Mountain bikes are a fun way to exercise and connect with nature. Compared to road bikes, they have the following characteristics:
- fatter tires with rugged tread for stability and durability on off-road terrain
- a more upright cycling position that lets you enjoy the view
- suspension systems on some bikes absorb shock for a more comfortable ride
There are many ways to enjoy mountain biking, and you don’t even have to be in the mountains. Trails vary from pleasant rides on wide, flowing logging roads to high-adrenaline challenges on technical singletrack.
In this article, we'll tell you the basics of what to expect before your first ride, including an overview of different types of mountain bike terrain, styles of mountain biking and basics for getting geared up for a fun time on the trails.
Types of Mountain Bike Terrain
While you might start out on trails that are relatively smooth and flat, your ability to navigate around—or over—obstacles will develop as you gain experience and becomes part of the fun of the sport. Mountain-bike-specific trails are typically marked by skill level (beginner, intermediate, expert and double expert) and are maintained.
Singletrack, the most common trail type, has a width that varies from just a little wider than your shoulders on up to a track that's just wide enough for two bikes to pass. Many singletrack trails are open to one-way travel and wind their way through the best terrain that the landscape offers.
Doubletrack trails are normally double the width (or more) of a typical singletrack trail with enough room for two bikes to ride side-by-side. Often doubletrack trails follow abandoned logging roads, fire roads or power-line roads, where the tires of vehicles created two single tracks. Doubletrack trails are usually a gentler grade than singletrack and tend to have less-technical features.
Mountain bike terrain parks are popping up everywhere from jump-and-pump tracks under urban overpasses to lift-serviced trails at ski resorts. Expect such features as elevated bridges, halfpipes, jumps of various sizes, berms, banked corners and hairy downhill switchbacks.
Mountain Biking Styles
Many bike manufacturers categorize their bikes based on the following mountain biking styles to help you decide what type of bike is appropriate for you.
Trail: This is arguably the most common mountain biking style because the category isn’t grounded in any specific type of racing. If you’re interested in meeting up with friends at the local trailhead and riding a mixture of climbs and descents, then this is the style for you. Bikes in this category place equal emphasis on fun, efficiency and sensible overall weight.
Cross-country: This style of riding typically implies riding fast, with an emphasis on climbing prowess. Distances vary from just a few miles to 25-plus, and bikes tend to focus on light weight and efficiency. These bikes can be great if you’re considering getting competitive or would like a racier ride for your local trails.
All-mountain/enduro: Think of all-mountain/enduro riding as trail riding on steroids, with bigger leg-burning climbs, longer white-knuckle descents and more technical features—both man-made and natural. Bikes for all-mountain/enduro riding are designed to perform well on steep descents while also being light and nimble enough to pedal uphill.
The term enduro comes from the racing world and describes a competition that has timed downhill stages and untimed uphill stages. The winner is whoever has the fastest combined time on the downhills. Enduro riding has become very popular, and the term is now often used interchangeably with all-mountain regardless of whether you’re racing or not.
Downhill/park: This type of riding is mostly done at lift-serviced bike parks (often during a ski resort’s warmer months). You ride big, tough bikes and wear full-face helmets and body armor. The bikes boast more durable components and fewer gears, and the suspension has more travel (the amount of movement in the suspension). All of this helps you conquer jumps, berms, rock gardens and wooden ladders. Given that you’re on a perpetual descent the entire time, you don’t have to pedal much, but you still get a serious workout because you’re constantly reacting to the fast-approaching terrain.
Fat biking: Picture the kind of bike you always wanted as a kid: one with giant tires that can roll through just about anything. Fat tire bikes are bikes with tires that are at least 3.7 in. wide (and may be as wide as 5 in. or more). They offer excellent traction through snow and sand. Fat biking is not limited to these conditions and has proven to be a fast-growing addition to all-season trail riding. Fat bikes can be a great choice for beginner mountain bikers because they are very forgiving on rough terrain.
Types of Mountain Bikes
What type of bike you ride is usually decided by where you plan on riding. Suspension type and wheel diameter are two key features that determine what type of terrain the bike is capable of riding. You have a wealth of options when it comes to types of suspension and wheel diameter (denoted by such terms as 26, 27.5 (650b), and 29ers).
Rigid: While not the most common type of mountain bike, “rigid” mountain bikes don’t feature any suspension. They are easy to maintain and usually less expensive, but most riders prefer bikes with suspension for greater comfort. Most fat bikes are rigid, and riders find that the wide tires and low tire pressure provide all the squish needed to absorb bumps in the trail.
Hardtail: These bikes have a suspension fork in the front to help absorb impact on the front wheel, but the rear of the bike has no suspension—ergo a hardtail. Hardtails are typically less expensive than full-suspension bikes, and have fewer moving parts (which often translates into less maintenance). Most hardtails have the ability to lock out the front fork for times where a fully rigid bike is desired.
Cross-country riders typically gravitate toward hardtails as they allow more direct transfer of power between the pedal stroke and the rear tire. Hardtails can also be at home on all-mountain trails, and the lower cost and easier maintenance make them a solid option for everything except serious lift-serviced downhill trails.
Full suspension: There are many variations of full-suspension bikes, but the general idea is for the front fork and rear shock to absorb the impacts of the trail. This drastically reduces the impact on the rider, increases traction, and makes for a more forgiving and enjoyable ride.
A full-suspension bike can soak up a lot of a trail bumps and chatter, but the bike can also “bob” a bit and you lose some of the energy transfer when climbing uphill. As a result, most full-suspension rigs have the ability to lock-out the rear suspension to offer better power transfer and more efficient climbing.
Bikes designed for downhill riding typically boast a lot of travel—the amount of movement in the suspension—compared to bikes designed for cross-country and all-mountain riding. As much as eight inches of travel front and rear is fairly common.
26 in.: In the not too-distant past, all mountain bikes were equipped with 26 in. wheels. It is still a popular wheel size for its responsiveness and maneuverability, but now when you walk into a bike shop and inquire about mountain bikes, you are likely to be asked, “26 in., 27.5 in. or 29 in.?”
27.5 in. (650b): Offering a middle ground between standard 26 in. wheels and 29ers, these bikes apply a “best of both worlds” solution, more easily rolling over terrain than the 26s, but more maneuverable than 29ers. As with 29ers, this wheel size can be found on both full-suspension and hardtail rigs.
29ers: These bikes feature 29 in. wheels that are typically heavier and a little slower to accelerate, but once you start moving you can conquer considerably more terrain easier than on a bike with standard 26 in. wheels. They generally offer excellent grip and they have a higher “attack angle”—meaning the wheel rolls over trail obstacles easier. These bikes have become extremely popular for the cross-country crowd. 29ers can be found in both hardtail and full-suspension rigs.
24 in.: Kids’ mountain bikes typically have 24 in. wheels to accommodate the shorter legs of children. Most are less-expensive versions of adult bikes with simpler components. Generally speaking, these suit kids ages 10 to 13, but this depends more on the size of the child than the age. Younger/smaller children can get started biking with 20 in. wheels.
How to Dress for Mountain Biking
Bike-specific clothing makes for a more comfortable ride, no matter what style of biking you're doing. That said, different styles of mountain biking will dictate what type of clothing you'll choose.
Shorts: Options for mountain biking shorts range from form-fitting styles (often worn by cross-country racers) to baggy styles with a more casual look and more coverage and durability for snags along the trail. These generally have an inner lining with a padded chamois that helps reduce saddle fatigue and reduces some of the trail impact.
Jersey: Similar to shorts, jerseys range from form-fitting to loose and more casual-looking. Regardless of fit, you still want to choose something that wicks sweat and dries quickly. You’ll also want something you can wash and dry with little fuss. If you plan to carry a backpack, you won’t need a lot of pockets—although some mountain-bike jerseys offer that option.
Gloves: You’ll be surprised how much a good pair of gloves reduces hand and wrist fatigue; get a pair with padding at the palm. Full-fingered gloves keep your hands warmer and provide some texture between your fingers and the grip on the breaks and gear shifters. Both fingerless and full-fingered gloves add protection in the event of a crash.
Mountain Bike Gear and Accessories
Mountain Bike Helmets
Mountain bike helmets typically offer more coverage and protection than road bike helmets. Look for one with plenty of venting and protection at the lower back of the head. For downhill riding, consider a full-face helmet; most bike parks rent those models.
Regardless of style, all models on the market have to pass rigorous safety tests. Some helmets now feature the new MIPS technology, a low-friction layer that slides independent of the outer shell and limits the rotational forces to the brain when the helmet gets hit at an angle.
Mountain Bike Shoes and Pedals
The right shoe/pedal combination depends on your comfort level and what type of riding you’re planning on doing.
Platform pedals: Beginners and people less confident on mountain bikes can benefit from starting with flat platform pedals so you can get on and off the bike and put your foot down quickly without having to unclip from the pedal. This is a good way to build technique, and when and if you make the transition to clipless pedals, it’s much smoother.
If you’re buying platform pedal shoes for downhill riding, get ones with a tacky sole so that they can sink into the pedal pegs, but you can easily dismount if things get dicey.
Clipless pedals: As your skills progress, you can go with either clipless pedals and compatible shoes, or stick with platform pedals. Clipless pedals (which despite the name, actually attach to your shoes) deliver a lot more control and power transfer, but also demand more commitment in tricky terrain.
When learning to ride with clipless pedals, give yourself plenty of practice time on soft grassy terrain to get used to connecting and disconnecting your foot from the pedal.
For all styles of riding, choose shoes that have hard, protective toes, some decent grip for when you have to hike and some water protection for rain and mud.
Hydration packs are too bulky for road bikers, but their convenience makes them ideal for mountain biking. Go with a pack that has sufficient storage space for an extra clothing layer, repair essentials and snacks, and a clip to secure your hydration sleeve to the shoulder or sternum strap of the pack.
Mountain Bike Repair Kit Essentials
Save yourself a lot of hassle—and walking—by packing a few in-the-field mechanical items: a spare tube, a hand pump or CO2 inflator, and a small multitool with several Allen wrenches and a chain tool.