Get Into… Mountain Biking


21.08.19 at 12:13 pm

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There’s something about the woods and mountains that attract mountain bikers of all types. From lycra-clad XC whippets to enduro racing machines and downhill rippers there’s a discipline of mountain biking for everyone. Even though they all fall under the mountain biking umbrella, these three disciplines are all very different. Here’s everything you need to know to get into mountain biking.


Cross-Country (XC)

Cross-country, or XC, is the discipline most closely related to road cycling and is often used as an alternative form of winter training. XC riding is all about the climbs, times and pushing yourself physically. With longer rides of 30-50km, which may not sound like much to road cyclists but trust us, it’s a lot, XC is one for the endurance athletes.

In mountain biking terms, the trails tend to be a good mix of steep ramps and steady yet technical descents. Expect to find roots, rock gardens and punchy climbs that require physical fitness and supreme bike handling skills.



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XC equipment

XC bikes generally have 100mm of front suspension and no rear suspension. These are the most efficient bikes to take on the long climbs and flat sections that require a lot of pedalling. Some trails can be steeper and have more challenging downhill sections. On these trails, you’ll see XC riders on bikes with up to 120mm front travel and something similar for rear travel.

XC bike geometry is heavily influenced by road bikes. Expect to find steep head angles and near upright seat angles designed to keep you in the ideal position for climbing. Again, like road bikes, high-end XC bikes can be made from carbon fibre to keep the weight down, which is a high priority in the world of XC. The alternative is aluminium which might be cheaper but is nevertheless a resilient and efficient frame material.



If you’re a road cyclist looking to get into XC riding, there’s some good news: almost all of your current gear can be used for XC. Cross-country trails are full of lycra wearing riders spinning their way up the mountainside. Crashes are to be expected when beginning though, so make sure you’re ok with whatever gear you’re wearing hitting the dirt.

Speaking of hitting the dirt, helmets are absolutely essential in mountain biking, and another thing that XC borrows from its tarmac riding cousin is the helmet choice. Ventilation and keeping the weight down are some of the most important factors here. Experienced XC riders ride without kneepads as they will rarely crash, but it might be worth investing in some lightweight armour if you’re new to the sport. A good pair of kneepads should provide good protection while still allowing you to pedal freely.


Enduro encompasses a number of disciplines, by and large, a combination of trail and all-mountain riding. In a nutshell, enduro riders are mountain bikers who slog their way to the top of a trail to race down in the most fun or fastest way possible. You’ll see groups of enduro riders chatting as they plod their way up gravel road climbs saving their energy and competitiveness for the downhill. It is a great choice for riders looking for a social and exhilarating ride in the woods.

Enduro trails are bigger than XC trails in every regard. Root sections are gnarlier and more blown out, while rock gardens try their best to tear apart your tires. You’ll also find more flow trails in enduro riding. These trails are smoother and feature jumps, drops, berms and pump track-like sections.


Enduro equipment

Almost every enduro rider uses a full-suspension bike. A typical setup will have 140mm of front and rear travel, which makes them lively and responsive. On the other end of the spectrum are the monster bikes with 180mm travel front and rear. These bikes are made to plough through any terrain. Point one of these bikes downhill, hang off the back and let it do the dirty work for you.

Enduro bikes differ from XC bikes in that they have a slacker geometry, striking a balance between being good at climbing and very capable on the descents. Bikes with shorter travel tend to be better at going up than those with 180mm of travel.



Stylistically, XC riders and enduro riders are totally different beasts. Nobody hitting jumps on a double black jump trail will be wearing lycra. Instead, these riders prefer a technical t-shirt rather than a jersey and wear knee-length shorts instead of bib shorts. Gloves are also usually worn to make sure you have a good grip on the handlebars when things get sweaty.

Enduro riders wear either full-face or open-face helmets depending on the ride they’re on. Open-face helmets are much cooler than the full-face variety and are lighter as well, though the latter offer much more protection which you’ll be glad of if you ever end up going over the bars. If you plan on taking part in some enduro races you will most likely be required to wear a full-face helmet. The type of kneepads used is also up to the rider. Lightweight pads are best suited for trails with lots of climbing and more manageable downhills, while heavy-duty pads are best for the tougher trails, made from either a hard plastic shell or D30 which hardens upon impact.


Read our guide on the best mountain biking destinations in Europe here


Downhill (DH)


Downhill riders like to think of themselves as the rockstars of mountain biking. Instead of grinding out climbs they jump onto a chairlift or into a pickup truck and catch a ride to the top. To call DH riders cyclists is probably a bit of a push. These riders only need to take a few powerful pedal strokes and let gravity do the rest of the work.

Downhill trails can sometimes be hard to believe. It’s a wonder they’re rideable at all with their steep, technical routes that are near vertical in parts and flow trails with mandatory gap jumps that send riders through the air. But don’t let this put you off; not all DH trails are extreme, there are plenty of options out there for beginners as well.


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DH equipment

Downhill bikes are made to go in one direction and one direction only: down! These bikes have 200mm of front and rear travel and feature triple-crown forks – the type that extend right up to the handlebars. Downhill bikes are ridden hard across rough terrain, that’s why they have the thickest, stiffest forks on the market.

Downhill bikes also have the slackest geometry of all mountain bikes. They’re designed for minimal pedalling and these bikes are actually most comfortable when on a downward angle. The seatposts are often slammed and out of the way to allow you to move your bodyweight backwards for better control.



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Downhill riders wear similar gear to enduro riders but don’t be surprised to see people in flannel shirts either. Since the hassle of pedalling is essentially removed, downhill riders prefer comfort and style over technical clothing.

When it comes to protection, however, technology becomes very important. Downhill riders go faster, jump higher and ride more difficult trails than any other discipline. This is why helmets and pads are of utmost importance. Downhill riders must wear full-face helmets, this is non-negotiable. The level of protection they give is unparalleled. All downhill riders also wear kneepads and goggles with some opting for elbow pads, body armour and a neck brace as well.



Now that you have all the info you need to know to get into mountain biking, it’s time to hit the trails. Make sure you’re covered for off-road riding in the UK and Europe with our Performance Bicycle Insurance, our policy for the enthusiastic cyclist.




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