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How to Choose a Mountain Bike

Given the investment required and breadth of options, choosing the right bike can be overwhelming. We know firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in minutia of wheel size, suspension, componentry, and even handlebar width.

Carolyn Holiday | Deer Valley, UT | Photo: Eric Schramm

When choosing a mountain bike, you should start by identifying where and how you ride. The terrain you’ll be rolling over, and the style with which you’ll be doing it, will determine which type of mountain bike is right for you.

Where Do You Want to Ride?

The first step in how to choose a mountain bike is to determine exactly where you want to ride. Some riders are looking for long climbs on dusty singletrack while others are just interested in riding a chairlift up and ripping a downhill trail. The differences are crucial for making the right decision when you buy a mountain bike.

What Style of Riding?

Fitness or Hybrid

Fitness entails a few different disciplines. Are you riding leisurely, commuting to work, or getting some stuff at the store? A fitness bike will get you around town and on gravel paths, but not necessarily on a true singletrack trail.

Cross Country (XC)

XC riding requires a healthy combination of physical and mental stamina. Expect lots of pedaling and climbing, often on varied terrain. A cross country bike will have shorter suspension travel, around 100 mm front and rear, as well as a geometry and body positioning that maximizes pedaling efficiency.

Trail / Enduro

Trail and Enduro riding is a bit of a mixed bag and there is a lot of grey area depending on who you are talking to. Usually this style of riding pairs XC-style pedaling and efficiency with a more aggressive downhill prowess. You may find yourself riding multiple laps on different trails that share a climbing trail. Or you might find yourself on long epic-style rides. And even then, you may just throw your bike in a truck or on a chairlift and take a ride to the top for a fun, fast descent down. Trail bikes are leading the bicycle market in sales and manufacturers will have different iterations to satisfy exactly what you’re looking for. Trail bikes try to balance climbing efficiency with a bigger suspension and more relaxed geometry to make sure you have the ability to ride lots of different types of terrain—like flow trails, technical descents, and high-alpine singletrack.

Downhill (DH)

Downhill riding requires a purpose-built bike for steep descents, technical rocks and roots, high speeds, and big jumps. Lift-access bike parks and truck shuttles are common spots for downhill riding. A downhill bike will have very relaxed geometry and long travel, 180-200 mm, to be able to roll through aggressive, steep terrain and jumps.

How to Choose a Mountain Bike

If you have decided what kind of rider you are and terrain you want to ride on, the next step is to do some research. There are a lot of bike manufacturers and the industry has gone the way of skiing, providing a model for just about anyone. Most riders will err toward a trail bike due to them being the most versatile and comfortable to ride. Bikes like the Santa Cruz Hightower and Specialized Stumpjumper are two popular models.

Demo a Mountain Bike

Just like skiing, we encourage you to test or demo a bike from your local shop. Try to identify a few models you might like to ride and get a feel for, then call some shops to see if they carry and demo those bikes. Events like the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival and Outerbike in Moab bring manufacturers together so you can test a larger range of bikes. Be sure that the technician properly sets up your suspension and seat height. Additionally, always use a pair of familiar pedals and shoes—this provides a neutral base for demoing.

We also recommend to test the bike on terrain that you know well, and ride the same trail on different bikes. This technique lets you hone in on the differences in fit, geometry, and components without having to adjust for new terrain.

Time to Buy

Once you’ve settled on a bike that you like, you’ve got some options for buying. If you’re on a budget, see if the manufacturer makes the bike in a range of price tiers. This may satisfy your budget, but you might miss out on some top of the line components.

You may also find the bike you want used online. But buyer beware, the bike could be in bad shape. It’s best to get your hands on it for a test ride and take it to a qualified mechanic for an inspection before buying.