MTB styles and disciplines: Guide to 16 different types of mountain biking

Mar 17, 2021 BY Luke Rees

In this guide to 16 different types of mountain biking we’ll take you from freeride to fatbiking to four cross. You’ll find out about the varied MTB styles and disciplines. 

Updated 17th March 2021 – there are now 18 different kinds of mountain biking included.

Different types of mountain biking

The different riding styles affect the type of bike you choose, the places you ride and even people you hang out with. So, we’ll look at the riding, where you do it and differences between the bikes for each style of riding. 

MTB styles and disciplines Guide to the different types of mountain biking fatbiking Pixabay royalty free image

Of course you don’t have to choose just one of the MTB styles and disciplines. Most people ride all sorts of trails and some have different bikes for different kinds of riding.

But don’t worry you can have just one bike and make do. At the end of the day you can enjoy riding almost any terrain on almost any bike. Okay so specialist bikes makes a particular type of MTB easier but you don’t need it to have fun.

The goal of this guide to 16 different types of mountain biking is to provide you with an understanding of the most popular mountain biking disciplines. This will help you choose a bike that suits you.

MTB styles and disciplines

We have gone for what we feel is a logical order for this guide to 16 different types of mountain biking. It progresses from a basic mountain biker into the different specialisations.

Trail riding

For most people, this is their entry into the wonderful world of mountain biking. It involves taking a normal mountain bike off-road on to trails, such as bridleways, multi use paths and other non technical tracks.

Ireland mountain biking trails Wikimedia image by Pete Toscano

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 lifelong MTBers are born. You’ll discover the enjoyment of the many types of mountain biking outlined below and are quickly hooked. You lucky thing!

It starts when you get a buzz from a short downhill section and you start to seek out more. Before long your riding will have outgrown your bike and an upgrade is in order.

Hardtail

A hardtail is not really a type of mountain biking. It is just any bike that only has front suspension. When I was growing up there was no suspension on mountain bikes, these days most have at least front suspension. Check out more about the history of MTB.

Full suspension

Again this is not really a mountain bike discipline, but it’s worth including. Full suspension is any bike with both front and rear suspension. On a full susser you’ll enjoy a more comfortable ride and it helps you handle gnarly terrain.

Decathlon bike delivery review First ride on BTWIN Rockrider 560s

Beware! Cheap full suspension bikes can be very heavy and provide minimal benefit over a hardtail. So if you have a low budget it may be better to go hardtail. At £750 the B’Twin Rockrider 560s is about the cheapest you can get a good quality full suspension bike for.

Single Speed

This simple MTB style that has become popular as bikes have become more advanced. Some mountain bikers have decided they don’t want the added weight and complication of gears and have chosen to have just one. Dirt jumping bikes and trials bikes are often single speed, but there is a growing army of riders who hit normal trails without any gears.

When I rode a single speed mountain bike it reminded me of the BMX I had as a kid, simple, fun but a pain in the arse on steep hills! That said there are many advantages to single speed mountain bikes as explained well by this convert on Icebike.org.

Singletrack

Most mountain bikers move from wide multi purpose routes to narrower trails known as singletrack. Very simply it is a path that is only wide enough for one bike at a time.

Of the different MTB styles and disciplines this is one of the most varied and can be done as most of the mountain biking types below. It can be anything from a simple path beside a farmers field to a very difficult technical descent in the mountains.

Single track is generally natural without lots of manmade features, usually they are also multi use so watch out for walkers. In areas where routes are maintained you’ll get some banked corners (berms) to make the ride more flowing and other features to improve the ride.

Bikepark

Single track merges with bikeparks in places where trails are managed. A bikepark is just a dedicated area for mountain biking with managed routes.

MTB Vorarlberg Review of Brandnertal Bikepark in Austria Photo by Irian from MTB Tours and Trails

Bikepark trails are usually graded green (beginner), blue (easy), red (difficult) or black (expert). However not all bikeparks are equal so you may be able to ride a black line in one destination then in another struggle on a red.

Just like singletrack mountain biking, bikeparks cover many of the MTB styles and disciplines below.

Downhill / DH

Thanks to our old friend gravity, riding down hill is one of the greatest pleasures you can have on any bike. But downhill mountain biking is a completely different beast to freewheeling down a slope.

Downhill mountain biking usually takes place in specially designed bikeparks. They are frequently located in ski resorts and make use of the gondolas and chair lifts so you don’t have to cycle uphill.

The trails are normally manmade and stuffed with jumps, berms and other features. Of the many types of MTB, downhill is the most often shown on TV. It’s dramatic to watch and even more exciting to get involved in.

Different types of mountain biking flickr image by jp3d2k

However not all routes are as difficult as you’ll see the likes of Aaron Gwin and the Atherton’s racing down. Downhill tracks are graded by their difficulty from green to blue to red to black – much like ski runs.

The easiest green runs are for beginners and have minimal technical features. Even blue runs are pretty simple with small features that can be avoided. Anyone who can ride a bike can try downhill and you don’t need a DH bike for the easy trails.

Downhill bikes are built to help you attack a descent and get to the bottom as quickly as possible. Ideally without gravity turning all nasty and you eating dirt. They help you take up the correct body position and eat up lumps, bumps, roots and drops for breakfast.

Downhill bikes are rugged and come with full suspension, with around 180 to 250 mm of travel. The frame, wheels and forks are all sturdy as they’re in for some serious punishment. They are heavy and look a bit like motorbikes.

Downhill bikes have thick low(ish) pressure tyres that conform to the terrain and provide better grip. The frame geometry puts the seat lower than the handlebars to make riding downhill easier.

Different types of mountain biking flickr image by Bikephotomusic

Cross country / XC

Cross-country (XC) riding is one of the most popular forms of mountain biking. It gets less press than downhill riding because it is not as dramatic to televise.

Often XC riding combines normal trails with purpose built sections that may have small obstacles like logs and jumps. Unlike downhill, 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 usually have lockable front suspension with around 100-120 mm travel. Full suspension is less popular because it is heavy and XC riders like to 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 level with, or slightly higher than the handlebars.

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.

Review of Adler Dolomiti donkeys on Val Gardena MTB holiday in Ortisei

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. Good AM bikes can be ridden on dedicated DH trails, although you won’t be going quite as large as you would with a dedicated DH bike.

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 hardtails are still used by some riders.

The frame geometry will be somewhere between that of the XC and DH bikes. So you have more control when descending but can make still ride uphill under pedal power.

Enduro

Traditionally, enduro is a competitive type of mountain biking that combines elements of DH, XC and AM. Riders take on large uphills – usually at their own pace – in order to attack timed downhill sections. So enduro is a stern test for complete riders.

However these days enduro is used to describe everything from bikes to trails and clothing to equipment. So anything that is the equivalent of what would be used in Enduro racing.

Review of Adler Dolomiti Val Gardena MTB holiday in Ortisei

In many ways Enduro is very similar to all-mountain riding. But due to the racing culture behind it, it is considered to be more extreme. 

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 hardtail or lightweight cross country bike as this will make the uphill much easier, but you’ll find the downhills tough going.

Again, bigger volume tyres help out on the downhills and a short stem and wide bar give you maximum control. Enduro bikes tend to be top end and rather pricey. They combine the low weight of XC bikes with adaptability of AM and the high performance of DH bikes.

Dual slalom

Dual slalom is racing down two similar tracks that are side by side. You race twice, once on each track, with the fastest combined time being the winner. Tracks are short taking around 30-60 seconds and it is a good spectator sport.

The bikes are similar to downhill bikes with good suspension and are made to be punished. However they are typically lighter weight then DH rigs and smaller to make them more agile.

Dual-cross bikes usually have slack head angles, short chainstays and low bottom brackets to allow good cornering and rapid acceleration. Although most riders have full suspension some ride hardtails.

Four-cross

Four-cross, also called mountain cross, is fast paced competitive racing with four riders on the same track. It is a little like BMX tracks but mostly downhill and with bigger jumps.

The aim is to simply be the first one past the post. They use very similar bikes to dual slalom, although they require full suspension as there is usually a rocky section.

Dirt jumping

Sometimes known as freestyle, dirt jumping is a type of MTB that involves getting airborne on purpose-built jumps. They are usually made from piled and shaped dirt – yes the clue is in the name.

The overall terrain is pretty flat – so you are not riding downhill. The features are pretty big and come in quick succession, often forming a circuit that can be looped.

Different types of mountain biking flickr image by Tirebiter media

As with other freestyle disciplines the idea is that the rider attacks the jump, and gets creative doing tricks while airborne. After landing – hopefully safely – you hit the next jump. And repeat!

Dirt jumping mountain bikes have rigid frames and a lower standover height, keeping the seat well out the way when performing tricks. Wheels are usually very strong and robust, as is the frame, as they take a lot of punishment.

Most dirt jump bikes don’t have suspension, although some have stiff front suspension with a little travel. They are usually single speed and normally only have a rear brake, which is usually a disc.

Trials

Mountain bike trials, also known as observed trials, is one of the least common types of mountain biking but also one of the most creative. It is all about riding slowly around a course in complete control over obstacles such as boulders, logs, beams etc all without putting your foot down.

It requires extreme skill and balance plus explosive power to jump the bike between obstacles from a standing start. Danny MacAskill, in the above video, shows the creative side of trial riding. His videos, often using trials skills on a normal bike, clock up millions of views and are well worth watching.

Trials can be done on any bike, and is a great way to learn control and balance. However, those in competition use a light bike often without a saddle. Bike geometry is different too with a lower frame and the bottom bracket spindle positioned significantly higher than the line between the axles.

Freeride

Freeride MTB is a combination of downhill and dirt jumping. So getting huge air and performing tricks while heading down hill. Along with DH it is one of the MTB styles and disciplines that gets the most media attention. Think Red Bull Rampage.

The bike is similar to a downhill rig. nearly always with full suspension but usually a little smaller to make tricks easier. Although there is a trend for bigger, heavier frames emerging particularly on the more serious trails.

MTB styles and disciplines Guide to the different types of mountain biking freeride MTB in Utah Pixabay royalty free image

The front forks are usually single crown. This allows for a narrower steering diameter for better airborne tricks such as barspins and tailwhips.

MTB touring / Off road Touring

Off road touring involves covering large distances on your bike. You carry your own equipment and the goal is to travel self sufficiently by bike.

Taking on a long distance off road tour you’ll encounter many different types of terrain. You get two main types of rider, those doing it to get somewhere, those riding for the trail.

The first type tend to be road/dirt track tourers on mountain bikes. They rarely have suspension – if they do just front with lockout. Bikes will usually be fitted out with accessories such as bar ends, drinks carriers, and front and rear panniers.

Single track tourers use either cross country , all mountain or enduro bikes. Keeping weight down is always a factor and rather than paniers they tend to use a backpack. It’s about enjoying the trails so the more technical the route you’ll be riding the better bike you’ll need.

Different types of mountain biking flickr image by Gabriel Amadeus

Fatbiking

Fatbikes use oversized tyres that are around 97 mm (3.8″) thick. They help you ride on difficult surfaces such as sand, snow or mud. The bigger tyres float on these terrains providing great traction and open up riding other bikes can’t reach. 

Although they are designed to be specialist you’ve probably seen people riding them around town. While this is not what they are made for, fatbikes are easy to ride and popular.

This is because the big low pressure wheels provide suspension giving you a comfy ride. Fatbikes can get you out on snow covered trails, beaches, deserts and make riding uphill in thick mud much easier.

Electric mountain bikes

The newest of the MTB styles and disciplines is eMTB. With an electric motor many traditionalists hate e-biking and consider it to be cheating. However, if it gets more people into the outdoors doing exercise than it has to be a good thing.

There are almost as many types of eBike as there are mountain bikes so you can choose one for your style of riding. Where they offer most benefit is in areas without uplift. You can easily can climb 2000+ metres in altitude to ride trails that would be very difficult to reach. What’s not to like about riding, further, faster and for longer?

MTB styles and disciplines - eMTB in the Dolomites

Check out this MTB vs eMTB comparison to find out why I feel they both have a place in our sport. Electric bikes are much heavier than normal mountain bikes, but then weight is less important as you have assistance for the climbs. Just be sure you save some battery to get you home.

Does the MTB discipline matter? 

With so many different types of mountain biking available you may think you will need a garage full of bikes in order to enjoy each discipline. But many of the different MTB styles overlap.

You can use a hardtail XC bike on intermediate 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 ways and as you get more into one style than another buy a new bike for that speciality.

At the end of the day, the types and styles of riding are just a very loose set of rules. And as we all know rules are there to be broken. Just get out and ride how you like. And don’t worry too much about what particular mountain biking discipline you are doing.

We hope you found this guide to 16 different types of mountain biking useful. If we have missed any MTB styles and disciplines please let us know in the comments below. Also check out out MTB holiday discounts, as whatever your style you could save a fortune.

 

Cycling, eBiking, Mountain Biking
DH (Downhill), Dirt Jumping, Dual Slalom, Electric Bikes, eMTB, Enduro, Fatbiking, Four Cross, Freeride, Full Suspension, Hardtail, MTB Trials, Single Speed, Single Track, Touring, Trail Riding, XC (Cross Country)
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