Downhill bikes are perfect for hitting big features and rapid descents, but are they a good option for general trail riding?
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of using a downhill bike for trail riding by considering how well they fare on the many features and obstacles the trails throw at us.
If you’re in the market for a new bike and want to know if a downhill bike is suitable for you – reading this will help you out.
Here’s How Well Suited Downhill Bikes are for Trail Riding:
Downhill bikes aren’t the best option for general trail riding. Whilst they are capable in the jumps and downhill sections, their design means they’re a poor choice for most other trail features, especially climbs. A better choice would be a trail or an enduro bike.
Keep reading for a more detailed breakdown to find out how well DH bikes perform on a number of trail features.
To assess how good downhill bikes are for trail riding, it’s worth breaking down the features we’d expect to find on a trail and consider them individually.
To do this, we’ll look at a few of the main features, including jumps and drop-offs, rock gardens, berms, skinnies, climbs, and switchbacks.
Now let’s take a look at each of these features in more detail to determine how well suited a DH bike is to ride them. At the end of each section, we’ll give a score out of 10 for each feature.
Are Downhill Bikes Good for Jumps and Drop-offs?
This one’s easy to answer – Downhill bikes are perfect for jumps and drop-offs.
They’re designed to tackle the gnarliest downhill trails. With loads of suspension travel and super strong frames, DH bikes can take any jumps and drop-offs in their stride.
In fact, they’re more well suited to trail jumps than any other type of MTB.
The only exception where DH bikes aren’t the best choice for jumping is when we look at dirt jump tracks.
Dirt jumps are different from those you encounter on the trail. They have much steeper take-offs and landings, making the weight and travel of a downhill bike more of a hindrance than a help.
If you’d like to know more about how well downhill bikes jump, including why they’re not great for dirt jumping, check out the article we wrote here.
Score for Jumping: 10/10
Are Downhill Bikes Good for Climbing?
This question also has a simple answer:
Downhill bikes are not good climbers. They are designed purely for downhill performance and as a result, they have the poorest climbing performance of any mountain bike. They’re so bad going uphill that they should only be used at bike parks operating a shuttle service or bike lift.
Excluding E-bikes, downhill bikes are the heaviest MTBs on the market.
Their weight is well justified, we wrote an article here around why DH bikes are so heavy, give it a read if you’re interested – but in short, they need heavy-duty frames and components to meet the demands of downhill riding.
Their weight coupled with soft suspension and slack geometry makes them very inefficient climbers.
To illustrate just how poor DH bikes climb, Neil from Global Mountain Bike Network times a climb on a cross-country bike and then does the same climb on his DH bike.
It’s worth a watch, the climbs start just after 4:45 in the video:
Score for Climbing: 0/10
How do Downhill Bikes Perform on Rock Gardens?
Rock gardens are any section of a trail that is littered with rocks. They can be on descending, flat, or uphill sections.
When considering how well DH bikes perform on rock gardens we also need to consider the gradient of the trail.
Straight away we can say DH bikes are no good at climbing through rock gardens.
We’ve already seen that the weight, geometry, and spongy suspension of a DH bike make them poor climbers, so throwing a load of rocks on the ascent certainly doesn’t make things any easier.
On the other hand, a DH bike will take a descending rock garden well within its stride.
Their thick tires offer plenty of puncture protection and grip, and the slack front and rear suspension mean the bike can absorb the lumps and bumps whilst maintaining contact with the trail.
Rock gardens on relatively flat sections of the trail also cause a few issues for DH bikes. Without gravity on your side, you’ll have to rely on pedaling through the flat sections.
On top of that, the long-wheelbase makes the bike a little harder to handle around tight corners, and the slack head angle makes steering less responsive – that’s an issue when trying to navigate technical sections.
All told, DH bikes are good for most downhill rock gardens but have some major shortcomings through the flat ones, and are even worse when trying to climb.
Score for Rock Gardens: 4/10
How do Downhill Bikes Perform on Berms?
DH bikes are well suited to riding berms in general. Their thick tires and spongy suspension provide plenty of grip through the berm allowing you to hit them with plenty of speed.
There is a slight downside in that DH suspension is usually quite soft. Having suspension that’s too soft can result in too much compression through the berm.
This wastes energy and as a result, reduces the speed carried through the berm when compared to a trail or enduro bike.
Score for Berms: 8/10
Are Downhill Bikes Good at Switchbacks?
Switchbacks are very tight turns on trail, typically defined as turns that are too tight for the front and rear wheel to take the same line.
Downhill bikes aren’t the best for switchbacks. Their slack head angle makes the steering unresponsive and they have a longer wheelbase than trail or enduro bikes making them more difficult to get through the tighter turns.
Score for Switchbacks: 3/10
Are Downhill Bikes Any Good at Riding Skinnies?
A skinny is a narrow feature on the trail that requires excellent balance and bike control to ride. Skinnies can be anything from planks of wood to felled trees.
The super slack head angle of DH bikes makes navigating skinnies pretty tough. Whilst great for downhill performance, this geometry feature does take a toll on the responsiveness of the steering.
On top of that, the weight of a DH bike makes them that much harder to balance. They can weigh 10-plus pounds more than a trail bike, that’s a lot of extra weight to try and balance whilst rolling along a 6-inch wide beam.
The final nail in the coffin for DH bikes when it comes to riding skinnies is their gearing. Most skinny features are ridden at low speeds, but the gears of a DH bike don’t need to go that low.
Battling against a gear that’s too high on a feature where balance is key makes it that much harder to ride.
Score for Skinnies: 1/10
Can You Trail Ride a Downhill Bike?
It is possible to use a downhill bike for trail riding, however, they are not the best choice of bike. Whilst their geometry and suspension are ideally suited to the fast downhill sections, drop-offs, and jumps; DH bikes are very inefficient climbers and so aren’t the best choice for trail rides.
Should You Get a Downhill Bike for Trail Riding?
In short – no. The only people who should buy downhill bikes are those looking to ride downhill tracks regularly at bike parks that have a shuttle or bike lift, so riding back to the top isn’t an issue.
If you’re looking to purchase 1 bike for all of your riding, you’d be better off with a trail bike or an enduro bike. Downhill bikes do not make good all-purpose bikes.