Different Types of Mountain Bikes Explained

Whether you are shopping for a new mountain bike and aren’t sure what type you need, or are just confused when people start talking in bike jargon, it can be helpful to understand the different types of mountain bikes.

In this article, I explain the different types of mountain bikes (and sub-types) and what each was made to accomplish. And I do it in plain English, so you know what the heck I’m talking about.

group of women on mountain bikes

Key Takeaways

  • There are two primary groups of mountain bikes: hardtail mountain bikes and full suspension mountain bikes.
  • The type of mountain bike you need is dependent on the kind of riding you want to do.

Start with Suspension: Hardtail vs. Full Suspension

There are a few ways to organize the different types of mountain bikes.  The easiest and most common way is to break them into two groups:  hardtails vs full suspension mountain bikes.

Hardtail Mountain Bikes

These bikes will only have suspension in the front.  This means that the front suspension fork will help the front wheel absorb some of the bumpy and rocky terrain that it rides over. 

The back wheel will follow, but there are no shocks, and it won’t necessarily assist the bike to navigate these features.  

While many first time mountain bikers purchase a hardtail (because an entry-level hardtail is a more affordable option), these bikes are not just for beginners.  In fact, this bike may make it more difficult for a rider to navigate challenging features, pushing the rider to rely on skill, rather than the bike, to do the work. Because they are lighter, they are often also the top choice of cross-country mountain bike racers.  

Because these bikes do not have rear suspension components, hardtails are less expensive and lighter weight than the full suspension option.  They are a great all-around bike that can manage climbing steep trails, and are best suited for smooth singletrack, dirt roads or cross country terrain.

Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

Full suspension means that the bike will have both a front suspension fork as well as a rear shock. This means that it will absorb rocks and bumps along the trail much easier than a hardtail bike. 

Having both front and rear suspension helps the bike to absorb the bumps in the front, while allowing the rear wheel to maintain contact with the ground.  A great combination for both new and experienced riders! 

With full suspension, riders will gain control and confidence as they ride. It’s both more forgiving and comfortable than a hardtail.

The downsides are that a full-suspension bike is generally more expensive and heavier than a hardtail bike with the same component build. It can also be more sluggish on climbs and less responsive overall.

Sub-Categories Of Mountain Bikes

The two big grouping types of mountain bikes are hardtail or full suspension. That said, there are additional sub categories of mountain bikes as well. This is where you start to find bikes that are best suited for a specific type of riding.

Cross Country Bikes

These mountain bikes can be found in the hardtail category as well as the full suspension group.  Because they come with the option of front and rear suspension, cross country bikes are a great all-around mountain bike that will handle a large variety of terrain.  

“Travel” is the amount that the shocks absorb (moves up and down) as the bike goes over rocky terrain, especially as it rides downhill.  Of the four types of full suspension mountain bikes, X-country bikes have the least amount of front suspension travel.

specialized epic cross country race bike

This makes them less effective when riding downhill.  Because of its heavier weight, however, this bike can handle technical and steep declines just fine. 

The strength of the X-country is its ability to climb technical uphill sections.  Full suspension cross country bikes are a good option if you want to do a wide variety of mountain biking with varied topography including uphill climbing.  While they are not built for downhill speed, they can manage technical sections as well as the flow of singletrack trails.

Example: Specialized Epic

Trail Bikes

The broad category of trail bikes covers those that will be equally efficient for climbing as for riding downhill.  This type of bike can manage on most dirt or gravel terrain. 

showers pass basecamp merino hoody

In his Bikeperfect.com article on the highlights of some amazing trail bikes, Colin Levitch describes trail bikes as a bike that “fills the expansive middle ground between enduro and cross country bikes.”  While not designed specifically for technical downhill, they can come with a dropper post, and usually their brakes are more powerful than their X-country cousin.

Example: Ibis Mojo or Ripmo

Downcountry Bikes

Downcountry bikes are a brand new sub-category of mountain bikes. They are somewhere between a cross-country bike and a trail bike.

They are fast and lightweight like a cross-country bike, but have a bit more travel, wider tires, and more progressive geometry. They can be a hardtail or full-suspension bike.

Example: Yeti SB120

Enduro Bikes

Enduro races are events where riders compete against the clock as they ride down the mountainside.  Participants ride to the top and are timed on their descent down the long course which usually has challenging, technical sections. 

Enduro bikes, sometimes referred to as “all-mountain” bikes, are made to race downhill courses that have tough climbs and descents.  It makes sense then, that these bikes allow a great amount of “travel” in their suspension – something that is needed when navigating the roots, and rocks of the downhill sections.

While fast climbing is not their thing, they can get riders up to the top of the mountain course and allow them to ride the downhill sections efficiently and with speed.

Example: Trek Slash

Downhill Bikes

If climbing is not for you, then you might be interested in a bike specifically made for downhill riding.  These bikes are not meant for long, difficult climbs.  They are heavier than enduro bikes and the seat is usually set much lower which does not give the rider as much climbing power.

woman on a downhill mountain bike

Downhill mountain bikes are, however, built for a speedy, efficient descent, having the highest amount of front suspension travel of the mountain bike family.  These bikes come with dual crown forks and high end shocks, allowing the bike to have traction and support when flying down mountain trails.  Their frames are tough and made to withstand the bumps and banging that will occur during the ride.

downhill bikes on a chairlift

Because downhill bikes are not built for climbing, riders will opt for a chairlift ride to the top, before racing down the mountain.

Example: Commencal Supreme

Fat Bikes for Winter Riding 

Depending on your climate,  riding your cross country or trail bike may not be possible during the snowy winter months.  For times when the trails are snow covered and packed down, many riders have a fat bike which adds a winter riding season to the calendar. 

Trail conditions need to be optimal for efficient riding, even on a fat bike.  A foot of fresh powder would not be fun no matter what type of bike you had.  But for much of the winter season, fat biking is a terrific way to get outside and ride the snow packed trails.

fat tire mountain bike

Fat bikes are mountain bikes that have very wide or “fat” tires, usually between 3.5 and 4.5  inches, as compared with other mountain bike tires in the 2.2-2.6 range.  Fat tires are usually on a bike with wheel size of about 26 inches (smaller than the usual 27.5 or 29 inch mountain bike wheels).  These bikes are not designed for speed or technical climbing and are meant to navigate snowy and slippery ground. 

For some, a bike also serves as a main mode of transportation.  In this case, fat bikes are a good option for commuting during the icy winter months.  Adding studded tires to the fat bike makes an icy commute easier and safer.

Winter is not the only time of year you’ll see a cyclist on a fat bike.  These bikes can be ideal for long rides on the warm, sandy beach.  Their wide tire surface makes them efficient in sand, but not ideal for paved roads or paths.

Read5 Best Women’s Fat Bikes 

Single-Speed Bikes

As the name suggests, a single-speed bike has one gear.  It has one chainring in front and one chainring in the back.  The rider stays in the same gear for the entire ride regardless of inclines or descents. 

A single-speed bike is not to be confused with a “fixed-gear” bike, which does not have brakes and will not move forward if the rider stops pedaling.  Both have only one gear, but unlike “fixies,” single-speed bikes have the ability to coast if the rider takes a break from pedaling. 

Because they don’t have a derraileur or cassette, a singlespeed is lighter than most mountain bikes. It’s also easier to maintain and there are fewer parts to break.

That said, there are no gears, so this is a bike best suited for folks who really love a challenge and want to suffer!

Electric Bikes for Pedal and Power Assistance 

Electric mountain bikes, or “e mountain bikes” are growing in popularity.  Because they use battery power to assist the rider’s pedaling, they can make the ride easier and more enjoyable for those who don’t wish to grind up long hills on difficult rides.  

On an e-bike, the rider can choose to ride using full manual power (ie. no battery power) or varying degrees of pedal assistance.

posing with the turbo levo

While many e-bikes can be seen commuting around town as a green alternative to cars, they are also a good option for mountain biking.  Not only are they great for lengthening your ride, these bikes are beneficial if you’re returning from an injury or want to stay in a specific training zone (ie. zone 2).  They also make mountain biking accessible for those riders with chronic knee pain or who want some level of support to fully enjoy the fresh air and wilderness.

Because of the additional motor, and battery, e-bikes are heavier than other mountain bikes.  Despite the weight, however, e-bikes are a great way to keep up on longer trail rides with your friends.

Multiple battery packs can be purchased so that there are less worries of running down the battery and getting stuck far from home.  More good news is that over the years these bikes have come down in price and batteries are more lightweight.

Read:   9 Best Women’s Electric Bikes and How to Choose!

Mountain Bike Wheel Sizes

You’ll also sometimes see mountain bikes sub-categorized by their wheel sizes. Modern mountain bikes come with 27.5″ or 29″ wheels.

Additionally, a new trend are “mullet” bikes. These have mixed wheel sizes, usually a 29″ wheel up front and a 27.5″ wheel in back.

Mountain Bike Frame Material

The final way one might cateogrize bikes is by their frame material. The most common types of frame material are aluminum, carbon fiber, steel, or titanium.

Aluminum is the cheapest and most common of the bike frame materials. If you are buying an entry-level bike, chances are the frame will be aluminum.

Carbon fiber or composite frame are the most common frame material for slightly higher-end bikes. It is lighter than aluminum and has a more compliant feeling on the trail.

Steel and titanium are also popular frame materials but tend to be offered by more boutique bike brands. Both are highly durable.

Steel is popular with bikepackers and singlespeeders, as is titanium. Of the two, titanium is lighter but also much more expensive.

More Help Choosing A Bike

About The Author

jane gerritsen

Jane Gerritsen bought her first mountain bike at age 52 as “retirement prep” and since that time, the mountain bike community has opened up her world to new goals, new adventures and best of all, new friends.  She is most grateful for her time at home, where she is learning to renovate her garage, try new recipes, write, and of course, plan her next mountain bike adventure.

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