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A “crash course” in MTB lingo

A fun look at some of our sport's more tricky terminology

Photo by Aaron Puttcamp, Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League

Sometimes, mountain bike lingo feels like another language. For a beginner rider, coach, or parent, the vocabulary that comes with this sport can be overwhelming. As we know, language is a powerful tool, so we’ve worked with some of our trusted partners to kick-off this lingo list and clarify some of cycling’s techy terms!

Coaches, share this list with athletes/parents who are new to mountain biking!


Tubeless: Tubeless tires are exactly that— a tire that does not require an inner tube to stay inflated. The tire seats (sits flush) to the rim, then sealant is added to trap in any last escaping air. 

29er/27.5er/26er: 29er (29-incher) refers to the size of the wheel. 27.5 inch and 26 inch wheels are also used in adult mountain bike frames but 29er is the most popular. A current trend in the industry is running a 29er front wheel and 27.5er rear wheel

Clipless: Despite what you may think, clipless pedals actually DO require you to clip your shoes into the pedal. Once you’re clipped in, you’re locked into place! Bonus lesson: The term clip is archaic and referred to an old shoe and pedal system that is no longer used. The term clipless was coined when they designed a system that more closely resembles modern day clipless shoe and pedal systems. 

SPD/flats: SPD is a variation of a clipless cleat and pedal system. Flats are pedals have no interface to clip your shoe into and can be used with flat cycling shoes or really any other type of casual shoe. 

Mechanical: This is never a good thing! This means your bike has broken in some way and needs repair before you can continue riding. A flat tire or snapped chain would be an example of a mechanical. 

Thanks to the experts at Competitive Cyclist for sharing their key definitions for the terms above!

Our friends at Competitive Cyclist, SRAM, Borah Teamwear, and IMBA have helped us compile and define this list of tricky terminology. Check out the coach and athlete benefits offered by these fantastic NICA partners. For coach-specific offers, visit the NICA Education Center and look for your custom coach benefits on the right side of your dashboard.


Derailleur: A derailleur is the mechanism that moves a chain along the sprocket to shift the gears. A ‘1x’ bike will only have a rear derailleur, but a ‘2x’ or ‘3x’ system will also have a front derailleur. 

1x/ 1-by: A 1x (pronounced one-bye) refers to the number of chainrings at the ‘front’ at the crank. A bike with 2 or 3 chainrings is a ‘2x’ or ‘3x’. A bike with only one chainring does not have a front derailleur, as there is no need to change the front gear. 


Travel: Travel is how much movement a suspension fork or rear shock has—usually a measurement of how far the wheel (front or rear) moves in a vertical plane as the suspension compresses. 

Full suspension / “full squish”: A full-suspension bike has suspension for both wheels: a suspension fork for the front wheel and a rear shock for the rear wheel. These bikes tend to be more “comfortable” to ride as the rear shock absorbs damage from the trail. “Full squish” is a fun term for full suspension.

Hardtail: A hardtail bike uses a suspension fork for the front wheel, but maintains a rigid rear end of the bike. Hardtails tend to be lighter and more efficient without the addition of a rear shock.

Thanks to the experts at SRAM for sharing their key definitions for these suspension terms!


Bibs: A padded bicycle short which does not have a waist band, rather, the short is held up by shoulder straps which are typically made from a breathable mesh fabric.

Kit: Refers to a top (jersey) and bottom (short), typically with custom text and graphics incorporated throughout, to identify the team or school which the rider is attached to. Worn together, the rider is now “kitted out”!

Baggies: A looser fitting short, more traditional in style, which is worn over padded bib shorts. Most custom baggies are considered “race baggies”, which are more of a slim fit than a freeride, or enduro baggie.

Thanks to the experts at Borah Teamwear for sharing their key definitions for these terms!


Right of way: All trail users have a right to the great outdoors, but there are rules that we follow to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all users. The right of way specifies which trail users have ‘priority’ when passing one another. In general, cyclists should yield to all other trail users, including hikers and horseback riders. Cyclists traveling downhill should also yield to cyclists riding uphill. Don’t forget to check your local trail system rules! 

Hero dirt: Hero dirt refers to trail conditions that are grippier, and therefore faster, than usual. Riders will feel like they have more traction in these conditions. This can occur a day or two after rain, on almost any kind of trail. Although it can be fun, be cautious with beginner riders who may bite off more than they can chew! Also keep in mind that if the conditions are too wet, you risk damaging the trail permanently. If that is the case, stick to hard-packed trail systems or hop off the trail altogether.


Green/blue/black trails: Mountain bike trails are generally rated in difficulty using an industry standard system. A ‘Green Circle’ designates an easy trail, a ‘Blue Square’ indicates a more difficult trail, and a ‘Black Diamond’ represents a very difficult trail. If you’re interested in more specific details, check out IMBA’s Trail Difficulty Rating System.

Thanks to the experts at IMBA for sharing their trail rating system!

Additional terms

MIPS: You'll see this term come up when you're looking at bike helmets. MIPS is an acronym that stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. MIPS is a technology that reduces rotational impact forces with the goal of reducing the risk of concussion.

eBikes: eBikes are bikes that are built with a motor. There are a wide range of eBikes, some built with minimal motor assistance, and some with lots. eBikes may or may not be permitted on your local trail systems. Make sure to check your regional trail authorities before taking an eBike out to practice. 

Pedal assist: Most eBikes used by NICA coaches are considered “Pedal assist” bikes. This means that the motor does not engage unless the rider is pedaling. 

What other words, terms, and lingo do you find tricky or hyper-specific to our sport? Share them with us and we'll do our best to provide clarity and a strong definition you can use with your teams and athletes!