There are so many options nowadays when it comes to selecting a mountain bike that it can be difficult to know what features to look for to suit your riding style.
If climbing performance is something you’re interested in, then this article is for you.
We’ll discuss what features to look for in a decent climbing bike, and share how you can get the most out of any bike when it comes to climbing.
Here’s what Makes a Mountain Bike a Good Climber:
Mountain bikes that climb best are lightweight such that as little weight as possible has to be forced uphill. Bikes with firm suspension or no suspension will climb more easily as there’s less energy being lost through unwanted squashing of the suspension whilst pedaling.
What Features of a Mountain Bike Make it a Good Climber?
There are a number of features to look out for on a mountain bike that can help you determine how well the bike will climb.
Whilst some of the features affecting climbing performance are valid for every type of climb, others represent a trade-off depending on the nature of the climb itself. This is because MTB trails come in all shapes and sizes, so the optimal bike or bike features for each climb will vary.
We’ll go into detail on how each of these bike features affects climbing performance, but first here’s a summary of the key points:
Total Bike Weight: The lower the total weight of the bike, the less weight you’re having to force uphill against gravity, so the easier it is to climb.
Weight and Size of Wheels: Lighter wheels have less rolling resistance, but larger wheels tackle obstacles more easily.
Type of Tire: The lightest tire possible that gives enough grip for a given climb is the best option.
Hardtail vs. Full Suspension: Suspension can help or hinder a climb based on the terrain, and whether we’re talking hardtail or full suspension it should be set up appropriately for climbing.
Bike Geometry: Steeper geometries will typically climb more efficiently than slacker geometries.
Gearing: Based on the gradient of the climb being tackled, it’s important to have a gear ratio option that makes it manageable.
Now let’s dive into a more in-depth discussion about each bike feature.
Total Bike Weight
This one doesn’t really need any more explanation. A lighter bike means you’re having to work less against gravity, making your climb easier whether it’s on a smooth fire road or through an uphill rock garden.
This is one of the reasons why cross-country MTBs are optimized for low weight. They aren’t expected to be hitting jumps or anything too gnarly, so they’re focussed on weight saving to make riding as efficient as possible.
As you move up through the categories of MTB from cross-country, to trail bikes, then to enduro, the bikes get gradually heavier and more robust. So whilst trail and enduro bikes are still capable climbers, they won’t be able to compete with a lightweight cross-country bike in most cases.
(We wrote an entire article dedicated to analyzing the climbing performance of enduro bikes here that’s worth a read)
Weight and Size of Wheels
Lighter wheels are generally better for climbing. Being lighter, they require less force to rotate making them more efficient than heavier wheels.
On top of that, a lighter wheel means a lighter bike overall which we’ve already seen is a major benefit when climbing.
As for wheel size, a 27.5 inch (or 650B) will be lighter than a 29er, however, the 29er will more easily roll over obstacles on the trail.
There’s a trade-off between minimizing weight as much as possible with lightweight 27.5-inch wheels vs. making rocks and roots easier to navigate with a slightly heavier 29er. Wheel diameter for climbing largely comes down to personal preference.
Type of Tire
Tires make up a significant portion of a wheel’s weight. For maximum climbing performance, there is a trade-off between grip and weight.
During more rugged climbs the extra grip of a thicker, more robust tire will be well worth the additional mass penalty.
Tires are the only contact point between bike and trail so having enough traction is key. A more heavy-duty tire will also provide more puncture protection on those more technical climbs.
A good middle ground to aim for is to use the lightest tire possible that provides sufficient grip and security in terms of wall thickness for a given trail.
Hardtail or Full Suspension
For climbing smooth trails with few obstacles, a hardtail with low-travel, firm forks will be best. That’s because the more suspension a bike has, the more energy is wasted in unwanted compression of the suspension.
On top of that, a hardtail is simply going to be lighter than an equivalent full suspension bike.
For rough trails with technical climbs, having rear suspension really starts to become worthwhile. Shocks with huge travel aren’t necessary but some degree of rear suspension does help with gripping the trail.
Regardless of the type of bike, suspension can be optimized to make any bike climb to the best of its abilities simply by firming up the forks and shocks.
Firming up, or even locking out the suspension reduces the force lost from unwanted squashing, making pedaling that bit easier and the climb a little easier.
Full suspension or hardtail, a decent fork is key to optimum climbing performance – so we dedicated an entire article on how to spot a good mtb fork here.
Steeper geometries are best for climbing, both in terms of head angle and seat tube angle.
A steeper head tube means the handlebars are more central over the front wheel as opposed to the wheel being further forwards compared to the bars.
A steep head tube angle makes the steering feel more responsive, helpful for tight turns around obstacles during more technical climbs.
A steep seat tube angle has the rider sitting more centrally above the chainring, allowing for more efficient pedaling.
Both of these features can be seen on all of the popular cross-country bikes where pedaling efficiency and effective force transfer are key.
Most bikes nowadays have gears low enough to get up most climbs. If super challenging climbs are your thing then it’s probably worth looking into bikes with very low gear ratio options.
However, for the majority of us, any mountain bike will have gears low enough to tackle the majority of climbs we’re likely to encounter – excluding downhill bikes of course.
What is the Best Type of Mountain Bike for Climbing?
The best type of mountain bike for climbing smooth trails with few obstacles is a cross-country bike. For more technical climbs up rougher tracks a trail bike will perform better given the additional grip from the tires and increased suspension.
How to Make Your Mountain Bike a Better Climber
Ultimately, unless you’re riding a downhill bike any mountain bike is capable of climbing. Even downhill bikes can technically climb, however, it’s certainly not something most riders would ever want to try and we really don’t recommend it.
So, here’s a list of a few things you can do to improve your bikes climbing performance:
- Firm up the suspension – this reduces energy lost when pedaling
- Use the lightest tires that still give sufficient grip
- Increase tire pressure – similarly to firming up suspension, this makes pedaling more efficient
Hopefully, you’ve found this information helpful. Happy climbing!