Hardtail or full suss? Steel or carbon frame? We take a spin through your big mountain bike questions

Climb (and descend) every mountain in style with help from our mountain bike buying advice

Man riding gravel bike in a hilly landscape
(Image credit: Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash)

Getting the best mountain bike can be a tricky task. It's not just about how much you have to spend – there are some very capable models in our best mountain bike under £500/$500 guide, after all – but also what you intend to do on your new bike. That said, it's always a good idea to go for the best bike you can afford; it will mean you get a more reliable, better machine that you'll get more pleasure out of riding. 

Here, we answer some of the big questions you might have when looking for a new mountain bike. And if you're not quite sure if it's even the type of bike you're after, you might want to consult our mountain bike vs road bike explainer first.

Hardtail vs full-suss: how how much suspension do I need on my mountain bike? 

The most obvious difference between mountain bikes is invariably whether they have suspension or not. You can go all the way from no suspension at all to a bike with front suspension forks (a 'hardtail') to full suspension (a 'full susser'), offering bounce both front and rear.

The more suspension you have the more your bike is likely to cost. But do you really need it? If your bike will never hit anything other than your local canal towpath or easy forest fire trails, probably not; if you plan to do more committed cross-country riding on bridleways and easier trail centre routes then a decent hardtail bike may suffice; and for anything more challenging, such as red and black runs at your local trail centre, enduro riding and serious downhills, you'll need full suspension.

You can get a perfectly acceptable mountain bike without any suspension for £400, and add another £100 and you'll find some very acceptable hardtail bikes; for ‘full sussers' look at an entry point of around £1500, from where the sky is pretty much the limit in terms of how much you spend.

Suspension type can also vary enormously – air-sprung, coil sprung, oil dampened and so on – and the more you pay the more settings and adjustments you'll get, allowing you to set your bike up more efficiently for different riding styles and terrain. Look for established brands like Fox Racing, RockShox and DT Swiss.

Stop that! What are the best mountain bike brakes?

All modern mountain bikes come with disc brakes, which are far more efficient than the old- style calliper and ‘V' brakes. Cheaper bikes will have mechanical (i.e. cable activated) brake systems, whilst hydraulic systems, which generally perform better and are easier to set up, are standard if you spend a bit more. The main players are Shimano and Sram, both of whom manufacture a wide range of brakes to suit all budgets.

Front disc brake on a mountain bike

Front disc brake

(Image credit: Dorothy Castillo on Pexels)

What kind of wheel is best for mountain biking? 

There are two main sizes of mountain bike wheels, 29" and 27.5". Larger wheels roll over obstacles better and tend to have better traction while smaller wheels offer better manoeuvrability and acceleration and are lighter.

As for tyres, there's an almost infinite variety of tread patterns to suit all types of terrain, but plain common sense will determine what rubber you ride on – there's no point shoeing your bike with aggressive, super-knobbly downhill tyres for riding gentle, flat forest trails and likewise the smoother, narrower tyres suited to easier recreational riding will be lethal on rocky, loose and slippery single track. 

What's the best material for a mountain bike frame? 

Steel and aluminium frames tend to be cheaper. Carbon and titanium frames are more expensive but are lighter and, particularly in the case of titanium, rust-proof and robust.

You'll find that mountain bike handlebars are wider than those of road bikes as this provides better control on rough ground. 

Should I add a dropper post to my mountain bike? 

A dropper post allows you to remotely lower or raise your saddle height via a lever on the handlebars, which is really useful on steep, technical descents; by lowering the saddle you can perch lower on the bike and reduce the risk of flying over the bars as well as being in a more dynamic riding position for navigating tricky, steep terrain.

What gear system do mountain bikes have?

The days of 27-speed mountain bikes with three chainrings on the front and an associated front derailleur and handlebar shifter are long gone; other than budget models most mountain bikes these days come with a single front chainring and an 11-speed rear cassette. This system is more efficient, lighter, offers much the same gear range as the old system and with just one gear shifter on the right side of the handlebars there's less to go wrong.

Flats vs clips: what's the best pedal type? 

New mountain bikes either come with cheap plastic pedals or without any pedals at all, the latter allowing you to choose your own. There should be raised pins on the pedals which give your feet a better grip when bouncing across rough ground, although more experienced cross-country riders often use clipless pedals. These literally attach the rider's feet to the pedal via cleats on the bottom of their cycling shoes. if you're a novice rider you probably won't want to be using these just yet as there's a skill involved in clipping and unclipping – get it wrong and it invariably results in a wipeout.

And finally, there's the colour of your new bike – only joking, although you'll find that frame colours change every season and if you're happy to go for last season's colour you can often get a good deal on a bike which in virtually every other respect is the same as this season's model.

Alf Alderson
Alf Alderson

Alf Alderson is a freelance adventure travel journalist and an 'ambassador' for the ski resort of Les Arcs.