This article contains affiliate links. I may get a commission at no cost to you if you make a purchase after clicking a link.
“Mountain bike” has become a catchall term for bicycles that are meant for heavy off-road use, but there are several different types of bicycle that fall into this category, and each one is meant for different uses. Expert users are probably familiar with these, but beginners need to take the time to understand the differences before they purchase a bike. So if you’ve ever wondered, what are the different types of mountain bikes, then I’ve got you covered in this article.
Whether you’re a beginner who wants to buy a mountain bike for yourself or you’re buying a bike as a gift to someone else, the first thing you need to do is figure out which type of mountain bike you should buy.
Different Types of Mountain Bikes
Mountain bikes are typically grouped into 5 main categories:
- Cross country – Hardtail, front suspension only.
- Trail bikes – Full suspension, good on all terrains, best for beginners.
- All mountain/Enduro – Optimized for downhill and uphill performance.
- Downhill bikes – Made for downhill races.
- Fat tire bikes – Great in snow and sand.
Each of these is best suited to specific uses and has different design features that will significantly affect the bike’s performance.
1. Cross Country (XC)
Cross country bikes are designed for speed. They’re lightweight and they have gear systems optimized for smooth, easy shifting to handle rapid changes in terrain. These bikes are all about pedal efficiency, and they’re ideal for long rides through backcountry with lots of steep climbs.
In fact, they’re designed so well for uphill performance that their downhill performance suffers. They tend to have bigger wheels than other mountain bikes, to improve efficiency, but they almost always opt for lighter tires rather than tires with better grip. Of all the mountain bikes, these are the most similar to road bikes in form and function.
Cross country bikes can have hardtails (front-only suspension) or full-suspension, but the modern trend is more towards hardtails for cross country riding since they weigh less. These may not be great for beginners, but they also don’t require expert-level skills to ride safely.
Here are some examples of cross-country bikes at Bikesonline.com
2. Trail Bikes
These bikes are likely what you picture when you think “mountain bike.” These are really multi-purpose mountain bikes- they aren’t necessarily optimized for any specific function, but rather are designed to handle all kinds of terrain well. They’re good for climbing and descending, they have thick tires with excellent grip and a more relaxed design.
Trail bikes aren’t going to match other types in performance, but they’re arguably more fun and relaxed. They’re designed with a balance of durability, traction, and efficiency in mind. They won’t excel at traction or efficiency, but they’ll handle a wider variety of terrain and uses than other types.
Trail bikes, as you may have guessed, are the best bikes for beginners and for casual mountain bikers. They’re the easiest to use and they’re often more affordable. Their designs tend to emphasize comfort over pure performance, too, so they’re more enjoyable to ride for most people.
Here are some examples of trail bikes on REI.com
3. All Mountain/Enduro Bikes
These bikes are designed for very specific competitions called Enduro races. In these races, climbing is necessary but only the downhill legs of the race are timed. This means you need a bike that can climb well while still being optimized for downhill performance. They’ll have more suspension travel than trail bikes, and they should have tires with large, aggressive knobs for maximum traction.
The geometry of these bikes is shaped with downhill riding in mind, so they won’t be quite as comfortable as other types when riding on level ground. They lack the versatility of trail bikes, but for riders looking for lots of uphill and downhill performance, they’re ideal.
Here are some examples of cross-country mountain bikes on REI.com
4. Downhill Bikes
Built for steep terrain, jumps, drops, and speed, the downhill bike is definitely not for beginners. These are the most specialized type of mountain bike; you really can’t even ride them uphill, most people rely on a shuttle to deliver them to the top of the trail when they’re riding a downhill bike.
That’s because these bikes are designed exclusively for riding downhill. They have a low center of gravity, extra thick tires, lots of movement in the suspension, and extra heavy frames. They’re all about going downhill fast, which means that riding one requires a lot of skill. Unless you’re an experienced mountain bike rider, these aren’t for you.
Here are some examples of downhill mountain bikes at MikesBikes.com
5. Fat tire mountain bikes
This type of mountain bike has extremely fat tires, making it ideal for certain terrains. With tires as wide as 4″ or more, these “fat tires” can hold a large volume of air. This allows them to have an air pressure low enough to smoothly plough through snow where a regular sized mountain bike tire would fail.
These Fat Tire bikes are still a fairly new concept, they came onto the cycling scene back around 2005 and have been trending on and off ever since.
Here’s an example of a fat tire mountain bike Amazon.com
Which Bike is Right for You?
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of mountain bikes, you have to decide which one you’re going to buy. For most people, the answer is a trail bike. Trail bikes are by far the most popular type of mountain bike. They have a good balance of comfort and performance and for most people who want a mountain bike, trail bikes have all the features they need.
Every other type of mountain bike is optimized for a specific type of use, while trail bikes are designed with much more general use in mind. If you’re looking for the specific performance features of a cross country, enduro, or downhill bike, then of course that’s what you should buy.
If you’re a beginner, and you aren’t sure what type to buy, buy a trail bike. Beginners likely won’t enjoy a cross country bike as much, have no need for the features of an enduro bike, and should stay far away from downhill bikes. Cross country and enduro bikes are best thought of as intermediate level bikes. They aren’t difficult to master but they have specialized designs and beginners should spend some time figuring out how they like to use their bike before they buy one of these.
Learn more about choosing your first mountain bike from REI.
Downhill bikes really are for experts only. This isn’t just because they’re so specialized, but because they can be dangerous. They’re built to go downhill fast. You need a lot of experience to safely handle that kind of speed and terrain.
Mountain bikes can be designed for general use or with specific terrain in mind. Understanding the different types of mountain bike before you buy one is vital. These are much more than just cosmetic differences- riding a downhill bike along a level trail or a climb is going to be an awful experience.
For most people, a trail bike is probably the right choice. It can handle all types of terrain, and can even be ridden on pavement. They’re built to balance comfort and performance, whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been riding for years you’ll probably love riding them.