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A Guide to
Mountain Bikes

Mountain biking is a fun and exhilarating way to enjoy riding off-road, on a wide variety of terrain. There are three main types of mountain bike. The most basic is a rigid bike, which has no suspension. Hard tail mountain bikes are next, so called because they have a suspension fork at the front. Full suspension bikes have both front suspension forks and a rear shock absorber, and are the most capable across rough terrain.

Mountain bikes typically have frames made from steel, aluminium or carbon fibre, and all will have robust wheels with chunky tyres. The best mountain bike will be one that suits the kind of riding you want to do, at the right price - you can get advice on these at any Evans Cycles store.

Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Hardtail mountain bikes are a great way to get started riding off-road, but they're also great fun for any rider. A hardtail mountain bike uses a suspension fork at the front to provide cushioning from bumps and improve grip and handling. Because hardtails don't have any rear suspension, they're generally cheaper, simpler to maintain and lighter than more complicated full suspension bikes, meaning they're a wise choice for beginners.

Hardtails also have an advantage when it comes to pedalling. Full suspension bikes can move up and down as you ride, something known as 'pedal bob', which wastes some of your energy. The rigid rear end of a hardtail will convert all of your effort into forward motion.

On the down side, the lack of a shock absorber at the rear means more shocks are transmitted from the ground to you as you ride. That can be tiring and it also increases the chance you’ll puncture your tyre. A hardtail bike will also struggle to maintain grip on rough terrain because the rear wheel will skip over the ground rather than tracking it, giving you less control compared to a bike with a rear shock.

Many trail hardtails use 26in wheels, though the new 27.5in (also known as 650b) wheel size is becoming very popular and helps them roll over objects without impacting the handling as much as 29in wheels.

So what's the best hardtail mountain bike for you? Our guide will help you pick the best style of hardtail for your needs.
Cross-country Hardtails

These are about covering big distances, whether in a race or riding with your friends. They use forks with 80 to 120mm of travel, and are sometimes equipped with a fork lockout to make them even more efficient on smooth ground. Most cross-country hardtails have light but affordable aluminium frames. More expensive models use carbon fibre to further reduce weight. Steel and more exotic materials such as titanium are also used, but are less common and tend to be more expensive.

Many cross-country hardtail mountain bikes, including the Specialized Stumpjumper HT 29er use larger diameter 29in wheels, which roll over obstacles more easily than traditional 26in wheels. Pure cross-country bikes will have very stretched out riding positions and fast rolling but less grippy tyres for efficiency, which can make them less confidence inspiring for beginners.
Trail Hardtails

Trail or 'hardcore' hardtail mountain bikes are still capable of covering big distances but are more about being fun when the trail starts to point downhill. This makes them confidence inspiring and popular for new riders. Trail hardtails like the Saracen Zen use suspension forks which have longer travel (usually 120 to 150mm) for more control over tough terrain. Compared to cross-country hard tails, they also have slightly heavier but tougher frames and equipment, which makes them capable on demanding, rocky trails.
Dirt Jump Bikes

Dirt jump bikes are designed to spend as much time in the air as they do on the ground. They have very low slung frames that offer masses of clearance for pulling tricks (also useful in the event of a crash), but that means they aren't good at riding big distances. They need to put up with a lot of rough and tumble and durable steel is a common frame material. Components are designed to be strong rather than light, using either 26in or 24in wheels and many have just one gear, meaning there's less to get broken. Have a look at the Norco Rampage 6.2 jump bike to get a good idea of what a jump bike looks like.

Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

A full suspension mountain bike lets you ride off-road trails with more comfort and control than you’d get from a hardtail mountain bike. By using a suspension fork at the front of the bike and a shock absorber at the rear, the wheels can move up and over bumps, lumps, roots and rocks, smoothing out the trail ahead. Thanks to the additional stability and control from the suspension, full suspension mountain bikes can open the opportunity to explore more challenging terrain and obstacles.

Browse through the range of full suspension bikes we have here at Evans Cycles and you’ll see that they use different frame materials, wheel sizes, and come in all sorts of shapes. There are also choices of air or coil sprung shock absorbers with varying amounts of suspension travel. So what's the best full suspension mountain bike for you? To work that out, it’s generally easiest to separate the sort of riding the bikes are designed for by the amount of travel they have on offer.
Cross-country (XC)

Lightweight, ‘cross-country’ full suspension mountain bikes will normally boast around 100mm (3.9in) of suspension travel and the lightest (and most expensive) use carbon fibre frames - like the BMC Fourstroke. The idea here is to take the sting out of bumps and add a bit of comfort to the ride without hampering pedalling efficiency or adding excess weight where it isn’t necessary. Cross-country mountain bikes are designed to be ridden uphill just as fast as they are downhill. Nowadays they tend to sport 29in wheels or the newer 27.5in (650b) wheel size.
Trail (TR)

Up the travel ever so slightly, and you enter into the world of the ‘trail’ full suspension mountain bike. Trail bikes use between 120 - 140mm (4.7 – 5.5in) of suspension travel. Compared to shorter travel cross-country bikes, trail bikes like the Norco Sight will let you tackle rougher terrain with greater control and stability, and at higher speeds.

More travel tends to mean the overall weight of the bike creeps up, but the suspension's design ensures the effort you put through your pedals still gets efficiently transferred to the rear wheel. Trail full suspension mountain bikes are available with 26in, 27.5in (650b) and 29in wheels, with steel, aluminium and carbon fibre frames. For general riding at trail centres, these bikes are perfect.
All-Mountain (AM)/Enduro

For more aggressive trails with bigger bumps, higher speeds, drops and jumps, all-mountain/enduro bikes like the Mondraker Dune offer 150 - 160mm (5.9 - 6.3in) of travel. They’re slightly heavier than trail bikes, but are built to withstand more abuse and tackle more challenging terrain. To help increase stability, they are slightly longer than trail and cross-country bikes, but will use wider bars and shorter stems for more reactive steering. All-mountain/Enduro full suspension bikes are generally available with 27.5in (650b) or 29in wheels, and most have frames constructed from aluminium or carbon fibre. If you’re looking to take on more challenging terrain once in a while, this is the best full suspension mountain bike for you.
Downhill (DH)

When it comes to downhill full suspension mountain bikes, weight is less of an issue because strength and durability take priority. Suspension travel jumps up to a whopping 200 - 220mm (7.9 - 8.7in), which lets the bike gobble up massive bumps and drops. Don’t be alarmed when you see the suspension fork at the front of the bike getting an extra fork crown to make it stiffer and stronger. Cheaper bikes get coil sprung shock absorbers, while more expensive ones use air sprung units to help reduce weight.

The Specialized Demo 8 is a downhill bike, and like all downhill bikes, it's designed to be ridden down the side of a mountain, launched off of jumps and screamed through turns. One thing they certainly won’t do is ride back up the mountain again! Wheel size is more limited here, and generally downhill bikes will come with 26in wheels, but sometimes use 27.5in (650b) wheels. If you enjoy riding with gravity on your side, taking on all the challenges the mountain can throw at you, a downhill bike will be your best ally.

This story was last updated on 09/07/2015

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