There is a lot more to mountain biking than knobbly tyres, suspension forks, flat handlebars and mud tracks. Though these things are what visually sets MTB apart from the road, there is a lot more to be taken into account, not least the myriad different disciplines and bikes used. Here we’re going to unravel the three major versions of the sport and help you to better understand what each discipline is all about.
Downhill is the category which is by far the easiest to understand. It is just as it sounds: ride down the hill as fast as you can. Considered the oldest and purest version of the sport, downhill is as technical as it is reliant on gravity. Typically, each ‘run’ – often borrowed from ski resorts like Whistler during the summer months – will last about five minutes, taking in death-defying drops, long technical segments and sections of almost unrideable rocks and roots. The top riders of any given race are unlikely to be separated by more than a handful of seconds, so the equipment setup is hugely important.
The bikes favoured by downhill riders are the most specialised mountain bikes of all. With a long and low profile and super slack steering, the frames are equipped with huge suspension forks designed to soak up the punishing terrain. Bikes like the Trek Session and Specialized Demo have made names for themselves on the pro circuit.
This is the discipline most easily replicated in the amateur scene. Cross-country incorporates everything we love about downhill – technical descents and demanding off-road terrain – plus a bit of climbing. This discipline requires a fair amount of endurance with long hours in the saddle standard fare. World Cup races tend to last several laps spanning 90 minutes which, on a mountain bike at full pelt, is pretty heady stuff.
You’ll see both full suspension and hardtail frames used at cross-country events. The choice of frame depends largely on the course in question, i.e. riders might hold on to the full suspension frame as their go-to ride, but if a race is loaded with long climbs, the increased stiffness and responsive acceleration of a hardtail frame comes into its own.
Enduro is considered to be the unique offspring of downhill and cross-country, whereby the riding is super technical, incredibly tough and pretty darned terrifying. As the name suggests, enduro demands a certain level of endurance from the riders as race routes typically take on long stretches of ski resort routes, sketchy descents and lung-busting climbs. What’s the difference, then, between enduro and cross-country, I hear you ask? The difference is that Enduro tends to prioritise descending speed whereas XC puts a greater onus on all-round consistency.
This discipline has given rise to a whole new style of mountain bike design where the goal is to produce an agile, fast and light bike which is versatile enough to cope with the maddest trails. Specialized was quickest to the mark with their aptly-named ‘Enduro’, but there is plenty of competition in the market as the discipline soars in popularity.
Now you know what the various disciplines involve and what is asked of the bikes, it’s time to get out on the trails and test yourself against the terrain and your mates. Remember, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.