With mountain bikes becoming increasingly specialised, tailored to different riding styles and terrain, the sheer amount of options on offer can be overwhelming. While there are many different disciplines to choose from, arguably the three most popular categories are XC (cross country), Trail and Enduro.
Each different category is designed to suit different terrains and ride styles, as such, have differing geometries, components and features. In this article, we've broken down the intricacies of each category to give you a better understanding of how they're different, and what would be the best mountain bike for you.
- Related Reading: The Ultimate Mountain Bike Buyer's Guide
To help highlight the differences between each category, Focus provided us with its lightweight and efficient O1E 8.8 Cross Country bike, versatile Sam 6.9 Nine Trail bike, and burly Jam 8.9 Enduro bike. All bikes feature either SRAM Eagle 12-speed, or Shimano Deore XT groupsets, suspension from Fox Racing, and a mix of carbon fibre and aluminium for the frame materials. Rolling stock on our test fleet comes courtesy of DT Swiss, with Maxxis proving the rubber.
The riding discipline of XC is arguably the broadest possible style of mountain biking. The foundation mountain bike category, XC can take place on fire roads, singletrack, technical forest trails, rock gardens and everything in between.
Pedalling Focused Geometry
Designed with climbing prowess, pedalling efficiency and a lighter overall weight figure in mind, the geometry of XC bikes will typically compliment this. The bike set up is much steeper than the other bikes, which combined with a shorter wheelbase, provides nimble and snappy handling characteristics, perfect for navigating the single track and putting the power down when the trail points upwards.
Expect an XC bike to have a head angle of around 69-71 degree's, a steeper seat tube angle of around 74-75º, a lower bottom bracket height and shorter overall reach. Moving to frame materials and aluminium are commonly used on entry-level options; however, carbon fibre starts to become the material of choice from mid-range options and beyond.
Optimised Suspension and Components
As XC bikes are all about low weight and climbing efficiency, they make do the least amount of travel out of the three bikes compared here. Expect to find racing oriented bikes fitted with 90-100mm of travel at the frame and fork, with some modern recreational XC models offering up to 120mm. Suspension set-up will also differ, with swingarms and shocks typically positioned higher on the bike when compared with a Trail or Enduro bike. This does hinder descending ability when compared to the longer travel Trail and Enduro bikes, however, on most other terrain XC bikes are fast, ragged and eager to please.
29er wheels are more or less standard on XC bikes thanks to the increased rolling efficiency, roll-over ability and stability offered. Tyres will typically be skinnier, lighter in weight and therefore not as puncture resistant as those found on a Trail or Enduro bike while less aggressive tread patterns are also common thanks to the increased rolling efficiency on offer.
Expect rim materials to be a mix of lightweight aluminium of entry-level to mid-range options, with carbon rims becoming available as budgets increase. Expect to find a longer stem also fitted, allowing the rider to position them self further forward for tackling steep climbs. Seatposts will typically be rigid; however, dropper seat posts are starting to find their way onto modern non-racing focussed XC bikes.
So if you're a roadie wanting to make use of your lycra and participate in mass start races and marathons, or just like to ride more chilled out terrain quickly and efficiently, an XC bike may be the best solution for you.
When Enduro was a just a young pup and the trails were milder, a 120mm - 140mm Trail bike was the ideal ride, as it provided a bit more beef than a race focussed XC bike and was easily pedalled compared to a DH (downhill) bike. Shift forward to the present day, however, and the modern Enduro bike echoes more of a downhill bike than the original 'Trail' bikes that were used. As detailed below, Trail bikes are still very relevant for all styles of riding, but with courses becoming steeper, more technical and more demanding, the weapon of choice has been adapted.
- Related Reading: The Evolution of Enduro
Longer, Lower, Slacker
As one of the most popular modern mountain bike disciplines, Enduro mountain bikes are evolving at a rapid rate. Longer, lower and slacker than both XC and Trail bikes, Enduro bikes are all about enjoying the downs.
The wheelbase will be considerably longer than an XC bike thanks to a more relaxed headtube angle and increased trail (where the front wheel is positioned relative to the headtube) proving more stability at speed. A longer reach figure allows the rider to get lower on technical descents whereas a Trail bike rivalling seat tube angle ensures that riders can climb the up trail with ease for another lap.
Aluminium is commonly found on entry-level to mid-range Enduro bikes thanks to its durable properties, and ability to take a beating from all angles. At the top-end though, advancements in carbon fibre are making composites the material of choice on flagship models.
Long Travel, Wide Tyres, Tough Components
With suspension travel ranging from 150-180mm, Enduro bikes are much burlier than their shorter travel counterparts. This makes them much better suited to big drops, big hits and big air. Rolling stock will be stronger as a result, with internal rim widths typically hovering around 30mm. This increased air volume reduces the risk of pinch flats or tubeless "burps" when attacking the trail.
Tyre widths will typically range from 2.3" to 2.8" with wheelsets almost exclusively set up tubeless. Tubeless tyres are favoured in mountain biking thanks to the lower pressures they allow, increasing the contact patch and allowing the more aggressive tyres to grip the trail more efficiently. Boost spacing (wider axle widths front and rear) is also in play on most, if not all, Enduro bikes on the market. Boost spacing allows for manufacturers to offset the drivetrain slightly for a straighter chainline, and the ability to run wider tyres than a frame would typically allow.
Moving to the contact points and bars over 750mm wide are commonplace, as are super short stems, which allow for more direct handling on the trail. Dropper seatposts are also essential, allowing a rider to easily move and shift their weight around the bike on technical descents. Stopping power will also be beefed up, with more powerful four-piston brakes becoming commonplace on Enduro bikes. When mated with 180-203mm rotors, these provide extraordinary braking power that is both easily modulated yet commands respect on the trail.
Shifting duties will typically be handled by a 1x equipped drivetrain with a wide-range cassette out back. This allows riders to tackle steep uplifts and fire roads easily. Frame protection is, and cranks will typically be stronger to withstand and rock strikes or trail debris. Another component choice that Enduro riders are faced with revolves around pedal choice. Platform and SPD pedals are both commonplace with many riders choosing to run a hybrid of the two. For more information, check out our Bicycle Pedal Buyer's Guide.
So if you are more of a gravity focussed rider that lives for ripping berms, gapping jumps and party laps with your mates, then an Enduro steed is the pick for you, however, if you’re more focused on the ups, or the versatility to tackle a wider range of terrain, other machines on this list may suit you better.
The largest and most omnipresent category in the mountain bike scene, Trail bikes are best described as the all-rounder of singletrack, designed to be efficient on the climbs, while still providing plenty of confidence and control on rough and technical descents. The category is mostly comprised of dual suspension; however, the Trail Hardtail continues to evolve and shape up as a viable option compared to a dual suspension bike.
Fast Up, Fun Down
As a bike designed to excel on a wide range of terrain, the geometry on a Trail bike will compliment both downhill stability and uphill pedalling efficiency. Head tube angles get a little slacker than XC bikes, increasing the wheelbase, aiding in stability whereas bottom brackets will typically offer a bit more ground clearance than an XC bike. A somewhat steeper seat tube angle of between 74-75º combined with a shorter chainstay will aid in putting the power down in a pinch and scampering up a steep section of trail.
The reach will also be longer on a Trail bike, placing the rider in an extended position on the bike, increasing control when attacking the trail. Aluminium is the frameset material of choice for the rear swingarm and frame; however, lightweight carbon frames are also available as costs increase.
Suspension set-ups are as wide-ranging as the trails these bikes suit, with travel ranging from 120-150mm both at the frame and fork. Expect to find shorter travel forks fitted to 29er Trail bikes, with 27.5" models scoring more extended travel. The kinematics (how the suspension works) will also be versatile, with different shock mounting techniques allowing for a smoother suspension stroke compared to XC bikes.
Wider, Burlier Components and Accessories
In the right hands, a Trail bike is capable of tackling all but the most technical and demanding of downhill tracks. Due to this, expect Trail bikes to roll off the factory floor with decent components that are easily replaced and customisable as a rider's skill, and ride style progress. Bars will typically be wider than those found on an XC bike, with the stem also shorter, aiding in handling on technical trails. Dropper seatposts are commonplace on Trail bikes, allowing a rider to shift the seat out of the way when tackling gnarlier downhill sections.
Wheel sizes remain a hot topic within the Trail bike category, with some brands focused on the smaller 27.5in size for nimbleness, while other brands are dedicated to the larger 29er wheel for its greater roll-over and speed. And then some brands are on the fence, offering both.
For Trail hardtails, many brands are continuing to support 'Plus-sized' wheel formats, fitting out new models with massively wide tyres. These 2.8in to 3in wide tyres add grip beyond belief, soak up the hits and remain comparable in weight to a thinner-wheeled dual suspension model.
So if you're the type of rider that isn't sure what your ride style preference is, or just want a capable bike that will excel in most terrain to point it at, a Trail bike may suit to best. However, if it's climbing prowess or a gravity focussed shredder you're after, then the other options on this list would be your best bet.
Thanks to Focus Bikes Australia for providing the product for this test
For more information, be sure to check out our in-depth Ultimate Mountain Bike Buyer's Guide and Mountain Bike Groupset Buyer's Guide