Mountain bikes are tough and versatile machines designed to take on challenging off-road terrain.
There are a huge variety of mountain bikes available, from beginner-friendly budget builds that can equally serve as city commuters to more specialised models that excel at particular off-road disciplines.
The type of mountain bike you choose may depend on the type of riding you like to do, the terrain you will typically ride on, and the budget you have available.
Full suspension or ‘full-sus’ MTBs, like the above, feature shock absorbers at both the front and rear, which offer varying amounts of suspension ‘travel’ in order to tackle trail bumps and obstacles.
Hardtail mountain bikes, like the above, forego rear suspension in favour of a rigid frame. They typically use suspension forks at the front end for some bump-swallowing comfort, but others may be fully rigid.
Both hardtail and full-suss MTBs are available in ‘women-specific’ iterations to reflect the different ergonomic needs of female cyclists, such as greater standover, shorter top tubes and narrower handlebars.
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Full-suspension mountain bikes feature shock-absorbing suspension travel front and rear to take on anything the terrain can throw at you, providing added comfort for those epic dawn-to-dusk days in the saddle as well as the ability to go faster and harder when the trail gets rough and points downhill.
A full-suss MTB is typically regarded as an ‘off-road only’ option, in part because of the additional weight of the rear suspension. If you are looking for a bike that will double up as a city commuter or weekend road tourer, a hardtail is probably the better option.
Some ‘full-sussers’ are designed as trail-ready all-rounder machines that will suit the majority of new and experienced recreational mountain bikers; others are more specifically tailored to competitive disciplines such as cross-country (XC), Enduro and downhill (DH) racing; while still more are built to take the monster hits of freeride (FR) or bike park riding.
Advances in suspension technology mean the latest full-bounce rigs are lighter, more efficient, more reliable and better value for money than ever before – but with infinite variations in travel length, intended use, component strength and suspension design, here’s a short guide to help you negotiate the full-suss maze.
The full-suspension bike has some obvious advantages over the hardtail, with the best of modern suspension designs also virtually eliminating any disadvantages with regard to weight or pedaling efficiency.
Because the extra suspension absorbs more of trail obstacles encountered when riding over typical off-road terrain, the bike can typically go faster, with the back end smoothly sucking up the hits rather than being kicked around.
The extra cushioning of rear suspension can also offer increased comfort on long-cross country rides, especially helping to minimize lower back and knee pain.
Full suspension bikes towards the budget end of the range can be heavier than similarly-equipped hardtails, due to the shock, pivots and linkages that the frame must carry. This may be detrimental if much of your riding is done on smooth trails or even on tarmac, where the advantages of having rear bounce are outweighed by the smooth and energy-efficient power delivery of the hardtail.
While hardtails may usually be the lighter option, the advantages of an active rear end make it sometimes worth a weight penalty on more challenging trails. Rear suspension can offer more speed through the rougher downhill sections and more confidence when tackling ‘bigger’ terrain including the drops, jumps and rock gardens found on most trail centre black runs, but will also work hard to provide extra traction on technical climbs where many a hardtail would ‘spin out’, losing essential rear-wheel grip.
However as well as being heavier, full suspension frames are also more complex to construct and therefore more expensive. This means that a full-suspension bike is likely to have poorer-quality components than a hardtail at a similar price point.
This is an important point to bear in mind if you are shopping for a first bike at the budget end of the market, when the priorities are good-quality, lightweight and reliable suspension forks, brakes, wheels and gears.
Today there are almost as many different suspension systems as there are manufacturers, with new and improved designs appearing to great fanfare every year as engineers chase the holy grail of the perfect suspension system.
The main problems associated with earlier generations of suspension design – an over-active suspension absorbing rider energy when power is applied during the pedal stroke (‘pedal bob’) and a suspension system that stiffens under braking (‘brake jack’) – have been largely overcome by a new generation of suspension innovations.
Different manufacturers have found new ways to isolate pedaling forces from the suspension and to ensure that the rear shock remains active under braking, while classic suspension designs have been given a new lease of life by advances in the development of platform-damped shocks which effectively ignore pedal feedback to counteract pedal bob.
While the amount of suspension travel is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to determining how a bike will ride and what kind of riding it is suited for – with frame geometry equally as important, if not more so – it provides a useful way to group together full-suss bikes into various categories. Here are some of the most widely used:
Bikes with 100mm or less rear travel are typically fast and lightweight mile-munchers designed for climbing and long-distance efficiency over the ability to take on challenging technical terrain. Aimed at competitive cross-country racers and marathon riders whose priority is cross-country speed rather than downhill thrills, these bikes feature steeper cross-country geometry for optimum pedaling efficiency, 27.5” or 29” wheels with narrow, fast-rolling tyres and a selection of strong but light components. Frame materials are typically lightweight aluminium or carbon fibre in the case of top-of-the-range models aimed at serious racers. Race and marathon bikes will normally feature a lightweight air shock and weigh from 9-12kg (20-26lbs).
Built to take the sting out of sustained effort on typical off-road terrain, they are also popular as all-rounders with strong riders who have the skills to handle the technical stuff.
Many modern riders have found 120-140mm travel to be the ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to tackling a huge range of off-road terrain while retaining the capability to pedal uphill.
Typically a little bit beefier than shorter-travel race bikes, these trail bikes are built with fun in mind, rather than a competitive edge. They are often designed with slightly slacker frame angles for downhill confidence, wider wheels and tyres for extra strength as well as features such as through-axle front forks and oversized brake discs for precision steering and stopping. While older design/budget trail bikes are often found with 26” or 29”wheels, the 27.5” standard has become typical on new models. They will also feature a stiff and lightweight aluminium or carbon frame, and will weigh from 11-13kg (25-30lbs).
These mid-travel trail hounds are the bike of choice for a generation of modern riders who are prepared to sacrifice some of the climbing and pedaling efficiency of more race-bred machines in order to enjoy the fun factor of being able to let rip on fast and challenging singletrack trails.
Bikes with suspension travel of more than 140mm are built with the emphasis on downhill punishment, featuring slack frame angles and tough-as-nails components to match.
They may be significantly heavier than more XC- and trail-oriented offerings, with components designed primarily for their ability to take big hits – 26” or 27.5” wheeilswheels with strong, wide rims and tyres, through-axle front forks, powerful disc brakes with oversized rotors front and rear, short stems and wide handlebars, and extra features such as bashguards in place of the largest chainring, and chainguides to prevent the chain from falling off in the rough. Bikes like this will normally weigh in excess of 13.5kg (30lb).
These bikes are intended for riders who push the limits on very demanding terrain, but as they can still be pedalled uphill are popular with the latest generation of Enduro riders, an emerging competitive discipline which combines elements of cross-country and DH. Newcomers to the sport may however find them too burly for all-round use.
160mm and more
Full-suspension bikes with more than 160mm of travel are built for the specific demands of downhill (DH) racing and freeride (FR).
Super-slack DH bikes are pure gravity sleds with the singular purpose of getting a rider from the top of a challenging DH course to the bottom quicker than the rest of the field. Armed with ultra-tough components including 26” wheels, large-volume tyres, long-travel triple-clamp forks, coil shocks and powerful oversized disc brakes, these bikes are not designed to be pedaled uphill at all but rather to hurtle through the berms, jumps, drops, roots and rock gardens that make up a typical DH track, and then be pushed or driven back up to the top for another race run. They may typically weigh in excess of 18kg (40lb).
FR bikes meanwhile are built to take the big hits of the most ‘extreme’ branch of the sport, where riders with skill, experience and courage take on the kind of aerial jumps, gaps and drops that would destroy average bikes. These bikes also feature long-travel suspension and overbuilt components, and are built to absorb single massive impacts rather than the sustained high-speed punishment of DH racing. Not for beginners, for obvious reasons.
Hardtail mountain bikes are built to take on tough off-road terrain without the cushioning of rear suspension. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the humble hardtail is a beginners-only option. Plenty of situations call for the advantages that a hardtail offers, while many an experienced rider appreciates the extra skills edge that a lack of rear bounce demands, and the plugged-in trail connection that only a hardtail can provide.
There are many different types of hardtail bikes, some designed as all-rounders and others to cater for specific disciplines. Geometry, strength, suspension travel and components will vary according to what type of riding the bike is intended for, while different frame materials suit rider preferences or the particular demands of a branch of the sport. Most budget and mid-range hardtail MTBs will feature a lightweight aluminium frame. Top-end bikes typically use lightweight carbon fibre, while many bike makers also offer steel or titanium frames that appeal to a wide range of riders.
From superlight short-travel cross-country (XC) race rigs to rough, tough dirt and street machines, from beginner-friendly budget bikes to the latest generation of long-travel trail machines: there’s a hardtail to suit every riding style and every budget.
The hardtail mountain bike is often the bike of choice for a rider’s first foray into the world of off-road cycling.
Because hardtail frames cost less than their full-suspension cousins, the quality of components used to make a complete bike are likely to be higher than on a full-suss with the same price tag. When starting out, having a bike with front suspension that works effectively, strong and reliable brakes that stop when you want them to and tough wheels that can take the punishment of rocky terrain is far more important than rear suspension.
Essential bike skills such as weight positioning, climbing, cornering and even jumping can all be learned on a hardtail, offering riders the perfect tool to hone their fitness and skillset before they may eventually decide to go for a full-suss.
Hardtails can also be chameleons – such bikes can be versatile city and road training tools, while the addition of a luggage rack, mudguards and slick road tyres can open up a whole world of touring and commuting options, while still being able to turn back into an all-terrain beast in a matter of minutes. Something to consider if storage space or finances will limit you to one bike, and one bike only.
Typical hardtail mountain bikes aimed at beginner bikers will feature a lightweight aluminium frame and suspension forks with around 100mm travel. Wheels will typically be 26” or 27.5” depending on manufacturer. These bikes will normally have 24 or 27 (3×8 or 3×9) gears with a triple front chainset to ensure a wide enough range of gears for tackling steep hills, both up and down.
Brakes are an essential consideration – lightweight and easy-to-maintain v-brakes still appear on budget bikes and will be fine for commuting and occasional off-road trips, but if you intend to get serious about the sport, the all-weather reliability of disc brakes is a must, preferably hydraulic discs. If your budget doesn’t stretch to a disc-equipped bike just yet, try to find a model that is at least equipped with a disc-ready frame and hubs, so you can upgrade later.
Hardtail bikes aimed at cross-country (XC) racers; long-distance marathon-style events; less technically challenging trail centre runs and just generally covering plenty of off-road miles will also typically feature 80-100mm suspension up front.
However the amount of suspension travel is not the only consideration – perhaps even more important is geometry: the angles and tube lengths of a hardtail frame are critical elements in how it will ride and what kind of riding it will be best suited to.
Race- and marathon-style cross-country bikes typically feature relatively steep head and seat angles (a seat angle of around 73 degrees and a head angle of around 71 degrees being considered ‘classic’ XC geometry), placing the rider in the optimum position for seated pedalling, especially uphill. Top tubes will meanwhile be on the long side, allowing for the ‘stretched’ riding position that enables riders and racers get plenty of air into their lungs.
Wheels found on race bikes range from 26” in older generation models to the emerging standard 27.5”, but it is also in this category that the efficiencies offered by the 29” wheel come into play, and many race riders prefer the fast-rolling advantages of bigger wheels.
Meanwhile when it comes to components, the gears, brakes and finishing kit focus on a balance between light weight and strength, with 20-speed (2×10) transmission becoming increasingly standard and disc brakes the norm.
Many riders find that gravity-assisted fun and a bike’s ability to tackle technical terrain are as important, if not more so, than pedalling efficiency.
Bikes have changed to keep up with this trend, with more and more hardtail bikes and frames departing from the ‘classic’ design (steep angles, 80-100mm travel) in favour of harder-hitting long-travel machines often classed under the categories of ‘trail’ or ‘All-Mountain’ (AM). While such bikes will happily pedal to the top of the hill, they come into their own when ripping down the other side and are guaranteed to bring on the grins in twisty singletrack.
They may feature long-travel forks (up to 140mm or more), beefier construction and components chosen for their ability to take punishment rather than for their gram-shaving weights.
For most riders, the happy medium is somewhere in between, with modern trail hardtails of 120-140mm travel offering the perfect balance between lightweight pedaling efficiency and rough-and-tumble high-speed fun.
For hardtails designed to take a bit more punishment, seat and head angles are a little slacker (head angles of 69 degrees or less being characteristic of the modern trail hardtail) so that riders can get their bodyweight well back on the bike on steep, technical downhill trails. Top tubes are generally shorter, giving a more upright riding position which is not optimum for all-day pedaling but gives much greater rider control on difficult terrain, including downhill runs, the most challenging trail centre routes, and when the bike is airborne. Such bikes are also generally paired with short, stubby stems for pinpoint steering precision.
Frame materials are typically aluminium or steel, the lively and supple ride feel of the latter having made it increasingly popular among modern trail hardtail riders not overly concerned with the slight weight penalty involved.
Components again will be similar in function and appearance to those on a 100mm cross-country hardtail, but often chosen with strength rather than light weight as the most important consideration – powerful disc brakes with larger rotors for more stopping power; wide handlebars and short stems for total steering control; 26” or 27.5” wheels with tougher rims and larger-volume, grippier tyres.
Hardtails built for the demanding disciplines of dirt jumping (DJ), street riding and four-cross racing (4X) are designed less with pedaling efficiency in mind than with the ability to take serious and sustained punishment, and live to tell the tale.
DJ and street bikes generally feature overbuilt aluminium or steel frames which are tougher and heavier than those found on their cross-country and trail counterparts, with smaller sizes providing increased agility in the air and ‘chuckability’.
The frames are married to 26” wheels and a tough but heavy selection of components, bash guards and/or chain guides in place of the biggest chainring, and around 100mm of suspension travel courtesy of stiffly-sprung front forks, often with bolt-through axles for extra strength.