Mountain Bikes Buyers Guide

It doesn't matter whether you're tearing up the trails, tackling tough climbs or racing downhill, for many riders mountain biking is the best experience you can have on two wheels.

If you're new to the world of mountain biking, looking for the best mountain bike to buy or want to learn the difference between a full-suspension bike and a hardtail, then you're in the right place.

The bike experts at Halfords have created this mountain bikes buyer's guide which is packed full of information to help you. You'll learn about what mountain biking is, the crucial features of a mountain bike, and how to choose the best mountain bike for you.

What are the different types of mountain bike?

When shopping for a new mountain bike, you'll need to consider where you'll be riding. Mountain bikes can be split into four main categories: cross-country, enduro, trail and downhill.

  • Cross-country (XC) mountain bikes are designed to tackle fast non-technical trails. They're great all-rounders, proving competent climbers, providing confidence on the downhills and delivering a smooth ride on gravel paths.
  • Enduro mountain bikes are built for long days in the saddle and are capable on technical routes. With long-travel suspension and relaxed geometry they enable you to tackle challenging trails and downhills at pace.
  • Trail bikes are perfect for flowing terrain you'll find at your local trail centre. A slacker head tube angle, a longer top tube and long-travel suspension forks will help you as you tackle tougher trails.
  • Downhill bikes are specially for descending as quickly as possible. The frames are components are super strong to cope with the extreme forces, including long-travel suspension and reinforced frames. You can't ride a downhill bike uphill.

It's fair to say that at Halfords most of our premium mountain bikes are aimed at coping with conditions you'll find on British trails and trail centres.

What's the difference between a hardtail and full-suspension mountain bike?

Mountain bikes can be further split into hardtails and full-suspension bikes.

Hardtail mountain bikes only have front suspension forks whereas full suspension mountain bikes have front suspension and rear suspension, often allowing you to tackle the most extreme off-road riding.

The choice of a hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike depends on where you're planning to ride and you're riding preference.

What is a hardtail mountain bike good for?

Hardtail mountain bikes are light, agile, and alert, they are often cheaper than full-suspension mountain bikes and the lack of rear suspension also means that pedalling is more efficient, as all the effort you put in is transferred to the rear wheel.

Hardtail's bikes are great for riding trails, tracks and XC and will also perform much better on the road than a full-suspension bike (although neither is great on tarmac).

These bikes are sharp and precise to handle and are ideal for fast rolling tracks at the trail centre. You will be in control as you ride the rough and the smooth.

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What is a full-suspension mountain bike good for?

Full-suspension bikes have suspension front and rear that help soak up rocky sections and smooth out tree roots and muddy sections as you ride. Full-suspension bikes are likely to be heavier and slightly more expensive than hardtail bikes, but the extra cost and engineering make for a smoother ride over more technical and bigger obstacles.

The best full-suspension mountain bikes are great for tackling technical trails, big drops and maintaining your speed as you tear around trails. You may need to adjust your suspension to increase or decrease the level of travel before tackling more extreme rides and downhill runs at the trail centre. Chat to one of our in-store experts about adjusting your bike's suspension.

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Should I buy a hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike?

The choice between hardtail and full suspension comes down to the terrain you will be tackling and your riding style.

Full suspension bikes can help smooth things out when the riding gets tough on trails or downhill tracks. Rear suspension should help you ride fasters over roots, stones, and rocks, and can provide extra confidence too.

In the right hands, a hardtail bike will be as fast as a full-suspension bike. If you are worried about weight, a hard-tail will be lighter than an equivalently priced full-suspension bike.

The reality is that many off-roaders will have both a full-suspension mountain bike and a hardtail bike in the bike shed or garage to suit the trail or ride.

What are the best gears on a mountain bike?

If you have not ridden a mountain bike in a while, prepare for a surprise. Instead of a double chainring at the front, many mountain bikes now come with a single (1x) chainring at the front and a rear cassette with an impressive choice of gears.

A 1x set-up is simpler on the trails and, for most riders, offers more than enough gears for trail and XC riding.

What are the crucial mountain bike features?

So, you now know the difference between a full-suspension bike and a hardtail, but there is an awful lot more to know. Here are the most key features on a mountain bike that you need to know.


Mountain bike frames are built to be more robust than road bikes or hybrid bike frames. They are designed to withstand the stresses of off-road riding. This strength and durability usually come from using more robust materials such as alloy as opposed to aluminium or carbon fibre.

Instead of a flat top tube (or no top tube at all in the case of step-through bikes), mountain bikes have a sloping top tube that provides greater clearance between the rider and the frame, which makes it easier to manoeuvre the bike over obstacles and the rider over the frame. 

When it comes to selecting a frame, the most important consideration is choosing the correct size. The bike should feel comfortable to ride and suit your style of riding. You can read more about the perfect mountain bike frame fit in our guide

Saddle and seat post

When riding your mountain bike, you will be climbing in and out of the saddle, so set it at a comfortable height that maximises pedalling efficiency. Too high and over time you'll potentially give yourself hamstring problems or hyperextened tendons, too low and you'll not be maximising the power from your legs

One innovation that has ripped up the rules is the creation of dropper seat posts. With a push of a lever, you can raise or lower your seat post, changing its height, so climbing is easier allowing you full use of each leg stroke when it is up. Then on those tricky downhill sections it is dropped out of the way allowing you to really get over the frame and control the bike.

Wheels and tyres

Mountain bike tyres are wide and chunky. They are built to give you grip while you are riding over mud, gravel, and rocks.

Larger tyres can hold more air (either in the inner tube or inside the tyre if you are running a tubeless set-up) which provides a layer of cushioning between you and the tracks.

Deep tread and thicker tyres can withstand collisions with common obstacles you will come across, including rocks, tree roots and uneven surfaces. As the large tyre compresses under your weight, you will enjoy greater grip keeping you planted to the floor.

Mountain bikes come fitted with a variety of wheel sizes, including 27.5” and 29”. Some older bikes or jump bikes still run a smaller 26” wheel set up. Some riders find that the 27.5” wheels are more precise and offer better handling, while others feel 29” wheels roll faster and can tackle rough terrain better. Comparing wheel sizes is key to your riding style and where you are likely to need that choice, so we would always recommend you get your hands on a bike and see how it feels.

While you are checking out the wheels, consider the hardwearing spokes, axles, hubs, and rims that make up a mountain bike wheel. They are built to tackle the great outdoors, including hard landings, high-speed impacts, and collisions with hard objects.


Mountain bikes have wide, 'flat' handlebars. 'Flat' is a relative term compared to the dropped bars you see on Road bikes as the reality is many MTB bars come with a 'rise' so that the end of the bar is slightly higher than the centre.

Mountain bike handlebars are designed to provide control and precision when cornering and improve balance. With your arms wider apart, you have greater control over the direction of the bike. When you climb out of the saddle, it is easier to shift your weight to the sides, front and back.

As you start to get more confident on your mountain bike, you will find it easier to lift the front wheel and clear obstacles in your way. It is a crucial move that you will need to master as you tackle tougher trails and courses.


When you're mountain biking, you will find that you use every gear in the range. The biggest cog at the back (the lowest gear) makes climbing easier. The highest gear (smallest gear at the back) will be the fastest.

Mountain bikes come with a much wider range of gears than you would find on a road bike or hybrid, this is because the terrain can change in an instant. One minute you can be flying down a hill, the next minute you could be struggling up one!

Increasingly, you will find mountain bikes running a 1x (one-by) system. There's one cog at the front and a wide ranged cassette at the back. This simplifies the riding experience and keeps the cockpit less cluttered with just one shifter to worry about. Modern mountain bikes have less gears but the range is huge and designed to cope with the big differences in terrain you'll encounter and of course a 1x setup means there's also just one derailleur to maintain and keep clean!

How many gears should a mountain bike have?

There are no rules about how many gears a mountain bike should have, it comes down to the rider and the terrain. A downhill rider may only use a few gears to glide down a mountain, whereas a cross-country rider could use the entire range during a ride.

At the front, you can find a single chainring (1x) or dual chainring. If you have a double chainring, you could have access to twice as many gears.

The important consideration isn’t the number of gears, but the range of gearing that the rider can access. Modern single chainring mountain bikes, such as the Boardman MTR 8.9, give the rider access to a huge range of gearing suitable for climbing up mountains or racing down them.


Disc brakes dominate the mountain bike scene. They provide strong and consistent stopping power in all conditions. You'll find two types of disc brakes: cable operated and hydraulic.

Cable-operated brakes are, as the name suggests, operated with a cable that pulls the blocks against the disc. Hydraulic brakes are more advanced and more efficient, using fluid to operate the brakes and they are more precise when you pull the lever. You will also see differences in disc rotor size (the metal braking plate fixed to the wheel), with Shimano and SRAM offering several different options for all styles of riding. The larger rotors tend to be found on bikes built for more aggressive riding as they provide a far superior stopping power.

In mountain bike circles, you may see a conversation on 4pot v 2pot brakes. It's all to do with the number of pistons on each calliper. A 4pot brake has two pistons on either side that push the brake pad against the rotor. A 2pot calliper has one piston on each side. 4pot callipers have a slightly larger surface area for the pads to touch the rotor, which creates more friction, which translates to better stopping power.

What is an electric mountain bike?

Electric mountain bikes come with a battery-powered motor that provides additional power as you pedal. The extra assistance will help you power through trails and tracks and help you to ride further and harder for longer. They also reduce the strain of climbing, allowing more riding time during your trips.

Electric mountain bikes are increasingly popular among riders of all ages. The additional weight is less of an issue off-road, and the pedalling power they provide more than makes up for it.

If you've never ridden an e-MTB, why not give one a try today? The best electric mountain bikes give you even more control over the mountain biking experience.

To learn more about e-MTBs, check out our electric mountain bike buyer's guide, or visit your nearest Halfords store.


Apollo mountain bikes are a fantastic introduction to the delights of easy dirt riding. And if you're looking for an entry-level choice without compromises Apollo's are also suitable for riding on the roads and light trails and make excellent all-weather commuters, particularly if you're riding over mixed terrain.

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Carrera bikes provide incredible performance at a price everyone can afford. If you're new to MTB riding or want to experience the enjoyment of tearing through trails, Carrera bikes are an affordable choice.

Carrera Mountain bikes are deigned to perform featuring dependable suspension forks, branded components and the vast majority have disc brakes.

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Voodoo is a premium mountain bike brand that builds incredible bikes that connect riders to the trail.

Every Voodoo bike is built from premium parts and high-quality materials. You'll find awesome bikes in the range with bang up to date geometry, features and components offering outstanding value for money.

Shop Voodoo Bikes


The Boardman bike brand is one of the UK's best known, delivering exceptional bikes at brilliant prices. The Boardman name may be synonymous with road riding, but its range of mountain bikes are designed and built to the same standards.

On a Boardman, you should expect a hardwearing frame and high-quality components that make riding anywhere a pleasure. On a Boardman, you'll enjoy pushing your bike and yourself forwards, faster, further.

Shop Boardman Mountain Bikes

Expert mountain bike advice

If you're in the market for a new mountain bike, drop into your local Halfords for expert advice and the chance to see some of our mountain bikes in the flesh. Whether you're looking for tips on where to find the best local trails, want to check out the latest mountain bikes on the market or need some maintenance essentials you'll find it all at Halfords. You'll also find all the mountain bike clothing and accessories you need for every ride too.

If your current mountain bike needs some TLC or running repairs, why not book a mountain bike service? We've got a range of service packages for all bike and budgets. We also offer a complete workshop service where we can provide on-the-spot repairs and fast fixes that will have you back on your bike as soon as possible.

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