What type of mountain bike do I need?
There are many different types of mountain bike out there, all designed to suit particular types of terrain or riding. The most popular types are aimed at cross-country, trail or all-mountain/enduro riding. Another consideration is whether you want to purchase a hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike.
Full-suspension or hardtail?
Most mountain bikes come with suspension, which just like suspension in a car is designed to absorb rough terrain to make the ride experience more comfortable, and to give the tyres maximum traction on the ground.
Hardtail bikes have a rigid frame with suspension in the forks, and full-suspension bikes have suspension forks plus a suspension ‘shock’ which allows the rear wheel to move too.
Full-suspension bikes tend to be more expensive, but are better able to handle steep, rough and technical terrain. Hardtails are efficient at climbing, need less set-up and maintenance, are popular with cross-country riders and are well suited to most trail centres, bridleways and moderately technical terrain.
- Cross-country (or XC) mountain bikes are designed for speed off-road, and usually consist of a lightweight, stiff frame and fast-rolling tyres. 29er wheels are popular, and most will have around 80-100mm of travel on their suspension forks. These are perfect for people who like to go fast, for long distances, above all else.
- Trail mountain bikes are the most popular type of mountain bike because they are so versatile. Suspension travel is usually in the region of 130-150mm, which gives more scope for tackling bigger features. The geometry is more relaxed, putting the rider in a more stable and confidence-inspiring position on descents. Modern trail bikes also perform very well when pedalling uphill, and you can expect either 29in or 27.5in (also known as 650b) wheel sizes. You can find both full-suspension and hardtail trail bikes. Trail bikes are suitable for the vast majority of riding, from trail centres to natural terrain.
- Enduro and all-mountain bikes are increasingly popular particularly with riders who like all-day adventures in mountainous environments. Enduro racing sees riders tackle timed technical descents with untimed uphill liaison sections. This demands a bike that’s able both to descend well – over more territory than the average trail bike can handle – and climb competently, but the focus is on the downhill with a compromise on climbing performance compared to say a trail bike or XC bike. This type of bike will usually be full-suspension, and will have more travel than a trail bike – around 160-170mm. Aside from enduro racing, this type of bike is great for riders who like technical terrain and long days out exploring natural trails and mountains. They’re an increasingly popular choice for mountain bike holidays to places such as the French Alps, Canada’s Whistler and similar.
- Downhill mountain bikes are designed to do one thing extremely well – that’s go downhill fast (in case you hadn’t guessed) in competition or on purpose-built tracks. They’re likely to feature a whopping 200mm of travel front and rear, and super-slack frame angles to make the steepest of slopes manageable. Because they’re just designed to descend, they aren’t generally good at climbing, and most downhillers would push back up to the top of a track or use an uplift service or chairlift rather than attempt to ride. But if you are pointing them down the hill, they’re a hell of a ride. There are very few women’s-specific downhill bikes, though some brands do produce smaller sizes of their DH bikes that may suit more petite riders.
What size women’s mountain bike do I need?
Like shoes, clothes, and blocks of cheese, bikes come in different sizes to fit different people. Mountain bikes generally use one of two sizing systems: either ‘small, medium, large’ etc or a measurement in inches: 13in, 15in, 17in, etc.
As mentioned above, some (but not all) women’s mountain bikes will have a unique riding position with a shorter reach, more upright position and lower standover than their unisex counterparts, which is worth taking in account if you’re shopping for a new bike.
Getting the correct size of bike frame is the most important part of a fun, efficient and comfortable bike. A bike shop can make small adjustments to the seat and handlebar position but getting a bike that’s too big or too small can result in a bike that’s difficult to handle and in rare cases, potential injury if it’s ridden extensively.
Women’s mountain bike features and specs
Most women’s specific bikes will also have some, if not all, of the following features.
- Saddle: Almost all women’s specific bikes will feature a women’s saddle which many women find more comfortable than unisex or men’s saddles.
- Standover + reach: brands which do make frames with women’s specific geometry will often give them a low standover and a shorter reach.
- Sizes: Good news for smaller riders – the women’s specific lines in many brands will go down to smaller sizes than the unisex lines.
- Cockpit: The control area of the bike is often set up for the on-average smaller hands of women, using smaller grips, narrower handlebars, and brakes with adjustable reach.
- Wheel size: Mountain bikes are usually fitted with either 27.5 inch/650b wheels or 29 inch wheels, which will be uniform across a range. However, some companies such as Trek will fit smaller frames with 27.5 tyres and larger frames with 29er tyres which keeps the handling uniform across the sizes and prevents toe overlap.
- Suspension: The majority of women’s specific bikes will have a suspension tune that’s designed to suit the lighter on average weight to height ratio of women.
But do you need one? As with anything to do with bikes, we’d always recommend taking a bike for a test ride where possible before deciding on it. Some women find women’s specific bikes suit them, others get on fine with unisex bikes.
Even where the frames are unisex, the advantage of women’s specific bikes is that you are less likely to have to tweak the cockpit or change the saddle.
How much should I spend?
Budget is often one of the biggest factors when it comes to deciding which mountain bike to get. While mountain bike prices go well north of £4,000, you can get a perfectly decent bike for a fraction of that cost. There are, however, a few things you should look out for.
- Whether they’re mechanical or hydraulic, look for disc brakes rather than rim brakes, as they’ll provide the stopping power you’ll need, particularly in wet and muddy conditions.
- We’d recommend steering clear of full-suspension bikes below £500, as they are unlikely to be effective and efficient – you’re much better off going for a hardtail (no rear suspension) at this level. Quality full-suspension bikes start to come in around the £1000 mark.
- Keep some money in your budget aside for kit and components. Most mountain bikes above a certain price point won’t come with pedals, and those that do may not be great, so having some money spare to get a decent quality set will make a huge difference to your ride. You’ll also want to get a helmet, glasses and gloves if you don’t already have them.
There’s a detailed breakdown on what to expect for your money in our mountain bike ultimate buyers guide. That said, the following is a good starting point:
- Under £300 – Alloy frame and steel-forked rigid bike (no suspension) or hardtail. Around 18 gears with a triple crankset, and V-brakes.
- £350 to £500 – Alloy frame hardtail with around 100mm travel on forks, 21 to 24 gears with a double or triple crankset, and either hydraulic or mechanical disc brakes.
- £550 to £950 – Alloy frame hard tails, with better quality suspension forks by brands such as RockShox and Suntour. Often have triple cranksets giving a huge range of 27 to 30 gears, using SRAM X5 or equivalent.
- £1000 to £2000 – Full-suspension trail bikes, with around 120mm travel, alloy bars and stem and hydraulic disc brakes. Alternatively, high-quality cross country hardtails (these are lighter and designed to go faster rather than take on the roughest ground), with carbon or alloy frame, quality forks such as RockShox Reba RL, and 10-speed gearing such as Shimano Deore.
- £2000 to £2500 – High-grade alloy frame with quality suspension components including Fox 32 or 34, or RockShox Pike forks, and Fox Evolution rear suspension shock. 10- or 11-speed chainset, wheels designed to take tubeless tyres (which are less puncture prone and can be run at lower pressures for more grip), and more suspension travel options up to 150mm.
- £2500 upwards – High quality alloy or carbon fibre frame with top of the range suspension from Fox or RockShox. Wide-ranging 11-speed gearing with a single-ring crankset, high-end tubeless ready wheels.