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What is Mountain Biking?

What is Mountain Biking?

Some things are just difficult to define. What is “love,” or “happiness?” A definition that satisfies everyone’s idea of a specific concept may be impossible to find, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying. You’ll find subject matter experts and pundits working with varying degrees of success to define just about anything that isn’t included in the International System of Units.

Even the Supreme Court of the United States can struggle with definitions. Recently, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked to define a “woman” during her nomination hearing. And, in 1964, when Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart couldn’t define “hard-core pornography,” he said, “but I know it when I see it.”

Unfortunately, it often comes down to opinions, and — we all know — opinions are like assholes, everyone has one, and most of them stink.

Airing it out
Airing it out

Enter the Internet

Justice Stewart didn’t have the internet to rely on back in 1964, but if he had, I’m sure he would have found quite a bit to refine his definition. We do have the internet today though, and I hit some online forums and social media pages to gather opinions and ideas on how other riders define mountain biking. My search went about as well as you’d expect, when asking strangers for information online.

Within a few pages on, eBikes were attacked, I was called a “hardcore gimp,” and then there was quite a detour while people argued about legendary pro racer, Tinker Juarez’s lack of safety gear, Pat Tillman and Ted Williams were inexplicably brought up, and everyone generally tried to poke holes in other’s definitions of “mountain biking.”

Despite the trolls, many comments* did provide some great insight. user Schwinn8 defined mountain biking as being, “out in nature where the only non stationary dangers are lions, tigers and bears.” Oh my.

Let’s explore some of these ideas along with my own perhaps stinky opinion. But this is going to be about mountain biking in general and won’t delve into the different factions that riders divide themselves (or the bike industry divides them) into such as enduro, all-mountain, freeride, downcountry, or slopestyle.

Racing on a fat bike
Racing on a fat bike

The Problem with the Mountain

A logical assumption would be that mountain biking is biking in the mountains. That’s true for many, but certainly not all riders.

What is a mountain? Merriam-Webster defines a mountain as “a landmass that projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill” and then defines a hill as “a usually rounded natural elevation of land lower than a mountain.” According to National Geographic, “Most geologists classify a mountain as a landform that rises at least 1,000 feet (300 meters) or more above its surrounding area. A mountain range is a series or chain of mountains that are close together.”

No matter how you slice it, plenty of the United States is without a mountain, and even when mountains ARE nearby, they’re not always necessary. You could have days of epic rides on Vermont’s Kingdom Trails without ever touching Burke Mountain

If we could get rid of the “mountain” part of mountain biking, that might provide more clarity. user miheli says, “it’s All Terrain Bicycling, ATB if you will.” I personally liked ATB more than MTB, and when I had regional ‘zine in the mid-nineties, I used ATB in the title, “crank a.t.b.” Early on, a couple of the sport’s pioneers, Charles Kelly and Gary Fisher tried to trademark the term “mountain bike,” but the application was denied.

Despite those legal efforts, and the fact at ATB was far more applicable, “mountain biking” won out as the term adopted by the industry and riders.

Lately I’ve been seeing “trail riding” used quite a bit and I think that’s an even better descriptor. Sure, people will still argue about the definition of a trail, but I think we can all agree on a trail being on an unpaved and natural surface, maybe with some wooden structures like bridges and boardwalks thrown in as needed.

Cross country mountain biking
Just because you're not on a mountain doesn't mean you're not mountain biking

Let’s Go Mountain Biking

I’ve always thought it was interesting that I could invite a buddy to go riding and I could show up at the trailhead on a rigid singlespeed kitted out to go fast, and he could be on a long-travel full suspension bike with full pads ready to launch every drop he could. Both mountain biking, but with widely different ideas about it.

Maybe mountain biking is less about the specific details and more about the experience.

“Ninety percent of my hours on a mountain bike are spent pedaling, mostly solo, through the woods,” says Glen Gollrad, a rider who’s done everything from lift-served downhill runs to 24-hour cross-country races. He adds that it’s about, “connecting with the outdoors, and the inner soul, I’ve worked through a lot of mental shit pedaling through the woods.”

Ron Salb, another rider who fits into the “done it all category,” compares mountain biking to road riding in that it “offers similar exercise opportunities, is arguably more fun, but it takes mental focus because of the terrain and because of that extra component you forget about your troubles while enjoying your surroundings and activity.”

A woman racing
It's not all about racing

Hpirx on says that “mountain biking occurs when a bicycle tire contacts an unpaved surface, and this interaction, by quantum entanglement, or osmosis, or magic, sucks all cares and worries out of the rider’s mind.”

Clearly mountain biking can be beneficial to your mood and wellbeing, so maybe it’s an antidepressant. Total MTB in the UK is dedicated specifically towards helping people’s mental health through riding.

For many others, mountain biking translates into exploration, user Wabatuckian at one point described mountain biking as, “It’s like hiking, only on a bike.”

“I was promptly told that’s not mountain biking,” he says, “Don’t really care. It’s what I do now; I use the bike to explore off-road places that I can’t see in my Jeep.”

Speedygz agrees, “Same here. I love following animal tracks through the bush, getting to spots on the trail where the only way forwards is hike-a-bike, discovering old half overgrown mining and timber felling tracks, being able to throw the bike over fences, through creeks, all that sort of thing.”

Mountain biking on a pump track
Mountain biking on a pump track

The adventure aspect certainly resonates with me. I’d much rather ride new trails, either pristine or overgrown, than hit the same 10-mile loop at one of my local state parks.

The mountain biking media followed this trend as well. When BIKE magazine first hit the newsstands in 1993, it was decidedly different, focusing more on the places you could go and the experiences gained instead of race or event coverage.

The magazine industry has gone through many changes, but two of the current mountain biking magazines, FREEHUB and mountainflyer continue to have amazing feature articles on rides and trails around the globe while Mountain Bike Action still relies heavily on bike and product reviews.

Have We Defined Mountain Biking?

My thoughts on what mountain biking is?

  • It’s off-road riding but could include fire roads or gravel roads.
  • It doesn’t need a mountain.
  • It could include solo rides to clear the mind, or group rides with friends or family.
  • It could be racing; it could be slow rides to take wildflower photos.
  • It could be heart-pounding exercise, it could be casual and relaxing.
  • It could be riding in strange and foreign parts of the world, or out the back door.
  • It could be a quick 30-minute lunch ride or a weeks-long trip along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
  • It could be an uphill ride, a downhill ride, or totally flat.
  • It does NOT need to be defined by the bike that you are riding, as you can be just as legitimately mountain biking on a 30yr-old, 26”-wheeled, knobby-tired hardtail as you can on a brand-new $7k full suspension carbon superbike. I’ll draw the line on BMX bikes, slick-tired road bikes, and fixed gear bikes, the latter mainly due to a personal loathing. I hate fat bikes too, but won’t unpack that just now.

“You can go where you want to go, as fast or as slow as you want,” says fleas on, “you can make it as hard or as easy as you want, you can take whatever chances you want (or not), If you are not having fun, or you think it is too hard, then you are probably doing it wrong.”

It seems like mountain biking is more about the things it can be, and who is anyone else to judge? user, d365, recalled talking to someone at a party who said they “loved to mountain bike” but when invited to a local trail said, “nah, I only ride around the neighborhood.”

But finally another user, cyclelicious said it best, and most succinctly, “it’s fun.” Can’t argue with that.

*some comments edited for clarity

Wheel to wheel racing
Wheel to wheel racing

You think you’re faster than me?

You can—and many people do—ride mountain bikes for decades without ever signing up for, or participating in, an event. But many riders are drawn to competition and will challenge themselves in races or other contests of skill and speed.

In the United States, most competitive cycling events are sanctioned by USA Cycling, the governing body that regulates the different cycling disciplines and helps identify talent that can race on an international level. Local races and regional race series happen all across the country from the southeast’s downhill race series to New England’s Eastern States Cup enduro series to the West Side Mountain Bike Race Series in Washington. On any given weekend, there’s probably a race or an event going on near you, even in the dead of winter.

I’d bet that most people, when thinking about mountain bike racing, will either conjure up images of gazelle-like cross country racers or energy-drink fueled downhill racers, but there are more ways to get into the competitive groove than that. Here are some of the more commonly recognized forms of racing.

Mountain bike racing on blacktop
Mountain bike racing on blacktop

Speed and Endurance

Cross country (CX)

Cross country mountain biking is probably the most common and accessible form of mountain bike racing. The races are mass-start, meaning you and several other racers (up to hundreds at a time), all roll out from the start line at once. In bigger events, riders might be organized in a way that the faster riders are in front, but in the everything-goes world of mountain bike racing, some events have a Le-Mans start where you run a ¼ or ½ mile before getting your bike and setting off.

Either way, depending on the size of the event, racers are typically competing against others in the same age and skill category, such as “Category 2 Men, 15-39.” All on the best cross country bikes they can afford.

Cross country (XC) races are usually run on a loop of mountain trails that’s anywhere from just a few miles to several miles long, and typically have a variety of terrain so that riders need good climbing legs, descending skills and technical abilities. And depending on the length of these off road trails, different race categories might do more laps, but the average XC race is less than 25 miles long for top end racers and may be 8-10 miles for a beginner mountain biker.

Cross Country Racing
Cross Country Racing

Olympic XC Racing

Because XC racing is an Olympic sport, “XCO” is a specific form of cross country racing that mimics the demands of the Olympic courses, but for the vast majority of us, XC racing simply means spending a couple of hours pedaling as hard and as fast as possible over rocks, up hills, through mud, and across rivers, while battling fatigue, cramps, and self-doubt.

Winners can get medals or plaque or just a pat on the back. For racers who compete frequently, points can be accrued to help move up from the entry-level categories such as novice or beginner or Category 3, through the ranks to intermediate/Category 2, to Expert/Category 1, to Pro.

Short Track Cross Country (STXC) racing

Short Track Cross Country (STXC) racing is similar to regular XC racing but compressed into a shorter, less technical course—usually less than a mile—and shortened race time of 20 minutes. These races are very spectator friendly and fast paced, like criterium races or cyclocross races.

Endurance events

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find endurance mountain bike racing. In this realm, races can range from 40 to 100 miles, to be considered a Cross Country Marathon event—a World Championship discipline—or they can be much, much longer like the 2700 mile Tour Divide.

Hundred-mile races seem reasonable in comparison to the Tour Divide or Costa Rica’s La Ruta, and include iconic events like the Leadville 100 and Michigan’s Marji Gesick which is famous for its unabashed brutality and is on my short list of races that strikes fear in my heart.

Twenty-four hour races, based on the number of laps completed usually from noon on a Saturday to noon on Sunday, are also popular for teams, in a relay format, or solo riders. You’ll tend to find more of a party or festival atmosphere at 24hr races, but riders can still contend for a World Championship title.

In summary, if you’d like to race your mountain bike a few miles or a few thousand miles, there’s an event out there for you. And if you’re wondering what kind of mountain bike you’d need, the best answer is “the one that you’ve got.”

A competitor at 24 Hours of Adrenalin
A competitor at 24 Hours of Adrenalin

Speed and Skill

Don’t get me wrong, cross country racing, in all its forms and formats, requires good bike handling skills, but there’s a whole other level needed when it comes to the gravity disciplines of downhill riding. Here, bikes with stronger components, better brakes, and other features will be more critical than in XC. A downhill racing mountain bike frame will often have a more aggressive geometry — as not all mountain bikes are cut out for the rough terrain of big downhill mountain biking events.


Downhill Mountain Biking can easily be credited for starting the whole off road biking boom. Just look at early TV footage from Evening Magazine in 1979 highlighting the Repack downhill race in California.

Downhill bikes, the mountain bike gear, and the courses have evolved, but the concept—of getting to the bottom of a downhill course as fast as possible—has not. Rather than a mass start, downhill races run on a time trial format, with riders taking off in spaced intervals, usually with the faster mountain bikers going last.

Modern courses are often at ski resorts or other mountain bike oriented resorts that can cater to downhill biking events and the rugged terrain they require. These may include steep drops, rock gardens, dirt jumping, tricky terrain, and plenty of other challenges for both spectators and the racers, and in some cases, natural features can be replaced with concrete stairs and roof drops.

Dual slalom and Four-cross (4X)

Dual slalom and Four-cross (4X) are similar in that they offer fast-paced, exciting, head-to-head racing on shorter downhill courses with jumps, berms, and uneven terrain.

Race brackets are used to eliminate slower riders with the faster ones advancing until a final round. In slalom, two riders race against each other on identical side-by-side courses, taking a run down each side with the lowest combined time moving you through the brackets or ultimately winning.

Four-cross puts, you guessed it, four riders on a course at the same time, with the first two across the line advancing through the different heats. Slalom has been around much longer, but 4X is now more popular and has an international pro series of races.

The author competing in a slalom race
The author slalom racing

Enduro racing

Enduro racing certainly fits in the downhill category, but not neatly. Here’s how it works; enduro courses are longer, sometimes several miles long, with neutral and timed sections. There’s usually quite a bit of uphill pedaling involved, but those sections are not timed, only the downhill sections are against the clock.

Racers typically have to meet cut-off times when going from one section to the next, so endurance IS needed, but the races are won or lost based on the combined time of the downhill sections, so speed and skill are favored. Think of these as “all-day” downhill races, although some are two-day events to make it a full weekend of fun and festivities amidst the trees and off road terrain.

Enduro Racing
Enduro Racing

Skills and Power


In the 90’s, when mountain biking was taking the world by storm, the niche discipline of observed trials was made popular by Hans “No Way” Rey and Libor “The Bouncing Czech” Karas. Observed trials gauges a rider’s ability to go up and over and down obstacles that most people couldn’t walk across.

Competitions set up sections that include a mix of manmade and natural obstacles and riders need to get from start to finish without putting a foot down, requiring balance and explosive power. And, because the sections can be relatively small, trials riders can show up with a trailer full of obstacles and put on an event for entertainment, which is unique compared to other forms of mountain biking.

You can still find small and large competitions, but some of today’s top riders do much more with the reach of video, and Danny MacAskill’s and Fabio Wibmer’s YouTube channels should definitely be in your subscribe lists.

Mountain bike trials
Mountain bike trials

On Your Mark, Get Set, Search…

If addressing the question of “what is mountain biking” or any of the above has intrigued you and you’re thinking about watching or registering for an event, there are countless ways to find one near you. Google, or if you’re one of those people, Bing, is the first starting point, but many races can be found on USA Cycling’s page, or my favorite, Beyond that, most events are promoted on all the regular social media platforms, and your local bike shop probably has info too. In my mind, racing is not the end-all or be-all of mountain biking, and I’ll never be accused of “training,” but there is some fun to lining up with friends and foes with a number on your bike and some thunder in your heart.


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