Congratulations! Welcome to the world of suspension, knobby tires and fun on dirt! It’s a wonderful place; the bikes and gear that occupy it are better and more capable than ever.
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Mountain bikes are super versatile, you can either take them practically anywhere, heading out to the woods to convene with nature, or keep it close by, learning how to smoothly hop a curb in front of your home.
Whether you're blasting around your local trailhead or bike park for a few hours of fun or rolling downtown to meet some friends, mountain bikes can truly do it all.
Wondering how to get started? That's where BikeRadar helps. This guide will help you focus in on what type of mountain bike is best for you, how to maximize your money (and what to watch out for) and what size of bike you'll need.
For even more specifics on the various types of mountain bikes, including the reason the prices are so disparate, take a look at BikeRadar’smountain bike ultimate buyer's guide.
- Best mountain bike: how to choose the right one for you
- Best women's bikes: A buyer's guide to find what you need
We've reviewed some of the best
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.
- Canyon Spectral WMN AL 8.0 EX wins Women's Trail Bike of the Year: Impressive all-round trail handling and value for money is an unbeatable package
- Specialized Women's Camber Comp Carbon: Climb-loving carbon trail bike with cross-country efficiency
- Liv Pique Advanced 2: Fast, fun, efficient and surprisingly capable given the unusual geometry
- Trek Fuel EX 8.0 Women's 29er: A fast-rolling, smooth-riding, trail-eating 29er
- Cube Sting WLS 140 SL: A playful, agile and fun bike for hitting your local trails
Whatever bike and gear you choose, the most important part of mountain biking is riding! Get out there, have fun, and take chances! Before long you may find yourself recognizing the 10 signs you're a mountain biking addict.
Full suspension or hardtail?
Mountain bikes and suspension together are a very good thing.
Suspension smooths the ride and helps the wheels roll over rocks and roots, as well as maintain traction while climbing and cornering.
Hardtail bikes only have suspension on the front of the bike, it’s called a suspension fork and it provides travel for the front wheel.
Full-suspension bikes have suspension front and rear with a 'shock' allowing the back wheel to also move over obstacles and absorb bumps.
Figuring out whether to get a full-suspension or hardtail can be tricky, but doesn't have to be.
The type of riding you plan on doing plays a role: hardtails are adequate for most riding including moderately technical trails and are also popular with cross-country riders looking for the lightest weight bike.
Full-suspension bikes, meanwhile, perform well everywhere, especially on rougher, more technical trails and are better for almost all types of riding and racing, both uphill and down.
Many include suspension lockouts so they can actually ride on roads similar to a hardtail. The downside is price though, full-squish bikes cost more since the frames are more complex and they have two suspension components (the front fork and rear shock).
What type of mountain bike do I need?
Mountain bikes can be broken down into four basic groups. Each style has its benefits and negatives.
Cross-country (or XC)
Cross-country (or XC) mountain bikes are designed for the least rough type of riding. They focus on off-road speed, and typically are comprised of a light, stiff frame and fast-rolling tires.
Hardtails are a bit more popular but full-suspension rigs can be found, 29er wheels are common, and most have 100 to 120mm of travel of suspension. XC bikes are built for riders who like to go fast, for long distances, above all else.
Trail bikes are extremely popular due to their do-it-all nature. Suspension travel is usually in the range of 130-150mm, which lends more capability in rough terrain. The handling is a bit more stable, allowing more confidence, especially on the descents.
Modern trail bikes climb very well, with loads of traction from both the rear suspension and the knobbier (than XC) tires. Both 29in or 27.5in (also known as 650b) wheel sizes are common. Full-suspension is more seen but hardtail trail bikes do exist.
While they concede a bit of all-out speed on smooth terrain, trail bikes strike a happy medium on most trails.
Enduro mountain bikes
Enduro mountain bikes are like trail bikes but with a much heavier focus on downhill performance. They are popular particularly with riders who climb only to go all out of the descents.
Enduro racing puts the stopwatch on only the descents, but riders have to pedal the uphill liaison sections to get to the next stage. Enduro bikes are usually full-suspension, have more durable components and are longer travel than a trail bike — around 160-170mm. Both 27.5in and 29in wheel versions exist, although 27.5in is more common.
This type of bike is ideal for riders who like charging technical terrain with gravity’s assist yet still have to pedal to the top.
Downhill mountain bikes
Downhill mountain bikes are just as the name implies — bikes that go downhill very, very well. They often feature up to 200mm of travel front and rear, and an exaggerated riding position useful for high-speed stability and to smash down the steepest tracks.
It goes without saying, but due to their weight and very specific riding position, they aren't good at climbing. When a chairlift or shuttle vehicle isn’t involved, most downhillers push back up to the top of a track.
While being the most niche of mountain bikes there’s no denying that downhill bikes on the right terrain are insanely fun. Women's-specific downhill bikes are rare, although some brands produce smaller sizes to suit more petite riders.
While this covers the bulk of mountain bikes there are still more, including: fat bikes, dirt jump bikes and single speeds. For an even more detailed breakdown of mountain bikes check out our ultimate buyer's guide.
What kind of money are we talking about?
As with everything, budget plays a huge role in deciding which mountain bike to get. On the elite end of things, bikes can soar well above $7,000, but for a fraction of that you can get a decent, trail-worthy machine. These are some things to pay attention to:
- Brakes: look for disc brakes (located down by the center of the wheel) rather than rim brakes (found up by the tire), ask if they’re mechanical or hydraulic, which typically have more power and work better
- Suspension: If buying new, shy away from full-suspension bikes below $1,000, as they are unlikely to be effective and efficient. Look for a hardtail (a bike with only front suspension) at this level. Quality full-suspension bikes start around $1,500.
- Additional gear: Remember to save some cash for gear and clothes. Ironically, mountain bikes above a certain price point won't come with pedals (the thinking is it’s a personal preference sort of thing), so reserve some money to get a set of quality pedals. They will make a huge difference to your ride. Don’t forget a helmet, cycling shorts and maybe gloves or sunglasses if you don't already have them.
For a detailed breakdown on how far your money should go, check out BikeRadar’s mountain bike ultimate buyers guide. Here’s a quick overview:
- Under $500 — Alloy frame hardtail and steel-forked rigid bike or low-end suspension fork. Around 18 gears with a three chainring crankset, and rim brakes, not disc brakes.
- $500 to $1,000 — Alloy frame hardtail with around 100mm travel on forks, 21 to 24 gears with a two or three-ring crankset, and either hydraulic or mechanical disc brakes.
- $1,000 to $1,500 — Alloy frame hardtail, with better quality suspension forks by brands such as RockShox, Manitou and Suntour. Often have two-ring cranksets giving a huge range of 18 to 20 gears, using SRAM X5, Shimano Deore or equivalent.
- $1,500 to $2,500 — Full-suspension trail bikes, with around 120mm travel front and rear, 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 and Fox, and 10- or 11-speed gearing, thru-axle hubs for stiffness, either with a double or single chainring crankset.
- $2,500 to $4,000 — Full-suspension or XC-racing hardtails, high-grade alloy or carbon frame with quality suspension components from Fox and RockShox. 10- or 11-speed drivetrains, lighter wheels, quality tires designed for tubeless (which are less puncture prone and can be run at lower pressures for more grip), and more suspension travel options up to 150mm.
- $4,000 upwards — Full-suspension or high-end custom hardtails, high-quality alloy or carbon 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, carbon cranks, bars, and even wheels at higher price levels.
It pays to shop around as you can score some serious savings by buying a previous year model, sometimes the change is only color, most times the specs will change. Many retailers discount their bikes to make room for the newest models, which means you could get on the trails for less.
Of course, buying a used bike online is an option, this is where it pays to know what you’re looking for and what pitfalls to avoid.
What's up with women's mountain bikes?
Women's-specific mountain bikes abound — covering all riding styles, from entry-level cross-country bikes to race-ready enduro machines developed to take on long, technical descents.
Women's-specific bikes may be designed specifically to suit a female rider, with unique geometry and components, or may be a unisex frame with a female-focused parts kit consisting of a different saddle, smaller grips, narrower handlebars and softer sprung suspension.
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 — where the rider is often standing up out of the saddle — goes, and therefore the same bike frame can suit both male and female riders.
Whichever approach a bike brand goes for, bikes targeted for women will have a women's-specific saddle, and other ladies-specific spec on the bike. This can include a suspension tune to suit lighter riders, narrower handlebars for narrower shoulders, small diameter grips for smaller hands, and shorter crank arms to help increase cadence, among others. Even with women's specific parts, a bike fitting service, offered by most bike shops, can do wonders in achieving a comfortable, easy-to-ride machine.
Bike brands have also begun to tailor the wheel size to the frame size, meaning larger frame sizes roll on 29-inch wheels and smaller frame sizes have 27.5-inch hoops. This can be for a number of reasons: improve the fit of the bike, deliver better performance, and make riding and handling easier for smaller riders, who can find big 29er wheels a challenge due to their size.
It's definitely worth keeping in mind that not all women automatically fit and ride better on women's specific bikes. It's worth checking out both women's and unisex bikes when you're looking for a new bike. Smaller women may appreciate the smaller sizing options and associated features of a female-specific option.
The proof is in the riding so take as many bikes as you can on test rides, or even better, a weekend demo. And remember, make your decision based on which feels best for you and makes you want to go ride!
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 to 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.
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, 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 bikes and enduro bikes.
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 you 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 armor underneath.
The good news is there are now more choices than ever, with women-led brands moving away from the cliche feminine style (read: flowers, pastel colors) and bringing out designs to cater to practically every rider’s taste and color preferences.
Want more? Check out BikeRadar Women for news, product reviews, kit ideas, interviews, advice, tips, inspiration and more!