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

Mountain bikes are designed for discovering the off-road environment. You can take them entirely into the wild, head up mountains for epic adventures, or keep it local, blasting around your local trails or bike park for a few hours' of fun. No cars to worry about — unlike your road-cycling counterparts — just you, your bike and the trail in front of you. 

Our buyer's guide to women's mountain bikes will help you work out what mountain bike is best for the type of riding you want to do, what you’ll get or your money, and what features to look out for.

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.

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?

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 and a suspension fork at the front, while full-suspension bikes have suspension forks plus a rear ‘shock’, which allows the back wheel to move more easily over obstacles, and absorb bumps.

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 and moderately technical terrain.

The different types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top right) cross-country, downhill, enduro, trail hardtail
The different types of mountain bike (clockwise, starting top right) cross-country, downhill, enduro, trail hardtail

Cross-country (or XC) mountain bikes

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 over long distances, above all else.

Trail mountain bikes

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

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 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

Downhill mountain bikes are designed to do one thing extremely well — and 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 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.

Downhill mountain bikes have 200mm of travel front and rear, which allows racers like Tracey Hannah to ride through some incredibly steep and technical terrain
Downhill mountain bikes have 200mm of travel front and rear, which allows racers like Tracey Hannah to ride through some incredibly steep and technical terrain

How much should I spend?

Budget is often one of the biggest factors when it comes to deciding which mountain bike to buy. While mountain bike prices go well north of $8,000, you can get a perfectly decent bike for a fraction of that cost. There are, however, a few things you should look out for:

  • Brakes: 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. 
  • Suspension: We'd recommend steering clear of full-suspension bikes below $1,500, 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 $2,000 mark. 
  • Additional gear: 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 have them already. 

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 $500 — Alloy frame and steel-forked rigid bike (no suspension) or hardtail. Around 18 gears with a triple crankset and V-brakes. 
  • $600 to $900 — 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. 
  • $1,000 to $1,500 — Alloy frame hardtails 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. 
  • $2,000 to $3,500 — 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.
  • $3,500 to $5,000 — 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 drivetrain, 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. 
  • $5,000 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.

Most women's mountain bikes will have suspension tuned to suit lighter riders
Most women's mountain bikes will have suspension tuned to suit lighter riders

How to get a bargain bike

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, but there are pitfall it to be aware of so you can avoid falling foul of them. 

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

Check out the best women's mountain bikes reviewed by BikeRadar

We've tested many of the best women's mountain bikes on the market.

Check out our women's Bike of the Year Awards to find which bikes we rated highly in our head-to-head test.

Liv bikes produces frames with women's specific geometry rather than unisex frames
Liv bikes produces frames with women's specific geometry rather than unisex frames

What's up with women's mountain bikes?

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 that 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 is that 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.

Almost all women's specific bikes will come with a women's specific saddle
Almost all women's specific bikes will come with a women's specific saddle

Do you need a women’s specific bike? This is entirely dependent on you. Some brands feel the physiological differences between men and women, typically regarding height, weight, power output, and arm and leg proportions, are enough to warrant designing a unique women's bike geometry.

Other brands feel that the differences are inconsequential as far as mountain biking goes — where the rider is often standing up out of the saddle – and therefore the same bike frame can suit both male and female riders. 

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.

The best way to find out what works for you is to head down to your local bike shop and take a few bikes out for a test ride.

Popular women's mountain bikes

There are many brands of mountain bikes and most of them offer women’s versions. The three biggest are Trek, Giant (Liv) and Specialized, and their bikes can be found on trails worldwide. They all produce a huge range of mountain bikes from entry-level hardtails to high-end women's-specific trail and enduro bikes.

Boutique mountain bike brands are available as well, including Juliana and Beti, sister companies to Santa Cruz and Yeti respectively.

Women's mountain bike clothing

Having the right gear and clothing makes riding your mountain bike a lot better. A helmet is obvious, as are shorts with a chamois, which is padding where your butt hits the seat. Other often considered necessities are gloves, sunglasses, and many mountain bikers also wear knee pads, particularly when on technical trails.

Trail and enduro riders commonly wear baggie shorts over padded liner shorts. Cross-country riders can be found in snug Lycra shorts and jerseys, while downhill racers prefer tough, durable shorts or trousers and a loose-fitting jersey to allow room for body armour underneath.

The good news is there are now more choices than ever, and there are plenty of brands moving away from the cliched feminine style (read: flowers, pastel colours) and bringing out designs to cater to practically every rider’s taste and colour preferences, but also fit the female form.

There are even a few Australian and Kiwi brands making rad women's kits, check out the gear from DHaRCO and Mons Royale.

Whatever bike and gear you choose, the most important part of mountain biking is riding! Get out there, get muddy and have fun! Before long you may find yourself recognising the 10 signs you're a mountain biking addict.

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