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How to choose a mountain bike

If you’re reading this, you’re likely hooked on the idea of flowing through the forest on two wheels. We can confirm: mountain biking is awesome. Buying a mountain bike – especially if it’s your first one – is a big deal, and MEC MTB Specialists can help you figure out what bike is a good match for you.

To get started, here are a few things to think about when you’re mountain bike shopping:

  • What type of riding are you doing?: Bikes are designed for different styles of riding – we break it down for you below.
  • How to find the right size: A good fit makes a big difference.
  • Understanding suspension and wheel sizes: Some pros and cons to know about.
  • Essential bike gear: A few basics to pick up and work into your bike budget.
  • Looking after your bike: Bike maintenance tips

One note as you’re bike shopping: You’ll often see the same bike with different prices. What’s the deal? It’s usually about different components for each build (like forks, shocks, brakes, drivetrain). A higher-priced bike = higher-end components.

Bikes for different types of riding

Today’s mountain bikes are designed for certain styles of riding, so the first step is to think about the type of riding you plan to do most of the time. There are four main types of mountain biking: cross-country riding, trail riding, all-mountain/enduro, and freeride/downhill. Fat biking is gaining popularity too.

If you’re a total beginner, ask your riding friends to find out about the trails in your area and what kinds of bikes they’re on.

Cross-country riding

Cross-country mountain biking

Do you like to climb as much as you descend, and want to clock distance instead of laps? Cross-country riding is about endurance and fitness with less of an emphasis on rocketing downhill as fast as possible. Bikes designed for cross-country riding (sometimes called XC) are lightweight to make long, pedal-rich rides a bit easier.

What to expect with cross-country bikes:

  • Suspension: Hardtails are common, but there are also full suspension models. Front travel can range from 100–140mm; rear travel ranges from 115–130mm.
  • Wheel sizes: Usually 29ers for plenty of rollover, but there are some 27.5in. models (there aren’t any modern XC bikes with 26in. wheels).
  • Geometry: With climbing in mind, they’re designed with steeper head angles (67.5–70° head tube angle).

Trail riding

If you’re into a mix of climbing up and carving down, trail riding is where it’s at. Trail bikes are do-it-all machines capable of rolling down rough looking terrain, flying through smooth sections, and eliciting whoops in the forest. Use these for quick rips after work, hitting the occasional drop or feature, and long weekend rides that leave you bagged, muddy and counting down the hours until next Saturday.

Profile view of a trail bike

What to expect with trail bikes:

  • Suspension: Full suspension is the norm. Front travel can range from 130–140mm (sometimes a bit more); rear travel usually ranges from 115–130mm.
  • Wheel sizes: 27.5 is common, but you’ll see 27.5+, 29ers and the occasional 26in. too.
  • Geometry: Often the not-too-slack/not-too-steep range to balance efficient climbs with stability at speed.

Enduro and all-mountain riding

A little like turning the trail riding knob up to 11, enduro and all-mountain riding is faster, steeper and more aggressive. The bikes reflect this: they’re beefier than trail bikes to handle gnarly North Shore-esque terrain and huge hits, but can still handle the steep climb trails. Enduro started as a race format where riders are timed on the downhill (but not on the uphill), and is now used to describe a riding style that’s downhill dominant, while still recognizing you’ve got to pedal to get there.

Intense Carbine mountain bike

What to expect with enduro/all-mountain bikes:

  • Suspension: Full suspension is the norm. Front travel can range from 130–160mm; rear travel ranges from 130–165mm to handle bigger features.
  • Wheel sizes: 27.5 is common, but you’ll see 29ers too.
  • Geometry: To help shift your position back for nimble handling on steep descents, slacker head tube angles are common.

Freeride and downhill

The domain of bike parks and shuttling, downhill bikes (a.k.a. DH or freeride bikes) are designed to get you to the bottom, fast, with some airtime along the way. As for the uphill? It’s not their strong point – bike park lifts or friends with a bike rack are key to getting the most out of your DH ride.

Profile view of a downhill/freeride bike

What to expect with downhill/freeride bikes:

  • Suspension: Full suspension all the way. Front travel is big – think 200mm – and so is rear travel, around 215–240mm.
  • Wheel sizes: 27.5in. is common and 29in. is gaining traction (you may still see 26in. around).
  • Geometry: Slack head angle to shift your weight back where you can navigate aggressive lines and huck in the bike park.

Fat biking

Two people fat biking on a snowy trail by a frozen lake

Want to ride year-round? Fat biking is the answer. Designed to accommodate monster-width tires, fat bikes are pretty darn fun to ride in the snow. Many Canadian ski resorts, ski areas and even national parks are adding winter fat-bike specific trails to their roster, along with rental options to give it a try. Some riders don’t reserve their fat bike for just winter – all that float works for mud, sand and loose rock too.

RSD Sheriff bicycle

What to expect with fat bikes:

  • Suspension: Many have fully rigid frames, though you’ll see front suspension or even full suspension options (with small travel).
  • Wheel sizes: 26in. is common, but the tire width is what makes fat bikes so unique – up to 5in.
  • Geometry: Depends on the bike and brand. Trail geometry is becoming more common.

How to find the right size bike

Each bike has a list of specs and a rough sizing chart on While standover height is definitely something to keep in mind, the wide range of frame geometries, angles and wheel sizes means that similar size bikes can feel very different when you’re riding. A bike that’s too big or small can be hard to control and leave you with an aching back. A bike that’s the right size feels fun to handle and maneuver.

Bottom line: try before you buy. Demo some bikes to see how they feel and what you like best.

Once you’ve got the frame size sorted, you can work with MEC MTB Specialists to fine-tune the fit by tweaking components.

“If you’re a new rider, go with the bike that makes you feel most safe and in control. As you get used to riding, you’ll learn what you want and can update your components or bike as you go.” – MEC staff tip

Understanding suspension and wheel sizes

There are lots of tech specs and features with mountain bikes. Two of the biggest ones to understand if you’re new to the MTB world are suspension and wheel sizes.

Suspension 101

You’ll see three types of suspension on mountain bikes:

  • Full suspension: A front fork and rear suspension. Pros: absorbs a ton of bumps and shocks over rough terrain. For climbing, you can often lock out the suspension so you don’t lose precious energy. Cons: rear suspension adds extra weight.

  • Hardtail: A front fork and no rear suspension. Pros: efficient at climbing, more lightweight than full suspension (which makes it appealing for XC), usually cheaper and easier to maintain. Cons: rougher ride or a lot of walking involved when the terrain gets gnarly.

  • Rigid: No suspension at all. You’ll usually see this only on fat bikes, since their huge tires float over unruly ground and power over roots and rocks. Pros: maintenance is simplest. Cons: no suspension to absorb bumps.

Wheel sizes 101

When it comes to wheel size, the most important thing is how you like the way they feel underneath you. The best way to understand the difference is to try them out yourself on a demo ride.

  • 26in. wheels: This used to be your only option for mountain biking, but these days, 26in. wheels are much less common. Pros: Generally seen as light, strong and quick to get moving or snap around corners. Cons: Don’t roll quite as easily over rocky, technical terrain.

  • 29in. wheels: 29ers changed the wheel game after decades of 26in. Pros: More solid traction since more of the tire touches the ground, great ability to power over obstacles like rocks sticking out or roots across the trail. Cons: Heaviest of all three sizes, a little less nimble to maneuver and to start rolling. If you’re short, 29ers might make the bike feel too high.

  • 27.5in. wheels: Also called 650b wheels, this size hit the scene after 29ers. Pros: Combine responsiveness with agility around corners and fast starts (and can roll over stuff better than the 26in.). Cons: Compared to 29ers, less of the wheel touches the ground which means less traction, and they don’t have quite as much ability to just plow over trail obstacles.

Essential gear for mountain biking

Once you’ve got the bike picked out, you’ll want to set aside some budget for a few essentials. If you buy your mountain bike from MEC, you save 10% off any accessories for that bike when you buy them at the same time. Most mountain bikes don’t come with pedals, so that’s something you’ll need, along with a bike helmet, a hydration pack and a few basic bike repair items. Check out what to wear mountain biking and the mountain biking gear checklist to learn more.

Looking after your bike

Mountain bikes get bashed around and see more mud than commuter or road bikes, so a bit of TLC is in order. New bikes have a break-in period, just like all new vehicles. After you’ve covered a few kilometres, it’s a good idea to bring it in for a quick basic tune-up.

We recommend bringing your mountain bike by for a quick check of the bolts and front and rear shocks after the first 40 hours of riding. Cables, housings, pads and calipers shift and stretch too, so our mechanics can take a look and adjust as needed.

“Know how to do some basic repairs on the trail, like adjusting components, or fixing a tire or chain.” – MEC staff tip

Preventative maintenance

To keep squeals and painful creaks away, learn to do some simple maintenance:

  • Clean your bike after every ride (or at the very least, after muddy ones). Grit and dirt wears down parts – get it outta there! Learn how to wash your bike.
  • Keep your chain clean and lubed, and have your tires pumped to the right psi before you ride.
  • Check your brakes before every ride. If the pads are worn down, bring them to an MEC bike shop for replacing or replace them yourself.
  • Know how to fix a flat tire and adjust your suspension.