There are a number of different types of mountain biking, with subtle variations in style and bike-build suited to different kinds of terrain and riding. The different riding styles can affect the type of bike you choose, the places you ride and even people you hang out with.
This guide to the different types of mountain biking will provide you with a basic understanding of the most popular mountain bike disciplines.
Types of mountain biking
For most people, this is their entry into the wonderful world of mountain biking. It involves taking a normal mountain bike over non-purpose built trails, such as hiking paths and other off road tracks. Trail riding bikes do not need suspension, although many have front suspension for comfort, however most trail riding can be done on a hybrid or a cheap MTB with no suspension.
It’s from trail riding that MTBers are born as they discover the enjoyment of the many other types of mountain biking outlined below. You will start out trail riding then will get a buzz from a short down hill section and will seak out more…. Before long your riding has outgrown your bike and an upgrade is in order!
Downhill / DH
Thanks to our old friend gravity, riding downhill is one of the greatest pleasures you can have on any bike. However, downhill mountain bikes aren’t designed to simply freewheel it down a slope, they are built to help you attack a descent and get to the bottom as quickly as possible, without gravity turning all nasty and throwing you on your face. For serious downhill riding you need to know the correct body position, how to corner correctly and how to ride the roots and other obstacles.
A downhill bike should be rugged and come with full suspension, with around 180 to 250 mm of travel, to absorb some of the shocks and bumps you’ll inevitably hit on your way down. The frame needs to be sturdy, along with the wheel and forks, as they’re in for some serious punishment. Thick, low pressure tyres allow them to conform to the terrain and cover more ground. The frame geometry means the seat is lower than the handle bars to make riding downhill easier.
Downhill tracks are often graded in terms of their difficulty, much like ski runs. And seeing as quite a few downhill parks are located in ski resorts during the summer season, this really makes sense. It also means that you get to use the ski lifts to get back to the top of the slope, so there’s little uphill riding involved.
Cross country / XC
Although cross-country (XC) riding is one of the most popular forms of mountain biking, it gets less press than downhill riding. Largely because it is not as dramatic to televise. Often parts of XC riding are on normal trails linking together purpose built sections with small obstacles like logs and jumps. XC riding will see you peddling most of the time and covering long distances under your own power.
XC bikes are some of the lightest mountain bikes around, usually between seven and sixteen kilos. XC bikes should have lockable front suspension with around 100-120 mm travel. Full suspension is less popular because it is expensive to have and still keep the weight down. The frame geometry is designed to optimise peddling – particularly climbing so you will be much less upright than on a DH bike with the seat normally being level with, or slightly higher than the handle bars.
All mountain / AM
All mountain sits between XC and DH with blurred boundaries between them all. Personally I consider all mountain to be more extreme XC with bigger obstacles, rougher trails and harder riding. As the name implies you will still be riding uphill and downhill but as opposed to XC the emphasis is on the downhill and throwing the bike around.
All mountain bikes are similar to XC but are normally heavier and more robust to handle the tougher trails. Typically they have full suspension with travel of 140-160 mm although hard tails are still used by some riders. The frame geometry will be somewhere between that of the XC and DH bikes to give more control when descending but still meaning you can make your way uphill under pedal power.
One of the newest types of mountain biking, Enduro is a competitive combination of DH, XC and AM. Riders take on large uphills in order to attack timed downhill sections, making enduro a stern test for complete riders.
As you might expect, most enduro riders opt for full suspension bikes with between 140 and 170 mm of travel. There’s nothing to stop you using a hard tail or lightweight cross country bike as this will make the uphill much easier but you’ll find the downhills tough going. Again, big volume tyres help out on the downhills and a short stem and wide bar give you maximum control. Most riders choose a AM or DH set up bike as it is the downhill sections that are timed during competitions.
Four-cross, also called mountain cross, and dual slalom involve fast paced competitive racing down pre-prepared, BMX-style tracks. The aim is to simply be the first one past the post. Four-cross involves four riders on the same track, where as dual slalom involves two riders on two identical downhill tracks.
However, they both involve the same style of bike, designed with full suspension with around 70 to 100mm of travel. Although sometimes riders do prefer to use hardtails. The frames are strong and come with chain guards on the chainset and rear gears to prevent damage when colliding. Four-cross bikes also have slack head angles, short chainstays and low bottom brackets to allow good cornering and rapid acceleration.
Closely related to downhill and dirt jumping, freeride mountain bike riding focuses more on tricks, style and technical expertise of the rider. It’s an increasingly popular discipline and one that’s getting a lot of attention. It borrows the name from snowboarding, where freeriding means riding without a course, set goal or rules and instead encourages control, amplitude and speed.
The frame is usually aluminium and is smaller than a downhill bike, and almost always equipped with full suspension. The frames are mostly lightweight, although there is a trend for bigger, heavier frames emerging. The front forks are usually single crown, which allows for a narrower steering diameter for better airborne tricks such as barspins and tailwhips.
Sometimes known as freestyle, dirt jumping is a type of riding that involves getting airborne on purpose-built jumps usually made from piled and shaped dirt. The idea is that the rider attacks the jump, lands correctly and carries on cycling.
Dirt jumping mountain bikes have rigid frames and a lower stand-over height, keeping the seat well out the way when performing tricks. Wheels are usually very strong and robust, as is the frame, as they do take a lot of punishment. Some dirt jump bikes have front suspension forks with little travel, as firmer suspension is desirable. Most dirt jumping bikes are single speed and only have one brake – usually of the disc brake variety.
MTB touring / Off road Touring
Off road touring involves covering large distances on your bike, often carrying all your own equipment and using the bike as the only means of getting around. Taking on off road touring over large distances you’ll encounter a number of different types of terrain.
Mountain bike road tourers rarely have suspension as this can sap energy and they will usually be fitted out with a number of other comfort accessories such as bar ends, drinks carriers, and front and rear panniers. However, single track tourers may have front suspension and resemble a cross country bike.
With so many different types of mountain biking available it may seem like you will need a garage full of bikes in order to best enjoy each discipline. However many of the different styles overlap. You can use a hardtail XC bike on easy downhill trails and you could take a AM bike on more punishing routes. You won’t be as fast, or as comfortable as some one with specialist kit but you will still have a big smile on your face at the end.
This flexibility is the beauty of mountain biking, you can ride many different styles and as you get more into one than another buy a new bike for that speciality. Basically, the styles of riding are just a set of loose rules and as we all know rules are there to be broken.