A mountain bike is a mountain bike is a mountain bike. Wrong! The phrase “mountain bike” refers to an extensive group of bikes that encompasses just about anything with two wheels and pedals designed to be ridden off-road. And within that broader group are a bunch of sub-categories that help different group bikes designed for different riding styles so that potential riders have a better grasp of what any given bike’s strengths and weaknesses are. In this guide, I will discuss different types of mountain bikes.
Initially, mountain biking didn’t have all of these subcategories; a mountain bike was anything with knobby tires that you didn’t have to wear spandex to ride. But over time, different branches of the sport developed, and people started modifying those original mountain bikes to make them better suit their specific purposes. So now there’s another genre of mountain bikes for everything from bike packing hundreds of miles throughout a weekend to downhill bikes carefully designed to shave seconds off steep, four-minute-long courses. So we’ve broken down all those sub-categories of the bike to help make things simpler and help prospective riders understand what type of mountain bike they should be shopping for.
How We Determine What Bikes Fall into Each Class
Unfortunately, there isn’t one single trait that defines each class of bike. There’s not just one cut and dried way of sorting bikes. Instead, we do it through a combination of factors. The first and easiest to understand is suspension travel. That’s the distance, measured in millimeters that the bike’s front and back tires can move out of the way when they run into rocks and roots on the trail. Bikes with similar suspension travel usually (but not always) fall into the same class.
Generally, mountain bikes are either hardtails (they only have a suspension fork) or full-suspension mountain bikes (a suspension fork plus a rear shock.) There are a few exceptions, rigid bikes exist, and there are a few “Softail” bikes out in the world as well, but it’s easiest to think in bikes in terms of full suspension vs. hardtail.
However, that suspension travel doesn’t tell the whole story of how a bike is meant to perform. Instead, the second important factor is geometry. Geometry is part of how the frame is designed. It’s the angles and measurements between different components of the bike. And geometry has a huge impact on how a bike feels to ride. That’s why one 120 mm bike can feel like a squirrely XC bike, and another can feel like a capable enduro machine. They have the same amount of travel but radically different geometries.
The simplest and most important geometry number to look for is the head tube angle. The headtube angle is a good indicator of how steep hills the bike designer thinks you’ll be riding down on any given bike. Headtube angles get “slacker” the smaller the number, and the steeper the bigger the number. So a 68-degree headtube is much steeper than a 63-degree headtube. The slacker the headtube angle, the more suited a bike is to ride down steep and rowdy terrain. So here’s how we use travel and geometry to define different classes of mountain bikes.
Types of Mountain Bikes
Gravel bikes are the closest in both travel and geometry to road bikes. They generally are fully rigid or have a short (less than 100 mm) travel fork. They’re designed to be efficient on long rides on a mix of surfaces from asphalt to mild single-track. They have steep headtube angles to help you climb efficiently and eat up miles on easy terrain.
Often gravel bikes will have drop handlebars or other exotic bar shapes, although some flat bar gravel bikes are on the market. They won’t fit as big of knobby tires as the other mountain bikes. Instead, they’re meant to be fast and efficient on easier terrain. A gravel bike is a great option if you plan to explore forest service roads and two-track mostly or if you want to commute on your mountain bike. There are also folding mountain bikes.
Cross Country, or “XC” bikes, as they’re often called, are designed to be very fast and efficient on slightly more rugged terrain than gravel bikes. They’re not designed to eat up technical descents and big jumps. Instead, they’re meant to be very light and climb well. XC bikes are always short travel, usually with 100 to 120 mm forks and either hardtail or short travel rear suspension. Their geometry is usually pretty steep, too, with headtube angles ranging from the low seventies to around 68 degrees. This helps them be quick in tight corners and climb efficiently but means they can’t just plow through chunder on the way down.
Cross-country bikes are a perfect choice for anyone who values fitness over getting rad. They reward riders who focus on technique and want to move very quickly through rolling terrain. But they’re out of place at any bike park and are built light, so they’re not durable if you’re planning on hammering on your bike.
The next step up in both travel and geometry from XC bikes are trail bikes. This is probably the most nebulous category since it can encompass everything from beefed-up XC bikes to slimmed-down enduro bikes. But basically, it’s a bike that makes sense as a daily driver on the average trail in your region. They’re not designed to charge down the gnarliest trails around or dance around on easy trails all day. Instead, they do everything pretty well. Trail bikes usually range in travel from 130-150 mm, both front and rear. They have more relaxed geometry than XC bikes, with headtube angles in the mid-’60s.
If you aren’t sure what kind of bike you want, we can almost guarantee that you should be shopping for trail bikes. Most mountain bikes sold fall into this category; they simply work the best for the greatest number of people. A good trail bike will let you almost keep up with the XC crowd on milder trails and then still be fun on an occasional shuttle lap or a bike park day. It might not be the “best” at any one thing, but it also won’t have any real weaknesses. Trail bikes are very versatile and a whole lot of fun.
Check out the best women’s mountain bikes.
But what if your focus is on pedaling up the mountain so that you can get back down the gnarliest trails you can find as fast as possible? Well, that’s where Enduro bikes come in. Enduro bikes have a little more travel (usually 150-170 mm front and rear) than trail bikes, but they’re still designed to pedal pretty efficiently. No, you won’t be standing and sprinting on rolling trails, but they’ll still get you to the top.
Enduro bikes usually have more relaxed geometry, which means headtube angles around 64-65 degrees. This means they don’t climb quite well, but they do an incredible job of plowing through chunder and nasty trails. If your focus is on going downhill fast, but you still want to pedal uphill, enduro bikes are perfect for you. They are fun in bike parks and on shuttle laps but can still handle long days of pedaling.
Freeride bikes are another rather nebulous category. Generally, they’re any bike with more than 160 mm of travel that focuses on jumps and drops over all-out speed. They’ll usually have smaller 27.5″ wheels and slack headtube angles to help them handle steep terrain. They’re designed for riders on rowdy trails with big jumps and features that focus on tricks and style over going fast.
Downhill bikes have the most suspension travel of any mountain bike, with most having 190+ mm front and rear. They’re not designed to be pedaled uphill; you’ll need a chairlift or a shuttle. Instead, their whole focus is on hauling down the gnarliest trails in the world. They’re overkill in most areas but are a whole bunch of fun at a bike park. They don’t make sense for most riders to own, but everyone owes it to themself to ride at least one bike park day on a full-on DH bike. It’s a blast.
Finally, the last sub-category is dirt jump bikes. These are seeing a surge in popularity as more areas build pump tracks and skills areas. Dirt jump bikes are usually hardtails with 100 mm travel forks and no gears; they’re single speed. They’re simple and durable. They’re not designed to ride trails. Instead, they’re great for riding jumps and pump tracks and building skills. They’re simple, reliable, and a whole bunch of fun to play around on.
So there you have it. While all the different categories of mountain bikes can be confusing at first, it’s pretty easy to figure out what sort of bike you’re looking for based on geometry and suspension travel.