a matter of personal preferences

Are you a Trailbike Guy?

Are you in pursuit of the ultimate MTB that’s fit for epic rides as well as ripping it up on technical trails? The lines between Trail, All-Mountain, and Downcountry bikes can get blurry, but fear not – we’re here to illuminate the path through the jungle of MTB categories!

MTB Trailbike Review
The Santa Cruz Tallboy quintessentially defines a trail bike. Boasting 130 mm of fork travel, 120 mm of rear travel, fast-rolling tires, and a lightweight frame tipping the scales at 13.1 kg. The real question that remains: Who is the perfect rider for this rig?

Adrenaline, freedom, nature – a day on a mountain bike is the ultimate full-body and soul experience. However, to get there, you first need a bike. The right bike! But the bike market is littered with technical jargon and category terms that can make both newbies and experienced riders break out in a sweat. We’re here to lend a helping hand and navigate through the sea of mountain bike categories to show you when and why a trail bike might be the perfect choice for you.

We’re taking a closer look at the suspension travel question: In American parlance, any bike with less than 160 mm of suspension travel is considered a trail bike – the definition is somewhat different in other places. Particularly, All-Mountain bikes (140-150 mm of travel) and Downcountry bikes (120 mm of travel) are neck and neck in the suspension travel race as adjacent categories. Just like a Swiss Army knife, trail bikes and their closest relatives, the All-Mountain bikes, promise a cycling adventure that can handle both long tours and wild rides through the forest without running out of steam.

Scott Spark Trail Bike
A quality trail bike is not just about the thrill of the descent. Rides like the Scott Spark strike the perfect balance between touring capability and trail excitement.

What defines a trail bike by definition

Trail bikes are touted as the Swiss Army knives of the mountain bike world. A hallmark feature of these rigs is a fork with 130 mm of travel, which provides ample cushioning for serious MTB trails, yet is engineered to keep the weight in check without compromising the bike’s agility or responsiveness. In the rear, you’ll often find slightly less travel, enhancing the lively feedback from the terrain and fostering playful handling across varied landscapes.

Tire choice is also crucial: Trail bikes are typically equipped with tires that roll well. Go-to examples among trail bike tires include the Maxxis Forekaster or Schwalbe Nobby Nic rubber. They strike a balanced tread profile, offering a sweet spot between grip and rolling resistance, ensuring riders can climb efficiently and maintain speed in faster sections.

Trail Bike Travel
A trail bike features 130mm of travel on the fork. Typically, you'll find Fox 34 forks or Rock Shox Pikes installed.

When it comes to weight, a true trail bike sets the bar with a standard that typically lies below 31 pounds. This benefits not just climbing performance. The overall maneuverability of the bike on the trails is also enhanced. Especially when the terrain demands quick changes in direction or popping the bike over obstacles, every ounce saved plays a pivotal role.

An essential feature of a modern trail bike’s equipment is the dropper seatpost. It allows you to lower the saddle on-the-fly, granting optimized freedom of movement and a lower center of gravity for technical downhills and challenging singletracks. Without it, you’re missing out on the real joy of trail riding.

Summing up, the trail bike is the dream machine for riders who value a balanced blend of climbing efficiency and descent safety and enjoyment. A light weight frame, 130 mm of travel, a dropper seatpost, and tires with a versatile tread pattern make it the top pick for enthusiasts who don’t want to pin themselves down to one style. They’re at home on both local trails and high alpine adventures.

When it comes to a trail bike, it's not just about shredding the descents, but also about its climbing capabilities.

What Defines a Trail Bike

  • Travel: 130mm of travel up front, often slightly less in the rear.
  • Weight: Under 31 pounds
  • Seat Post: A dropper post is a must-have.
  • Tire Selection: A moderate tread pattern that rolls efficiently and provides ample grip.
Trail Hardtail
There are also hardtails like the Rose Bonero, featuring 130 mm of travel and above. These too are considered trail bikes.
Trail Hardtail
A hardtail trail bike, lacking rear suspension, offers significantly less comfort compared to a full-suspension trail rig.

Trail hardtails are also trail bikes

If you think trail bikes are just full-suspension rigs that turn every root matrix and gravel section into a velvety path, you’re sorely mistaken. Trail hardtails, with their rigid rear ends, are set to capture the hearts of riders who appreciate simplicity and a raw trail experience. They represent the perfect balance between ultra-lightweight race hardtails and burly full-suspension workhorses. The Rose Bonero and the Orbea Laufey are flagbearers in this segment.

These bikes also gain popularity because they’re kind to your wallet. A quality trail hardtail can be yours for about 1700 euros, while a solid full-squish rig will set you back at least 2500 euros and up. But it’s not just the financial savings that are notable; the weight difference is too. Being around 2 kilograms lighter, these lean machines offer zippy acceleration that will help you conquer not just the trails, but also imposing mountains.

For riders in search of the authentic, longing to feel every undulation and meld with the terrain, the trail hardtail is the weapon of choice. Unadulterated and direct, it transmits every pulse, every move without the filter of a rear suspension system – a purist experience that puts full control at your fingertips. A true trail hardtail is much more than a stripped-down downhill bike; it’s a statement for those who want to zip across trails with skill, stamina, and sheer passion.

Trail Bike Applications
Flowy, moderately graded trails. This is where a trail bike truly shines.

What is the perfect terrain for trail bikes?

Trail bikes are the ultimate all-rounders in the mountain biking market, excelling on lengthy rides that challenge one’s endurance and technical skills. They blend the ability to pedal comfortably for distances between 30 to 60 miles with efficient climbing prowess. Thanks to their fast-rolling tires and lightweight design, they deliver a pleasant riding experience when you’re cranking up the miles. Even during extended saddle sessions, riders are less likely to feel the burnout.

But trail bikes aren’t just for those who relish enduring tours. They also handle light jumps with ease, making them playful companions on tame, flowy trails. The combination of minimal suspension travel and reduced weight allows riders to carve through natural trails and feel the flow with every pedal stroke. They truly shine on increasingly popular flow trails in bike parks, where the smoothness of the ride is paramount.

A trip to your nearest trail center becomes a joyous occasion on a trail bike since they’re designed to tackle a wide array of trails without the need for specialization. However, they might struggle under the high pace on demanding, tech-heavy natural trails. Here, the limitation of shorter travel becomes apparent, prompting riders to dial back their speed and focus more on technique and control than on raw velocity.

In summary, the combination of versatility, efficiency, and a degree of technical proficiency makes trail bikes true jack-of-all-trades. They are the go-to choice for riders seeking to get the most out of their two-wheeled adventures, be it crossing the Alps, ripping the local trail, or the occasional foray into the trail center. Trail bikes are steadfast companions on the journey of discovery through the diverse world of mountain bike trails.

Trail Center
Flowing tracks in trail centers or flow trails, such as the Flowcountry Trail at Bikepark Geißkopf, are a blast to ride with a trail bike.
Cross-Alps Mountain Bike
The low weight and smooth-rolling tires make this bike the perfect companion for alpine crossings.

Who should opt for a trail bike?

A trail bike creates the perfect synergy for riders looking to tackle the full spectrum of mountain biking disciplines, enduring the climbs and rejoicing on the descents. If you’re among those who don’t exclusively chase the adrenaline rush of the gravity scene, but also see the sweat-inducing ascent as an integral part of your adventure, then you’ve found your sweet spot in the trail bike segment. These machines are designed to deliver balanced handling and feature a geometry that shines both during tough climbs and exhilarating descents.

For the tour riders who refuse to compromise on downhill performance, an All Mountain bike might be your perfect match. When trails tip downwards, you’ll appreciate the extra cushion of 140 to 150 millimeters of suspension travel. This additional support can tip the scales in your favor during technical sections or high-speed stretches, offering a safety margin that could make all the difference.

And for the newcomers looking to dive into the vast world of mountain biking, a trail bike is an excellent base camp. On this steed, you can test out every riding style – from cross-country to all-mountain to the gentler sides of enduro. It’s your Swiss Army knife on two wheels, giving you the freedom to shred a variety of trails without a preset bias and discover where your true passion lies.

Trail Bike Territory
Trail bikes are the perfect companions for epic rides. Their versatility allows riders to dip their toes into every aspect of the sport of mountain biking. This is particularly advantageous for beginners.

Who Should Steer Clear of a Trail Bike

A trail bike is the true jack-of-all-trades of mountain biking – think of it as the Swiss Army knife in your two-wheeled arsenal. Yet, it’s not the dream machine for every rider. Primarily, the adrenaline junkies, who crave blitzing downhill runs at full tilt, should steer clear of trail bikes. If you’re stoked about hitting every kicker line in sight or envisioning your weekends engulfed in dust clouds with the sweet symphony of rubber ripping on rough terrain, then All-Mountain or Enduro rigs are your ticket to nirvana. These steeds dominate the descent and give you the extra edge when the going gets gnarly.

Also, the racers among you gearing up for the next Cross-Country (XC) event or battling for top spots in marathons might want to scope out a Down-Country speedster or a dedicated race bike. These machines are dialed for speed and efficiency – every gram counts and it’s all about propulsion. Choosing a trail bike for these categories could put you at a disadvantage; the added suspension travel and a geometry tuned for comfort can cost you those critical seconds and energy that can make or break your podium dreams.

So, if you’re looking to defy gravity or dust your rivals in the race circuit, trail bikes might leave you wanting. There are specialized rigs designed for these pursuits that not only meet but exceed your expectations. Choose wisely and pick your steed based not just on looks, but the terrain you ride and the goals you chase.

Enduro Fun
If this is your vision of a perfect bike weekend, then skip the trail bike and go straight for an enduro.
Trail Bike Distinction from Downcountry
Even those who chase seconds in marathon or cross-country races won't be satisfied with a trail bike in the long run. Downcountry bikes like the Mondraker F-Podium are the superior choice for these disciplines.

Who is a Trailbike the Perfect Ride for Now?

Trail bikes are the Swiss Army knives of the mountain biking world. With 130mm of travel, they’re spot-on for after-work spins on your local loop, as well as for crossing the Alps or hitting the trail center over the weekend. If you’re looking to expand your trail horizons without sacrificing touring capabilities, trail bikes offer the perfect balance. They prove that you don’t have to choose between riding fun and long-distance comfort – you can have both.

About the author

Ludwig

... has spent more than 100,000 kilometers in the saddle of over 1000 different mountain bikes. The essence of many hours on the trail: Mountain bikes are awesome when they match your personal preferences! With this realization, he founded bike-test.com to assist cyclists in finding their very own dream bike.

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