If you’re new to the sport of adventure racing, you may be wondering what type of bike you need to successfully compete in - and complete - your first race.
Bicycles (especially for those who don’t currently identify as cyclists, like Heather, who is editing this post) can feel overwhelming. There are seemingly endless options when it comes to bicycle types and components, and they can be quite expensive.
If you’re looking to do your very first adventure race and you DON’T have a bike, but you have the opportunity to borrow a bike, we strongly suggest doing so (assuming that it's a short course, and not an expedition race).
Borrowing a bike for your first race will allow you to make sure you actually like the sport enough to give it another try, before shelling out hundreds (or if buying new, thousands) of dollars for a quality racing bike.
The same can be said if you already have a bicycle you like to ride. You don’t have to have the “perfect” bike for your first race. As long as the bike type is allowed within the rules of the race, you’re good to go.
But, if you’re ready to make the commitment and want to purchase a bike for adventure racing, we hope this guide will help you better understand what to look for.
Do You Need a Mountain Bike for Adventure Racing?
Need is a very strong word, but in most cases, yes, you will need a mountain bike for adventure racing.
While some beginner friendly, short course races allow any type of bicycle - from road bikes, to hybrids, or even gravel bikes - many races actually require that you use a mountain bike.
(When in doubt - reach out to the race director to ask what types of bikes are allowed!)
There are a number of different mountain bikes that cater to different styles of riding. For example:
- Trail: think of this as the non-specific, jack of all trades mountain bike. It pretty much does it all.
- Cross-Country (XC): an XC bike is designed to cover long distances, and big climbs. As such, it’s typically lighter than other styles of mountain bikes, to make for more comfortable, efficient rides. XC bikes will have different frame geometry with steeper angles, which can lend to efficiency over distance, but may be slower on descents.
- Downhill: there’s this wild population of cyclists that ride ski-lifts to the top of gnarly mountains, then bomb down the face of the mountain as fast as the bike (and rocks and roots) will let them. Downhill bikes are built for that. As a result, they tend to be heavy, and not great for climbing.
- Enduro: Think of a downhill bike mixed with a cross country bike. Enduros typically have more travel in the front suspension, have wider tires, and are beefier than XC or Trail bikes.
- Fat Tire: features oversized tires (3.7 in. to 5+ in. wide). Great for traction, especially in sand or snow. But, the added tire and wheel size adds weight to the bike.
- Electric or Pedal Assist: features an integrated motor that assists the rider when pedaling. These are typically not allowed in adventure racing.
- Off-Road-Unicycle: Easy to throw in a canoe with no breakdown needed. Probably significantly slower than your competitors who have two wheels.
What Type of Mountain Bike is Recommended for Adventure Racing?
Cross-country (XC) or trail bikes are the most recommended types of mountain bikes for adventure racing.
That said, our team has plenty of experience racing on fat tire bikes, so "other" types of mountain bikes are not entirely out of the question.
Related Post: Adventure Racing Gear List for Beginners
Factors & Specs to Consider When Choosing a Bike for Adventure Racing
So, now that you know what type of mountain bike is best for adventure racing, let's get down to the specifics:
First and foremost, you’ve got to make sure your adventure racing bike fits YOU. It doesn’t matter if you’ve scored the best deal ever on a fully specced out, top of the line racing bike if it’s too small or too big for you. You’ll be miserable, you’ll make your teammates miserable, and you’ll have a generally miserable racing experience.
A racer on a vintage mountain bike with components so outdated they don’t even make them anymore - but the bike fits them well - will perform better than a racer who is struggling to handle a $10,000 brand new bike that’s too big (or too small) for them.
So, whether you buy a brand new bike for adventure racing, buy a used one, or borrow a bike from a friend, make sure it fits properly. Further, make sure you get in a few training rides before race day so you can really nail down the specifics of the fit.
The saying “you get what you pay for” rings true in the land of bikes. You absolutely do NOT need to go out and spend $12K on a top end bicycle for adventure racing.
However, investing a decent amount of money in a bicycle typically ensures you are purchasing a quality product that is not going to fall apart on the first unexpected bump in the trail.
A $200 bike at a big box department store may LOOK the part, but definitely lacks in quality. When in doubt, visit your local bike shop.
Full Suspension, Front Suspension, or Fully Rigid?
When it comes to choosing a bike for adventure racing, do you want full suspension, front suspension, or a rigid? Like the answer to so many questions, it depends.
On a bicycle, “suspension” refers to a shock absorbing system that essentially creates a buffer between the rider and all of the bumps, ruts, rocks, and roots they may ride over. Mountain bikes typically come in three options: full suspension (front and rear suspension), front suspension only (often referred to as a hardtail), or fully rigid, which is a bike with no suspension.
Full Suspension Pros & Cons:
Full suspension (aka: full squish, full boing) bikes are usually faster and super comfortable over technical terrain, however there are some major drawbacks.
- They’re typically much heavier than a front suspension bike at the same price point.
- They have more complicated moving parts and may require special tools to fix. More parts = more of a chance of things breaking in the middle of a race.
- The main frame triangle may not allow for easy shouldering/carrying of the bike.
- Many full suspension bikes absorb some of the rider's power through the rear suspension. Anything that diminishes direct power transfer will make you work harder for any given speed.
Hardtail Pros & Cons:
The biggest Con if a hardtail may just be that it’s not a full suspension. There are many pros to a hardtail:
- Hardtails are very common and there’s a bazillion models to choose from.
- Typically less expensive than a full suspension bike, with similar components.
- They’re typically a good bit lighter than full suspension bikes
- The front fork is usually enough to buffer the trail on all but the gnarliest of downhill trails.
- Even the most bizarre shaped main triangle should offer some options on how to carry the bike. Shouldering may or may not be possible depending on the severity of the frame's geometry.
Fully Rigid Pros & Cons:
A bike with no suspension at all is going to offer incredible responsiveness, will be significantly lighter and offer fewer potentials for technical issues. However, it will be a harsher ride, which can cause fatigue much sooner than a suspended bicycle.
Full Squish? Front Squish? No Squish? How Do you Choose?
Perhaps the biggest consideration when it comes to deciding on suspension is what terrain is your event will be held on?
Some adventure races might not have a huge concentration of riding on super technical singletrack. That isn't to say there won’t be some technical single track, but odds of seeing a continuous 50 mile bike leg on super techy singletrack are relatively slim for your average AR.
Will you be bike-whacking or doing hike-a-bike? Sure, you may not know until race day, but do a bit of research on the race and RD, get a feel for how they roll. If these are common in most of the RD’s events, you may very well see it in yours.
Are you handy with trailside repairs? Do you carry all the tools you need to repair what may go wrong? The more complex the bicycle (such as full suspension vs. hardtail), the more opportunity for bike malfunctions.
Common Frame Materials
Mountain bikes come in a number of different frame materials, such as steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium, bamboo (yes, bamboo) or a combination of materials. Each material frame has its own pros and cons.
Steel frames are tried and true, as they’ve been around for centuries. Steel frame bikes are durable, easily repaired, and affordable.
Some folks will tell you “steel is real'' and it is. It's real(ly) heavy.
In addition to the weight, another negative of steel is that it can rust if not properly cared for.
Aluminum alloy frames are more affordable than carbon fiber (partially due to an easier manufacturer process), have a high strength to weight ratio, and unlike steel frames, are corrosion resistant.
Carbon fiber is unique from the other materials in that it’s not made of metal. Carbon fiber is light, durable, and allows for more flexibility during the frame building process.
However, when carbon fiber is under excessive stress (like in a crash), it can crack. Once it cracks, it loses its overall integrity, and needs to be repaired, if not replaced.
Carbon Fiber frames are usually the lightest. But once a frame is fully built up (meaning, other components have been added), you can often find aluminum framed bikes that weigh the same at a cheaper price point.
Geared or Single Speed?
The majority of adventure racers will benefit from gears. Don’t get me wrong, I love my single speed. I’ve even done a 12 hour adventure race on it.
But, having more gears to choose from will help with both acceleration and terrain changes. Having bigger gears to push on flat terrain is invaluable. Having different gears to choose from can also help prevent fatigue and cramping.
The gearing of your bike will be largely determined by the manufacturer. Most current mountain bikes now are spec’d with a 1x (“one by”) drivetrain. This is a reference to the front cog, most mountain bikes now having only one.
For example: a 1x9 would be a single cog up front with 9 gears to choose from in the back. A 1x12 would be one in the front, 12 in the back. A single speed is a 1x1.
Ultimately gear configurations are a personal preference, and a manufacturer's spec decision. Sometimes you just get what you get!
What Size Wheels & Tires Are Best for Adventure Racing?
The size wheels and tires needed for an adventure race are really going to vary based on the terrain you are racing on.
A quick rule of thumb: Big tires and wheels are slower and heavier, but absorb more bumps. Smaller tires and wheels are lighter and have better acceleration, but aren’t quite as shock absorbing.
Wheel size can be largely dependent on manufacturers specs for specific bike models.
Old school 26 inch wheels are rarely specced on new frames, instead we see 27.5s or 29in wheels.
Some smaller/lighter riders may have a harder time steering a 29inch front wheel, so many manufacturers will stock their small frames with 27.5.
29 inch wheels (Niners) will roll over objects easier than a 27.5, but for safety purposes this should never be traded for ease of steering.
Narrow tires are quicker, but will sink into mud and sand quite quickly. Fatter tires are more apt to “float” over sand and mud, but make for slower going and require more energy to keep up with those skinny tires.
With many adventure races having the mountain bike legs on fire roads, narrower wheels may be much more beneficial. If you have access to different width tires for your event, try to research the venue a bit to see what might work best.
For instance, one of my local 12 hour races is in the swamp and along the coast. Fat tires (4inch) work great for me across my local terrain, which tends to be sandy, rooty, and swampy. However, pushing 4inch tires for a 50+ mile bike leg is going to be a different story.
Pedals or clipless?
Whether you choose to ride with pedals or clipless during an adventure race really comes down to personal preference and race distance/format. There are pros and cons to both options as well.
If you are already comfortable mountain biking in clipless pedals, there is no doubt this setup will deliver more power to your pedals. However most clipless cycling shoes are incredibly stiff, making them quite uncomfortable to run or trek in.
If your check points on a bike leg are a good distance off trail, whacking through the woods in clipless shoes can easily cause blisters and there is an increased chance of damage to the cleat as well as clogging of the cleat slot.
On the other hand, if you have a straight shot 50M bike leg, then clipless is the way to go, as you will absolutely be more efficient.
Coach tip: If you are not already comfortable in clipless pedals, don’t try them for the first time on race day!
For my short races I ride flat pedals. A good aggressive pedal against a solid trail shoe will keep me attached to the bike in most any terrain I’ve seen in a short race.
(Team HSEC rides the Chester pedal from RaceFace)
A long term pedal strategy: If you eventually upgrade to clipless, try out whatever clipless pedals your teammates might be using. Using the same pedal set up across the team will help if the team needs to switch bikes for any reason.
(Trust me, it happens. As Lead Tow, if I catastrophically destroy my drive train, I should be able to jump on any teammate's bike and tow them on the broken bike.)
Ultimately there really is no “best” mountain bike for adventure racing. Ride what you have until it breaks or until you're invested enough in the sport itself to upgrade.
I’ve raced full boing, I’ve raced single speeds, I’ve raced super old school 26in 3x8s, and I'm currently racing on Surly fat bikes.
Sure, some may be better suited for certain terrain than others, but each of them got me through my event with no regrets. Well, maybe I regret the Single Speed a bit…