds, providing options to personalize any bike to your riding style and anatomy.
There’s always room for skills development within a ride category, which keeps mountain biking interesting and a form of exercise to stick with consistently. Take cross-country mountain biking as an example – acing shorter marathon distances before moving on to multi-day stage races covering hundreds of miles.
On the other hand, progressing to more technical disciplines by developing skills and wanting to test them at the next level is definitely possible, as in the case of enduro laying the foundation for full-blown downhill racing. Make the ride as easy or as difficult as you want, find your mountain bike niche, and enjoy the ride.
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.