Whether you’re a single track newbie or a seasoned mountain biker, the fat tire market can seem overwhelming. The age-old question of “hardtail vs. full-suspension?” has morphed into a whole new monster. Mountain bikes are not only made with three different wheel sizes these days (26”, 29”, 27.5”/650b), but are also classified as cross-country(XC), trail, all-mountain or downhill. With so many choices, it’s better to have an idea of what you want before you head into a bike shop to make your big purchase. So we’ve put together this Mountain Bike Buyers Guide to help you narrow it down.
Mountain Bike Wheel Sizes
Here’s a quick run-down on 26”, 29” and 27.5”/650b wheels and the pros and cons of each.
26 Inch Wheels
While bike manufacturers have made a big push this year to phase out the 26” wheel in the XC mountain biking world, it’s still dominant in the downhill and trail/all-mountain markets. Quicker handling through tight turns, faster acceleration, and overall maneuverability are the draws of 26” mountain bike wheels. Vertically challenged XC riders will also find it easier to get a good fit on a 26” bike than a 29er or even a 27.5” mountain bike.
29 Inch Wheels
XC racers have embraced the 29t” wheel, also called a 29er, but that doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone. While the big wheels are faster on long, straight stretches and roll over rocky or rooty sections with ease, 29ers tend to handle slower than their smaller brethren in tight turns. 29ers fit taller XC riders well, while this wheel size has also made inroads into the all-mountain/trail category.
The new kid on the block, the 27.5” wheel, dubbed the 650b, has started making waves this year as the perfect compromise between 26” and 29” wheels. Bike manufacturers claim that 650b wheels have the quick feel of 26” wheels with the speed and rolling ability of 29ers. Smaller XC riders who have struggled to fit on 29ers will find the 650b a welcome change from the goofy geometry of small 29ers. All-mountain/trail bikes have also adopted the 650b as a smoother-rolling alternative to the 26” bike. Will they live up to the hype? Test ride a 650b mountain bike and see.
Mountain Bike Categories
XC bikes are built to climb well, accelerate on the flats and descend somewhat smoothly. You can choose between a hardtail and a full-suspension, depending on preference and the terrain you’ll be riding. Long stretches of pedaling on rocky trails favor full-suspension bikes – you’ll be able to stay seated and pedal, saving your legs energy over the long haul. Smooth climbs favor hardtails, as stiffness is the key to energy efficiency.
This category of mountain bikes has seen significant innovations in technology and design in the past couple of years. All-mountain or trail bikes have only gotten more fun on the descents while manufacturers have lightened them up so climbing can be enjoyable, too. Enduro racers, trail riders and those looking to have the most fun on a wide range of trails should look here for their steeds.
These bikes are meant for one thing – going downhill fast. Eight inches of suspension and huge beefy tires make big, steep descents fun, but DH bikes are sure not fun to pedal uphill… If your riding outfit includes full body armor, DH bikes are the way to go.
Choosing a Mountain Bike for Your Style and Trails
Now that you’re an expert on mountain bike wheel sizes and categories, think about what type of riding you’ll be doing, and what type of terrain you’ll be covering. Are you looking to get into XC racing or just having fun with your friends on the trails? Will you be riding lift-access downhill trails and/or shuttling most of the time?
For XC racers, a bike we’ve come to love is the Scott Scale 900 RC. Exceptionally light and quick handling for a 29-er, the Scale 900 RC climbs fast, feels nimble and is a true XC racing machine.
In the full-suspension XC category, the Cannondale Scalpel 29er Carbon 1 eats up rocks like a trail bike, yet climbs with exceptional stiffness. If it wasn’t so fast, it would be hard to pin into the XC category – it’s just that much fun! Ideal for endurance racing, epic XC rides or rockier race courses, this is an all-around, grin-inducing full suspension-mountain bike.
All-mountain riders don’t have to suffer on the climbs anymore with the Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Expert Carbon Evo – this flyweight trail bike weighs is comparable to XC race bikes in terms of weight. Its 26” wheels handle fast, while 150 mm of travel and aggressive trail geometry will put a cheesy smile on your face the moment you point this bike downhill.
Big drops and shin-eating rocks are no big deal for the Trek Session 9.9 – this burly downhill bike pushes the limits of what you thought a bike could do. The steeper and rougher the terrain, the more this bike excels.
Demo a Mountain Bike
At White Pine Touring and Jans, we try to stock a variety of demo mountain bikes, allowing customers to really get a feel for their ride. Even if you walk into our stores with an idea of what you’d like to buy, we always recommend demoing a few different models just to make sure. Check out our bike demo program and get started finding your dream ride today.
Evelyn Dong, Content Writer