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To say that you’re going mountain biking can mean different things to different people. Where some picture gentle country trails or long circuits up and over mountains, others dream of steep, fast and technical descents with slick roots, rock gardens and flowy berms. These varying disciplines have very different demands of the rider and their bike. This means that there’s a large amount of different mountain bikes in the market and all this choice can make things a bit confusing! Not to fear, we’ve put together and an introductory guide to help you make sense of it all.
When talking about different styles on mountain bike you’ll continuously come across a variety of different terminology. Here’s a quick list of what some of the more common terms mean and how they apply to different mountain bike types.
The most common mountain bike, and what most people will have grown up riding, will have been a hard tail (no rear suspension) XC style mountain bike. As the most affordable type of mountain bike they’re also the most popular, though the world cup/Olympic winning bikes can go for up and over £5,000. Designed to ride fast on the flat and up hills they generally have 80-120mm of travel in the front suspension and occasionally will come with rear suspension too. Modern XC bikes generally come with 27.5” (650b) or 29” wheels for a smoother ride that’ll climb well and maintain speed over rougher terrain. The head angle will usually be relatively steep for efficiency riding up hills and along smooth, level trails. XC bikes generally have the widest range of gears, commonly with two chain rings up front and 10, 11 or 12 gears at the rear. Recently, more and more competitive XC racers are moving towards ‘one by’ or ‘1x’ drivetrains with a single chain ring at the front. With the advent of 11 and 12 speed rear cassettes, rider are offer a wide enough range of gears that multiple front chain rings are not necessary. Bar widths on cross country bikes are usually narrower than their longer-travel relatives, resulting in a slightly more skittish feel on rougher ground but ultimately allowing for more precise control of the front wheel in combination with the steeper head angle.
If you ride a lot of different terrain, but only want one bike, then a trail bike may be just what you’re looking for, they blend comfortable trail speed with the “rough and ready” feel of an enduro to give a smoother downhill experience. Available in both hardtail and full-suspension designs, the travel of a trail bike will generally range from 120mm up to 150mm. They feature a head angle of around 66-67o, resulting in a wheel base that is slightly longer than a XC bike. Put simply, trail bikes can be categorised in two ways; bulked up cross country rigs with more suspension and slacker head angles, or slimmed down enduro bikes with less travel and less weight!
The ultimate all-mountain machine, an Enduro bike will tackle (almost) anything you feel like throwing yourself up or down, though it excels at the latter. Basically a bulked up full suspension trail bike, they come with a slacker head angles (around 65o), with short stems and either 27.5” or 29” wheels to suit different riding styles. Enduro bikes commonly feature some of the longer wheelbases in the mountain bike world. As touched on earlier, a longer wheelbase provides better stability at high speed – as enduro is a gravity based format, a longer wheelbase will improve control at higher speeds. Most modern enduro bikes are fitted with a wide range 1x11 or 1x12 speed drivetrain. These modern gear sets provide a wide enough overall range of gears to negate the need for a front derailleur. In terms of suspension, enduro MTBs are usually equipped with 150 to 170mm of travel. Generally, more travel is better for steep, technical and fast tracks – but at the expense of the bike’s climbing ability. To handle the rigours of enduro and all-mountain riding, your bike needs to be of a certain quality. Entry-level enduro bike start at around £2000 and go up towards £10,000 for the absolute best that money can buy.
Downhill rigs are good for one thing and one thing only - riding downhill. They are designed specifically to be ridden down the roughest, steepest and most gnarly trails you can find. Some downhill bikes are catered more towards flowy park trails with big jumps and drops, and others are geared more towards ‘British-style’ rough, rocky, rooty, wet and loamy trails. With travel ranging from 180mm up to 220mm these bikes can handle the rough stuff! With long, motocross-esque, triple crown front forks with very slack head angles of 64o and under, they’ll absorb most obstacles head on and the long rear travel reduces the chance of being bucked up and over the handlebars. Downhill bikes utilise both coil spring and light air shock suspension and your choice of which depends on the type of riding you’ll be doing and how much you spend on your bike/components! Air shocks are lighter but they don’t offer the same small bump sensitivity as coil shocks, on longer tracks the oil heats up and the damping characteristics can change. Downhill bikes are the most specialist type of mountain bike, only suited to downhill riding being heavy built machines with no uphill gears, big heavy tyres and slack geometry. You therefore need to be prepared to push them back uphill or have access to a ski lift or uplift van. Most DH bikes use 27.5” wheels, but during the ’17 WC season Santa Cruz, Mondraker, Commencal & Intense all debuted 29er DH bikes. Santa Cruz and Intense enjoyed the most success with Mondraker and Commencal reverting back to 27.5” later in the season. As with enduro bikes, DH bikes must be of a certain quality to withstand the abuse they endure – you will be looking at around £2000 upwards for an entry-level downhill bike.
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