Mountain bike terminology explained – an A to Z guide of jargon from the world of MTB

A rider doing a big air on a mountain bike
Mountain bike terminology can be confusing at times (Image credit: Paul Brett)

Mountain bike terminology can be confusing at times, and it can seem like it has its own language. What does it mean, for example, for your suspension to 'bottom out', and what are 'braking bumps'? What exactly are the differences between the different types of mountain bikes? What are the different styles of riding such as cross-country mountain biking, trail mountain biking, and gravity mountain biking? And there are plenty of weird technical terms to get your head around too.

Here at Bike Perfect, we believe that mountain biking should be accessible to everyone. That's why we've created this list of mountain bike terminology – an A to Z of words and terms that you might hear at the bike shop or trailhead. Whether you're a beginner mountain biker or an expert, everyone has something new to learn. 

Mountain bike terminology – a comprehensive A to Z of all things MTB

Charlie Hatton in his rainbow jersey riding at Red Bull Hardline 2024

Knowing a high pivot from a single pivot won't make you a World Champ but at least you'll know what you're talking about (Image credit: Paul Brett)

1. Bike, components and accessories

For this first section, we tackle everything you need to know about the best mountain bikes around. From mechanical terms to bike geometry and parts, we have you covered. When buying a new bike, you need to be familiar with things like wheelbase and head tube angle. Plus, knowing the different parts of a bike is a crucial mountain bike skill when fixing your bike or bringing it to a mechanic.

Josh Bryceland bottoms out his suspension at Red Bull Hardline 2024

Josh Bryceland and an extreme example of how to 'bottom out' your suspension (Image credit: Paul Brett)

AXS: SRAM's wireless shifting ecosystem

Allen key: A tool used to adjust Allen head bolts. Comes in multiple sizes and configurations. Also called an Allen wrench 

Alloy: A metal mixture. Often used to describe Aluminum frames

Aluminum: A common material to make bike frames and parts out of 

Axle: The part in the middle of your hub that the wheel spins around 

Barrel adjuster: A knob that adjusts shift cable tension

Bibs: Padded cycling shorts that feature shoulder straps. Can be worn alone or under baggy shorts

Bottle cage: A cage made from plastic, metal or carbon that connects to your frame and holds your water bottle

Bottom bracket: A set of bearings inside of a shell that sits inside your frame which allows the cranks to spin

Bottom out: When there is so much force that your bike's suspension travel is all used up an audible thud can be heard and felt

Brake: What you use to slow down

Brake bleed: Flushing hydraulic brake lines with clean hydraulic fluid to remove air bubbles and contamination. Also performed on hydraulic dropper posts

Brake caliper: Houses a disc brake's pads and pistons

Brake pads: Brake pads are what squeeze a brake's disc to slow down the bike

Brake piston: Pistons are pushed by hydraulic fluid to engage the brake pads

Cable housing: A protective hose that a cable sits in 

Carbon fiber: A composite material used to make performance bike frames and parts

Cassette: The gears on the rear of the bike

Chain: Powers the bike when the pedals are turned

Chain guide: Installed to prevent the chain from slipping off a chainring. Not as common since 1x chainring technology has improved

Chain link: A chain is made up of individual links. A master link is the final link that connects the chain

Chainring: The front sprocket that's connected to the crank

Chain stay: The part of the frame that connects the bottom bracket to the rear dropouts

Chamois: The padding that is sewn into cycling shorts 

Cleat: Connected to a shoe and clips into clipless pedals

Clipless: Pedals where you clip into the pedal with a cleat. The name is derived from when pedals had toe clips with straps

Clutch: A system in a rear derailleur that keeps the chain tensioned on rough terrain

Cog: A single gear on the cassette, also called a sprocket

Compound: Refers to the rubber formula and technologies in a tire

Compression (suspension): High-speed and low-speed compression settings on suspension adjusts how the suspension absorbs vibrations and impacts

Crank: The part that connects the pedals to the bike

Crank arm: The long piece of the crank that connects to the pedal

Crankset: Refers to both crank arms, the chainring, spindle and other crank-related hardware

Derailleur: The mechanism attached to the rear of the bike that shifts the gears

Derailleur hanger: The part that connects the derailleur to the frame

Disc brake: A brake that uses a disc as the friction mechanism, as opposed to a rim

Drivetrain: The entire system of components that's responsible for propelling the bike forward when you pedal

Dropouts: a pair of slots in your frame or fork that your wheel fits into

Dropper post: A seat post with adjustable height, commonly controlled by a bar-mounted lever. Can be hydraulic or cable-actuated

Fat bike: A bike with fat tires that can be ridden on deep snow and sand

Fork: The part that holds the front wheel on, can be rigid or have front suspension

Fork lowers: The lower tubes that the stanchions slide into when a suspension fork is compressed

Fork uppers: The upper tubes that slide into the fork lowers

Frame: The chassis that all the other bike parts are connected to

Freehub: Part of the hub that allows you to freewheel

Freewheeling: Riding on the bike without pedaling, also known as coasting

Front triangle: The front portion of a frame

Full-face: A helmet that includes a chin bar and fully protects the head

Half-shell: A "normal" helmet that does not have a chin bar

Handlebars: The bar that connects to the bike that is used to steer

Headset: The bearing interface that allows the fork to turn inside the headtube

High-pivot: High-pivot mountain bikes are claimed to offer improved suspension performance. The design raises the bike’s main pivot with an idler used to reduce chain growth and pedal kickback. This creates a more rearward axle path as the suspension compresses and gives plush-feeling suspension with better overall grip.

Hub: The component at the center of the wheel and connects to the wheel's rim via spokes. A freehub is in the rear of the bike and is what allows you to coast

Hydraulic: Any component that's controlled by hydraulic fluid rather than mechanical means

Index shifting: Modern bicycle shifting features divets in the shifter that allow each click of the lever to correspond with a particular gear

Inner width: The width of a rim measured from the inner rim walls

Knobs: The tread on your tires

Linkage: The parts of a frames full suspension system that connect a shock and frame

Mechanical: Bike parts that aren't controlled by hydraulics or electronics

Multi-tool: A small tool with multiple functions that can be fit into pockets, backpacks or even sometimes frames

Narrow-Wide: A term used to describe the alternating tooth shape of modern 1x drivetrains which holds a chain securely without a chain guide

Nipples: These control the spoke tension and are used to true a wheel 

O-ring: The small rubber ring on suspension used to measure sag

One by (or 1x): A bike's drivetrain that uses a single front chainring

Pivot: The pivot on an MTB refers to how the main frame, rear shock and swingarm are connected. The pivots directly affect the motion of the rear wheel when the suspension moves with various pivot arrangements including single-pivot, high-pivot, four-bar or virtual-pivot

Plus tires: Wider than a normal tire but not as wide as a fat bike

Presta: The valve type for most tubes and all tubeless setups

Rear triangle: The rear part of a frame

Rebound: How fast or slow the fork recovers from being compressed

Rim: The part of the wheel that the tire sits on

Rim tape: Placed on the inside bed of a rim

SPD: Shimano's pedal and cleat technology

Sag: How much the suspension is compresses with the rider sitting on the bike

Shifter: The lever that you press to shift your gears

Shock: The rear suspension on a full-suspension bike

Singlespeed: A bike with only one gear attached to the freewheel

Slack: Used when referring to a bike's geometry which has lower than normal angles, predominantly head angle or seat angle

Spokes: The part that connects the hub and rim

Through-axle: A removable 12mm wheel axle that threads into your fork or rear dropouts 

Tire casing: Technologies and materials that prevent slashes, punctures and flats

Tire sealant: Liquid that seals tubeless tires and can help prevent flat tires from punctures

Tire tread: The various knobs and patterns that make up the contact surface of a tire

Torque wrench: A wrench that can tighten a bolt to a specific torque, measured in newton meters

Torx wrench: A tool to tighten or loosen star-shaped Torx bolts

Tubeless: Tires that don't require a tube. Are sealed with tire sealant and allow riders to run lower tire pressure and prevent some puncture flats. Nearly all mountain bikers will run a tubeless set-up these days

UDH: Universal Derailleur Hanger is probably the most highly compatible MTB component ever made. Designed to be a sacrificial lamb in the event of an impact, it protects the frame and derailleur, is easily replaced and is seen on most modern MTBs

Wheelbase: The measurement between the two wheels. Part of the geometry that determines how a bike rides and handles

2. Out on the trails

In our next section on mountain bike terminology, we take on everything you may find out on the trails. Mountain bikers talk a lot about berms, jumps, drops, and rock gardens. A garden made out of rocks, what's that? Continue reading to find out! 

Rider descending on singletrack trail in woods

Do you know your singletrack from your fire road? (Image credit: Paul Brett)

A-line: A challenging section of trail that may have features like jumps, drops, and rock gardens. Often there will be a B-line, or go-around, that less skilled riders can use. A-line is also the name of a very famous jump trail in the Whistler Bike Park

Apex: The middle point of a corner. Braking here will kill your momentum and increase the risk of crashing

B-line: An easier option compared to an A-line

Backcountry: General term to describe trails or terrain that is remote and hard to reach

Bench cut: When a trail is cut into a hillside, resembling a bench

Berm: A corner on a trail that has been intentionally banked to provide more grip and increase trail flow. Learning how to ride berms is an essential mountain biking skill

Bike park: Any sort of area that's been specifically built for mountain bikers. Predominantly refers to lift-served, downhill bikes parks at ski resorts, but can also refer to pump tracks, dirt jumps or even trail centers 

Black: An expert skill level trail

Blue: An intermediate skill level trail

Braking bumps: Divets in the surface of a trail that form in and near corners and are caused by excessive braking. These are formed when a trail sees lots of repetitive use by riders

Braking point: The optimal point or general zone before a corner where a rider should brake to slow down before entering the corner or technical feature

Case pad: The top portion of a jumps landing that's built to accommodate casing. Even with a case pad, casing can cause crashes and is undesirable

Chicken run: A rollable alternative line next to a jump or drop 

Chunder: A particularly rough section of trail

Chute: A particularly steep downhill section of trail. It's like riding down a laundry chute

Climb: Any uphill section of trail

Climbing trail: A trail that's primarily used to climb to the top of the hill

Compression (trail): Low points or transitions on trails that cause vertical G-forces and can throw unsuspecting riders off balance

Crux: A challenging point on a trail or individual feature that is essential to clear smoothly if a rider wants to successfully ride the trail

Descent: Any downhill section of trail

Directional: A trail that is designated as either uphill-only or downhill-only. Entire loops can be directional too

Dirt (types): Sandy, loamy, grippy, rocky, gravel, dry, loose, wet, muddy, moist, sticky, hero dirt, velcro, hardpack, kitty litter, moon dust, perfect, fun, dirty

Dirt jumping: The act of sessioning a set of dirt jumps on a dirt jump bike or BMX bike

Dirt jumps: A series of jumps made with dirt takeoffs and landings. Often with steep lips to prioritize air time and tricks 

Double: A jump that has a gap between the takeoff and landing. Don't case it! 

Doubletrack: A trail whose width is midway between singletrack and a road

Downhill park: A series of downhill trails of tracks that are often built at ski resorts

Drop: A vertical section of trail that forces riders to catch air, often off of a rock, cliff or man-made feature

Fall-line: The path of least resistance down a hill. Water flows down the fall-line, so trails that go directly down a fall line are subject to lots of erosion and rutting but can also have more grip

Feature: An individual obstacle on a trail like a jump, drop, or rock garden

Fire road: Refers to a dirt road. Also can be called an access road, landrover track or forest road

Flat corner: A corner that is flat, with no berm or banking to assist the rider

Gap: Any section of a trail where riders can jump from one part and land in another while catching air 

Gradient: The steepness of a trail. Can be calculated and is measured as a percentage

Gravel: Small rocks found on a trail or road. Now a popular cycling discipline that encompasses riding on any type of dirt road

Green: A beginner skill level trail

Grip: How well your tires connect with the dirt

Hardpack: Dirt that is compacted 

Hip: A jump where the take-off and landing are not in line with each other 

Kicker: The take-off of a jump

Ladder bridge: A bridge made out of wood that resembles a ladder and can serve multiple purposes from crossing a stream to creating a drop or jump

Line: The path a rider takes down a section of trail

Lip: The top edge of a jump and the part of the jump that will most influence the take-off

Loose: Crumbly or gravelly dirt that is tricky to find grip or traction in. Can also refer to a rider with an out of control riding style

Multi-use: A trail that is open to bikes, hikers and equestrians too

Natural: Natural trails don't have many man-made features and have a primitive feeling like somebody decided to ride a bike across the landscape one day and a trail has formed

No fall zone: An area where the consequences of falling are particularly treacherous 

North Shore: Ladder bridges, skinnies, and other features that were popular during the birth of the freeride discipline in the North Shore region of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Off-camber: When the trail surface slopes perpendicular to the riding direction

Pro line: A trail that is so challenging that only pros or experienced experts will possess the skills to ride it

Pumptrack: A track of rollers, jumps, and berms arranged in a circuit designed to be ridden by pumping rather than pedaling 

Red: A trail difficulty that is different in different countries, difficulty will usually fall between blue and black level trails. Sometimes also marks a pro line

Ridgeline: A trail that travels along a ridge

Rock garden: A series of rocks or just a rocky section of a trail with multiple lines

Rock roll: A large rock or slab of rock where riders roll down the rock surface

Roost: When a rider corners and kicks up dust and dirt

Scrub: A technique used by racers when hitting a jump to stay low to the ground and reduce airtime

Singletrack: A narrow trail, generally with one line choice

Skinny: A skinny bridge or log ride that test's riders' balance skills and coordination

Social trail: A trail that was built without being approved by land managers. Also called illegal trails, pirate trails, secret trails or unsanctioned trails. These types of trails are embedded in MTB culture, but getting caught building or riding them can result in a fine

Spine: A narrow, often steep trail that travels down a ridgeline. Is also used to refer to a jump with a steep take-off and landing and no gap

Step down: A jump where the take-off is higher than the landing

Step up: A jump where the landing is higher than the takeoff. Good for doing tricks

Switchback: A 180-degree turn in a trail. Used to travel up or down steep slopes

Tabletop: A jump where the gap between the takeoff and landing has been filled in with dirt. Also, a trick in which you lay the bike flat in the air

Technical: When a trail has lots of challenging features like rocks and roots

Tight: A trail with lots of tight turns and other obstacles that make finding flow more difficult

Track: Another name for a trail, usually downhill or enduro trails. Also could mean race track 

Trail center: An area with multiple trails of different difficulty levels. Usually has amenities like a parking lot, bathroom, and trail signs. UK English

Trailhead: The start of a trail or multiple trails. Often times there's a parking area

Trail system: An area with multiple, connected trails. Similar to a trail center. American English

3. Riding terminology

Now that you know all about mountain bike trails, let's talk about riding those trails. Here's a taste of life on a mountain bike, whether it's being pinned on a group ride or finding the flow while drifting. 

Tom Pidcock whipping the new Pinarello Dogma XC

Tom Pidcock 'whipping' his Pinarello XC bike (Image credit: Pinarello)

Bunny hop: Using your body to jump the bike into the air without a kicker or takeoff, primarily used to avoid trail obstacles such as rocks and roots

Burp: When cornering forces cause air to escape from a tubeless tire, a burping sound can be heard

Case: When you come up short on a jump and your front or rear wheel doesn't make the landing causing a harsh impact

Clean: Making it through a technical section without dabbing a foot

Dab: Putting a foot down while riding 

Drift: When the tires momentarily lose traction in a corner

Dropped: When a rider can't keep up with the group

Endo: Grabbing your front brake so the rear of your bike leaves the ground and you balance on your front wheel only

Flow: The state of feeling completely smooth and in control when riding

Flow trail: A trail designed with berms and jumps to induce the feeling of flow

Group ride: An organized ride with multiple people. Also called a club ride

Huck: The act of hitting a particularly big jump or drop

KOM: King of the mountain. The fastest rider on a Strava segment. the fastest woman is the QOM or queen of the mountain. Derived from the Tour de France King of the Mountains climbing classification

Over the bars (OTB): When you fall forwards over the handlebars

Pinned: A rider is pinned when they are riding very fast at an expert level

Manual: Riding on the back wheel without pedaling 

No drop ride: A ride that caters for all levels of rider ability and fitness

Rail: Hitting a corner perfectly, as if the rider was on rails

Send-it: Hitting a jump or drop with no fear

Session: The act of repeating a section of trail, jump or drop for fun or to practice skills

Shralp: Initiating a drift in a corner without brakes, usually when squaring off a corner

Stoppie: A rolling endo

Trackstand: Balancing on the bike while staying stationary 

Wheelie: Riding on the back wheel while pedaling 

Whip: Turning the bike in the air in a stylish manner 

Washout: When a crash is caused by tires losing traction

4. Disciplines and competition

There are a wide variety of mountain bike disciplines, from cross-country and trail riding to downhill and freeride. We explain it all below as well as some racing terms that are good to know. 

The 2024 XC Women's field racing at Glentress

Cross-country is one of many disciplines of mountain bike racing (Image credit: Paul Brett)

Adventure riding: A broad term to describe any type of riding or bikepacking that puts an emphasis on exploring and riding routes that you haven't before 

All-mountain: A somewhat outdated term to describe a bike type and riding discipline that was the precursor to enduro riding and racing 

Cross-country: Discipline of riding and racing where efficiency is prioritized on both the climbs and descents. Cross-country bikes are either hardtails or full-suspension bikes with up to 120mm of travel

Downhill: A riding and racing discipline where riders are shuttled to the top of the hill via car or ski lift and ride steep, challenging trails back down

Enduro: A riding and racing discipline where riders pedal a long course but are only timed on a series of downhill sections

Enduro World Series (EWS): The most elite professional enduro race series

Freeride: A type of riding and competition featuring big jumps, drops and other features where judging is based on tricks and style. Red Bull Rampage is a freeride event. 

National Championships: A race in any country. The winner is referred to as the National Champion until the next National Championship race the following year. 

Slopestyle: A specialized type of riding and competition featuring jumps, drops and features that are used to perform tricks

Trials riding: Navigating an extremely technical specialist course using advanced bike handling

UCI: Union Cyclist International. The international cycling governing body

World Championships: A race held every year at varying locations. The winner is proclaimed the World Champion until the next World Championships the following year

World Cup: The most elite level of downhill and cross-country mountain bike racing 

Ryan Simonovich

Ryan Simonovich has been riding and racing for nearly a decade. He got his start as a cross-country mountain bike racer in California, where he cultivated his love for riding all types of bikes. Ryan eventually gravitated toward enduro and downhill racing but has also been found in the occasional road and cyclo-cross events. Today, he regularly rides the trails of Durango, Colorado, and is aiming to make a career out of chronicling the sport of cycling. 

Rides: Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized Tarmac SL4

With contributions from