We spent 40 hours researching 12 different mountain bikes and found that frame material, tire quality and width, and comfort were most the important factors that people looked for when searching for a quality mountain bike. The Mongoose Dolomite Fat Tire Mountain Bicycle scored high above the competition in all categories and is our top overall pick. This popular, fat tire mountain bike is made by Mongoose, one of the most respected and popular names in the biking industry. The fat tires provide riders with the ability to ride in snow, sand, and handle rocky terrain with ease.
Mountain Bike Buying Guide
Mountain Bike Styles
There are several types of mountain bike styles available on the market. We have listed the most common ones below and have also provided you with some information about each, including specs.
Trail – The most common style of mountain biking is trail riding. This style of bike and riding isn’t restricted to one specific type of riding. If you love meeting friends at a nearby trailhead to ride a variety of descents and climbs this is the right style for you. A trail mountain bike will have emphasis on overall weight, fun, and efficiency. The suspension travel is 120 to 140 mm and the head-tube angle is 67 to 69 degrees. If you are new to mountain bikes, head angle is the type of angle the head tube forms with the ground. If the head angle on a mountain bike is steep the bike will usually climb hills better and turn faster. A lower angle will provide much more stability when riding at high speeds but won’t do as well when climbing hills. Suspension travel is how much movement the bike offers from the front and rear suspension.
Cross Country – Cross country riding involves fast riding and skilled climbing. Rides can range from a few miles to over 25 miles. The bikes for cross country are built with a focus on low weight and efficiency. If you are considering competition or you want a racier ride for the trails you frequent, a mountain bike designed for cross-country is an excellent choice. The suspension travel of a bike designed for cross country is 80 to 100 mm with a head tube angle of 70-71 degrees.
Fat – One of the new trends in the mountain bike world is the fat bike trend. These interesting and fun-to-ride bikes feature oversized tires that measure anywhere from 3.7” to 5” across. These wide tires provide users with superior traction on all types of terrain including sand and snow. The fat bike is a great choice for beginning riders because the fat tires are much more stable especially on rough terrain.
All-Mountain – This type of riding is trail riding on overdrive. There are typically longer, more intimidating descents, steeper and more challenging climbs, and more man-made and natural features. The mountain bikes that are designed for all mountain riding have great performance handling steep descents and being lightweight enough to handle pedaling uphill as well. There is suspension travel or 140 to 170 mm and the angle of the head tube is 65 to 68 degrees.
Downhill – These big, tough bikes can handle jumps, rock gardens, berms, and much more. Riders that engage in this style of riding wear body armor and full face helmets for protection. The suspension travel is 170 to over 200 mm with a head tube angle of 63 to 65 degrees.
Mountain Bike Frame Material
The majority of mountain bikes are made from aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, titanium, or a combination of two or more of these durable materials. Each material has its own characteristics that will alter the comfort, weight, cost, and overall feel of the bike. Below we have listed the most common materials used for mountain bikes and have provided some information on the characteristics of each as well.
Carbon Fiber – This material used to be exclusively used in the professional capacity due to how expensive it was and how hard it was to work with. Over the years the price of carbon fiber has gone down and companies have improved manufacturing processes so it is not so complicated to work with. Because of this, carbon fiber mountain bikes are common. Since it is easier to work with it can be molded into a variety of shapes which allows mountain bike manufacturers the ability to experiment with frame shapes and tube profiles as well. The ratio of stiffness to weight is the best with carbon fiber over any other material used which is why it is the overall choice for professional bikes. The disadvantage to carbon fiber is that it is susceptible to cracking under extreme stress such as screws being over-tightened or crashes. Once a carbon fiber mountain bike has had a crack, the material becomes dangerous to use. If you have a carbon fiber bike that has become cracked it is critical that it be professionally repaired or replaced.
Aluminum – This lightweight material is the most commonly used for mountain bike frames, coming in just ahead of carbon fiber. It has many of the same properties as carbon fiber and can make a stiff, lightweight bike. It is easier to work with than carbon fiber and is less expensive as well. Aluminum mountain bikes have really good power transfer because of the thickness of the tubes and the stiffness of the material. The downside to this is that if the suspension isn’t present users can end up with a harsher ride. Manufacturers will add butting in three different variations of single, double, and triple to the tubes to add strength to the frame while still keeping the bike lightweight. Aluminum mountain bikes are a good choice for those seeking high performance but who may need a less expensive bike than carbon fiber.
Steel – Steel is commonly seen on entry-level mountain bikes. It is fairly inexpensive and is definitely strong but weighs more than carbon fiber or aluminum frames. Steel used to be the go-to material used for professional as well as recreational mountain bikes before carbon fiber and aluminum came onto the scene. Premium, modern steel can be very labor intensive to use and expensive to boot so many brands have lost the desire to work with it, preferring instead to work with materials that offer better stiffness to weight ratios.
Titanium – Although titanium mountain bikes are rare due to the high expense of the material, it is a highly durable material that won’t corrode and is fairly lightweight. One of the reasons for the high cost of titanium mountain bikes is that the material is not easy to work with, causing the manufacturing process to be more involved and complicated. The advantage that titanium bikes have over others is that this resilient material stands up to crashes much better than other materials. Because it is so difficult to damage, it is often chosen as a luxury, lifetime purchase. Titanium mountain bike frames are comfortable and because there are new manufacturing techniques available, the tubes can be made thin enough to keep the weight of these high end bikes low.
Mountain Bike Suspension Types
There are several different types of suspensions used for mountain bikes. We have listed the most common types below along with a description of each so you understand the differences.
Hardtail – Hardtail mountain bikes have a fork in the suspension in the front of the bike that will help take the shock from impact on the front wheel. The rear of the bike has no suspension at all which is how it got its name. Hardtail mountain bikes are less expensive than full-suspension models, requiring less maintenance as well due to have fewer moving parts. If the rider desires a more rigid bike, the majority of hardtails can lock out the front fork. Riders that prefer cross country riding typically prefer hardtails due to the ability of the bike to offer greater direct power transfer between the rear tire and the pedal strokes. They are also able to do well on all mountain trails. Because they are less expensive and easier to maintain, they are a good option for pretty much everything except the serious downhill trails that are lift-serviced.
Rigid – Rigid mountain bikes are not very common because most riders prefer to have some kind of suspension system to absorb impact and rigid bikes don’t have any suspension. They are less expensive and very easy to maintain but because riders prefer to have more comfort they are not a very popular choice. Fat bikes are an example of a rigid bike but riders like them due to the fact that the fat tires provide all the comfort they need when handling bumpy trails.
Full Suspension – There are many types of full suspension bikes but the overall idea behind them is that the front fork and rear suspension absorbs the shock of impact on the trails. This reduces the bumpiness for the rider as well as increasing the traction. This combination makes for a better and more comfortable ride for the user. Although full suspension mountain bikes take a lot of bumps and chatter, the bike tends to bob more which loses some energy transfer when tackling hills. Most full suspension bikes can lock out the suspension on the rear so users have better power transfer which makes climbing much more efficient.
Mountain Bike Wheel Sizing
There are several different sized wheels that mountain bikes offer. Below we have listed the most common wheel sizes on the market and what the wheel size suits them for. This information can be helpful in deciding what size wheel you want.
26 inch – Previously, all mountain bikes for adults had 26” wheels. You can still get this size but if you walk into a bike shop to look for a mountain bike, you will more than likely be asked if you want a 26, 27.5, or 29 inch wheel.
27 ½” inch – 27 ½” wheels offer a good middle of the road choice between 26 and 19 inch bikes. They offer a great middle ground and can handle rougher terrain easier than a 26” bike but is more maneuverable then 29 inch bikes. You will more than likely find 27 ½” wheels on hardtails and full suspension mountain bikes. 27” wheels have faster acceleration than 29” wheels.
27 ½ “+ The plus symbol on this 27 ½” wheel refers to the width of the wheels and tires which is usually 2.8” or more wide. The wider tires offer riders a more comfortable ride. There is less rolling resistance as well making them an increasingly popular choice. One of the biggest benefits noted about 27 ½” wheels is the faster acceleration over a 29” wheel. The responsive feel this gives the bike is something many riders really like.27 ½” tires offer riders a decent amount of traction and work well for the majority of riding.
29 inch – Bikes accelerate slower with 29 inch wheels but once the bike gets going you can cover a lot more ground with a lot more ease than if you are riding a bike with 26” wheels. They are also very efficient choices for long rides because they keep their momentum up and the attack angle is higher which means they handle obstacles along the trail much easier. Cross country enthusiasts have taken a real shine to 29 inch wheels for this reason. They can be found on rigid bikes as well as full suspension and hardtail models. If you are looking for superior traction and ride a lot on slippery terrain or rocks, the 29” wheels will be your best bet. A larger wheel is going to be heavier than a smaller one so keep this in mind if you are looking for the lightest bike possible. A bike with 29” wheels can weigh as much as 2 pounds more than a 27 ½” wheeled bike. If you are a competitive rider there are ways you can reduce the weight and still keep the larger tires. Look for ultralight frames and other things you can do to lighten the overall weight so the wheels don’t affect your performance.
24” – If you are looking for a mountain bike for a kid, you will find that the majority of kids’ mountain bikes have 24” wheels. This accommodates a kid’s shorter legs. A kid’s mountain bike is a cheaper, simpler version of an adult mountain bike. These youth bikes are usually very good for kids ages 10-13 but for obvious reasons the height of your kid plays a factor in this. Smaller and younger children can get started with mountain bikes that have as small as 20” wheels.
Mountain Bike Brake Systems
Disc – You will find disc brakes on all mountain bikes except the entry level ones. Disc brakes have replaced rim brakes for many reasons including they are cheaper to replace, offer less strain to the fingers, and provide exceptional performance in wet and steep terrain. It is more difficult to inspect the brake pads for wear and to replace them. Hydraulic disc brakes are much more expensive to service than rim brakes. Disc brakes work via pads that grip the brake rotor that is mounted to the hub of the wheel. There are two versions of disc brakes.
1. Hydraulic – offers less finger strain while providing stronger braking power and they will self-adjust to allow for wearing of the brake pads.
2. Cable- activated- these mechanical brakes have to be adjusted manually as the brake pads wear down.
Rim – Some of the entry level mountain bikes on the market have rim brakes. This type of braking system features brake pads that grip onto the rims of the wheels. Rim brakes are economical and observing the brake pads for wear as well as replacing them is much easier. The disadvantage to rim brakes is the wear they put on the rim of the wheel itself, causing the wheel to have to be replaced at some point. They don’t have as much braking power as disc brakes and can be a lot less effective in muddy or wet conditions. They also require much more finger effort to brake quickly.
Choosing the Right Size Mountain Bike
Choosing a mountain bike that is the right size for your riding style, height, and flexibility is critical to having an enjoyable ride without undue struggle. When you get a bike that is sized properly your confidence and handling will improve and you will be able to handle for challenging and technical rides. If you are a serious rider looking for professional performance points, finding the right sized bike can become pretty complicated so you may want to enlist the help of a bike shop. The information below is for more entry level riders.
Choose a bike that fits how you ride now – You want to get a bike that matches your current riding style and level. As you progress and improve your skills you can adjust the fit later on.
Choose the correct frame size – If the bike frame you choose is incorrect you will have a really hard time making it comfortable for you regardless of the adjustments you make. Choose a bike frame that fits your size and you will be able to adjust it as necessary to work well for you.
Fit Fine-tuning – Once you have chosen a model based on your height, size, and riding skill level you can fine tune the fit by adjusting the seat angle and height if necessary. You can also swap out the seat if you prefer another one.
Standover Height and Inseam – Most mountain bike brand websites will have sizing charts for their bikes or you can find one by searching online. One of the ways you can ensure that you choose the right bike is to have your inseam measurement and compare that to the standover height of the bike you are interested in. You want the difference between your inseam measurement and the bike’s standover height to fall within the target range on the sizing chart.
Measuring your inseam
To get your inseam measurement you will need a couple of things. Get together a tape measure, large hardcover book and a pencil. Put your biking shoes on if you have any and stand against the wall straddling the book between your legs as if you are sitting on a saddle. Make sure the spine of the book is up. Mark where the spine of the book meets the wall with your pencil. Measure from the mark on the wall down to the floor. This is your inseam measurement. Make sure you take the measurement a couple of times to ensure you have the correct measurement.
Mountain bikes are just as popular now as they were years ago and advancements in technology have added many more options that may not have been possible years ago. Looking for the right mountain bike for your needs can be overwhelming once you factor in sizing it right and deciding on all the different options that are a part of choosing a good bike.
The three top rated mountain bikes we have featured above are excellent choices with a lot of features that include lightweight frames, great suspension, and style among other things. Each one is from a reputable, well-known company that is known for quality and performance. Take a look at each one of these great choices and see if any of them meet your needs.
If they don’t be sure to look over the additional mountain bikes we have suggested and keep the information you have learned in the buying guide to help you navigate all the options and choices you have when you choose a mountain bike.
Don’t forget to think about your specific needs before you start researching the different models. Depending on how often you want to ride, where you want to ride and how experienced you are, you will want to look for certain features. If you want to go into a competitive situation you will need something far different than if you just want to ride casually.
The right knowledge can help you avoid choosing the wrong bike and will be a big help to you in avoiding analysis paralysis. Happy biking!