Words by: Liam Woods
Mountain bikes have come quite a long way in the past few years. There are more categories than ever, with more sizing options, along with more component options. It's full decision paralysis everywhere you look, don't worry though we are here to help. Hopefully, this Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide will help narrow down what type of bike you are looking for and what to value when making a decision. Looking to go for long trail rides and cover lots of ground? A Cross Country or Trail bike will work much better for you than a long travel Enduro bike. Looking to stay within a budget and just get out on the trail and ride? A Hardtail bike will fit the bill and provide more value in components than what a Full Suspension bike can offer.
We are going to be breaking down these bikes into three main categories: Hardtail Mountain Bikes, Full Suspension Mountain Bikes, and Specialty Mountain bikes. Hardtail has a few categories like Dirt Jump, Cross Country, Freeride and Trail hardtails. Full Suspension has even more categories as well but we are going to stick with the core of Cross Country, Trail, Enduro, and Freeride/Downhill bikes. Lastly will be Specialty, which includes Plus Bikes, Fat Bikes, and E-Bikes. Even though E-Bikes are about to be a large enough category on its own, we will still put those under Specialty for now.
From about 2010-2015, we saw an extreme jump in technology all around the mountain bike and especially in full-suspension bikes. We lost the front derailleur, suspension designs got so well rounded we do not need a pro pedal or lockout anymore to pedal efficiently, and the dropper post became a standard. I use mine so often even on a simple hour-long ride that I would be lost without one.
Hardtail bikes are possibly one of the rawest and truest ways to get out and ride bikes. It takes a lot of complexity out of the bike, you feel the trail more, and at the end of the day, they are a bit more affordable than a comparably specced Full Suspension bike. We are going to talk about three different kinds of Hardtail mountain bikes. Dirt Jumpers are mainly used to ride dirt jumps, pump tracks, skateparks, or just shredding around the neighborhood to the local market for a cold one. Next is probably the most popular hardtail mountain bike you will see, the Cross Country mountain bike. These can range in price greatly, from a $200 bike at the department store up to a $10,000 custom made high-end hardtail. The last category of hardtail MTBs we will look at is the Freeride or Trail Hardtail. These are still a hardtail in the rear but offer a more aggressive geometry and a longer travel fork.
The Dirt Jump Hardtail is often a mountain bike that dedicated mountain bikers will have as a bike to help add some skill to their riding. I personally have always had a dirt jumper since I started riding mountain bikes and that was an easy progression from riding BMX as a teenager. Dirt jump bikes are quite a specialty and normally only have a rear brake and nowadays are single speed. You can add a front brake and a DH style drivetrain if you want as well, which would make it a bit more of a useful bike if you wanted to enter a local dual slalom race or pedal around your neighborhood more. I personally like to keep my dirt jumper bike simple with just a rear brake and single-speed gearing.
It seemed for a while that Dirt Jump bikes were getting less and less popular as the local dirt jumps would get torn down by cities or towns. But with the new age of pump tracks becoming more and more popular, Dirt Jump bikes are coming back. With communities all over starting to get these pump tracks to be a great source for kids to learn, we are seeing much more interest in Dirt Jump bikes again. While you will not be doing much else on this style of bike besides riding dirt jumps, pump tracks, skateparks, the occasional dual slalom race or ripping around town, they sure are fun and can be a great way to build skills for the mountain bike.
As mentioned before, the Cross Country Hardtail Mountain bike might be the most popular style of hardtail and even mountain bike out on the trails. There are a few reasons for this. First, they are normally the most affordable version of mountain bikes, starting from very low at around $200 at a local department store and can go up exponentially from there. Another reason is that they can be extremely versatile based on your skill. You can learn to ride a mountain bike on a Cross Country hardtail, you can log some huge days on the bike like 4-6 hour epic rides, or if skills allow, you can ride a chunky downhill trail or even a bike park. Because of these reasons, the Cross Country mountain bike is very popular and can be an easy point of entry for someone trying to get into the sport.
As mentioned, you can get a $200 department store bike, but a solid hardtail will start around $600-800. That will get you a very solid bike with components that should last quite a while. Components like hydraulic disc brakes, possibly an air-sprung suspension fork and a drivetrain that will shift well and last if maintained properly are common. You can also get a carbon fiber Cross Country hardtail that would be a great option for racing cross country or you can also get a handmade steel, alloy, or titanium XC hardtail as well. That option will probably cost you the most out of any of these but the ride quality you get plus the fact that no two will be exactly the same is pretty cool.
The segment of hardtails that is Freeride or Trail style hardtails is much smaller, possibly even smaller than the dirt jump segment, but it's growing more and more. With more popularity in Canada and Europe, Freeride or Trail hardtail mountain bikes can help blur the lines between a hardtail and full suspension bike. What's the difference between a Cross Country hardtail and a Freeride or Trail hardtail? Well, first is going to be the amount of front suspension travel the fork has. A Cross Country bike will typically have about 100mm of front fork travel, while a Freeride or Trail hardtail will be more around the range of 120mm - 140mm, and even sometimes 150/160mm. With more fork travel, you also get a slacker head tube angle and longer reach numbers. This will help add wheelbase and stability to your bike. Along with fork travel, wheelbase, head tube angle and reach, you will also see shorter stems and nowadays dropper posts. One of the last main differences is going to be tire choice. A Freeride or Trail hardtail will typically have some meaty, thick tires on, similar to what you would find on a heavy-duty Trail, Enduro or even Downhill bike. On the other hand, a Cross Country bike will have fast, thin and light tires meant to go farther but will offer less overall grip.
I think one of the cool things about bikes like this is that the travel and aggressive geometry will help you get out of some trouble when going downhill but you still need to choose your lines carefully as you are still on a hardtail. This helps teach you great skills while out on the trail and if you ever get on a full-suspension bike, you will be able to go just that much faster with these skills in your bag. While they're not extremely popular for our customer base, we think the Freeride or Trail style hardtail is a sweet option if you might not be able to afford a full suspension bike but still want to ride the chunkier trails and take it to a bike park from time to time.
Full suspension mountain bikes can cover an extremely wide range of styles and terrain, from spandex-wearing cross country racers to the average day trail rider, enduro and downhill racers, and all the way up to freeriding and events like RedBull Rampage. Because of this, we could have split the full suspension mountain bike category up into a lot of segments, but we are going to keep it a bit more simple and break full suspension bikes into four categories: Cross Country, Trail, Enduro, and Freeride/Downhill. Most of our customers are riding full suspension bikes, mostly in the trail and enduro categories. This is because these categories have an overlap in bikes as well as they can be very versatile depending on your setup and location. You can spend 4-5 hours out on a large pedal loop or you can spend the weekend at a bike park riding only downhill. These Trail and Enduro bikes typically have about 120-160mm of rear travel, slightly more knobby tires and sometimes weigh in the range of 27-32lbs.
Having a Full Suspension bike over a Hardtail provides a handful of benefits. Of course, there is the fact that you have rear suspension and travel helping keep traction, control, and also soften the ride when going downhill. You can go faster while riding smoother and have the bike do more of the work in rough terrain. It will help you get out of some sketchy situations and can add comfort to long rides. Another benefit that people don’t always realize is that when climbing, a full-suspension bike will conform to the trail more and provide more traction since the rear wheel is making more connection with the trail over rough terrain. While you might not notice it right away, hardtail bikes are relying on the tire to conform to the trail while the bike stays rigid, but with a full-suspension bike it has both the tire and rear suspension conforming to the trail. Granted, some suspension designs have better-pedaling characteristics than others, but that is an entire topic on its own. Pretty much most full suspension mountain bikes within the last few years have all created great pedaling systems and fantastic all-around suspension platforms.
Recently Cross Country mountain bikes have been enjoying a resurgence in popularity as the current mountain bike geometry has started to catch on with Cross Country bikes. Cross Country mountain bikes typically have 100mm-110mm of rear travel paired with a 100mm or 120mm front suspension fork. Cross Country bikes are also often referred to as 4” travel bikes as 100mm equals four inches. A few years ago, Cross Country mountain bikes slightly died off as they had a short wheelbase, long stems, steep headtube angles and rear suspension that was great for pedaling but not so great for all-around trail riding. Well, with the last couple years of the mountain bike as a whole getting really really good, so did XC mountain bikes. The bikes followed the rest of the industry, getting longer reaches that helped extend the wheelbase as well as shortening up the stem, making a much more confident bike for going downhill. Along with those changes, the seat tube angles have gotten steeper and the head tube angles have gotten slacker. Both of these improve riding position and the slacker headtube adds to that confidence when the trail points down. Lastly is the improvement to the rear suspension design in itself. Rear suspension has been refined so much that Cross Country bikes can now pedal amazingly without the need of a lockout, while still adding support and progression when descending.
One of my favorite new bikes that includes all of this is the Yeti SB100. With 100mm of rear travel and having all the traits mentioned above, it has become one of our best selling bikes at Worldwide Cyclery, as it's just a blast to ride. It's efficient yet can still tackle crazy downhills with ease. These bikes can be as light as 21lbs or so and go up from there. Tire choice and dropper posts make a big difference in weight so the bikes on the lower end of the 20lbs range will have light and fast tires and a rigid seat post instead of a dropper. I'd say these bikes are really the only bikes that are now being ridden without dropper posts. This is because Cross Country bikes typically aren't being used to tackle gnarly, steep trails.
The Trail segment of full suspension mountain bikes is probably the largest of them all and for good reason. You can pretty much do anything on them. The current style of Trail mountain bikes have about 120mm-140mm of rear travel. There certainly isn't a definition for this category, but we call this a mid-travel full suspension mountain bike. A Trail mountain bike is so popular because they tend to be a bit more all-around than a Cross Country mountain bike, meaning while they aren't as fast uphill, they are more comfortable and create more confidence going downhill than an XC bike. They usually are not as big or heavy as an Enduro bike, something we will get into next. A typical Trail mountain bike will have anything from a medium to a full knobby tire, typically come with dropper posts stock, and can range greatly in weight from 25lbs up to 30lbs.
The same improvements that have been made to Cross Country mountain bikes have also been made to Trail mountain bikes. One of the first bikes to really charge into this current trend is the Evil The Following bike, with 120mm of rear travel and 29” wheels. This bike was a blast to ride and made everyone smile while riding. The bikes got longer in both wheelbase and reach, stems shrunk, dropper posts became normal and seat tube angles got steeper while head tube angles got slacker. That is going to be the trend but all of those have played a big role in why a Trail bike with 120mm or 130mm of rear travel can now be easily pedaled for hours.
A new favorite Trail full suspension mountain bike at Worldwide Cyclery is the Revel Rascal, a 130mm rear travel, 140mm front 29” bike. The Revel Rascal lends itself to be an amazing all-arounder and can do both long days, shuttle runs or weekends at the bike park. It has a rear suspension platform called CBF, or Canfield Balance Formula, which helps this bike ride a notch above. It can pedal uphill without any energy loss and have traction over rough terrain while climbing. Then once going downhill, the 130mm rear travel is very effective and maintains that traction you feel while climbing as well as providing great support and bottom out resistance.
Many employees at the shop are riding a Trail bike, some of which happen to be a Revel Rascal, as we have tons of different terrains that Trail bikes fit perfectly on.
While Trail bikes might be the most ridden bikes, I think everyone who rides mountain bikes loves to know about, ride and even own the latest and greatest Enduro bikes. Enduro bikes often get the newest tech and the most coverage among all the mountain bikes. In the professional setting, Enduro bikes are ridden incredibly hard and take insane abuse, as a typical EWS race is about 4-6 hours of riding with 5-8 stages of downhill tracks. Enduro bikes normally have about 150mm-170mm of rear travel and are matched with a 160mm-180mm fork. Because these bikes get so much travel, they often do not pedal quite the best, but in recent years with updated geometry and suspension designs these long travel Enduro bikes are increasing pedaling efficiency. Since these Enduro bikes are often being ridden as hard as full Downhill bikes, some parts overlap like brakes and tires. Many Enduro bikes will have stronger casing tires like a DD or Downhill casing from Maxxis or a Tough Casing from WTB. Weight is often on the heavier side of the 20’s or lower end of the 30’s. When riding hard and looking for durability, weight becomes less and less of an issue. I'd say if a rider is riding hard, their bike will weigh 30-33lbs and sometimes even 35-36lbs.
Wheel size on Enduro bikes is now leaning a bit more on the side of the 29” wheel, but 27.5” is still very common. A few heavy hitting 29” Enduro bikes came out in the past few years, so it seems they are taking over. Bikes like the Yeti SB150, the Evil Wreckoning, the Santa Cruz Megatower, and the Specialized Enduro are all great examples of Enduro bikes. All of these are 29” Enduro bikes aimed at going fast and being raced by EWS racers and weekend warriors alike. There are some 27.5” bikes still holding strong and last year EWS races were still won on 27.5” wheels under Sam Hill. Martin Maes managed to snag a win on a mullet setup with 29” front and 27.5” rear. The shop favorite is probably the Yeti SB150. The SB150 can pedal extremely well given its travel, slackness, length, and propensity for going so dang fast and confidently going downhill. While it's overkill for many trails, once you get a bike with that much travel moving fast on a chunky trail, it just comes alive!
Freeride and Downhill full suspension mountain bikes are the the bikes with the most amount of front and rear travel you can possibly get. All of these will have a dual crown fork, typically they lose the dropper post and get a smaller gear range. Since the Enduro and even Trail bikes have gotten so much better over the last few years, this category of bike has been slimmed down to the core rider more and more each year. Most of the time, these bikes are being ridden by people who frequent bike parks, have some big zones near them that are able to be shuttled, or they are racing real downhill races. Most of the development from Downhill or Freeride bikes come from the pros racing World Cups or riding freeride events like RedBull Rampage or the new Fest Series events with massive jumps. The wheel size in Downhill bikes has been debated for the past few years. Josh Bryceland was the last rider to ever win a World Cup on 26” wheels and will probably retain this honor as these bikes have been completely overrun by 27.5” wheels and in the past two years 29”. Twenty-nine inch wheels made a divisive topic even bigger in downhill, but racers and brands have made amazing bikes with large wheels. There are now wins on both 27.5” bikes, 29” bikes as well as mullet bikes with 29” up front and 27.5” in the rear.
As mentioned, these bikes have typically 200mm of travel front and rear, and a few bikes like the Santa Cruz V10 even have a little more out back than 200mm. There has also been a resurgence in a newer style of Freeride bikes, which typically sport a little less travel than full on Downhill sleds. The same goes for DH bikes as with Trail and Enduro bikes: as bikes get better, the need for excessive travel goes down. A few top level riders are actually riding beefed up Enduro bikes and turning them into Freeride bikes by adding a dual crown 190mm or 200mm travel fork to a long travel Enduro bike, which can be enough to send massive jumps. A few bikes we see like this are the Evil Wreckoning, the Yeti SB165 and the Canyon Torque. The Yeti SB165 has 165mm rear travel and Yeti sponsors a rider who has a 190mm fork up front. The Canyon Torque has 175mm rear travel and has been seen with a 200mm fork. Again, these are getting more and more rare, but it's still a category of bike worth mentioning and talking about. If you are riding pure downhill, have some big mountains with trails that are shuttlable or a steep and chunky bike park nearby, a Downhill bike could be amazingly fun for you.
Specialty bikes are bikes you might not always think about, or are for certain terrains or conditions (snow), or like an E-Bike that isn't completely a full pedal bike. These include Plus bikes that use tires from 2.7 inches to 3.2 inches, or Fat bikes that run tires from about 4 inches to 5 inches, and Ebikes that can vary a great deal in style of bike but they all have pedal assisted motors. You can find E-Bikes as road bikes, hardtail mountain bikes, or full suspension mountain bikes. You can even have a Plus tire E-Bike, which are actually quite common in the world of E-Bikes.
The Plus Size mountain bike made a pretty big splash when these first came out and it seemed like every company went out to offer or retro fit a bike that was in the current lineup to make it work. Typically you will see a Plus Size bike on 27.5” wheels because larger tires will start to experience tire roll as the wheel diameter increases. The benefit of extra-wide tires is that you have more tire on the ground and you can run lower pressure meaning more traction and confidence. For the beginner or average mountain biker, this makes a lot of sense and that is the reason it seemed to catch on pretty fast. There is also a 29” plus size option and a few larger companies like Trek offer a bike with that wheel choice, and you might also see smaller handmade bike companies offering 29” plus size bikes with a 2.8” or 3.0” tire.
Because the overlap in 27.5” plus size wheel and 29” standard wheels is so close, some companies just made sure that a wider tire can fit in the rear of their frame. This way a bike can be offered as either a Plus bike or normal bike. I think Pivot was one of the first companies to offer a bike like this to the masses. The industry slightly pulled back from Plus bikes over the last year or so, likely because the demand was from an early adopter situation and the riders who liked it stuck with them and are still riding their Plus bikes. There is also the demand of tire choices and while brands like Maxxis, WTB, and Teravail offer a good amount of tires to choose from, there simply isn't the same kind of choice as your standard tire in 27.5” or 29”. If you are a newer rider or are looking for more traction and don't jump or ride rock gardens super hard, I think a Plus Size tire can be a great option. Many bikes can now fit a 2.8 inch wide tire in 27.5” wheel if it normally uses a 29” tire and is a modern bike.
Fat bikes are for sure a specialty bike as they are pretty much only for the snow (and sometimes sand), and if you are in a place that gets snow often then a Fat bike can help get you through winter without losing your mind. Fat bikes come in all shapes and sizes, from fully rigid, meaning no front or rear suspension, as well as Hardtail and Full Suspension versions as well. Fat bikes will have about a 4” - 5” wide tire and there are even options for that tire to have metal spikes for riding in the ice. Fat bikes are typically offered with 26” rims but that is because the outer diameter of the tire is so large it's probably close to a 29” tire.
As I am from Southern California, I have never ridden a Fat bike in snow. But I've heard from friends who live places where it's under snow for 3-4 months a year that Fat bikes are a fun alternative to riding bikes in normal conditions and keep you pedaling all year round. There are even spots where they groom the local trails so you can ride Fat bikes on a more designated trail rather than just riding through snow. I'm not sure about you but that sounds pretty fun.
Where do we start with E-Bikes… We are still going to say E-Bikes are a specialty style of bike as they are not the typical bike and have a pedal assisted motor. What I think is really great about E-Bikes is it makes the barrier of entry to ride bikes much lower, meaning someone that isn't in shape, has a health issue, or is getting a little older can still get out, ride a bike and have an amazing time. E-Bikes come in all shapes and sizes, from road and gravel bikes, to hardtail mountain bikes and full suspension mountain bikes. There is also a massive price range to choose from, some starting as low as $1500 for a decent entry level bike all the way up to $16,000, like the one Specialized just released. For the most part you can find bikes that are around $3500-6000 and will be plenty fine for most of us and the parts that come on those will be good quality and last a long time with normal maintenance. Of course, with these you are also buying an electric motor and a battery. There is also the weight...most full suspension E-Bikes are about 48-55lbs.
There is always an issue with new things in the bike industry and E-Bikes are certainly a hot topic right now. Many trail networks are not sure how to handle them and some cities and counties say that E-Bikes are a motorized vehicle and not a bicycle. While Worldwide Cyclery is all for them, it's a hard thing to side for or against. While there is controversy in E-Bikes, they are here to stay and are really not much different from normal bikes. At the end of the day, it gets more butts on bikes and more people to be on the mountain bikers side, which we need in certain places to keep the trails that are there safe and legal. We have a few customers that purchased E-Bikes for their parents who are older, allowing them to get out and ride for two hours at a fast pace. E-Bikes can move almost too fast and you have to be pretty fit to keep up with a beginner rider on an E-Bike. As mentioned before there are also riders who choose to ride E-Bikes because of health issues. We have another customer whose brother is battling cancer and he got him an E-Bike for exercise. It helps get him moving and outside, which is great not only for his physical health but hugely important for mental health. As you can see, E-Bikes have their place. While still a specialty bike, they are becoming more and more common and sooner than later will be a normal category of bike.
The classic wheel size debate. When 29” first came out, most riders said those wagon wheels have no place on a mountain bike. Some of the first brands to adopt were Gary Fisher and Niner bikes, who at first made Cross Country bikes with 29” wheels. The hardcore riders, especially all-mountain and gravity riders, hated on the larger wheel. As time went on, tire choices got better, wheel strength increased and most importantly geometry developed to make 29” bikes all across the board win races from Downhill to Enduro to Cross Country. It's now one of the most popular wheel sizes out on the trails. Unfortunately, 26” is pretty much dead as they say. A few years after the 29” wheel, the 27.5” wheel grew in popularity and has now taken over the freeride and jump scene in full suspension mountain bikes. Luckily, 26” is still relevant in Dirt Jump bikes and I don't think that will change, although Why Cycles does make a 27.5” Titanium dirt jumper that is pretty sweet.
There is also the topic of mullet bikes, which is a larger front wheel with a smaller rear wheel. This has been more popular recently within the last two years as a few professional racers in both Downhill World Cups and Enduro World Series have been running this wheel combo and having huge success with it. Loic Bruni and Martin Maes specifically both took huge wins this year with a mullet bike setup proving it can be fast. Is it faster than two 29” wheels? That question is yet to be answered.
Either way, wheel size will always be a debate, good or bad, and in favor of larger wheels or smaller. I think it really comes down to the terrain, rider style and even more so rider size. A rider that is a stocky 5’6” and might not have the longest legs could probably maneuver the bike much better with 27.5” wheels than if the same rider were on 29” wheels. But then again riding style comes into play and that rider might not be the best at maneuvering the bike anyways, so a 29” wheel will help plow over the terrain. You can also have a rider that is 6’4” and makes 29” wheels look small and that rider couldn't ride 27.5” wheels without having some setbacks. At the end of the day, both wheels are great and you should ride what you feel is faster or more fun, and if you are having fun you are already winning.
When looking for a new bike, there are a few different ways you can go about purchasing one. The oldest style is the classic brick and mortar bike shop. The shop carries certain select brands and you go in and buy a bike. You typically will also get it serviced there and the shop has professionals to help you choose your bike and fix it when you need help. The other way to buy a new bike is a newer model called the consumer direct model. This features brands that are not in bike shops like Canyon, YT, and Commencal. There are also a few other hybrid models that are both in some bike shops and also available online like Revel Bikes, Transition Bikes, Evil Bikes and more. These brands offer bikes online and in select shops. You can learn from the site and other online reviews but without a professional helping guide decisions, I'd say the consumer direct model is more for somewhat knowledgeable riders that know what to look for when buying a new bike. That also goes with working and building your bike. These bikes come unbuilt and you either build them yourself or take them to the shop and get the typical, “Oh, you bought this online...” which is always a fun conversation to have.
The other way to buy a bike is used from PinkBike. You can get some killer deals there. Again, this is more for someone that is a bit knowledgeable so you know what to look for and what might be a good deal or might be a thrashed race bike and not worth buying.
Brands that are typically sold through the brick and mortar retail model will be more expensive than if you compared a similar bike build from a consumer direct brand. We have an entire video of this going into much more detail on why some of these bikes cost more or less. Check that out :)
Here are some important tips when looking at bikes, new or used. First would be look for a 1x specific drivetrain. These are much easier to come by now and almost every new entry level full suspension mountain bike will come with one. These are key as a front derailleur causes more issues than help on a hard riding mountain bike. With multiple chainrings and the chain moving about there is always the potential to drop a chain, which sucks and nobody wants to do that. I think I can count on one hand how many times I've dropped a chain over the past 7 years of riding a 1x specific bike.
The other huge tip is to get a dropper post. It adds a little weight but I don't know how I could ride a bike without a dropper anymore. It's like a habit now, I don't think about it and just move the lever and down goes the post. It's a crazy simple yet necessary piece of equipment for a mountain bike to ride normal trails. Most bikes in the $2000+ range are now coming with dropper posts.
Lastly, if you are looking for a used bike, I would look at bikes from about 2016-2017 and newer. This is about the time bikes got to their current plateau. The combination of geometry, suspension tech, drivetrains all came together around that time and bikes since have only gotten a little better. There haven't really been any significant jumps in geometry or technology since then.
At the end of the day, all mountain bikes have two wheels, get you out into the mountains and nature and offer a great way to exercise, blow off stress, get an adrenaline rush and just straight up have fun. All bikes are a gateway to getting after that and whatever bike you have currently can make that happen. Get out and ride some mountain bikes!
This article was written / authored by Liam Woods. Liam has been in the bicycle industry for over 10 years as a racer, professional mechanic, service manager and as of late, media and content creator. Liam has ridden thousands of different bikes, ridden countless components, tested endless MTB apparel of all kinds and written reviews on it all. He's a key piece to the Worldwide Cyclery "All Things MTB" content creation puzzle. He also makes consistent appearances on the Worldwide Cyclery YouTube channel and Instagram.