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Mountain Bikes: A Guide to Bikes That Make Your Ride Better
With the invention of mountain bikes, thrill-seekers looked to conquer trails and other natural terrains. But now, with mountain biking being enjoyed by over 40 million Americans annually, it can be hard to figure out how to get into such a popular sport.
For those looking to get into it, there are several different types of bikes to choose from. With a range of specifications and technical aspects, there's a lot that you'll need to keep in mind to get the right bike for you.
Mountain Bike Buying Guide
Having a new mountain bike ready to take on the trails in town is great, but not if you find out that the bike you've bought isn't designed for the type of terrain available to you.
Each kind of bike excels in different conditions and riding styles, so getting a few basics out of the way will help you determine what bike best suits your needs. First, you'll need to figure out the type of riding you want to do.
As mountain biking has developed over the years, so too have the types of bikes. Besides the ones listed below, there are several subcategories and combinations thereof. But these are the main riding styles that bikes are manufactured for.
Most of these bikes are full-suspension, that can go over nearly any type of terrain. Trail bikes strike a balance between downhill and cross country style features with 27.5 or 29” wheel sizes, and lightweight suspension and travel between 130mm and 160mm.
Cross Country / XC
Bearing the same name as the sport, XC bikes are for long-distance riding and racing. Hardtails make up a large proportion of the bikes designed for cross country, although full-suspension bikes with a lockable front suspension are now more common.
These types of bikes have long wheelbases for better pedaling and large 29-inch wheels. Because of the distances riders go on these bikes, they're some of the lightest mountain bikes and walk the line between comfort and efficiency, usually having a shorter level of suspension travel at around 80-120mm.
Also known as enduro bikes, these are a more "buff" version of trail bikes that emphasize the downhill aspects. They're heavier than trail bikes, but not as heavy as dedicated downhill bikes. The tires are fitted for cornering and traction, and the suspension travel is raised from the general 130-160mm of trail bikes to a range of 140-180mm.
Downhill bikes are racers, mainly decked out with smaller wheel sizes, heavy frames to handle the high speeds, and a lot of travel in the suspension, from 180-200mm. Bike parks commonly have regularly maintained downhill trails, similar to ski routes where they're color-coded for difficulty.
Electric mountain bikes occupy a slightly different space in the mountain biking sphere as they can be suited for any type of riding style previously mentioned. They're also more powerful than standard bikes and can enable riders to travel farther and handle terrain that conventional bikes can't.
A large part of the process comes down to ride quality. As mentioned in the previous section, different suspensions accompany different types of mountain biking.
Hardtails have a rigid frame and a single suspension fork in the front, which creates a few inches of travel. These can come with 26”, 27.5” or 29” wheel size and are available with any frame material.
Due to the lack of a rear suspension system, these are generally lighter, more affordable, and easier to maintain. But a downside to this is that your legs act as the shock absorbers for the back wheel.
Full or dual suspension bikes are regarded as the all-rounder - a very comfortable ride with the rear suspension improving cornering, braking, and climbing grip. But they're a bit heavier, more expensive, and complicated to design and build. This leads to an added element of upkeep as more parts generally mean more maintenance.
Rigid bikes differ from the previous two in that they don't have any suspension system at all, which introduces a much smaller margin of error. Generally made from steel and titanium, these are typically equipped with 26- or 29-inch wheels.
With a suspension system, riders have a solid cushion for the vibration and bumps the bike is going over, but with rigid bikes, your body has to provide this cushion instead.
The benefit of rigid bikes is that they can be more efficient over smooth terrain since there is no suspension movement interfering with pedal efficiency. However, today many hardtail mountain bikes, including some Trail models, have a lockout on the suspension fork meaning you can have the benefit of suspension when you need it and the ability to lock it out when you don’t.
The travel on the suspension is the measurement of how much a wheel can move to absorb obstacles and bumps. Shorter travel consists of a range of 100-120mm, more suited to cross country and short-travel trail bikes. These, although they have a lower margin for error, tend to be lighter and more efficient, which can help tremendously for pedaling uphill.
Enduro bikes have higher amounts of front and rear travel, with a range of 150-170mm and are designed for those who want to go downhill fast but want a bike that can still be pedaled uphill. While not being as fast descending over the roughest terrain as a dedicated downhill racing bike, they're a solid best of both worlds approach.
For those looking for a balance between these two options, there are the mid-travel Trail bikes, taking up the 120-140mm travel range. This is especially good for those who want to descend hills with capable handling but still have the ability to go over milder trails and long trips.
Pricing for Mountain Bikes
The next big question is "what's your budget?" As we go deeper into the specifications such as frame material and size, wheel size, and brakes, it's important to have your price range in the back of your mind.
Finding the bike that ticks your boxes for riding style, specs, as well as budget can be an intimidating task. There will always be tradeoffs and some disadvantages that you may need to work around, but there are a few price brackets to look into.
A good starting range is around $1,000-$1,500. These affordable bikes are almost all made with aluminum alloy, have 10 speed or 11 speed drivetrains for gearing and hydraulic disc brakes.
Suspension is an important thing to note for this price range, as suspension forks will be very basic, meaning full-suspension bikes in this price range should be avoided.
As the price goes up, so does the quality and performance of the components used, with more specialty customized bikes and e-bikes taking up the higher ranges from $3,000 and up.
Getting more into the nitty-gritty of the construction of mountain bikes, There are four main types of materials that frames are made out of. Depending on the type of riding you're doing, the frame material can either be a large help or a huge detriment.
Make note of your budget, willingness or ability to repair your bike or accessibility to a bike shop, and how the material's weight will impact your riding and the rest of the components on the bike.
Aluminum is the most common material, being both light and affordable. Its responsiveness and stiffness make it an easy material to work with. That said, this stiffness can make for a rougher ride, as it lacks the absorbency that other frames provide.
As a detriment to its initial low cost, it's difficult to repair and degrades more quickly over time. Due to its positive defining features, it's generally used for beginners' bikes.
Being a noticeable amount lighter than other types of frame materials, carbon fiber frames are sought after by those looking for a professional edge, as they're commonly used for higher-end bikes. As opposed to aluminum frames, these absorb more bumps and cracks for a more comfortable ride.
But they do come with their detriments, as similar to aluminum frames they're hard to repair. And due to their utilization on higher-end bikes, these come with a higher price tag.
For those going on gravel and long tours on their bike, a chromoly steel frame mountain bike might be something to look into. Being resistant to fatigue and easy to repair, these can handle long-term rides with a fair amount of weight. These bike frames are mainly available from custom frame builders and therefore have a large price tag. One important thing to be aware of with steel bikes is that they're very susceptible to rust.
Titanium is durable, versatile, and has a smooth ride quality. It has a substantial amount of resistance to corrosion and the highest strength-to-weight ratio of all metals. But unfortunately, it's quite expensive and rare. And like chromoly steel frames, titanium frames are primarily available from custom frame builders.
26 inches used to be the standard size for mountain bike wheels, but now 27.5- and 29-inch sizes have taken over the market.
26 Inch Wheels
26-inch wheels are incredibly nimble and adaptable to twisting terrain, and due to their popularity and availability, can be easily repaired or replaced. But they aren't without their cons, as they may lose speed faster than other tires on rougher terrain and they're at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to rolling over obstacles compared to larger tires.
These are mainly suited for slopestyle, freeride, and dirt jump bikes, such as the Cannondale Dave, as they're stiffer, stronger, and lighter than other sizes which means that they accelerate faster on smooth surfaces.
27.5 Inch Wheels
Also known as 650b wheels, these have developed as a happy medium between 29 and 26 inches. These have the fast acceleration and maneuverability known to the 26-inch but also tend to be a smoother ride going over bumps like the 29-inch, though not quite as smooth.
29 Inch Wheels
29-inch wheels fit an interesting niche, as although they have slow acceleration, they carry momentum fairly well and have the smoothest ride quality. With a longer contact patch, they feature more stability and grip than the previous types. That said, there is a small weight penalty over the smaller sizes and they can be harder to maneuver tight turns on smaller tracks or trails.
29-inchers are great for cross country bikes, as well as trail bikes due to their stability and ability to go over nearly any terrain without a hitch.
Brakes on mountain bikes are almost all disc at this point, however, some entry-level bikes still use rim brakes. The stopping power of disc brakes is far superior to traditional rim brakes. There are two main types of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic.
Mechanical Disc Brakes
Mechanical disc brakes use traditional cables and cable housing that are the same used for the older type of brakes, v-brakes. However, instead of having brake pads that squeeze the rim of the tire to slow you down when you pull the brake lever, the brake pads squeeze a metal rotor mounted to the hub of the wheel. These are easier to install, adjust and replace due to the high availability of cables.
The cons of these cables, however, are that they're exposed to environmental conditions, which makes them vulnerable to rust. They also tend to stretch with extended amounts of use and require constant adjustments to combat this. Because of these factors, for mountain biking, which involves lots of braking, mechanical disc brakes are only found on very entry level price points, with most mountain bikes relying on the superior performance of hydraulic disc brakes.
Hydraulic Disc Brakes
Hydraulic disc brakes on the other hand use reservoirs, hydraulic fluid, and hoses to operate the brake. A major advantage these have over mechanicals is that they're sealed off to outside debris. Plus, they offer more power and control. This comes at the cost of having to be professionally installed.
Once you’ve decided which bike is right for you, you'll need to factor in the size. The size of the bike correlates to the size and height of the rider. For every sized bike there are frame measurements that are important to evaluate for proper bike fit.
Stand over height, which is how far the top tube of the bike is from the ground, should be a smaller number than the rider's inseam so that they're able to stand flat-footed while straddling the bike.
However, there's more to consider than the stand over heightt. A measurement related to this is seat tube length, which determines how high or low the saddle goes.
One of the most important measurements to consider is the top tube length and reach. Top tube length is the difference between the head tube and the seat tube, functionally the distance the rider is from the bars when seated. Reach is the distance between the center of the bottom bracket and the head tube, how far the rider is from the bars when standing on the bike.
Hit the Trails
Mountain biking is an incredibly popular sport with a lot of subcategories and intricacies, including the types of mountain bikes available. Knowing what riding style, the suspension type and travel, size, and price range you're looking for is the key to finding the best bike for you. With all this in mind, don't forget to think of Cannondale, with their wide variety of bikes and accessories designed to get you outdoors and on the track.
Come ride with us.