Best women's mountain bike: how to choose the right bike for you

What type of bike, how much to spend and what to look out for

You've looked at the different women's bikes out there, and decided that off-road is the way to go. Welcome to the world of flat bars, suspension systems, dirt and knobbly tyres! 

Mountain bikes are perfect for exploring the off-road environment. You can either take them entirely into the wild, heading up mountains for all-day epic adventures, or keep it local, blasting around your local trail centre or bike park for a few hours' fun. No cars to worry about – unlike your road-cycling counterparts – just you, your bike and the trail in front of you. 

But first, you're going to need a mountain bike,  and that's where BikeRadar can help. This guide will help you narrow down what type of mountain bike you should go for, what you'll get for your money (and what you should avoid) and how to work out what size you'll need. 

For an in-depth look at the different types of mountain bike, and what to expect for your money, take a look at our mountain bike ultimate buyer's guide

Do I need a women's mountain bike? 

There are ever-increasing numbers of women's-specific mountain bikes available – everything from entry-level trail bikes through to race-ready enduro machines developed to take on big, brutal territory. Women's-specific bikes may designed specifically from the ground up to suit a female rider, with different geometry and componentry, or may be a unisex frame with female-friendly finishing kit such as saddle and narrower handlebars. 

There are still differences of opinion as to whether women need a different type of bike design for mountain biking to men. Some brands feel that, because of the physiological differences between men and women to do with height, power output and body proportions, designing the geometry of a bike to suit these is important.

Others feel that the differences are minimal as far as mountain biking – a sport where the rider is often standing up out of the saddle – goes, and that therefore the same bike design will suit both male and female riders. A few brands are taking a more sophisticated approach, designing some bikes with different geometry if the statistical information suggests it will make a critical difference to the machine's performance. 

A mountain bike gives you the opportunity to explore areas you can't reach on a road or hybrid bike. how's that for a view?:
A mountain bike gives you the opportunity to explore areas you can't reach on a road or hybrid bike. how's that for a view?:

A mountain bike gives you the opportunity to explore areas you can't reach on a road or hybrid bike. How's that for a view?

Whichever approach a bike brand takes, almost all of them will fit a women's-specific saddle, and others may tweak other elements of the bike. This can include a tune on the bike's suspension to suit lighter riders, narrower handlebars to complement narrower shoulders, and shorter crank arms, among others. Not all manufacturers will do all of these things, and it's worth noting that a bike fit service, offered by most bike shops, will help tweak the fit further to suit the rider, so long as the frame itself is the right size. 

Where a bike has been designed around 29in wheels, some brands – such as Trek – opt to fit smaller 27.5in wheels to their small and extra-small frame sizes. This can be for a number of reasons: to fit the smaller frame, to prevent toe overlap (where the front wheel catches the foot when turning) and to make life easier for smaller riders, who can find 29er wheels harder to manoeuvre. 

As with brands, so with riders – some find women's specific bikes fit them exceptionally well, while others find unisex bikes suit them perfectly. Therefore it's worth not ruling either out when you're looking for a new bike. Taller women may find a unisex bike works better for them; smaller women may appreciate the smaller sizing options and associated features of a female-specific option.

The best advice, as ever, is to take a few bikes for a decent test ride, and make a decision based on which feels best for you. 

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. 
  • Steer well 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 set of decent quality pedals 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. 

If you aren't worried about having the very latest model, you can score some serious savings by buying an older model. Many retailers will start to discount their bikes in the middle of the year, which means you could get in the region of 30 percent off. 

You can also save yourself some money by buying a second hand bike online, though there are pitfalls it pays to be aware of so you can avoid falling foul of them. 

•    How to buy a used or second-hand bike online. 

Full suspension or hardtail?

Most mountain bikes come with suspension, which helps the wheels to roll over obstacles and trail features, and to track the ground and maintain traction while ascending and descending. As the names suggests, hardtails only have suspension on the front of the bike, via a fork that allows movement of the front wheel, while full-suspension bikes have suspension front and rear with a 'shock' allowing the back wheel to also move over obstacles. 

There are a few things to consider when decided whether to go full-suspension or hardtail. First, the price as described above. Second, the type of riding you are planning on doing will have an impact: hardtails are ideal for most trail centres, bridleways and moderately technical trails and are also popular with cross-country riders. Full-suspension bikes, meanwhile, perform well on rougher, more technical trails and are better for all-mountain riding, enduro and downhill racing. 

The different types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top right) cross-country, downhill, enduro, trail hard-tail: the different types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top right) cross-country, downhill, enduro, trail hard-tail
The different types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top right) cross-country, downhill, enduro, trail hard-tail: the different types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top right) cross-country, downhill, enduro, trail hard-tail

Types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top left) hardtail trail bike, cross-country hardtail, downhill bike, enduro full-suspension bike

What type of mountain bike do I need?

There are four main types of mountain bike, each designed to suit a different purpose. 

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 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 mountain bikes, which have evolved as a result of the enduro race scene, are also 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. 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 (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 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. 

This isn't an exhaustive list – you can also find fat bikes, dirt jump bikes and single speeds. For a more detailed breakdown of the different types of mountain bikes have a look at our ultimate buyer's guide

Downhill mountain bikes have 200mm of travel front and read which allows racers like tracey hannah to ride through some incredibly steep and technical terrain: downhill mountain bikes have 200mm of travel front and read which allows racers like tracey hannah to ride through some incredibly steep and technical terrain
Downhill mountain bikes have 200mm of travel front and read which allows racers like tracey hannah to ride through some incredibly steep and technical terrain: downhill mountain bikes have 200mm of travel front and read which allows racers like tracey hannah to ride through some incredibly steep and technical terrain

Downhill bikes have 200mm travel front and rear, and are designed for hammering down steep, technical terrain

What size women's mountain bike do I need?

Women's mountain bikes, and mountain bikes in general, tend to use one of two sizing systems: either 'small, medium, large' etc or a measurement in inches: 13in, 15in or 17in. Brands will opt for one system or the other. Some (but not all) women's mountain bikes will have 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 or bike frame is of paramount importance. While small adjustments can be made, getting a bike that's too big or too small can result in a sore back, a bike that's difficult to handle, and potentially injury if it's ridden long term. No fun at all!

Popular women's mountain bikes

Specialized and Trek are two major brands whose bikes are ubiquitous on trails around the world. They both produce bikes covering the full spectrum of the market, from entry-level hardtails to high-end women's-specific trail bikes and enduro bikes. 

Liv is the women's-specific arm of global bike brand Giant. One of the longest established women's-specific bike manufacturers, it boasts champion cross-country mountain bikers on its race team. Liv produces a wide range of women's specific mountain bikes, with a focus on trail and XC. 

Juliana Bicycles is the sister company to California-based boutique brand Santa Cruz. The Juliana Roubion is one of the few women's-specific enduro bikes on the market, and is based on the popular Santa Cruz Bronson. 

There are many other smaller brands available regionally who will produce women's specific mountain bikes, such as Pinnacle and Voodoo in the UK. 

Women's mountain bike clothing

Once you've got your bike, you'll also want to get kitted up with the right clothing and protection. Helmets, glasses and gloves are a must, and many mountain bikers also wear knee pads, particularly for technical trails, steep terrain or racing. 

Trail and enduro riders tend to wear a pair of loose-fitting shorts over a pair of padded liner shots, plus a jersey. Cross-country riders will usually wear close-fitting Lycra shorts and jerseys, and downhill racers will have tough, durable shorts or trousers and a loose-fitting jersey to allow room for body armour underneath. 

There are now more brands than ever before catering to the female mountain biking market. Where the choice used to be limited, often badly fitting and with very feminine (read: flowers, pastel colours) aesthetics, you can now find pretty much any style you fancy, from earthy tones and natural fabrics to loud-as-you-like neon brights, and everything in between. 

Some of the main brands to look out for include Race Face, Fox, Maloja, Endura, Gore and Ion, all of which have extensive women's product lines, usually in a number of colourways. The growth in women's cycling has also seen a surge in new brands and startups catering to the market, often started by female mountain bikers themselves. Some notable examples include Flare Clothing Co, Findra, Shredly and DHaRCO.

Once you've taken the plunge and got yourself kitted out with your bike and accessories, it's time to get riding! Who knows, you may find yourself recognising the 10 signs you're a mountain biking addict before you know it. 

Aoife Glass

BikeRadar Women Contributor, UK
A mountain biker at heart, also drawn to the open road. Likes big long adventures in the mountains. Usually to be found in the Mendip Hills or the Somerset Levels in the UK. Passionate about women's cycling at all levels.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road
  • Preferred Terrain: Rocky, rough and a long way from anywhere.
  • Current Bikes: Liv Avail Advanced Pro 2015, Juliana Furtado 2013, Canyon Roadlite AL
  • Dream Bike: Juliana Roubion, Liv Avail Advanced SL
  • Beer of Choice: Red wine for the win!
  • Location: Weston Super Mare, Somerset, UK

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