How to Choose a Mountain Bike
Build your bike quiver with this handy guide
We are at a pinnacle of mountain biking tech and design. With more brands, builds, and types of mountain bikes available than ever before, there is truly a bike (or 3!) for everyone. New categories are even emerging that blend ride qualities (hello, Downcountry), expanding the versatility of bike quiver slots to new heights. And, we haven’t even started talking about eMTBs.
All of this variety and category blending can make the bike buyer’s head spin. Fear not, our guide to mountain bike quiver slots is here to break down the choices so you can find your perfect bike.
A brief primer on how to choose a bike
The first and most important thing to consider when buying a bike is where you are going to ride it. Rowdy lift-served downhill laps ask something totally different from a bike than endurance cross country racing, for instance. The terrain (chunky desert riding vs. smooth single track berms), and the kind of riding (Enduro race vs. casual weekend rides) are the foundation of your quiver slot choice. There is some gray area here (more on that in a bit), but for the most part, determining where and how is the right place to start.
Once you nail down the category of bike, you can start considering whether to go for a carbon or aluminum frame, what level of components you need, and what fits into your budget. We’ll save that for another post, but for now, here’s a breakdown of modern bike categories, along with a few of our favorite whips in each one.
For the longest days that cover the biggest miles over rolling terrain, nothing beats a lightweight Cross Country rig. With their minimalist frames, short travel (on average 100mm front and rear, or hardtail), steep headtube angles and long chainstays, Cross Country bikes are built for maximum endurance and efficiency. For toeing XC start lines, or embarking on big days where fast pedaling is priority, they are the ideal choice.
The Specialized W-Works Epic is a short-travel Cross Country bike that prioritizes climbing efficiency and speed above all else.
While frame design and suspension development has allowed for incredibly light full suspension cross country rigs like the Specialized Epic, hardtails remain the top choice for XC races like the Leadville 100 where uncompromised pedaling efficiency takes precedence over downhill comfort.
Available in carbon and aluminum frames, Cross Country bikes can weigh anywhere from an airy 21lbs (or sub- 20lbs on hardtails like the Pivot LES) to a more substantial 28lbs on lower end buildkits. Regardless of frame and components, by choosing an XC bike, you’re prioritizing pedaling efficiency and speed over the playful downhill performance you’d get from a bigger-travel bike.
Our favorite XC bikes
It was only five years ago that cycling opinion writers were penning pieces with titles like “What the heck is a down-country bike?” In short time, it seems the industry and a whole bunch of freshly converted fans have figured it out.
Downcountry rigs like the SB120 combine the efficiency of a traditional Cross Country bike with the downhill capabilities of a trail bike.
For riders who seek the pedaling efficiency of a traditional XC bike but also want to rally on the descents, the burgeoning category of Downcountry bikes answers the call. Combining the lightweight, lower travel suspension of Cross Country bikes with the slacker headtubes, longer wheelbase, and wider handlebars and tires of trail bikes, Downcountry rigs hit the sweet spot for maximum efficiency with a healthy dose of fun. Sporting an average 120mm-130mm travel in the front and 115-125mm in the rear, they are exceptionally capable climbers and descenders on every conceivable kind of terrain. Their shorter stems and wider handlebars and wheels give them playful agility and stability.
Like the design of the bike suggests, Downcountry bikes are for efficiency-oriented riders who want a little bit of everything. A Santa Cruz Blur will be just as at home in a full gas race like Colorado’s legendary Firecracker 50 one weekend, as it will on your weekly shop ride on the local trail network. Would you want to mash around desert red rock on a Downcountry bike? Maybe not, but the main point here is that with a little more attentiveness than is required of a trail or enduro bike, you certainly could. For the rider who doesn’t want to sacrifice fun for efficiency on those long days in the saddle, Downcountry bikes are a good fit.
Our favorite Downcountry bikes
If versatility is your jam––cruising your local flow trails during the week and hitting technical climbs and descents on the weekends––the broad Trail category is sure to satisfy. With front and rear travel that averages 120mm–150mm, relaxed geometry, and options for fast rolling 29” wheels or more maneuverable 27.5” wheels, Trail rigs are designed for riders who want to climb and descend any kind of terrain the mountains throw their way, and to have a good time doing it.
The Pivot Trail 429 is a classic trail bike with mid-range travel and a slightly more upright geometry that balances efficient climbing with confident, playful descending.
Trail bikes prioritize the enjoyment of the ride. They’re designed to climb energetically, maneuver aptly through technical sections, and provide confident stability when things get steep and rocky. In general, trail bikes feature more relaxed geometries than their XC brethren, with slacker head tubes for stability downhills, shorter chainstays for maneuverability, and steeper seat tube angles to position the rider directly over the bottom bracket for comfortable and efficient pedaling. The Trail bike category averages 30lbs in weight, leaning away from climbing efficiency prized by lighter XC and Downcountry bikes, but tipping toward versatility and fun.
Since this is such a broad category, there’s overlap between shorter-travel Trail bikes and Downcountry rides, as well as bigger travel Trail bikes and Enduro rigs. In general, less travel bikes like the Pivot 429 Trail and Yeti SB130 will offer more efficient climbing, and bigger travel bikes like the Specialized Enduro and Santa Cruz Bronson will take big downhill hits with a little more panache. Whether you choose a Trail bike in the 130mm–140mm range or one in the 140–150mm range, rest assured you’re getting a bike made to maximize fun no matter what the trail throws at it.
Our favorite Trail bikes
When the uphill climb is more of a necessary step to get to that steep, gnarly descent with mandatory drops and air time, Enduro bikes fit the bill. With slacked headtube angles and big suspension (150mm–180mm front and rear), Enduro bikes are designed for major shock absorption and stability at high speeds, like in Enduro races where pedaling is required but podiums are reached through speed and agility on the descents. Most Enduro bikes are also available in 29”, 27.5”, or mixed (mullet) 29” and 27.5” combos, allowing you to prioritize efficient rollover, maneuverability, or the best of both.
The Transition Spire is a modern Enduro bike with big travel and relaxed, slack geometry to handle big hits and feel stable at high speeds but can pedal uphill decently well.
While Enduro bikes can pedal uphill, their geometry prioritizes downhill prowess. They generally have a longer wheelbase, bigger reach, and slacked out front end than Trail bikes which allows them to stay stable and planted at high speeds on rough and steep terrain. This, coupled with their lofty travel, makes them slightly less maneuverable than Trail and XC bikes, but also lets the rider point and go, knowing the bike is designed to handle the rough stuff. Increasingly, Enduro bikes feature ‘mullet’ mixed wheelsets that put the fast, rollover characteristics of 29” in the front and the snappy maneuverable 27.5” wheel on the back for a playful, hard charging trail machine.
Enduro bikes meet their full potential in the Enduro race format, but they’re also ideal for riders who just really want to have fun on the descents.
Our favorite Enduro bikes
E-Mountain Bikes (eMTB) are the fastest growing segment in the mountain bike world. With good reason, the battery-powered, motorized-assist of an eMTB makes long, arduous climbs a breeze and lets your once-a-year epic become a weekly occurrence with no sacrifice to the agility and capability you expect from a non-assisted mountain bike. The ever-expanding eMTB options mean you have a choice of riding style, battery range, travel and geometry, as well as removable batteries to turn your eMTB back to a traditional rig.
The Santa Cruz Heckler eMTB offers outstanding downhill capabilities and a motorized boost that makes climbs and long rides a breeze.
While there are a variety of eMTB ride styles, the area seeing the biggest growth is in the Trail/Enduro/Downhill category. Bikes like the Specialized Levo, Santa Cruz Heckler, and Yeti SB160E offer exceptional downhill performance with a mechanical boost for climbing and traversing long distances. EMTBs solve the pedaling efficiency that’s missing from most Enduro and Downhill bikes for a new category of bike that is truly limitless.
Our favorite E-Mountain bikes
Specialized Turbo Levo SL
Pivot Shuttle SL
Santa Cruz Heckler
For some riders, the only direction to ride a bike is down. Ideal for lift-assisted descending, Downhill bikes feature dual crown forks with massive travel (170mm–250mm front, 180mm–200mm rear), slack geometry, low center of gravity, and beefy tires for maximum shock absorption and stability for high-speed, high-gravity plunges over jumps, rocks, roots, and the roughest terrain out there.
Durable components are key in Downhill bikes. Most employ coil shocks or downhill-specific air shocks that can handle repeated hits without heating up. Dual crown forks, typically seen on dirtbikes, are built with huge capacities for bump absorption and rebound. And powerful 4-piston brakes are essential to scrub speed when things get too rowdy. Because of their unique geometry, Downhill bikes aren’t the sort you want to pedal uphill, but for most Downhill riders, that’s not where the fun is anyway.