MF's guide to buying a mountain bike

mountain bike
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Cross-country bikes are designed for speed rather than comfort. Traditionally this meant that they were hardtails – bikes without rear suspension – to help reduce the overall weight, but advances in lightweight full-suspension technology have resulted in a number of excellent full-suspension models appearing on the market in recent years. Either way, they’re not built to handle extreme downhill riding. Typical features include steep head angles and flat handlebars with bar ends, both of which provide a more efficient ride position for climbing and sprinting on the flat. 


Downhill bikes are designed to be ridden fast down technical descents. This means that they’re extremely rugged and durable, because weight isn’t an issue. They typically come fitted with long-travel suspension forks and rear suspension to help absorb heavy shocks, while their small frames and long wheelbases provide maximum stability and manoeuvrability at high speed. They aren’t designed to be ridden uphill and as such they only have one large chain ring at the front end and limited gears. 

Trail riding

Trail bikes are designed to be versatile and provide a halfway house between a minimalist cross-country racer and a chunky downhill monster. This means that they’re sturdy enough to tackle technical downhills but still light enough to ride back up the hill afterwards. Trail bikes can be either hardtail or full-suspension, but either way they’ll typically feature shorter stems and riser bars for a more relaxed riding position and a full complement of gears. 

Big wheelers

Bikes with 29in (74cm) wheels – as opposed to the standard 26in (66cm) – have become increasingly popular in recent years. The main advantage of having bigger wheels is that they roll better over bumpy terrain, providing a much smoother ride. On the downside they do add extra weight and reduce your ability to accelerate.
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