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Buyer’s Guide: Choosing the Right Mountain Bike Format

It wasn’t all too long ago when buying a mountain bike was as simple as strolling into your local bike shop and finding the bike equal to the wad of cash in your hand. Fast forward a couple decades and now your mountain bike choices include: cross country, trail, all-mountain, enduro, hardtail, dirt jumper, downhill, singlespeed, adventure, fat bike, and the list goes on. How is any new or returning rider supposed to know which bike is worthy of their clutch of cash? The two primary drivers in bike selection are simple enough. You should always buy the bike designed for how and where you like to ride. For a new rider, that’s tricky and you’ll have to rely on your inner assessment as to where and how you think you will ride. When making that assessment, be honest with yourself.

For the sake of simplicity, it’s probably best to distill the choices down to the basics, and platforms most attractive to the adventurous ExPo audience. Without getting bogged down in the subsets of bike styles, we’ll focus on the most common and popular: Full suspension, hardtail, singlespeed and fat bike.


The Hardtail

Despite continuous announcements of the death of the hardtail, it not only lives on, it’s proven to be timeless format. Efficient and light, a hardtail is also mechanically simple, and less expensive than full suspension bikes of equal spec. It gives excellent trail feedback and usually handles like a wheeled razor. The viability of the hardtail can also be attributed to the recent changes in mountain bike trails. Most land management agencies are mandating all new trails be built as multi-use trails. In short, if it’s possible, those trails are often built pretty smooth, and free of large rocks, drops, ledges and other aspects of “gnar.” This creates trails that are fast, flowing, and perfect terrain for a hardtail. Frequently preferred for racing, they are also popular for bikepacking due to their mechanical simplicity. If you end up with a hardtail, chances are it will have 29” wheels. Industry stats serve as the obituary for the 26” wheeled hardtail, which truly is muerto.

Full Suspension

The ubiquitous dual boinger now defines the mountain bike scene. Full suspension designs are highly advanced with few negatives to work around. Most can be finitely tuned or locked out on the fly. The “pedal bob” of year’s past is of little concern and the ride quality is almost always amazing. Today’s full susser is light-years ahead of what we thought was cutting edge just a decade ago. The advantage to a full suspension bike is obvious––the rider is insulated from violent rear wheel impacts. This greatly increases rider comfort, improves traction, and serves as a fantastic mistake eraser when you over cook a turn and end up in the nasty stuff with your head bouncing around like a bobble. For riders embarking on all day epics, the added comfort is a significant bonus. For those in regions of the world where terrain is aggressive and full of big ledges, rocks, roots and other features, a full suspension bike is almost necessary for full enjoyment of the ride. The entry point to a quality full suspension bike will always be higher than a similarly spec’ed hardtail. It’s tough to find a solid offering for less than $1500. The sweet spot probably starts around $2000.


It sounds like a crazy idea, but it’s easy to forget one gear was the standard for decades. Even the Tour de France was raced on one lousy gear for over thirty years. The reality is, it’s not as awful, or difficult, as it sounds. Singlespeed bikes are sublimely quiet, nearly maintenance free, simple to ride, and offer a unique challenge. They’re also a great tool for honing your riding skills. They demand a good use of momentum and require riders to measure their efforts for maximum efficiency. It is true, they do require a different type of fitness, but that’s not to imply greater fitness. For the once a week rider, the singlespeed may be a brutal task master, but for the rider who maintains a reasonable degree of form, a singlespeed is a great deal of fun. The biggest myth with singlespeeds is that they are best suited for flatter terrain. Flat terrain often lures the singlespeed into speeds that have the rider’s legs flailing around wildly. Rolling terrain with ample climbs and downhills is the ideal turf of the singlespeed. Although it sounds impossible, the singlespeed is also employed for bikepacking duties. Loaded with 20 pounds of gear, even in highly mountainous environments, the singlespeed is capable of knocking down hundreds of miles. Okay, that might be a little crazy.

The Fat Bike

“What in the heck is that thing?” That’s usually the question that accompanies the fat bike wherever it goes. New to the market in the last several years, the “snow bike” has now pushed well outside the winter months and is now enjoying rapid growth as an all around option for general riding. Initially designed to offer maximum float on snow and sand, the fat bike is proving formidable in all sorts of terrain. Defying it’s appearance, a fat bike is quicker and more agile than it should be, and the traction is mind boggling. Railing a turn on a fat bike is an almost bizarre experience as the tires mock the boundaries of physics. A little more bumpy than anyone would expect with such big tires, future variations will likely include a suspension fork. For now, most are rigid hardtails. Introduced almost as a novelty, the fat bike is even seeing expanded use as a long distance bikepacking rig. Already on the heavy side, the fat bike shrugs off the added weight of bikepacking gear like it’s no big deal. Originally only acquired by those with a quiver of bikes, the fat bike is now being sold as a primary steed for many riders. One thing is certain; there is no more fun to be had than a fat bike on four inches of fresh snow.

Which bike is for you? The appropriate answer is: One of each. The practical answer is a whole lot less expensive. Pairing your vision of where and how you see yourself riding will direct you to the the right bike. Now, go get that wad of cash and head to the bike shop.

Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.