Mountain bikes: choosing the right amount of travel

Choosing a mountain bike can be difficult, especially when it comes to the varied options of suspension travel you can get now.  Travel can range from 80 to 220mm, and you can get specific amounts such as 154, so how do you know what’s right for you?

Suspension travel is the measurable distance your frame can compress at either your fork or your shock.  At your fork, the length of compression is the length of your stanchions, the upper half of your fork.  At your shock, the stroke length is determined by the leverage ratio of the frame, with the rear wheel generally moving vertically about two centimetres for every centimetre of rear suspension compression.  

The general rule is that the move travel you have, the harder it is to pedal.  If you love going for long rides through the bush, a big burly downhill bike with 200mm of travel is not the ideal bike for you.  Whilst it does depend slightly on the linkage system employed by your specific bike brand, it’s a good starting point to obey that general rule.  Based on their suspension, bikes fall into four categories: XC, Trail, Enduro, and Downhill.

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The differences between four categories of mountain bikes.

XC (80-120mm)

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XC stands for cross country, and this is for the riders out there who love nothing better than to slap on some lycra and pedal up the biggest mountain they can find.  These bikes are designed for optimal pedaling efficiency, meaning they have smaller and lighter suspension.  Whilst these bikes are great for climbing and long distance, they do limit your ability to descend, so if you like to go up and down, the next category may be a better option for you.

Trail (120-150mm)

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Trail bikes are often sold as the ‘do it all’ bikes of the mountain biking world, and whilst they are generally extremely capable bikes, if you imagine a spectrum of the perfect climbing bike all the way to the ultimate descending machine, trail bikes would sit more toward the climbing end.  The category names are pretty accurate, and these bikes are designed for exactly what the name suggests: whatever the trail throws at you.  Climbs, descents, switchbacks – these bikes are capable, but you will struggle more on the long climbs and the more hairy of descents.

Enduro (150-180 mm)

Enduro is the hottest thing in the cycling world at the moment.  Being single-handedly credited with more riding innovations than any other mountain biking sub-discipline in the past five years, love it or hate it, Enduro has been a breath of life into the cycling industry.  Characterised by long, untimed climbs and descents that are almost at a downhill level, this category needs the bikes to be versatile.  These bikes need long travel, need to be able to climb well, and also need to be able to bomb descents like Aaron Gwin, and therefore they are designed accordingly.  With wide gear ranges and dropper posts to compensate for their extra weight, these bikes will get you up the climb, although you may not have as much fun as you would on an XC bike.  Compared to trail bikes, these bikes would sit more toward the descent end of a ‘do it all’ spectrum. 

XC stands for Cross Country, and this is for the riders out there who love nothing better than to slap on some lycra and pedal up the biggest mountain they can find.

Downhill (180+)

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A no holds barred descending machine, these bikes are unapologetically terrible for any terrain with a positive gradient.  With dual crown suspension forks to provide extra stability, these bikes can literally go down any hill, but these forks also limit your turning circle.  Designed to place you with a low centre of gravity over the rear of the bike, you are placed in the optimal descending position, however, this also means you have very little pedaling efficiency.  So downhill bikes are great if you can be driven, carried or pushed to the top of the hills, otherwise you will need to consider if they’re worth suffering their decreased maneuverability and poor climbing efficiency.

Categories: Maintenance, Riding Tips

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