To the uninitiated, mountain biking is mountain biking: people riding hefty bikes with big tires through the forest. In fact, the mountain biking world has various distinct communities. The most common form of mountain biking is known as cross-country: essentially off-road riding on trails that are a workout, but not too rough -- where you'll find the weekend warriors. Riders looking for more of a challenge, with steep ups and downs and more rocks to navigate, are considered trail riders. But in downhill mountain biking and freeriding, the distinctions get nuanced. To understand the difference between a downhill bike and a freeride bike, it helps to know what each is used for.
Downhill Mountain Biking
The name pretty much says it all: These bikes are meant to be ridden in one direction -- downhill. Downhill mountain biking is especially popular as an off-season activity at ski resorts. The lift whisks you and your bike to the top of the mountain, you let gravity and a lot of moxie take you back down. Downhillers like the direct, fast route. Trails often eschew the pleasantries of gentle curves and switchbacks in favor of bombing straight down the mountain. Obstacles -- boulders, downed trees -- are not to be skirted, but scaled. And if there aren’t enough natural obstacles, downhill riders will build their own in the form of wooden jumps and banked turns intended to help gain speed. A full-face helmet and plastic body armor are required.
Freeriding is something of a mix between downhill and cross-country. Freeriders like the more adventurous aspects of downhill, but would rather not have to drive to a ski resort. So, after dropping down the hill and its associated jumps and obstacles, they need to get back to the top on their own power. As the name, borrowed from snowboarding, suggests, this is a more free form of riding, with all forms of tricks (jumps, teeter-totters, riding rails) employed. Freeriding venues are more numerous than are places to downhill.
Downhill Mountain Bikes
Because of the demands of downhill riding -- the punishing drops and encounters with immovable objects -- these bikes need to be sturdy. Their frames tend to be stout, and they require hefty front and rear suspension systems with more than 20 centimeters of travel -- the distance the shock can expand and contract to absorb the impact of hitting an obstacle. Cross-country bikes, by comparison, generally have about half as much travel. The tires are beefier and knobbier than other mountain bikes, and because of the frequent need to slow or stop quickly, these bikes universally come equipped with heavy-duty hydraulic disc brakes. All of these features add weight: A downhill bike can easily weigh 40 pounds or more. But that’s of little consequence to the downhill rider, who will be riding only downhill.
Freeride Mountain Bikes
Again, since freeriding is a cross between cross-country and downhill, the equipment tends to be a cross as well, though a freeride bike more closely resembles a downhill bike. The suspension systems aren’t quite as plush, typically with closer to 15 cm of travel, and the bike’s frame tends to be slightly more compact than that of a downhill bike, in part to make it easier to maneuver. The need for maneuverability also means a freeride bike needs to be lighter: most bikes in this category weigh between 30 and 38 pounds.