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Within mountain biking, there are a bunch of different types of biking. Though many are similar, there are a few differences that make each style unique. At first, it may be confusing which is which and what the nuances are, but we’ll break down these styles of riding (in alphabetical order) so you sound like a seasoned pro.
All mountain (AM) – All mountain riding is a blend of cross-country and downhill biking. Just as the name implies, you’re riding all over the mountain, including uphills, downhills, and some more technical features. The terrain is often tougher than typical cross-country terrain. Bikes for this type of riding are similar to that of cross-country specific bikes, but may be heavier, have more travel, and have beefier components that can handle the bigger obstacles. The riding is often challenging, covering more distance and elevation than cross-country biking so riders may get into this type of riding after really falling in love with mountain biking and seeking out more advanced terrain and rides.
Cross-country (XC) – Cross-country mountain biking is one of the most common types of riding, but isn’t as televised as DH or freeriding due to its less extreme nature. This is often one of the ways new riders get introduced into the sport. XC riding often covers fairly long distances under your own pedal power. There could be equal amounts of climbing and descending. Light, efficient bikes for optimal pedaling are key. Full-suspension bikes are popular, though some riders choose hard tail bikes to get the most out of each pedal stroke.
Cyclocross (CX) – Cyclocross is a specific type of bike racing. Typically, riders are racing on an off-road course, but there can be paved sections, mud, grass, dirt, gravel, sand, more mud, etc. Often times, there are even barriers that will force riders off their bikes. Hopping off, putting the bike onto a shoulder, and hopping back onto your bike as quickly as possible is one of the skills that cyclocross riders develop. Really skilled riders may be able to bike/hop right over the obstacles, but many choose to just run through them on foot for speed or safety sake. Courses must be a specific distance and riders must go around the course a set number of times. You can use different types of bikes for cyclocross, but many rider opt for versatile hard-tail bikes with a rigid front fork and drop bars.
Dirt jumping – Dirt jumping, sometimes known as freestyle, is a style of MTB that includes getting air on purposely built jumps, often made out of dirt (hence the name). Dirt jumping often takes place on a small loop trail, with a handful of jumps throughout, that riders can loop multiple times. The terrain is relatively flat but is built so that skilled riders have enough speed to clear each feature. This is one of the more advanced styles of riding that riders may get into after developing the essential skills first.
Downhill (DH) – Downhill mountain biking, or DH as some people call it for short, is a style of riding that is gravity based. In the summer months, many ski resorts will run their lifts and transport mountain bikers to the top for a thrilling descent down. With dedicated downhill mountain bike trails, often called a bike park, DH bikers can take multiple laps down the network of trails ranging in difficulty (rated similarly to ski trails) and get a lot of riding in, without having to schlep themselves uphill. The lift-serviced riding is a fun way to get introduced to the sport of mountain biking because it removes the difficulty of having to pedal your own way up the mountain. Though you can ride a normal mountain bike at a bike park, downhilling is the most fun with a specially built downhill bike with a sturdy fork, beefy tires, cushy suspension, lots of travel, and a slacked out head tube angle. If you don’t have a downhill bike, you can often rent them right at the resort. Many DH riders also wear full face helmets, body armor, knee and elbow pads, to protect themselves in case of a fall.
Dual slalom – This is a type of mountain bike racing that includes two relatively short tracks, built side-by-side. The tracks are typically man-made and can take riders 45-60 seconds to from top to bottom. Two riders race at the same time, once on each track, with the fastest combined score being the winner. Tracks are often built at the bottom of ski resorts, as this is a really fun spectator sport. The bikes used for dual slalom are similar to downhill bikes though some riders choose to ride hardtails.
Enduro – Enduro is a competitive style of mountain biking that often includes five different mountain stages, completed in a single day, for a timed score. The rider with the fastest combined time in each of the stages is the winner. Enduro riding combines elements of downhill, cross-country, and all mountain riding, even with some uphill sections being part of the timed stages. Enduro races can be a fun and challenging way to test the skills of avid mountain bikers.
Fat biking – Fat biking is a popular way to ride in the winter, because the tires are super wide and can help you ride on snow covered trails. You can also ride more easily on sand and in thick mud, so fat biking can help you reach terrain that might be difficult on a regular bike. These bikes are cushy and easy to ride, so some riders just cruise around town with them too. The name fat biking refers to the oversized (or fat) tires that are used on the bike.
Four-cross – Sometimes called mountain-cross, this style of competitive racing includes 4 riders, racing on the same track at the same time. The track is similar to a BMX track in that is is mostly downhill but includes some jumps and rocky sections. The goal is to be the first rider through the finish line.
Freeride – Freeride mountain biking is similar to downhill riding but with jumps and tricks thrown in. Think Red Bull Rampage. Freeriders head downhill on steep trails, with huge jumps and drops on their route. Often a competitive style of riding for the most daring of bikers, riders perform seemingly death-defying tricks on each feature for an overall style score.
Touring – Though there is an on-road version of touring, we’re going to focus on off-road or MTB touring. This type of riding often includes covering lots of distance on your bike, often carrying all of your gear for a multi-day trip. Touring is often self-supported, meaning that you have everything you need and are able to fix issues that arise during the ride. You may even have camping and cooking gear with you. You’ll often see touring riders with pannier bags, handle bar bags, and other bags. It’s critically important to keep your gear as light and lean as possible, as you’ll start to feel every ounce after a few miles. Some MTB touring is semi- or fully-supported meaning that you have someone available if issues arise and to provide some level of service for you. Some rides may take place on a planned route and go from hut-to-hut or inn-to-inn, occasionally with food being prepared for you at each destination. Depending on your desires, touring can be as rugged or as cushy as you want. If you want to be totally self-sufficient and on your own, you can, or if you want to have support available if needed and be taken care of at each destination, you can do that too through various companies. Either way, you’ll probably experience a wide variety of terrain on your ride so you should be ready for anything.
Trail riding – Trail riding is similar to cross-country riding in that it’s many riders first introduction to the sport of biking. It’s different in that many of the trails and tracks are non-technical. Think multi-use carriage paths that may be packed dirt or gravel, with few roots and rocks. Often times, riders can use any type of bike for trail riding such as a hybrid or a hard-tail mountain bike. A bike with suspension is not necessary for trail riding. Trail riding is often family friendly and a good way to introduce kids or new riders to the sport due to the non-technical nature of the trails.
That may seem like a lot of different types of mountain biking but don’t let all the terminology overwhelm you. If you’re new to riding, just keep getting out there and having fun. If you’re looking to try a new style of riding, ask a friend for information or visit the folks at your local bike shop. Bike shops are a great resource for trail information, gear advice, and expertise to help you try something new or take your riding to the next level. Whatever style of biking you’re doing, keep doing it and have fun!