Unleashing Adventure: The All Terrain Bike Explained
All-Terrain Bikes, or ATBs, are the ultimate companions for mixed-terrain adventures. Join us on a journey to explore the essence of ATBs, unraveling their unique characteristics, and discovering how they stack up against other bike formats.
Off-road cycling genres have become a muddled mess of overlapping and confusing terminology. Back in the day, we simply had road and mountain bikes. Fast forward 2 decades, and mountain biking has evolved into an entirely different sport. Moreover, the term "mountain bike" has been rendered utterly meaningless by marketing teams, further dividing it into numerous genres in an attempt to pretend it all makes sense.
Since returning to off-road cycling, I've grappled with how to classify or explain the type of riding I do. I've used a plethora of adjectives like mixed-surface, rigid-mountain biking, all-road and more. Unfortunately, these terms have done little to help me effectively convey the nature of the activity to others. What's even more challenging is showcasing my bikes to people who end up questioning why I would opt for a fully rigid mountain bike or one with drop bars. It's disheartening to think that people have been conditioned to believe that all bikes are designed for very specific activities. Terms like "trail" and "enduro" irk me (even though they are valid classifications) as they are one-dimensional and marketed as the only way to ride. It feels like the concept of a bike versatile enough for singletrack, gravel, and road riding isn't even considered possible to the masses, thanks to classic divide-and-conquer corporate structures and marketing tactics. Versatile and self-serviceable bikes are hard to make money from.
Fortunately, there are bikes out there that offer the much-needed versatility we crave, known as All Terrain Bikes, or ATBs for short. I recall a time long ago when my first mountain bike was referred to as an All Terrain Bike, but that term faded from the cycling lexicon for decades. It was Logan from Bikepacking.com who resurrected it in his ATB Manifesto a couple of years ago. Reading the Manifesto felt like finding an oasis in the desert, and if you haven't had the chance to read it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so.
In this article, we'll delve into what exactly an All Terrain Bike is, what they excel at, how they compare to mountain and gravel bikes, and even look at some manufacturers crafting these versatile machines.
What is an ATB?
It's rather simple, really. An All-Terrain Bike as the name implies, is a bicycle created for a vast spectrum of terrains and activities. It's often likened to the Swiss Army knife of the cycling world—a versatile companion for any adventure.
As mentioned earlier, the term "all terrain" found its origins in the 1980s when mountain bike companies first adopted it. Their aim was to distinguish early MTBs from road bikes. The early mountain bikes were essentially modified cruiser bikes. Riders in California's Marin County and other mountainous regions began customizing their bicycles to handle rough, off-road trails. As off-road cycling grew, the term “mountain biking” became the label of the off-road category and “all terrain” was largely forgotten except for in places like France where VTT (Velo Tout Terrain) became a trail classification.
All Terrain Bikes stand out due to a set of defining characteristics that differentiate them from other bicycle types. These bikes are known for their adaptable frame geometry, robust construction, versatile tire options, and rugged components. ATBs are largely designed to be highly mechanical and serviceable, promoting customization and facilitating trailside maintenance when needed.
Frame & Geometry
Inspired by 90s MTB geometry, ATBs are crafted for off-road durability. They aim to balance stability and agility, rendering them versatile and ready for nearly any surface. ATBs generally have a longer reach and head tube angles that can vary between 68 - 72 degrees, enhancing precision during descents and ensuring control for steep, rugged climbs. Many ATB frames will also feature mounting bosses for racks, cages and bags.
Tires & Wheels
The versatility of an ATB hinges on its wheels and tires. Most ATBs offer ample clearance for a range of MTB tire sizes, including the larger plus-sized options. Additionally, ATB riders have the flexibility to choose from various wheel sizes, ranging from 26 to 27.5 and even 29 inches. These selections of tire and wheel sizes are highly individual and can provide insights into a rider's preferred style and terrain.
Most ATBs incorporate mountain bike components, which are better suited for rugged terrains. Notably, mountain biking drivetrains offer a broader spectrum of gear ratios, with the lowest enabling riders to conquer the steepest climbs, and the higher gears facilitating speedy descents on gravel roads. It's currently trendy to opt for a 1x front drive, but this choice remains highly personal.
Sure, handlebars are on all bikes but not every bike can accommodate any set of handlebars. ATBs offer a remarkable degree of flexibility in terms of handlebar choice. You can set them up with drop bars, straight bars, and riser bars, each with varying degrees of backward sweep and rise. This choice is highly individual and tailored to the rider's specific preferences.
ATBs are commonly crafted from materials like aluminum, steel, or titanium. Aluminum frames are lightweight and corrosion-resistant, while steel and titanium offer durability and a comfortable ride. There are also some carbon bikes out there that can be classified as “all terrain” but don't do it. Stick to steel and Ti.
What Do ATBs Do Well?
All Terrain Bikes excel on a variety of trails, making them perfect for riders who enjoy exploring different landscapes. Whether you're navigating tight singletracks or cruising along wider forest paths, an ATB can handle it all. The versatility of ATBs makes them an excellent choice for bikepacking adventures or long-distance touring. Load up your panniers or bikepacking bags, and you're ready to embark on multi-day journeys.
The term “all terrain” seems to conjure misty mountains and pristine singletrack in the mind's eye. While this is not wrong, ATBs can also be used in an urban setting as well as out in nature. The sturdiness and thick tires that are helping you up and down mountains are also good for bashing around city streets, potholes, and curbs to get groceries, commuting or whatever it is city folk do.
Describing such a versatile object can be a challenging endeavor; the more you attempt to pin down a definition, the more elusive it becomes, like trying to squeeze water or sand. Let's try comparing how ATBs stack up against other types of off-road bikes.
ATB vs. MTB
When comparing ATBs to mountain bikes, it becomes evident that these two bike types share some similarities, and it's not difficult to see their common lineage on the bike family tree. Depending on the type of mountain bike, MTBs are typically longer and lower, featuring a much slacker head tube angle compared to ATBs. This positioning places the rider toward the rear of the bike, enhancing downhill maneuverability. In contrast, ATBs tend to adopt a slightly more aggressive rider position, positioning the rider closer to the front of the bike for more control and speed on varying landscapes.
A major characteristic of modern mountain bikes is the advanced and adjustable suspension systems, ideal for extreme downhill challenges, whereas ATBs offer simpler suspensions for versatile use—if any. Many ATBers will joke that their suspension is in their low inflated plus sized tires.
ATB vs. Gravel
We should mention that ATBs have more in common with modern gravel bikes than with MTBs. In fact, getting into an “ATB vs. Gravel” discussion can be a bit confusing. However, gravel bikes prioritize lightweight frames reminiscent of road bikes and this is the key difference—gravel originated from road riding and All Terrain has its DNA in mountain biking.
Most gravel bikes feature narrower 700c tires with smoother tread patterns, optimizing speed and efficiency on gravel and pavement. ATBs come equipped with wider, knobby tires for maximum traction on a variety of surfaces, from trails to gravel paths—again borrowed from MTBs.
To confuse the issue a bit further, is the topic of handlebars. 99.9% of gravel bikes have drop bars which we know is an option for ATBs as well. This similarity puts much overlap into the Venn diagram of the two bikes types.
Both bike types offer diverse gearing options, with gravel bikes designed for smooth transitions across a broad gear range and ATBs ensuring efficient climbs and flat stretches. Gravel bikes excel in mixed-terrain riding scenarios, optimizing efficiency and comfort for extended journeys. In contrast, ATBs epitomize versatility and adaptability, excelling across a broader spectrum of terrains, making them the go-to choice for adventurous off-road exploration.
Brands, Communities & More
Being an ATB rider encompasses more than just bike ownership; it embodies a unique mindset. This mindset is defined by a belief that any surface is rideable, whether it's navigating technical trails or embarking on an adventure right from your doorstep instead of driving to a trailhead. These perspectives set ATB riders apart from the broader cycling community. So, let's delve into some of the brands and communities that embrace this distinctive mindset.
Here are some ATB builders and companies to get you started. You can also check out our annual collection of ATB builders here.
- Baphomet 🇺🇸 - Website
- Crust 🇺🇸 - Website
- Hudski Bikes 🇺🇸 - Website
- Kona 🇺🇸 - Website
- Panorama Cycles 🇨🇦 - Website
- Surly Bikes 🇺🇸 - Website
- Rune Bicycles 🇬🇧 - Website
ATB Social Accounts
A few ATB & bikepacking specific social accounts to dig more into the bikes and culture. If you would like to be added to this list, get in touch.
- Genosack 🇺🇸 - Instagram
- ATB Rides 🇺🇸 - Instagram
- Mythical State Of 🇺🇸 - Instagram
- Bikes or Death 🇺🇸 - Instagram
All Terrain Bikes are the ultimate companions for off-road enthusiasts. Their versatility allows riders to conquer a wide range of terrains, from rugged trails to gravel roads. While they share characteristics with mountain and gravel bikes, ATBs strike a unique balance, making them an excellent choice for those who crave adventure beyond boundaries. So, whether you're an experienced trail blazer or a curious beginner, consider adding an all terrain bike to your cycling arsenal and embark on unforgettable off-road journeys.