What type of bike you ride is usually decided by where you plan on riding. Suspension type and wheel diameter are two key features that determine what type of terrain the bike is capable of riding. You have a wealth of options when it comes to types of suspension and wheel diameter (denoted by such terms as 26, 27.5 (650b), and 29ers).
Rigid: While not the most common type of mountain bike, “rigid” mountain bikes don’t feature any suspension. They are easy to maintain and usually less expensive, but most riders prefer bikes with suspension for greater comfort. Most fat bikes are rigid, and riders find that the wide tires and low tire pressure provide all the squish needed to absorb bumps in the trail.
Hardtail: These bikes have a suspension fork in the front to help absorb impact on the front wheel, but the rear of the bike has no suspension—ergo a hardtail. Hardtails are typically less expensive than full-suspension bikes, and have fewer moving parts (which often translates into less maintenance). Most hardtails have the ability to lock out the front fork for times where a fully rigid bike is desired.
Cross-country riders typically gravitate toward hardtails as they allow more direct transfer of power between the pedal stroke and the rear tire. Hardtails can also be at home on all-mountain trails, and the lower cost and easier maintenance make them a solid option for everything except serious lift-serviced downhill trails.
Full suspension: There are many variations of full-suspension bikes, but the general idea is for the front fork and rear shock to absorb the impacts of the trail. This drastically reduces the impact on the rider, increases traction, and makes for a more forgiving and enjoyable ride.
A full-suspension bike can soak up a lot of a trail bumps and chatter, but the bike can also “bob” a bit and you lose some of the energy transfer when climbing uphill. As a result, most full-suspension rigs have the ability to lock-out the rear suspension to offer better power transfer and more efficient climbing.
Bikes designed for downhill riding typically boast a lot of travel—the amount of movement in the suspension—compared to bikes designed for cross-country and all-mountain riding. As much as eight inches of travel front and rear is fairly common.
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