The great thing about mountain biking is it offers loads of choice. This guide explains simply these different disciplines, the types of trails, and the bikes and kit used for each.
Cross Country (XC) / Trail Riding
This discipline is on either natural trails or more common these days on custom made and carved out trail centres. Often the starting point for many in their mountain bike journey it is characterised by long climbs where typically riders traverse up like a snake left to right up the side of a mountain to the top and then go down again across large berms ( big smooth wider banked corners) through rock gardens terrain up and short steep runs.
The terrain can be dusty and hard-packed, rooty, rocky, gravel based, muddy, and so on. The activity is often carried out for a few hours and away from roads and built-up areas where you will take supplies for your nutrition, hydration, and bike care with you. You need a helmet and gloves.
XC riders historically start on a hardtail and move on to a more forgiving full suspension bike. These days I feel you can start with either as your skills progression can occur with both. They just each offer a different style to the ride. Both have a sturdy light frame which is generally a bulky aluminum material which is lightweight yet strong.
They have knobbly tyres for grip and these days disc brakes are common place for strong stopping power but with good mud clearance. V brakes are still around and do the job fine when you are starting out. The XC bikes are designed for climbing and quick response over let’s say going downhill with loads of stability (like an all-mountain or downhill bike). they are very light and the travel varies from 2.5 to 4 inches.
Trail bikes are more recreational than the XC racing whippet cousin and they have evolved from XC yet have a bit more travel (5 – 6 inches) with a slight slacker geometry than XC to aid descending at the expense of speed.
The trail centers work on a color grading scheme from green through to black or double black. Green is really a family ride generally on fire roads or bridleways with no obstructions and are pretty smooth. Blue means everything is rollable ie no drops, gaps, or rocks to get through or over. Some have rollers to roll over and big berms to ride around so don’t assume you won’t get that grin.
You just won’t encounter technical element is to throw you off. It is a great place for beginners to start to get a feel and build up those mountain biking muscles. Red means more technical riding for intermediate riders. Expect rock gardens, roots, small drops and sharper corners. Black means a much more physically demanding ride as well as bigger drops, gaps and obstacles you will have to commit to and are for expert riders only.
Enduro/ All Mountain
This is really the same as trail riding except it is more technical with trails interspersed with jumps and bigger drops. So these riders are more likely to ride black trails and then play on the skills park (often found) at the bottom of a trail centre ie they mix it up a bit. These riders generally ride bikes with more kick ie more rear suspension and front travel (5 – 7 inches) and wider tyres.
The bikes are burlier than Xc bikes and are designed to be ridden up and take steep descents and deal with anything the mountain throws at you (hence the term). Expect to see them with additional body armour like knee and ankle body protection.
This discipline generally involves being driven to the top of a trail (i.e. an uplift service) or the rider walks up. Then there is a fast descent that is more straight down than the side to side traversing you find in trail riding. The drops are bigger and generally demand commitment. Maintaining high speed is a big component of these trails whilst getting over rocks, gaps and jumps.
A downhill bike has a more sloping top tube designed to be ridden downhill only, has chunkier tyres for grip, big rotors in the disc brakes for powerful stopping power and lots of travel i.e. 7-9 inches. they have fewer gears as they are not ridden uphill and more clearance to get over obstacles/ Expect riders to wear more body protection like full-face helmets, eye googles and chest and backplates.
Dirt jumping involves riding at a dirt park with dirt jumps which are often steep and can easily be higher than your average person. These parks often have lines of dirt jumps each at differing levels. Here the discipline is focussed on riding at speed to a jump to get air and then land. Developing tricks eg tail whips, superman, x ups and so on are commonplace.
he bikes are a cross between a BMX bike and a freeride bike. Maybe 4 to 6 inches suspension, no rear suspension, up to nine gears if any and super strong or as few as one Slope style is like dirt jumping gone large. It’s what you see in the mountain bike DVD and has folk jumping crazy heights and distances.
4X (Four Cross)
The 4X is where four riders race on a BMX style track with corners and rollers in a circuit with a downhill slops. These bikes are generally either full suspension with 3 to 4 inches (76 to 100 mm) of travel, or hardtails, and have, typically, quite strong frames. They run a chainguide on the front and gears on the back. They have slack head angles, short chainstays and low bottom brackets to aid in cornering and acceleration.
Trials riders focus on balance and can ride at low speed. Tricks are the name of the game but they use the environment around them as their playground rather than needing their own park. So it could be railings, walls boulders, bridges and so on. Their bikes are made to only ever be ridden standing and as such The bikes have no real saddle to speak off. They either have 26″ wheels or 20″ wheels, no suspension, super light and minimal if any gears.
Freeride / Shore
These folk again focus on balance and ride skinny ladders and wood beams whilst taking big drops. The bikes are similar to downhill bikes, but with less emphasis on weight and more on strength (tougher componetry). They have at least 7 inches of travel. Although they can be ridden uphill, this is hard and are made more for downhill. Their frame design makes them very flexible so they can maneuverability over and around small objects. Shore specific rider need to get up skinny ladders so the frame design is a bit lighter and more nimble than a pure Freeride bike.
A pump track is made of continuous rollers and berms that enables the rider to maintain momentum Without having to pedal on flat ground. It is a progressive environment designed for first pumping, then manualing, and then jumping. Bikes are hardtail based.
That’s it I reckon although the sport is developing so fast there will be another discipline within a year for sure. It’s common for riders to move from one discipline to the other and often to do multiple types. Many folk start with trail riding or cross country riding or get into it via a transition from BMX to dirt or 4x riding.
Most downhill riders are keen enduro trail riders in the winter months and so on. I’ve often compare the different disciplines to tribes but as I’ve said it is a friendly sport and you can start anywhere and move across. The only tribe is the tribe of one. You! Do what feels right.
I’m Matt Jacobs and I’ve been getting a charge out of the untamed life and global exploration for whatever period of time that I can remember. I like going outdoors, climbing, and hiking at whatever point I can. What’s more, I appreciate living in the aroma of adventure and seeing the wonders which this world has to offer!