If you've been following our coverage of the sport lately, you've no doubt seen plenty of pro riders with high-end mountain bikes in their pit areas, or read about how they use cycling (either road or mountain bikes) as a training tool. Maybe you've wondered how to get into cycling yourself, either as a way to boost your late-moto stamina, or just for fun. Going the road bike route is awesome if you want to focus solely on working on your fitness, but for a decent number of riders that we've talked to, the idea of squeezing into Lycra makes them squirm, and dodging cars isn't always so cool. Besides, a lot of the same reasons that got you into dirt bikes apply to mountain bikes, too. There's the fun, speed, how you read terrain, and yep, some airtime, too.


The Specialized logo on Adam Cianciarulo's jersey? That's no accident. Besides sponsoring the Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki team, all of the guys training with Aldon Baker get plenty of seat time on bicycles as part of their training.

This time around, we're going to focus on MX's non-motorized cousin, mountain bikes. But how do you choose from the available styles, and what do you look for in frame materials and components? We don't want you to be totally shocked when you start shopping and discover that you can find bikes that are easily more expensive than a brand new 450...and you're the engine.

In working on this article, we got a bunch of help from our sister site, VitalMTB.com, which is an excellent resource on product tests and more. Give 'em a visit.

Types of Mountain Bikes

Mountain bikes vary substantially in design depending on the type of riding they're intended for. Using the chart below, we'd say the relation to MX gets closer as you move to the right (especially with the speed and air found in downhill), and somewhat less to the left, as you move toward cross-country. This product guide is divided into the most popular categories. Pick the category that suits your riding style best.


As you go from left to right, suspension travel, tire width, and overall bike weight generally increase. The head angle (steer tube to horizontal plane) also becomes less steep, among many other differences.

Cross-Country Bikes  - Cross-country bikes (also known as "XC bikes") are made for covering a lot of ground fast, without getting too rowdy along the way. The geometry of an XC frame was construed to provide maximum pedaling efficiency at the relative expense of stability over rougher terrain, which means a steep head angle and a more forward-biased riding position. XC bikes come in two varieties - full-suspension or hardtail, the latter of which has front suspension only. In either case, suspension travel will very rarely exceed 4.5 inches. Wheel sizes include 26", 27.5" and 29", with the latter being by far the most popular choice in this category today (29" wheels tend to offer superior ability to roll over obstacles which leads to a more efficient ride over regular terrain). These bikes climb hills very well, and carry incredible speed over flat ground, but don't offer as much comfort (nor potential for getting gnarly!) on the way back down as a longer travel bike will. Jeremy McGrath is gnarly enough to not need more!

Here's an example of a cross-country speed merchant, the 2014 Pivot Mach 429 Carbon XT/XTR Pro.

Trail Bikes  - Trail bikes or enduro bikes (also commonly referred to as "all-mountain bikes") work well for many applications. Most trail bikes will deliver anywhere between 4.5 to 6 inches of suspension travel as a general rule, but beyond the extra travel, trail bikes also feature more "laid back" geometry. This refers to a slacker head angle and a more centered riding position, intended to work both for pedaling up the hill and when bombing down it afterwards. Trail bikes give up a little efficiency to their steeper, svelter cousins the XC bikes, but they more than make up for it with their capacity for taking on rougher terrain with confidence and reliability. If you're looking for a bike that can "do it all," this is the right type of bike to consider. While it won't be perfect for everything, it can likely get whatever job it is you have in mind done. This category features the largest spread in wheel size too, with a good selection available in any of the 3 mainstream sizes (26", 27.5", and 29"). Don't let anybody talk you into choosing a bike in this category based solely on wheel size, as the bike's overall design is still what will determine it's ride qualities here. In other words, there are good and bad bikes in every wheel size. Do know however that the 27.5" wheel is currently seeing a lot of growth in this category, due to its ability to marry the better rollover characteristics of a bigger wheel with the "fun-factor" typically associated with the smaller 26" wheels.

Intense's Carbine 275 is a good example of a "trail bike" - burly enough to take on most trails and features, yet efficient enough to get back up for another run. Mike Sleeter runs one too!

Freeride Bikes  - The term "freeride" means many different things to different riders. In general terms, freeride will refer to a more aggressive form of riding, where the main idea is to catch more air and go faster down the trail, but not race against the clock. Freeriders will seek a bike that can deal with a lot of punishment and that offers a lot of security when taking on extreme terrain, at the expense of getting back up the hill easily. This category also contains bikes that are often referred to as "park bikes" - bikes that are purpose-built for riding at bike parks, where almost all riding is lift-assisted (i.e. you don't have to pedal to get back up). Freeride bikes will typically offer suspension travel in the 5.5 to 7 inch range, with the overall geometry relaxed to the point of becoming a penalty on climbs or during longer XC-type days in the saddle. They may also offer a reduced range of gears, and will typically feature stronger and heavier components such as wheels and brakes. The 26" wheel is still strong in this category, but a growing number of freeride bikes are now available in 27.5" too.

Whilst a couple of pounds and a few different angles may seem trivial to the casual observer, when your gas tank is filled with nothing but Wheaties, it all adds up fairly quickly. Buy this kind of bike if you know what you are getting into, and why. The guys on Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki obviously do...

Specialized's Enduro Evo will take you there and back, and won't back down from much, if anything...Vital MTB reviewed it and had a blast!

Downhill Mountain Bikes  - Downhill (DH) bikes are made to go down hills, fast. Designed to carry speed over any kind of terrain, a downhill bike really only works well when the trail gets steep and the features get burly. On mellow trails a downhill bike will feel sluggish and uninspiring, and when making ill-advised attempts at pedaling one of these beasts back up a hill, the super-slack geometry and heavier parts will soon have you and your steed relegated to the pedestrian division. These bikes are always full-suspension with 7 to 10 inches of suspension travel in the rear and 7 to 8 inches up front, useful for eating up trail chatter and absorbing big impacts when landing drops or smashing through rock gardens, but not useful for any other form of cycling you might fancy. Even popping down the street for milk can turn into a chore on one of these. A DH bike may look the most like your trusty MX bike, but unless you're pointing it down a vertigo-inducing mountainside, the throttle response is going to leave you cold.

Looking for a sweet downhill bike? The 2014 Intense 951 EVO definitely qualifies. Vital MTB let one of the their test pilots loose on one, and he agrees!

Dirt Jumping Bikes  - Probably the most specific bikes of all, dirt jump (DJ) bikes are also the simplest. Built for DJ, skatepark, and street riding, these bikes are 99% hardtails. Many lack gears, not that you'd have much to do with them anyway, since the seat is so low that you wouldn't want to try riding one of these anywhere but between the jumps. They often feature a rear brake only, with enough extra cable length to allow for barspins, tailwhips, and other assorted black magic. If you are in the market for one of these, it's likely you don't need this buyers' guide to tell you what to look for. Make sure to place a skinny jeans order when you get your new rig though.

Looking for dead simple and tough, for a local jump spot? Specialized's P3 fits the bill with street cred to boot.

Frame Materials

The choice of frame material will impact both performance and budget, so it is a fairly important consideration.

Aluminum - Aluminum is light, stiff, and affordable, making it the most commonly used frame material for mountain bikes. Found on anything from XC bikes to full-on DH rigs, a variety of different alloys and construction techniques allow frame-builders to carefully balance features such as weight and cost when designing your dream ride.

Carbon Fiber - Carbon fiber is basically very thin strands of carbon that can be twisted and woven together, like cloth. To make carbon fiber take on a permanent shape, it can be layered over a mold, then coated with a stiff resin or plastic. It is among the lightest and strongest materials available today, and it is now being commonly used for high-end mountain bike frames in almost every category (with the exception of dirt jumpers). Because carbon frame manufacturing is still a very specialized and labor-intensive process, carbon frames tend to still carry a premium price tag, the reward for which is generally both a lighter and stronger frame. Certain types of impact damage could write off a carbon frame where the aluminum counterpart would just get dented, but as a general rule, carbon frames have gotten much more resistant and can be considered as tough or sometimes tougher than their less glamorous alloy cousins. Some manufacturers will use carbon for the front triangle whilst still relying on aluminum for the most exposed parts like chain- or seat-stays.

Specialty Materials - Some frame builders will use different materials, like Chromoly (a steel alloy) or titanium. Chromoly dirt jumpers are sought after for their more forgiving ride characteristics, whilst titanium offers a (very) expensive alternative to steel and aluminum for high end XC bikes.

Frame Sizes

After the type of frame (see the first section), the size is the second most important factor that impacts how a bike fits you - or how you will "feel" on the bike. An inch more on the "reach" (the horizontal measurement between a vertical line going through the bottom bracket and one going through the top of the head tube) and you will instantly feel more towards the front of the bike. If the bike has a tall "standover" height, shorter riders will not be able to comfortably put a foot down when coming to a stop.

Most manufacturers provide suggested sizing charts, and because models vary so much between categories, we recommend searching for the chart specific to the bike you're interested in. It's also important to note that everyone has different riding preferences, so it's best to test out a variety of sizes before making a final decision. Beyond choosing a frame/bike type, the choice of size should also reflect how and what you like to ride. More into high speed stability and long fast turns, coupled with better pedaling efficiency? Go for the larger option of those indicted for your size. After air time or tighter, twistier tracks? Opt for the smaller one.

Men's MTB General Size Chart

Bike Size
Small
Medium
Large
Extra Large
Rider Height <5'7"
5'6"-5'10"
5'9"-6'2"
>6'2"

Women's MTB General Size Chart

Bike Size
Extra Small
Small
Medium
Large
Rider Height
<5'3"
5'2"-5'7"
5'6"-5'11"
5'10"-6'2"

Components

The diagram below breaks down the various components on a typical mountain bike. Note that some components are specific to certain categories of bikes (like chainguides on downhill bikes) and may not be shown in this diagram.

Generally, the type of bike you are buying will greatly influence the parts spec'd on it from the factory. XC bikes will have lightweight components aimed at making the bike more efficient, whilst freeride and DH bikes will feature heavy-duty parts that can take a beating and come back for more. We will cover components in more detail in a future buying guide, but for now, here are a few things to look for:

  • Air versus coilover suspension: all XC bikes and most trail bikes will feature air suspension because they're lighter and suit a wide range of rider weights. If you're looking at a bike with coilover suspension, it's likely either a freeride or a DH bike, or a cheap component choice by the manufacturer.
  • Wheels: it's important to make sure the wheels you are getting will be up to the task at hand. If you like to ride your MTB like you ride your MX bike, it's unlikely you'll get far with a wheel that weighs less than 1600-1800 grams for the pair (unless they are carbon in which case the sticker shock will be out of this world).
  • Drivetrain: there is a recent trend towards 1x11 drivetrains, which allows for a wide range of gears without multiple chain rings and a front  derailleur. This creates a simplified set-up that also performs better. 1x11 drivetrains are still mostly found on mid- to high-end bikes. The next best thing is a specific 2x10 set-up (3x set-ups are becoming increasingly rare on the trail, and we can't say we'll be sad to see them go).
  • Brakes: hydraulic disc brakes are the norm on all serious mountain bikes. One-finger braking on any terrain is available on all good mid- to high-end bikes.
  • Dropper post: another more recent invention, the dropper post allows you to drop your seat with a simple push of a lever. This in turn allows you to get rowdy on your bike at the first sight of a downward pointing trail or a fun trailside obstacle, without having to stop to put your seat down first. Dropper posts are available on most good mid- to high-end trail bikes today - insist on getting one, you can thank us later.

As a general rule, more expensive components last longer and are easier to maintain than budget-conscious parts. Buying a bike with the right frame design for your riding style should be your priority, but the quality of components can help you choose between bikes that have similar frames.

Wheel Size

While it's still a popular topic on the internet, the Great Wheel Size Debate is by and large a thing of the past. There are three mainstream wheel sizes in mountain biking today, each with their own characteristics, but all perfectly viable alternatives found on many great frame designs:

  • 26-inch: the classic mountain bike wheelsize, it's been the norm for the past 20 years. It generally offers a more "playful" ride, with lively handling and a "snappy" feel often described as the defining traits. Note however that such traits are in fact more a function of overall frame and fork design, and less a characteristic proper to the size of the wheel.
  • 27.5-inch: the "in-between" size. Developed in an effort to marry the superior rollover capabilities of the 29" wheel with the "playfulness" of the 26" version, this is the fastest growing segment today. It can be found on anything from a pure XC-race rig to a full-on DH monster.
  • 29-inch: the "wagon wheelers" made quite a splash when originally introduced, mainly because they offer a significantly different ride experience. Rolling over obstacles becomes much easier on these big wheels, whilst the accompanying trade-off in liveliness and playfulness can today be essentially mitigated by frame and fork design. Once the exclusive domain of XC, you can get a 29er Trail bike as well.

Choosing a bike should not be a function of wheel size alone. If you race the clock in XC, chances are you'll be fastest on a 29er. If you like to play at the dirtjumps, you'll certainly be buying a 26" DJ for that. In between, anything goes...

How Much to Spend

Deciding how much to spend is a tough decision. It sounds too obvious to be mentioned, but the more you spend the better bike you get. There will be major differences between a $900 bike and a $3500 bike, regardless of the type of bike you are buying. In general, the more expensive a bike is, the more durable it will also be (at least until you start getting into the high-end race rigs where lightweight construction may ultimately reduce durability) and the better the components will perform. If you'll be riding regularly, we recommend spending at least $1500. Anything less and you'll be constantly repairing the bike and replacing components. If you're a first-time buyer, you may be tempted to purchase a low-end bike and later upgrade the components as necessary. Know that it is often much cheaper to buy the components as part of the bike in the first place than it is to buy components later and upgrade.

For comparison, the three bikes below are priced at $3500, $4300, and $6600, respectively.

Specialized Enduro Comp 26

Price: $3500
Aluminum frame
Mid-grade components
Normal seatpost
2x10 gearing

Santa Cruz Bronson Carbon 27.5

Price: $4299
Carbon frame
Mid-grade to high-end components
Normal seatpost
3x10 gearing

Specialized Enduro Expert 29

Price: $6600
Carbon, aluminum frame
Top-of-the-line components
Dropper seatpost
1x11 gearing

Product Reviews

Be sure to do your research and read product reviews. Reviews are a great way to find out specifics about a particular model of mountain bike, user impressions, and things to watch out for or to upgrade right off the bat. After you've purchased a bike and had enough time to thoroughly test it, we encourage you to leave a review for other people to see when they are researching bikes on the web.

We'll see you on the trails!

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16 comments
  • Suns_PSD

    3/15/2014 5:02 AM

    Great article and I wish I could have found something like this when I began shopping for my fist bicycle about 10 months ago. Now I'm a full on MTB addict.

    MTBing is a great sport and although I still prefer MX, I get so much more utilization out of my MTB due too many miles of agro trails very close by, riding areas open 7d/ 24hr, and most riding areas are free, that if I had to give up one of the sports, I'd quit MX first. Fortunately I don't have to make such an awful choice!

  • Tazao

    3/13/2014 1:09 PM

    GuyB thanks for posting this article. It is the perfect level of information to pass along to friends that have been asking a lot of questions. I also appreciate the increase in MTB information that is popping up on the website.

  • timlake

    3/13/2014 7:52 AM

    It would be cool to see an opposite version of this on VitalMTB!

  • FlyinDutchman

    3/15/2014 2:13 PM

    Agree 100% - that would be really nice!

  • Forty

    3/13/2014 7:18 AM

    Thanks for doing this, good info, these bikes are way over my budget however the content is helpful.

  • Recked1

    3/12/2014 10:55 PM

    Commencal bikes.. don't waste time with others, and great customer service.

  • mjskier

    3/12/2014 7:14 PM

    So for those of you who are into serious biking: What value percentage do these bikes lose when you resell them?
    And how many years before they are considered obsolete compared to new models?
    Looking at all these different frame and rear suspension designs, a lot more than BNG gets released year after year.

  • FlyinDutchman

    3/15/2014 2:18 PM

    I'm new to MX but have been racing DH MTB for years. IMO the MTB technology (especially full suspension rigs) was changing significantly every year less than 10 years ago but maybe now has relaxed a bit other than the new offerings in wheel size. I turn over my bikes every season if at all possible but I think you could get a few seasons before the current models are out of date. Depreciation is still quite drastic as everyone is eager for the newest models only (hence my desire to swap out annually while the value is still there).

  • mjskier

    3/12/2014 5:01 PM

    Wow, I guess we can stop complaining about $7000+ mx bikes!

  • burn1986

    3/12/2014 3:19 PM

    Wow, very nice write-up. You would obviously need several of these if you're serious. Good article.

  • madGLI

    3/12/2014 2:19 PM

    Whatever you do, don't buy a specialized. The bikes may be nice, but the company isn't and loves to sue small hard working people in the cycling world. Pisses me off that they sponsor so many pro teams in moto. The other brands need to step up

  • GuyB

    3/12/2014 2:22 PM

    Not this crap again...

    They made a mistake. They owned it.

  • madGLI

    3/12/2014 2:28 PM

    Its more than one mistake, they've done this to other companies since the 80's. Thanks to social media, they didn't get away with it this time.

  • Gabriel J

    3/15/2014 6:09 AM

    It's easy to criticize the largest corporations, and sometimes it's totally justifiable. Specialized also do plenty of good that gets no recognition. A family that I know lost their home in a fire last year, and they are hard-working, great people with 2 wonderful children. My friend who owns the local Specialized shop made some calls looking for donation items to use for a fundraiser for the family.. Wouldn't you know, the big evil Specialized donated a helmet, some clothing and gear items, and lastly a complete bike. Did that put a dent in their wallet? Of course not...But it also got ZERO attention outside our local group of riders/friends. This was also months before the "Roubaix incident of 2013".

  • Mitch_Berger

    3/12/2014 1:51 PM

    Turner Flux or Turner Sultan. USA made, starting at 3500$
    Turnerbikes.com

  • seth505

    3/12/2014 2:58 PM

    I'd never recommend a Turner to anyone after having an issue with a new Burner that they blamed me for. That is after owning 4 Turners as well. I would definitely recommend Intense though!