From scrappy upstart with knobby tyres in the 1980s, though the boom of the 1990s, mountain biking has become an essential, muddy part of the cycling landscape. If you came to cycling via the road bike boom, why should you have a go at mountain biking?
When the mountain bike first began appearing in the UK it was a revelation. Here was a bike with a commanding, upright riding position, powerful brakes, tough go-anywhere wheels and tyres, and gears that could get you up a wall.
Mountain bikes offered the freedom to explore trails and tracks, and get away from civilisation much faster than was possible on foot, along with the ability to bash round town and laugh at potholes, kerbs and other street annoyances.
Of course, they still do. The mountain bike scene may not be quite as lively as it was in the 90s, but the bikes are still as versatile as ever — and just as much fun, if not even more so.
Why ride a mountain bike
We’re going to assume you have a road bike and you’re quite content riding that on the road and to work (though a mountain bike with slick tyres makes a bombproof commuter if you have to contend with cratered city streets). To really get the most out of a mountain bike, you want to take it off road. Here are N reasons why:
1 It’s fun. Playing in the woods will take you back to being a kid, to the days when riding a bike wasn’t about training milages and targets, but about getting wet and sweaty, and covered in mud. You’ll scare yourself silly a few times, you’ll probably fall off a few times and you’ll come home with a big grin on your face.
2 It’s intense. A mountain bike ride is almost never a flat, steady amble along. Instead, it mixes bursts of maximum effort to scale hills or power over problems with sections of taking it very easy as you zoom downhill. Back in the Bronze Age when we both raced mountain bikes (him far more seriously than me) our fitness expert Dave Smith recorded a maximum heart rate in a race higher than he’d ever been able to produce in the lab. Those bursts of high intensity can be a very useful part of your fitness regime.
3 It builds handling skills. Where did Peter Sagan get his remarkable bike handling skills? Among other things, he mixed road cycling with mountain biking when he was a teenager and won the 2008 junior mountain biking cross-country world championship. Sagan is a huge talent, but even regular mortals can benefit from learning to move around on the bike, handle a variety of surfaces and keep a bike upright when it’s sliding around under you. Once you’ve mastered a few high-speed off-road descents, you won’t be fazed by road downhills.
4 It gets you to hard-to-access places. If you love the countryside, there's no better way to get deep into the hills than by bike. Explore Welsh and Scottish forests, the bridleways of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District or the ancient trails of the Quantocks — and then head to a cafe to reward yourself with copious quantities of cake.
What makes a mountain bike a mountain bike?
Mountain bikes are characterised by flat handlebars and knobbly tyres. The bars provide control on rough terrain, while the tyres provide grip. So far, so obvious. But since the mountain bike’s birth in Northern California in the 1970s, that simple formula has given rise to a dozen variants for different uses and riding styles. But before we get into that, though, lets have a look at the other features of mountain bikes.
Even more than in road bikes, aluminium rules the roost. As well as being strong and light, aluminium is relatively straightforward to fabricate into the complex shapes necessary for full suspension bikes, without blowing the budget into the stratosphere.
A decent aluminium hardtail — a mountain bike with a rigid frame and suspension fork — will set you back about £500, though like road bikes, they get very rapidly better from that price up to about £1,500. If you want suspension at both ends, then expect to spend at least £1,000.
Carbon fibre is the second most common material. Carbon fibre hardtails start at about £1,500; a carbon full suspension bike will set you back from about £2,500 to — well, how large is your bank balance?
There are still a few steel and titanium mountain bikes available. Steel retains a certain retro appeal and the best steel tubing builds into light, lively frames valued by aficionados for their springy ride. Titanium builds into frames with similar qualities, but a bit lighter, and has the advantage of being corrosion-proof.
Suspension improves comfort and helps keep the wheels in touch with the ground. Most mountain bikes have a suspension fork, which improves all-important front wheel traction and handling. Some also have rear suspension which further cushions and improves the ride.
The extra components needed for suspension add weight and cost. The pay-off is worth it, but you will pay more for a bike with a decent quality suspension fork than without, and more again for a full suspension bike.
The corollary is that cheap suspension bikes should be avoided. The poorly-controlled movement of a cheap fork can actually make a bike’s handling worse, while cheap rear suspension adds very little but weight and mechanical complexity.
The amount of suspension travel has a big effect on a bike capabilities. Cross-country race bikes tend to have about four inches of travel, trail and enduro bikes five to six inches and downhill bikes up to eight inches.
Almost all modern mountain bikes have disc brakes. You’ll find rim brakes on a few cheaper bikes but by the time you get to bikes at £400 and above, disc brakes rule. And rightly. Discs are less troubled by mud and water, and carry on working if your rims get dinged.
Cheaper disc brakes are actuated by cables from the brake levers, more expensive ones by hydraulics. Hydraulics are more efficient and reliable, and worth the extra cost.
Wheels and tyres
Until a few years ago, all mountain bikes had 26-inch wheels, a size that came from the beach cruiser bikes that were the basis for the original Marin County klunkers. In the early 2000s bike builders began to experiment with a larger size, based on the same 700C rims as road bikes but shod with fatter tyres. Dubbed ‘29-inch’, these wheels roll better over uneven ground, making for faster bikes that are also easier for beginners to ride.
However, it's hard to squeeze a significant amount of suspension travel in between a larger wheel and the frame, so an intermediate size — 650B — has become popular. It’s a French wheel size that was all but abandoned until being resurrected for middle-sized mountain bike wheels. This size is sometimes called 27.5-inch, but with a two-inch tyre it’s more like 27 inches across; a useful bit of extra size and rolling ability.
While most middle-to-high-end bikes have switched to one of the larger sizes, there’s life in 26-inch wheels with whopping great four-inch tyres on ‘fat bikes’. More of them later.
Inspired by the fat bike trend, 650B and 29-inch wheeled bikes are also sprouting fatter tyres. Where tyres used to be between 2 and 2.3 inches across, 29+ and 650B+ tyres are three inches wide.
Mountain bikes need a wide gear range, from low gears for steep ascents to high ratios for hurtling down fire roads. Traditionally that was achieved with a triple chainset and plenty of mountain bikes still combine three chainrings with seven, eight, nine or ten rear sprockets. But in pursuit of simplicity, some riders go for gear systems with double or even single chainrings. These are combined with very wide range sprocket sets to provide almost as wide a range of gears as a triple. For recreational riding, the highest gears are sacrificed, whereas racers forego the low ratios.
Road cycling has Shimano v Campagnolo; mountain biking has flat v clipless pedals. Shimano and others offer various designs of double-sided clipless pedals for mountain biking, from compact designs for racing and cross-country riding, to pedals with the mechanism surrounded by a platform for extra support with more flexible shoes.
But many riders don't like the idea of being attached to the bike while riding off road; they want the reassurance of being able to get off the pedals instantly. Flat pedals have a broad platform for your foot, with small steel studs that dig into a rubber sole and do a surprisingly good job of keeping the two attached.
In reality both varieties work well, and the choice comes down to personal taste.
Mountain bike types
Trail. Bikes for what we used to call ‘going mountain biking’. Usually with suspension at both ends, upright riding position compared to a race bike and relaxed handling so riders can relax and enjoy the downhills, but still get to the top fairly easily. Wheels are sometimes 650B, sometimes 29-inch.
Cross-country race. Long, low and light, these are the greyhounds of the mountain bike world. For a long time, racers eschewed full suspension, but carbon fibre suspension bikes are now so light that the weight disadvantage is overcome by the downhill speed and handling advantage on many courses. Almost always have 29-inch wheels for speed.
Singlespeed. As the name implies, singlespeeds have just one gear. The idea is that the bike is stripped down to essentials and you concentrate purely on riding without the faff of thinking about being in the right or wrong gear. Singlespeeds are often rigid too, with not even a suspension fork. In a way this is the mountain bike equivalent of a fixed gear road bike, with a similar philosophy of mechanical simplicity.
Hardcore hardtail. This broad category comprises bikes with rigid frames, long-travel forks and shallow head angles, intended for steep, rough and wet conditions.
Fat bike. The last redoubt of 26-inch wheels, fat bike have huge tyres — usually four inches wide but five-inch tyres are available — running at low pressures for maximum traction no matter what the surface. Originally developed for riding on snow in Alaska, fat bikes have spread around the world because they’re simple bikes, usually with no suspension, that can roll over just about anything.
Dirt jump. Super-tough bikes with low-slung frames, and beefy short-travel forks, built to withstand the rigours of aerial stunts by talented lunatics, and the resulting landings.
Downhill. Bikes for pure gravity racing have long-travel suspension at both ends to absorb just about anything as riders hurtle down steep hillsides against the clock. Downhill bikes also have very shallow head angles for stable handling at speed.
Enduro. Bikes for enduro competitions, a sort of mountain bike rallying in which riders are timed through technical sections, and have time limits to ride between them. Somewhere in between a trail bike and a downhill bike, in that bikes are fast downhill, but can still be ridden up to the start of the next technical section.
Where to ride
To get started riding off road, a trail centre is your best destination. Usually on Forestry Commission land, these are areas with a network of marked trails and other facilities, usually including a car park, cafe and bike wash. Trails are graded by difficulty, so don't throw yourself straight into a black run.
Our friends at Singletrack have an extensive guide to trail centres and other riding hotspots.
Aside from purpose-built trails, you have the right to ride a bike on bridleways and byways in England and Wales even if they cross private land, and you can ride wherever you can find a trail in Scotland. You've no right to ride on public footpaths though, so best to steer clear.
Or you could completely ignore the whole idea of trails:
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.