Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Choosing the correct style, frame, size & feature is an important part of mountain bike riding. This article discusses some basic guidelines for mountain bike selection.
So you’re keen to really get into mountain bike riding.
You have a few mates that ride and you would like to join them on the trails (and you want to put on a good show without looking like a beginner)
What bike do you choose?
When shopping for a mountain bike and accessories, the number of options can be overwhelming. There’s so many different types and models to choose from, it can be hard to know even where to start. One of the best ways to filter your choices is determine first what type of riding you’ll be doing. There’s a big difference between cruising around on flat trails vs. bouncing down complex Vancouver style stunts. So let’s take a look see, shall we?
As far as mountain bike styles go, the most basic decision will be suspension.
Do you want it at all? If you’re doing plenty of off-road and woods riding you’ll require a front shock at least, and probably rear suspension too. Going downhill? Then you’ll need to enlist plenty of suspension travel to soak up those big hits.
As per riding terrain, we can divide up mountain bike styles like this:
Flatlander – You ride mostly flat trails and rail-trails. A bit of off-road adventure might appear, but it’s less than 5-10 percent of your daily ride. In this case, you can go without suspension or use a front shock only. Some flatlanders who want maximum comfort could go with a short travel dual suspension ride to iron out as many bumps on the trail as possible.
XC/Cross Country (50-50) – You’re the kind of rider that likes variety. You spend lots of time on flat trails, but you’re not afraid to mix it up some on singletrack either. These days, many riders in this category go for dual suspension. Today’s models are incredibly lightweight so the added rear shock hardware doesn’t load you down much at all.
Woodsman – Your only time on flat trails is in order to reach the woods. You like it thick and twisty. You’re not a downhiller, but a steep drop doesn’t scare you much and neither does a grueling climb. A lightweight dual suspension ride is the best option here. If things get steep and bumpy where you ride, your shocks should give you with a bit more travel than the 50-50 rider. An exception to the rule might be the cross country racer. Since every gram counts, you might sacrifice comfort for weight with a classic front suspension-only XC race bike.
North Shore – A rare and elite breed of biker, your skills have been sharpened over time to be able to handle jumps, ramps, bridges, switchbacks and anything else natural or man-made that appears on the trail. Most riders of this ilk consider the Vancouver, British Columbia (BC) area as their Mecca. Your bike must be incredibly versatile – typically dual suspension, sturdy but light enough to maneuver and change direction in mid-air.
Downhiller – When using the term “downhill,” we mean the full face guard, motorcycle helmet and body armor crowd. You catch big air to clear obstacles, and your only mission is to get to the bottom as fast and furiously as possible. Your bike has long travel suspension, front and rear, and a dual crown shock beefs up the front end. Plus, your ride has oversized tires to blast over the largest and sharpest rocks on the course. You don’t obsess over weight, because when you hit the bottom you’re taking a chair lift back to the top.
Freerider – Some consider this synonymous with Vancouver style riding, and the debate remains wide open. Others (including this author) consider freeriding to lean a bit more towards the downhill bent. With more travel and a dual crown fork, the freeride bike can handle cliff drops, but the overall geometry still allows for technical trail riding. Freeriders might consider themselves the mutant offspring of downhiller and BC style technicians.
The mountain bike’s frame is its heart and soul.
You can swap out wheels, shifters, gears and other hardware, but the frame remains the same. Besides the differences in suspension (none, front or dual), let’s take look at some frame materials that you might consider.
Steel – This is the classic bike frame material. The best steel frames offer something magical that few other metals can duplicate, that is, inherent shock absorption. The downside is a bit more weight and the potential for corrosion. If you are going for a bike with no suspension, a quality steel frame might be just the ticket absorb some surface vibration.
Aluminum – The vast majority of bike frames are made from this material. It provides the best combination of lightweight, stiffness and affordability. With suspension technology, the harsh ride associated with aluminum all but disappears. If you forgo the rear shock, an aluminum ride takes some getting used to.
Titanium – This exotic material weds steel-like shock absorption characteristics with aluminum’s stiffness and light weight. This magic combination comes at a steep price as a top of the shelf titanium frame can cost up to 5x as much as its aluminum counterpart.
Carbon Fiber – This is the lab rat’s invention that comes closest to mimicking the properties of titanium. The advantage of carbon fiber is that it can be morphed into nearly any shape to fit the bike designer’s vision. The downside is that if the material gets compromised (that is, broken or cracked), you’re buying a new frame.
Combination – Many bike makers these days combine materials to get the exact feel riders demand. For example, the main frame might be carbon fiber, with the rear shock swingarm constructed from aluminum.
When it comes to mountain bike sizes, it depends on the manufacturer.
Some are measured in inches, and like shoes, one size does not fit all. What we mean is that the point of measurement is not always standard across makes. However, most manufacturers determine size as the distance from the top of the seat tube to the middle of the bottom bracket. Still, an 18” bike from two brands might fit differently due to variations in frame geometry.
Other brands stick with S, M, L and XL designations. What size is for you? That depends on the make and model. Your best bet is to go to your local bike shop (not a chain store), and get them to help you with proper bike fit.
Another way to look at bike size is by the size of the wheel. For years, the 26” diameter wheel was the standard. That all changed when the 29er entered the scene, and in many circles 29” became the new standard. Once the 26” domination came tumbling down, another size entered the market with the appearance of the 650B, also referred to as 27.5 or 27+. Here’s the skinny on which size works best and when.
26 inch – This is the classic size. Many 26” wheel bikes are still sold, but other sizes have become more popular with most classes of riders. For downhillers and freeriders, this size still rules due to the superior strength found in a short radius.
650B/27.5/27+ – Many consider this to be the best of both worlds. Since the wheel is larger, rolling over tricky terrain is easier, but you don’t lose any handling agility.
29” – This has become the standard for most trailbikes, but the 27.5 is quickly gaining coverts. The larger diameter rolls over obstacles better and may provide better grip due to a larger dirt footprint. For the XC racer, this size appears to be faster.
Bike saddles are very personalized pieces of equipment.
Think about it. Your most delicate parts are in contact with the seat, so fit rules over function. That said, bike saddle technology is advanced in more ways than one. Here are some features to consider.
Cover Material – Leather or synthetic, the cover material may not be the most important factor. However, water shedding characteristics should be considered for those who ride in the wet. Some even come reinforced with Kevlar to deter wear and tear.
Thin or Wide – This aspect really depends more on your anatomy than the saddle. If your pelvis is wide, then you might need a wider seat. Either way, the slimmer the saddle, the less chance it can get snagged while maneuvering from front to back. XC racers typically go for a slimmer seat.
Rails – The saddle is connected to the bike post with rails. Some even come with titanium rails to reduce vibration and weight. Rail length will determine how much fore/aft adjustment you get with each seat.
Pressure Recess – Many saddles come with a groove in the middle to relieve pressure on your tender bits (anatomically known as the perineum). Not all riders care about this, but in general it’s a good idea. Pressure on the blood supply from bike saddles has been blamed for impotence in some male cyclists.
Downhill – For this class of rider, a larger padded saddle might make sense. This is due to the potential for violent collisions and the need for stability.
Gel – Some bike saddles come with gel inserts to improve comfort. As in all cases, if it feels good, go with it.
Shape – Saddles come in all kinds of shapes. Some have winged backs which get mixed reviews. If you wear baggies, they might snag on these. A down-sloping nose seems favorable to avoid getting poked where you don’t want to.
In general, mountain bike wheels fall under a simple rule of thumb.
You can choose two of three characteristics: strong, light and cheap. Unfortunately, you can’t have all three. This concept actually applies to other components as well, but even more so when it comes to wheels. As you might imagine, certain uses require special wheels. For example, the downhiller needs a very strong wheel that can accept fatter tires and resist impact.
The bike wheel is a world of its own since you can consider the rim, spokes, hub and brake system for every hoop. A wide range of options are out there, and you can pretty much find a wheel that fits perfectly to your riding style and terrain.
In a previous section we already discussed wheel size, but here we’ll take a closer look at what wheel different riders might need.
Cross Country (Flatlander/50-50/Woodsman) – These classes of riders tend to be interested in lighter weight wheels with a maximum weight of around 1800 grams. Rims are typically made of aluminum or carbon fiber. In general, rims are thinner, but for those who ride in rougher terrain, a wider rim (>20mm) might be worthwhile.
North Shore/Freerider – Again, the definition of this type of riding varies, but overall these riders require a beefier wheel set including a stout hub and rim. Higher spoke density also helps make wheels stronger. Weight is typically around 1600 grams, but some carbon fiber versions may be lighter. Since this kind of riding does require some pedaling, a bit of strength is sacrificed for lighter weight.
Downhiller/Huckster – Here we add another biker category, the huckster. This is the freerider that favors drop-offs and big air. For this gang you’re looking at rim widths of between 21-23 mm, with downhill racers tending to the lower end. Wheel weight starts at just below 2000 grams all the way up to 2500 grams for those who huck the farthest.
It’s also worth mentioning the tubeless wheel. These are specially made and sealed to hold tire air without a tube. The advantages are lighter weight and less chance of pinch or impact flats. Cost may be prohibitive and setup can be tricky.
Finally, the brake system you employ will affect your wheel choice. Disc vs. cantilever (or V-brakes) each come with a different wheel set up. Not all brands offer both systems.
Like all things mountain bike, your pedal choice depends on your ridging style.
Pedals, like saddles, can be highly personal. Some just like the feel of a certain pedal over another. These days, you have three basic pedal types.
Flat – Just because they’re flat, don’t get confused. A lot of engineering and thought go into these puppies. First off all, the material must be light and strong, typically aluminum. Plus, you want plenty of platform for your feet to grab onto when the trail turns rough. These pedals often come with raised pins and a concave shape for better grip. Freeriders, downhillers and North Shore riders prefer flat pedals.
Clipless – In the old days, mountain bike pedals had straps (called “toe clips”) to help keep your feet positioned on the pedal. Now, your feet can clip into the pedal body with a special cleat attached to the bottom of your bike shoe. The mechanism is reminiscent of a ski binding. The advantage here is that your foot is fixed to the pedal for stability over rough terrain. This system also offers maximum pedal power. XC racers use this class of pedal.
Hybrid – These are flat pedals with a clipless mechanism built in. Some say these are the best of both worlds, but purists shy away from these. For those who aren’t afraid of a tough climb, but also have fun with big hits, hybrids might be the best compromise.
Did I mention yet that tire selection depends on your riding style?
Well, this concept can’t be more true than when it comes to mountain bike tires. Again, personal preference reigns supreme here as a tire loved by one rider is loathed by another. To make things even more complex, some riders like to run a certain tire up front with a different one on the back end. Let’s look at each rider category and their corresponding tire.
Flatlander – You don’t need something very bumpy. In fact, a fairly slick or semi-slick tire is preferred here. This offers the least amount of rolling resistance to keep your legs fresh on any multi-mile rail-trail ride.
Cross Country (Flatlander/50-50/Woodsman) – You definitely need some knobs, but nothing exaggerated. In general, a thinner profile tire works here, and this is the XC racer preference. If you lean towards rougher woods, you might want something a bit thicker, say around 2.3 inches.
North Shore/Freerider/Downhiller – Like wheels, you’ll need something more robust than a skinny XC racer. With sidewall reinforcement and aggressive tread patterns, you want to stick to any surface no matter how steep. Solid construction also comes in handy when cornering hard so that the tire doesn’t get all squishy under you.
Mudder – There’s a bit of controversy when it comes to riding in very muddy conditions. Some swear by multiple knobs to dig into the mud, while others claim that they just get clogged up. One type of tire that might work great in the mud is one with few center knobs and more rubber on the sides. The idea is that this profile sheds mud and digs down deep where you might find traction.
Remember, mountain biking is a sport that’s favors exploration. This pertains to bikes and components too. There’s plenty to learn and enjoy along the way. Success comes by trial and error until you find that perfect combination that makes you one with the trail.
So keep in touch and get out on the trails.
About The Author
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.