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A Rider’s Guide to Mountain Bikes

Mountain Bikes

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Mountain biking is a thrilling outdoor sport that allows riders to explore off-road trails and challenge themselves on uneven terrain. There are several main types of mountain bikes, each designed for a different riding style and terrain. Understanding the key features and intended uses of different mountain bikes can help riders select the best bike for their needs and riding goals.

Fat Bikes: Floating Over Soft Surfaces

Fat bikes are designed to excel in snow, sand, and other soft surfaces where a regular mountain bike would struggle for traction. They use oversized tires, typically 3.8-5 inches wide, mounted on extra-wide rims to better float on loose terrain. The wide, balloon-like tires at low pressure provide unprecedented levels of grip.

Fat bikes originated in Alaska in the early 2000s as a way to continue cycling through the snowy winter months. They soon spread in popularity to other regions as people realized their capabilities on beaches and desert terrain as well. Modern fat bikes retain the ultra-wide tires but have evolved frame and component designs to suit more versatile riding styles.

The flotation and traction provided by fat bikes makes them capable climbers on trails littered in sand, snow or mud. Their relative stability at low speeds also suits them well to relaxing, social pace riding. Fat biking is becoming a popular cold-weather fitness activity. Events such as snowbike races and beach cruises are bringing more awareness and fans to fat biking.

As versatile as they are in soft conditions, fat bikes do have limitations. The extreme tire and rim widths make them less nimble and much slower on paved or firm trails. The weight and drag of their tires also requires more effort when pedaling at speed. So while fun for playing in the snow or floating over sand dunes, fat bikes are not ideal for aggressive trail riding or covering long distances on moderate terrain.

Cross Country Bikes: Efficient Mountain Goats

Cross country or “XC” mountain bikes prioritize light weight and pedaling efficiency first and foremost. They cater to riders who love earning lung-busting climbs and ripping sustained descents on twisty singletrack.

Modern XC race bikes utilize lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber frames paired with 100-120mm suspension forks. Components are designed to balance low weight with sufficient durability for all-day backcountry rides. Geometries provide just enough stability for technical trails but remain sufficiently nimble to handle tight switchbacks.

The combination of featherweight frames and aggressive terrain-hugging tires makes XC bikes exceptional climbers. A tuned XC bike seems to hoof up the steepest of grades with near telepathic connection between rider and trail. Generous standover height and stretched out top tubes provide ample room to move around when attacking technical ascents.

Many recreational XC riders opt for short to mid-travel full suspension platforms for greater comfort and control, while hardcore racers still prize the ultimate efficiency and low weight of hardtail frames. Pedal-assisted e-mountain bikes are also growing in popularity within the cross country realm for their ability to flatten hills and expand daily range.

On the descents, XC bikes require more finessed lines and strategic braking compared to their long-travel siblings. But in the right hands they can still dance across rock gardens and hold their speed through rough chunder. Sharp handling brings quick reactions when picking lines through technical sections. Experienced riders will find XC bikes sufficiently capable for black diamond runs at the bike park as well. Just don’t expect to plow through the fall line with reckless abandon!

Electric Mountain Bikes: Motorized Trail Shredding

Electric mountain bikes, also known as e-bikes or eMTBs, add battery-powered assistance to a standard mountain bike frame and components. A compact motor provides pedal assistance only when the rider is actively pedaling, sensitive torque sensors ensure natural-feeling output in tandem with rider input.

For the casual rider or aging veteran, eMTBs reinvigorate the sport by flattening daunting climbs, expanding range to explore new zones, and generally take the sting out of big days in the saddle. You still pedal like a traditional mountain bike, but can dial-in assistance when your legs scream for relief. Think of it like a shot of nitrous oxide to be strategically deployed.

The latest generation of eMTBs feature advanced motors and batteries blended into trail-capable designs comparable to their analog counterparts. Models catering to cross country, all mountain and even enduro riding fill showroom floors. While still heavier than non-motorized bikes, a contemporary eMTB tips scales around 45-50lbs, reasonable for the performance gains.

Purists may scoff, but eMTBs are bringing new participants into the sport at rates not seen since the 1990s. Land managers across North America and Europe are responding in kind by opening more trails to allow responsible riding. For those looking to overcome physical limits or rediscover lost vigour on two wheels, e-mountain bikes present an exciting opportunity.

Key Components of a Mountain Bike

Beyond wheel size and suspension design, mountain bikes come equipped with an array of components fine-tuned to their intended riding style. These components directly impact performance and should be considered carefully.

Drivetrains: Smooth-Shifting Mechanical Marvels

The drivetrain is the system of parts responsible for translating pedal strokes into forward motion. It consists of front chainrings, rear cassette, derailleurs, shifters and the chain linking them together.

Modern mountain bikes predominantly use 1x or 2x drivetrains with up to 12 gears in the rear cassette. Simplicity and lower weight make 1x systems popular for aggressive riders, while 2x systems maximize range for long backcountry missions.

Higher-end drivetrains utilize durable, smooth-shifting metals and sealed bearings for consistent performance across muddy, dusty and wet conditions. Buying quality parts from Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo ensures reliability season after season. Replace and upgrade components as needed to keep your shifting crisp.

Suspension linkages, pivot bearings, pedals, headsets and bottom brackets all have periodic maintenance needs as well. Learn basic adjustments and lubrication tasks to prolong the life of your bike’s components.

Brakes: Stopping Power Defined

Given the speeds and terrain involved, quality brakes are mandatory when riding off-road. Rim brakes lack the power and modulation needed for technical mountain biking, making hydraulic disc models the undisputed choice.

Disc brakes use calipers to squeeze brake pads against a rotor mounted to the hub instead of the rim. Hydraulic fluid transfers pressure from brake lever to caliper for stronger, more controlled stopping in all conditions. Larger rotors provide more contact area and cooling capacity to prevent fade on long descents.

The power and precision of modern mountain bike disc brakes builds confidence to ride harder while enhancing safety margins appreciably. Keep pads and rotors cleaned and replaced as they wear for optimal performance. Bleed brakes annually replacing fluid to prevent contamination issues leading to spongy levers or loss of pressure.

Suspension: Eating Up the Chatter

Suspension enables mountain bikes to traverse technical terrain at higher average speeds and lower perceived effort. By isolating riders from impacts, vibrations and chatter, suspended bikes enhance comfort, control and traction significantly.

Front suspension forks provide 100-200mm of travel to smooth out rocks, roots and holes. Rear shocks also called dampers allow the rear wheel to react independently from the frame. Greater suspension travel increases capability and comfort but comes with weight penalties making longer travel bikes less efficient climbers.

Dialing appropriate air pressure or spring rates in each system prevents harsh bottoming while maintaining mid-stroke support for grip. Adjust rebound and compression damping to optimize response and rider weight distribution based on the trails you ride most. Quality suspension transforms rugged terrain into a silent magic carpet ride floating across the dirt.

Caring For Your Mountain Bike

Taking proper care of your mountain bike ensures safe, reliable performance ride after ride. Developing good maintenance habits will extend component life, reduce repairs and maximize enjoyment of your bike for years of happy trails!

Keep It Clean: Washing & Lubrication

Mud, grime and grainy dust spell danger for moving parts as contaminants lead to accelerated wear, corrosion and poor function over time. Rinsing your bike prevents build up keeping things running smoothly. Focus cleaning efforts on the drivetrain first where oily grit readily adheres to chains, cassettes and derailleurs. Use dedicated degreasing brushes and rags to remove filth before reapplying wet lube to lubricate chains and pivots.

Spot clean frame, wheels and components with warm soapy water or all-purpose bike cleaners finishing with a rinse to prevent residue. Towel dry and lube key areas to displace lingering moisture and restore protection. Avoid using pressure washers or dunking bearing components as seals aren’t waterproof.

Inspect chain, cables housings, brake pads and rotors for wear with each cleaning. Swapping consumables before excessive stretch, corrosion or glazing prevents mechanical woes mid-ride. It takes just minutes to keep your bike sparkling and operating like new.

Bolt Check: Torque Everything Down

Mountain biking subjects bikes to high dynamic loads capable of loosening even well-tightened hardware. Clattering down the trail with loose parts threatens safety and mechanical integrity quite rapidly. Conducting bolt checks ensures critical fasteners remain within proper torque spec, something especially key before/after transporting bikes.

Scan the whole chassis checking major points of connection first – stem, handlebars, seat post, rear shock/pivots. Verify smooth headset rotations, brake anchor points and derailleur mounting snugness. Lift and compress suspension through travel feeling for any notchiness indicative of a loose bolt somewhere.

Use a calibrated torque wrench to re-tighten any suspect fasteners to the bike or component manufacturer recommended torque values. Replace missing or damaged bolts/nuts to prevent irreparable harm. A few moments verifying critical torque specs enhances safety all ride long. Don’t chance broken parts or loose control miles from the trailhead!

Suspension Service: Keeping Smooth Action

Mountain bike suspension systems endure incredible stresses absorbing literal tons of force yearly. That abuse eventually overwhelms wipers, oil and surface treatments leading to binding, leaking seals and poor damping/rebound control. Annual maintenance restores like-new function revitalizing both ride quality and resale value considerably.

Fork lower service involves draining old fluid and replacing dust wipers, oil bath plus foam rings. Shock service goes deeper still, requiring full disassembly to replace dynamic seals and inspect internals for scoring. Best left to experienced mechanics, proper suspension servicing demands meticulous attention to detail reassembling hundreds of tiny components.

DIY mechanics can still perform basic fork lubrication and air spring maintenance however – just avoid digging into damper circuits minus training. Seek out suspension-certified shops for overhaul needs instead. The $150-300 investment per fork beats buying new equipment when yours fails out on the trail. Keep that buttery suspension feel alive through dedicated care.

Final Thoughts

Mountain biking continues gaining devotees eager to challenge lungs, legs and skills on backcountry singletrack. Understanding bike types, components and care essentials unlocks rewarding performance – key to progressing as a rider. Test demo a variety of disciplines to discover your perfect match! Then outfit the bike for your local trails and dial in suspension settings that match riding style and weight. Adopting smart maintenance habits ensures trouble-free operation year after year on the trails. Equipped with quality gear suited to the task, there’s little stopping you from realizing mountain biking dreams. Now get out and shred!

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About the Author

Tony K

Senior Technical Writer,

Tony K is a technical editor at He has a focus on downhill bike riding but still loves xc bikes too.

With more than ten years of mountain biking experience and more than 5 years testing mountain bikes, Tony has ridden and tested hundreds of different bikes and products, everything from XC to enduro bikes. Tony regularly competes in mountain bike races while seeing how long those compontents can hold up which gives me a lot of insight.

When he isn't shredding down a mountain or camping out, he is writing reviews for Mountain Bike Experience.

Rides: Surly Lowside, Canyon Exceed