Mountain biking is a sport that can provide an adrenaline rush like no other, whether it's exploring your local area or heading to one of the many bike parks or trail centres dotted around the UK. 

No matter what riding you'll be doing, you'll need a bike to do it. A dedicated mountain bike is the best choice, as they are ideally suited to tackling off-road riding. However, with many different forms of mountain biking available, the choice is greater than ever. 

If you're new to the sport, it can be a bit daunting. This guide will focus on the key factors to making your decision and help to explain some of the commonly used terms, so you'll be sure the bike you choose is right for you.

What is a mountain bike?

In simplest terms, a mountain bike is a bicycle that is solely designed for riding off-road. Despite many different variations available, the common traits are all quite similar - wide tyres, flat handlebars, disc brakes, low gear ratios and suspension in some form. These core features make it easier to handle the challenges that riding off-road terrain pose. 

As mountain biking has developed over the years, so too has the speciality of the equipment. Riders can now match their bike and set up to their riding style, making it a more enjoyable and efficient experience when the bike is perfectly suited to tackle what's thrown at it. 

Despite the benefits of extra choice, it can be trickier to understand what the different features achieve and which one is right for you when starting. This guide will help break it down and make it easier to find the right bike for your next track or trail adventure.

Size

Before we dive into anything, establishing the size you need is critical. No matter what bike it is, it's not suitable for you to ride if it doesn't fit.

All of our mountain bikes provide general sizing guides on the website based on height and inside leg. However, we would advise new riders to go and visit a local Giant retailer before making any purchase.

They can provide expert advice based on your measurements and requirements, giving you all the information you need to ensure that you are getting the correct bike that's perfectly suited to your needs.

Giant mountain bike size guide

Mountain Bike Size Guide Example

With the importance of getting the right size established, let's dive into the bikes themselves.

Hardtail or Full Suspension?

One of the first questions when looking at a new mountain bike is whether to go for a hardtail or full suspension. 

Hardtail mountain bikes only feature suspension on the front fork, making the back of the bike rigid or 'hard' (where the name 'hardtail' comes from). As you may have guessed, full-suspension bikes feature suspension on both the front and rear of the bike.

Each has its pros and cons, so which one you choose is down to factors like riding style and budget.

Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

For pure off-road riding, it's hard to beat a full-suspension bike. The addition of the rear shock provides extra comfort by absorbing more of the lumps and bumps, giving a smoother ride than you would get on a hardtail with the same set-up.

The extra rear suspension does have some downsides, though. A similar spec hardtail will be lighter than the dual suspension version, simply because of the additional components and complexity of frame design to incorporate the rear shock.

It does vary depending on model and set-up, but can result in anywhere between 5-15% difference in weight, so it's definitely a factor to consider.

This additional weight also affects the climbing. However, it does provide some extra traction on very technical and rough ground, so the added rear suspension can more than make up for it, depending on where you are riding.

Shop Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Due to the lack of rear suspension, hardtail bikes are much simpler machines. There are fewer parts with no shocks or pivots to account for, which results in the frame design and manufacturing process being more straightforward.

This more straightforward approach creates two significant benefits over a full-suspension bike - price and maintenance.

Hardtails are generally less expensive, or come with a higher level of components, than a full suspension for the same price. It can be a big positive when just starting out and still unsure whether it's a long term hobby for you.

On the maintenance side, by removing parts needed to make the rear suspension work, it can reduce the chance of something going wrong. There are also fewer parts to service on a hardtail, which can, in theory, lower servicing costs.

A hardtail can also be a great choice if some of your riding is away from the trails. They can double up as a commuter or touring bike better than a dual-suspension version can, making them a nice option if you have just one bike and want a bit more versatility.

Many hardtails have the option to 'lockout' the front suspension, which replicates a standard road or hybrid bike better than a dual suspension bike ever could.

Shop Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Travel

Regardless of whether you are leaning towards full suspension or a hardtail, the next thing you'll need to consider is the amount of travel the bike has.

Travel refers to the maximum distance either the front or rear suspension can compress before 'bottoming' out. It's measured in millimetres, and depending on the value, it can have a big effect on how the bike rides and what terrain it can handle, so it's worth understanding before making your purchase.

The amount of travel can be loosely broken down as follows;

Short Travel

Anything between 80-110mm is referred to as 'short travel', and it's a great set up for cross country riding. With fewer ups and downs to contend with, the suspension is not needed nearly as much. Having less travel saves weight for the flatter profile terrain, making it easier to ride over longer distances.

Mid Travel

Somewhere between 120-150mm is the sweet spot for general trail riding, also known as 'mid-travel'. Most 'do-it-all' full-suspension mountain bikes pitch themselves in this range, as it's ideal for tackling all types of riding.

Long Travel

Anything over 150mm can be classed as long travel. Most enduro bikes will top out around 170/180mm, with downhill bikes usually opting for a 200mm front and rear set-up.

It's worth noting that for hardtail bikes, the front travel is usually less than a full-suspension bike. It's because on a full suspension, the front and rear work simultaneously to keep the bike more balanced. As the rear of a hardtail is fixed, if the front suspension compresses too much, it will negatively impact the geometry and riding position.

Giant full suspension mountain bike

Now you know how travel affects a mountain bike, the question still remains - which one do you go for? 

Well, it's a difficult one to answer. It comes down to personal preference and which bike is right for you.

The general rule is that the longer the travel, the heavier and more expensive the bike will be (when comparing similar spec versions of course). However, the additional travel makes the bike more capable of handling high-speed downhills with big bumps and rocks (it's why downhill bikes have the most travel).

So to find the best bike for you, understanding which one fulfils your riding requirements and best meets your budget criteria is critical. Most first-time mountain bikers tend to opt for a short travel hardtail or mid-travel full-suspension bike, as it gives them greater flexibility to try all different facets of mountain biking to see what area they enjoy the most.

Frame Material

When choosing the frame material, there are two main options to consider - aluminium or carbon fibre.

Both materials are excellent choices, and you can't go wrong with either. Carbon fibre comes at a premium price but usually offers a lighter weight, added compliance and increased stiffness. 

It's worth noting that this isn't a hard and fast rule, and much of it depends on the quality of the material used and the approach during the manufacturing process. Also, the benefits of carbon can easily be wiped out with poor component choice.

For example, the slight reduction in weight for a carbon frame could be easily wiped out if the wheels are significantly heavier than those on the aluminium bike. That's why it's essential to consider the bike's overall package rather than just frame material. 

There is a common misconception that aluminium is 'stronger' than carbon fibre, which isn't always the case - carbon has a higher strength to weight ratio than steel, so it's more than capable of handling anything thrown at it. Aluminium is also very strong, so we would advise you not to let this influence your decision. 

Really, the primary consideration is the price point, but frame material shouldn't be a huge factor in your decision when buying your first mountain bike.

giant mountain bike

Wheel Size

Next up to look at is wheel size. It's mostly referred to in inches, and you'll commonly see three versions in mountain biking - 26", 27.5" or 29", although 27.5" is sometimes referred to as '650b'. 

The size refers to the circumference of the wheel. The bigger the diameter of the wheel, the bigger the tyre on it. A bigger tyre results in a greater contact patch with the ground. A larger contact patch results in better traction, which leads to improved acceleration, deceleration and cornering grip.

However, as the wheel size increases, so does the overall weight as more material is needed to manufacture it. A heavier bike is slower to accelerate and requires more energy for climbing due to the extra mass. 

Below, we'll go into each size pros and cons to establish which one works best for your riding.

26" mountain bikes
26" Mountain Bikes
26" was the defacto standard for many years. However, with the introduction of the 27.5" & 29er wheel sizes, it's found itself on the sidelines in terms of popularity. The only real benefit is the weight, as the smaller wheel size results in a more compact bike. Apart from that, they really lack performance compared to the bigger size options. In the Giant range, the smaller wheel size is now exclusively found on bikes for 10-16-year-olds, as they are lightweight, compact and give plenty of stand-over height, which is ideal for this age range.
27.5" mountain bikes
27.5" Mountain Bikes
The 27.5" wheel size came quickly off the back of the introduction of the 29er, with riders looking for a middle ground between the two. The actual measurement is closer to 27" than 27.5", but the end result is much smoother than the 26" wheel size. While they don't roll over rough ground as smoothly or offer the same stability as the 29er, it's a noticeable upgrade over the 26", and yet still provides excellent agility and responsiveness for riders who find the bigger size a bit cumbersome for their riding style.
29" mountain bikes
29" Mountain Bikes
The larger wheel size is great for riders looking for a smooth, stable ride with greater traction while navigating rocks, roots, and anything else found on the trail. Once up to speed, the 29er can maintain its momentum better than the smaller wheel sizes, which helps preserve energy over a long ride. As we've already mentioned, there are some downsides to the larger wheel size. Any increase in the material will result in a heavier bike, which affects acceleration and agility. The heavier weight and longer length can be off-putting to some riders who like to manoeuvre the bike around during a ride.

We hope this information has been helpful in deciding which first mountain bike is right for you. Once you've chosen, why not visit your local Giant retailer, who can assist with any further questions and offer advice from their experience as a local independent bike shop.

If you're ready to take the plunge, we offer 0% finance on all bikes starting from £1000 when purchasing online, so you can spread the cost of your new bike into affordable monthly payments. There's free home delivery on selected models, and all Giant bikes include a lifetime frame warranty so you can ride your new bike with confidence.