Mountain bike styles explained

Guide to cross-country, trail, enduro, downhill and dirt jump bikes

Mountain biking is brilliant fun because of the huge variety of riding and terrain most mountain bikes can tackle. What makes a bike ideal for a 100km epic cross-country ride or a circuit race is radically different to what’s best for super challenging back woods trails or full-on downhill courses though.

That means there’s a whole range of exciting but potentially confusing types of MTB to choose between. Don’t worry though, our experts can guide you through all the options and help you choose the perfect mountain bike for your riding. 


Cross-country (XC) bikes make up the vast majority of more affordable machines up to £750 but also include Olympic gold medal winners that are 10 times that price. They’re designed to be efficient and easy to pedal so expect fast rolling tyres and relatively lightweight frames and components. You’ll often find 29in wheels on more expensive XC bikes for a smoother, more speed sustaining ride too.

They'll have around 80 to 120mm of front and/or rear suspension movement to absorb occasional rocks and roots on your local trails. It also increases grip and improves comfort so you can go faster, for longer with more control. That makes XC bikes great whether you want to get places fast, fancy doing a race or challenge event or if your fitness levels just need a boost from your bike.

Voodoo Bizango 29er XC bike


Trail bikes blend the easy speed of ‘cross-country’ bikes with the tackle anything technology of ‘enduro’ machines. Up to £1,000, you’re generally best sticking with a front suspension only ‘hardtail’, but from £1,000 upwards it’s worth thinking about front and rear ‘full suspension’ for the extra control and comfort it adds. If we’re talking numbers, suspension travel ranges from 120 to 160mm, head angles should be 69 degrees or less, stems 90mm or shorter and bar widths 700mm or wider.

Look for 650b or 29er wheels, held in place with 15mm front and 12mm rear axles for extra security and stiffness. More aggressive trail bikes will have some features of enduro rigs but they should still be light and pedal well enough to make climbing comfortable and cross-country riding fun. This makes them the ultimate ‘have a go hero’ mountain bike that’ll let you tackle any trail or challenge.

Boardman pro fs 650b:
Boardman pro fs 650b:

Boardman Pro FS 650 trail bike


Enduro bikes are basically full suspension trail bikes with extra aggro attitude. Suspension travel is typically longer at 140 to 170mm, bars wider (750mm) and stems can be as short as 30mm. Slack 67 degree or less head angles give power assisted style steering and frames are lowered for high speed cornering stability. Telescopic ‘dropper’ seatposts let you throw your weight around when things get wild and chainguides keep your power hooked up on the roughest trails. The latest 650b wheel size works really well for enduro but there are really good 26 and 29in wheel bikes too.

These features let you ride and race the maddest courses from trail centre black runs to off piste Alpine terrain in total confidence.‘Trail’ style air suspension and other tough but light kit means they’re responsive enough to be a riot on normal trails. They can still be pedalled back uphill if you’re patient too. This level of technology doesn't come cheap though, so expect to spend £2,000-plus for even a basic enduro machine. It’s a cost well worth paying if you want to pack the most gravity assisted, go-anywhere fun into any ride.

Santa cruz nomad all-mountain/enduro bike:
Santa cruz nomad all-mountain/enduro bike:

The new Santa Cruz Nomad enduro/all-mountain bike


Downhill (DH) bikes are the most specialised mountain bikes of all. Their super slack steering (65 degree head angle or less), long and low stance and massive sticky compound tyres can tame the steepest, fastest courses. Huge amounts of suspension (180 to 220mm) via motorbike style, extended leg ‘triple crown’ forks and metal coil spring rear shocks can swallow the biggest drops and rocks at insane speeds.

Their bomber-strong frames and components make them seriously heavy though, and there are no climbing gears. That means you’ll need to push back to the top if there’s no ski lift or uplift truck to help. Specialist high performance components essential to extreme trail survival also means prices start around £3,000. That’s why only true freefall freaks need a full-on DH rig… but the only limit to what they can do on a downhill is you.

Mondraker summum downhill bike:
Mondraker summum downhill bike:

Mondraker Summum downhill bike

Dirt jump

Dirt jump bikes are basically big BMX bikes made for the biggest, maddest airborne acrobatics in carefully sculpted jump parks. Slopestyle bikes add a bit of rear suspension for harder landings on mental mountainside freestyle courses. Either way maximum strength rules with many bikes only using a single gear and one brake for crashproof simplicity. It’s probably best if you take your brain out before you try to backflip one too.

NS bike metropoli 1 dirt jump bike:
NS bike metropoli 1 dirt jump bike:

NS Metropolis 1 dirt jump bike

Guy Kesteven

Freelance Writer, UK
Guy started filling his brain with cycle stats and steaming up bike shop windows back in 1980. He worked the other side of those windows from '89 while getting a degree in “describing broken things covered in mud" (archaeology). Dug historical holes in the ground through the early '90s, then became a pro bike tester in '97. Guy has ridden thousands of bikes and even more components the world over since then and can remember them all in vivid, haunting detail. Can't remember where the car keys are, though.
  • Discipline: Strict sadomasochist
  • Preferred Terrain: Technical off-piste singletrack and twisted back roads. Up, down, along — so long as it's faster than the last time he did it he's happy.
  • Current Bikes: An ever changing herd of test machines from Tri bikes to fat bikes and everything in between.
  • Dream Bike: His Nicolai Helius AM custom tandem
  • Beer of Choice: Theakston's Old Peculier (not Peculiar)
  • Location: Yorkshire, UK
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