Chapter 2: Which Mountain Bike Type is Right for Me?

I could easily start this Chapter by trotting out numerous cliches about beginners and getting started in mountain biking. To be honest though, in these days of high tech, ultra specialised bike frames, even experienced bikers often struggle to figure out which mountain bike is right for them.

Man holding up a cross country mountain bike

When you find out which mountain bike is right for you, you’ll know it

All-Mountain, free-ride, cross country, wah, wah, wah – what does it all mean? The big manufacturers continue to release new frames, all touted as hitting that sweet spot between all-mountain and cross-country, or downhill and freeride, but most people don’t quite understand the main classifications in the first place.

So, let’s have a look at them – which mountain bike is, in fact, right for you?

Cross-Country Mountain Bikes

Cross country steeds are the thoroughbreads, the lighest of the bunch and the most efficient pedallers. Cross country bikes tend to be designed for more long-distance, walking trail-style routes. They’ll be built as light as possible, while still retaining strength enough to handle a fair bit of rough terrain.

A cross country bike wont be built for the big downhills though. It’ll be able to handle jumps and big drops, but it wont be that comfy. Cross country bikes will tend to have relatively short suspension, and so be a lot less bouncy, transferring the bumps right into your behind in a particularly uncomfortable fashion. When you hit the ground on the other side of the jump you’ll know it. But on the plus side, you’ll be off and pedalling again before your big-suspension brothers stop bouncing behind you.

All-Mountain Bikes

The All-Mountain category was introduced along with the proliferation of custom built trail centres. It fits that category where people want to pedal uphill easily, but then hit the downhills hard. All-Mountain bikes are a weight-class above cross country and are consequently a little harder to haul up a hill. They tend to still be built for pedalling though, hence the ALL mountain name, and are perfect for trail centres where the uphill is never really all that taxing.

The extra weight comes thanks to a sturdier frame and bigger suspension. The suspension soaks up the jumps and drops a lot more, letting you carry your speed right through the trail. You can rail the bends hard, and the extra travel just makes the whole experience more pleasant. It’s the difference between finishing your run with chattering teeth and vibrating, aching forearms or rolling to a halt with a smile on your face and a nonchalant air.

Free Ride Mountain Bikes

Free ride bikes are what you’re looking for if you really want a full-on downhill rig, but don’t fancy getting off to push at the slightest sight of an incline. Free ride bikes have the geometry for attacking any downhill trail and the strength to stop you from hitting the deck due to a snapped frame. Most of the time. Free ride bikes are still designed to be able to go uphill, just, so compromises are made.

With a free ride you’ll have big-ass suspension and thick tubes, but the wheels will likely be lighter than your average downhill bike. This s because the rotational weight in a bike wheel is one of the biggest things holding you back, and so it’s the best place to cut some beef in order to increase pedallability and acceleration. Thus, on the biggest drops and the airiest jumps, if you’re hitting them really hard, you’ll still feel it. But, let’s be honest, is your name Sam Hill or Steve Peat? No? Then a free ride bike will almost definitely suffice if you’re looking to hit the trails hard.

Downhill Mountain Bikes

Ah, the world of the downhiller. The antithesis of the cross country biker. A breed that avoids uphills like fat kids avoid greens. To be a downhiller you must develop a penchant for XXXL clothes and a skant regard for your own personal safety. Downhill bikes are built for nothing but staying in one piece on the roughest terrain. They can survive drops that would have totalled the Dukes of Hazard’s ride. They can make a 20ft jump feel like flat tarmac as the huge suspension sucks it all up, again and again.

Don’t even attempt to pedal one of these lumbering beasts uphill of course, unless you’re in need of a quick coronary incident. But, point it anywhere near a downhill and you will experience what it would feel like if you could cycle a couch. Smooth, silky, gliding comfort and the confidence to hit anything, anywhere.

So, Which Mountain Bike Type Fits the Bill?

I hope that cleared up the different types of bikes on offer and helped you to decide which mountain bike is right for you. Cross country for speed and discomfort, all-mountain for those that can’t make up their mind, free ride for downhillers that don’t like to push and downhill for mentalists with no regard for human life. Make your choice now my friend – what might you be?

Drop me a comment below and let me know what you ride – it would be great to get some good examples of makes and models in each category.

That’s the end of Chapter 2 – Which Mountain Bike is Right For Me. Make sure to check out the rest of the guide. Click through to the next chapter below.

Image credit: mikelo – Flickr

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Colin started mountain biking in the early 2000s and has haphazardly, and with barely increasing skill, dragged his bike around the majority of Scotland's trail centres since then. Colin has oodles of hard earned experience in how NOT to do things - listen, be warned and don't repeat his mistakes...   More about Colin... Google+ Colin