For someone new to the world of mountain biking, choosing a new mountain bike can be a daunting task, especially when you don’t really know what you are looking at or for. How much should I spend? What brands are best? What type of MTB do I need? Just some of questions that will run through your mind.
Many beginners are on borrowed bikes, bikes their friends told them to buy or simply the best bike they could afford or justify when starting out. And at least that’s a start! They may even be on a good choice of bike for them at this point in time. On the other hand, they may be riding something that is seriously inhibiting their forward progress as they try to learn.
The exciting thing about being a newbie to MTB is the learning curve you are on. Especially if you are learning with a reputable coach. The learning curve is steep, meaning you are learning lots and gaining skills in good, solid leaps and bounds. Inevitably, as your skills improve, a beginner rider starts to see their own potential and their riding style and interests develop. Often the bike they started on isn’t the ideal MTB for the type of riding they do most often anymore. Often it’s not even the right size either.
So, let’s assume it’s time to buy a new bike. Your first, real MTB. Lets look at a few points you should consider.
1 The Right Size
There’s no compromise here. No matter how much you are spending or the type of bike you are purchasing, it absolutely must be the correct size for you. If not, you won’t be able to position yourself on the bike correctly for the myriad of manoeuvres and skills you’ll need to perform on any given ride. You will also risk fatigue or even injury from simply riding the bike, let alone being more likely to actually fall off. You will also not be able to put the hard earned power from your legs into the pedals and then into ground in the most efficient manner. The right size bike also means that you are not pushing extra length or weight around the trails than you need. So then, how to get the right size?
If you are buying new, then it should be no problem. Go to a bike shop and the sales person will sell you the right size. Maybe. If they stand back, look you up and down and say something like “You are medium”, and then proceed to try and take your money, walk away. If they know their stuff they may well look you up and down and suggest the size they think, but they will also check to be sure. They’ll possibly consult manufacturer’s size charts based on your height and put you on a bike to see how you reach the bars and pedals at the very least. They may even take some measurements of your body. If they are exceptional, and you’ve chosen to buy from them, they’ll be sure to set the bike up to suit you, even if it means swapping small parts like bar stems to ensure your comfort and position are optimal.
Test riding a bike, once you have been told it’s the right size is highly advisable. Many shops will allow you to take a demo bike in the right size out for the day to see how it feels.
Compare yourself to others. Have a look at other, experienced riders that are of your height and see what size bikes they are riding to get a general idea. Be aware, sizes can vary between brands. Most other riders are only too happy to help a new rider get answers. Chances are, if 9 out of 10 riders your height are riding mediums, and the shop thinks you need a medium sized frame, then it’s a fair bet you need a medium sized bike. Something to consider if you are female is whether to buy a female specific bike or not. Some brands offer female bikes and they are usually smaller in relative size than male or unisex versions. For instance, a medium male bike will be larger than a medium female bike. There may be other female specific changes as well such as the top bar being lower to allow a female more clearance when standing over the bike. It may have a shorter length top tube also to allow for the shorter reach of many female riders. However, if a male bike fits you better, buy the male bike! If you are buying 2nd hand, then riding a few mate’s bikes to get an idea of the right size is a good idea. Hopefully you know someone that has good knowledge of bike sizing to help make sure you get the right size. Buying second hand can certainly save money but there’s nearly always something that needs fixing or upgrading on the bike. Sometimes there’s a good reason why they are selling it, and that reason may not be good for you. Buyer beware when buying 2nd hand and we suggest it’s best left to the experienced rider.
2 Full Suspension or Hardtail?
As most new riders enter MTBing as XC (cross country) style riders, this article will be tailored to that majority.
For those not sure of the difference, a full suspension bike has suspension front and rear. Hardtails have no rear suspension; only front suspension forks, hence the name. So which is the right bike for you? Once upon a time, full suspension bikes were much heavier, far less efficient unless on very bumpy stuff and cost loads more than hardtails. Full suspension bikes are still way more expensive. However, weight difference and efficiency have improved to the point where some differences are not so great. In some situations, where a hardtail was once better, the full suspension bike might now be the better choice.
So, let’s look at the cheaper hardtails. We will assume we are comparing similar quality full suspension bikes with hardtails of the same wheel size. Hardtails are often better for most climbing, although, if it’s a long, technically difficult climb, many full suspension bikes can climb as well or better due to better traction for the rear wheel. Hardtails have faster acceleration out of corners due to no power loss to suspension sag and being a tad lighter. Hardtails are better choices if you intend to do a lot of commuting on the same bike. Hardtails have less bits to break or maintain. So why buy a full suspension bike then? We’ve already mentioned they suck more money out of your bank account, but there is a variety of reasons why so many people ride full suspension these days. One reason is, in this age of MTB Parks springing up everywhere, many trails are built with full suspension in mind. They are full of rocks, roots, small jumps and other features that suit full suspension very well. Full suspension bikes soak up the bumps more efficiently than hardtails and tend to descend better (especially on bumpy descents) allowing for more control and steering input in the process. Being able to compress the suspension with body movement allows for the ability to spring the bike up and over obstacles far more easily than a hardtail bike. Not having every bump the rear wheel hits send a shock through your body is another advantage to full suspension and adds to the extra comfort level you get. When you learn to jump a little, the landings are often far softer and safer. The rear end of a full suspension bike will ‘track’ better (meaning not change direction unnecessarily) and not bounce around as much on fast, bumpy sections. Even on flat trail, if the going gets bumpy it becomes very difficult to pedal on a hardtail whereas a full suspension bike will often allow you to maintain your pedaling and therefore forward momentum.
Hardtail vs Full Suspension is an age old debate and great riders can do awesome things on a hardtail. You may even hear people say “Full suspension makes you lazy” which has some truth in it. Riders who learn on hardtails do tend to learn to pick their lines better and develop early skills well. However, full suspension riders often don’t need to pick lines so efficiently, and having a more forgiving bike can save them a few bumps and bruises. In the end, there are many places where hardtails are hard work next to the full suspension bikes. Your final choice might come down to your current budget, or whether you can justify the expense against how often you ride. Most often people will buy a new bike after a year or two of riding as they increase their skill level and realise what they personally want out of their riding. If you press us for a recommendation here we’d lean towards the full suspension bikes if your budget allows, but definitely don’t be put off by having a hardtail, especially a decent one. I, personally have been completely out-ridden on my $7500 boutique, full suspension MTB by someone on a $1000 hardtail with balding tyres, and I’m not kidding. At the time I wasn’t a half bad rider either, but he was better. It’s true that the skill comes from the rider, not the bike. Quick note on brands and suspensions. All good brands have suspension systems that work well. They will all claim theirs are the best and may try to convince you by going into detail about their suspension’s travel graph or something equally confusing to the newbie rider. They all work fine. Different ways to achieve the same result. In the end, it’s the tuning you do or get done to the forks or rear shock that make the real difference.
3 How much is too much and what brand should I buy?
Most of the well known brands offer a range of bikes at greatly varied prices. There can be many reasons why one bike is many times the value of another. Quality of frame and equipment for one. Pricing can vary brand to brand even though they appear to very similar in spec (equipment and materials). This may be because you are paying for the name of a boutique brand or another brand has a stronger buying power allowing them pass savings on. There can be other reasons also.
What makes a $7000 bike better than a $3000 bike? As an example, a full suspension bike worth around $3000 is likely to have entry level equipment on it and an aluminium frame, not that aluminium is bad necessarily. A hardtail at $3000 may still have an aluminium frame but sport a much higher end equipment set making it more reliable and smoother in general to ride. Or, the hardtail might have a carbon frame (we’ll talk about carbon vs aluminium later) and an entry level equipment spec. Looking at the higher end, bikes might be offered at $5000 – $10000 or even higher in cost. Up here, you are looking at serious full suspension bikes (and the occasional hardtail) with top quality design, frame materials and workmanship, excellent equipment including the wheels and performance to match. So, buy a $200 lawn mower instead of a $700 model and it’ll do the job but probably not as well, it’ll be louder, harder to start and probably need more maintenance. Maybe spending the $700 would have better in the long run? You will need to weigh up the pros and cons of your budget and apply all that above to the bikes you are looking at purchasing. If we had to make a blanket statement in regards to how much to spend it would be to spend enough money to get decent equipment and wheels on the bike. If the frame is the right one for you, but you can’t afford the stretch to carbon or full suspension, then having good equipment keeps you riding and safer with less mechanical issues.
Last word on brands. Don’t just assume that an expensive brand is the best brand or has the best bikes. As an example, most carbon frames worldwide are made by one bike company only for most of their competitors. Also, some brands will have better deals with some equipment manufacturers which allows them to sell a bit cheaper. Some will price their bikes higher to look like a higher end brand to the buyer. In the end, as a new rider, pick the known brands with offerings in your price range and compare the equipment offered on them. Find out from a knowledgeable friend or research yourself to see whether spending more dollars on high end equipment is worth it to you at this point in your mtb career. Our advice is to try to get a bike with a level of equipment common on the better bikes but not necessarily the top bikes. Shimano XT equipment is an example. There’s lower spec Shimano gear and also higher spec gear too. But you’ll find XT on a good range of middle priced bikes across many brands. SRAM is a rival brand to Shimano and they have their equivalents to XT as well.
4 Carbon vs Aluminium
Most frames of bike you will look at are going to be either aluminium or carbon. These days, the carbon technology is such that there are very few reasons not to want it. Cost being a big factor. Carbon bikes definitely cost more than aluminium. Carbon tends to be lighter and gives a softer ride although it’s more rigid where it needs to be to stop frame twist or flex. Although carbon has great strength, depending on what part of the frame is impacted hard enough, it will mark or even crack rather than just dent like aluminium. However, aluminium will still crack in the right circumstance. These days carbon is the better choice however, not everyone wants to pay for the advantages. Some brands however, only put the best equipment on the carbon framed bikes.
5 Bike Type
Race (serious) or trail/mountain (fun)? Do you just enjoy cruising around the trails at various speeds and like it soft and smooth? Maybe you might also like to enter a few endurance races for fun at some point? If so, you are looking at a full suspension bike that’s not too serious. It will have around 130 – 150mm of suspension travel. If racing and training is your thing then perhaps a hardtail or race full suspension bike with a max travel of 120mm should be your choice. As a new rider though, you are unlikely to be so specific in the type of riding you will do. You probably won’t know what type of riding, or how much riding you will do for awhile yet. This is why many new riders start on hardtails that don’t cost the earth until they are more understanding of where their mtb riding is taking them. Different trails can suit different types of bikes, so going for something that will handle the majority of trails is usually the best advice for new riders. A hardtail with good equipment spec and 100 – 120mm of fork travel will do the job. A full suspension bike with the same travel front and rear will handle a bit more, and trail mtb bike with 130 – 150mm travel front and rear will handle even more again. Something to be aware of, is different bikes have different geometry meaning the frames have different angles. For the purposes here, lets concentrate on the headtube angle. The headtube being the front of the frame where the forks connect to the handlebars. On bikes with less fork travel, this is usually a steeper angle (maybe around 70 degrees) than bikes with more fork travel. We call this angle either steep or slack. Steep on the race bike with less travel and slack (maybe around 67 degrees) on the trail bike with more. What does that mean to the bike? Simply stated, a steeper headtube angle will tend to make your steering more precise and aid in keeping your front wheel down on steep climbs. It will put you a bit more forward and less stable on steep descents. A slacker headtube angle will push your front wheel out more and add stability on descents but may encourage front wheel lift on steep climbs. It will make steering less precise in tighter turns. Without doubt, a slacker angle keeps you just a bit safer when going down hill.
6 Wheel Size
26 vs 27.5 (650B) vs 29 inch has been a debate for some time now. Once mtb’s became a mainstream style of bike riding many years ago, they were all 26 inch wheels. This gave a big enough wheel to get over the bumps and roots etc while still maintaining good strength to handle the hits and jumps etc. As mtb wheel technology got better, 29 inch wheels were introduced as the bees knees. They weren’t, but they certainly work well for MTB also. Awhile back now, 27.5 inch wheels were introduced to sit roughly in the middle of 26 and 29 inches. Today, 26 inch bikes are mostly downhill (although not all) and cross country race or trail MTB bikes are divided between 27.5 and 29. So, which do you buy then? This is going to be a tough question to answer. Lets assume in all cases we are comparing the same type of bike but with different wheel sizes. 29 inch bikes looked weird when they first came out but advances in frame design and geometry has seen them grow into a very good mtb size indeed. Originally, 29 inch bikes were better suited to taller riders and that remains true for the most part we think. However, some shorter folk have them, and sure do love them, so each to their own. The 29 advantage over 26 was it’s bigger diameter allowed the wheel to roll over obstacles easier and once up and moving they maintained good rolling momentum. If you are going to use your mtb for a lot of commuting then a 29 inch bike may be a good choice for those reasons right there. When 27.5 came along, the difference was halved and the advantages not so easy to justify. A bigger wheel tends to be a bit more clumsy in tight trails than the more nimble 27.5. This is exaggerated further on slacker head angled bikes. Also, having more rolling momentum can mean braking and turning isn’t as precise as a smaller wheel diameter. If pushed to make a recommendation on this we’d probably suggest the 27.5 inch size for most new riders of average height because we feel they are the best, all round compromise. But, try out both sizes by all means, you never know what combination of brand, wheel size and bike style is your best choice.
7 Bike Setup
Lets assume you’ve got your new bike and it’s the right style/type for you and it’s the right size. It’s still not right for you if it isn’t set up properly for you specifically. By ‘set up’ we mean things like seat height and seat forward/aft position and angle. That’s 3 separate settings right there. Set up includes handlebar height and angle, brake and gear lever positions, adjustments and angles, fork and rear shock air pressures and rebound adjustments. If you have clip-in shoes then it includes cleat adjustment. Even tyre pressure should be considered. These adjustments go a long way to giving you maximum performance from both bike and body as well avoiding exercise related injury or even crashes. A good set up can reduce fatigue, hand, neck and back pain. A good bike shop will at least offer a basic set up when you buy the bike. Accept it. It’s a start. Most will not go to the trouble with you that they would with their own bikes, and near enough will be good enough for them. Unless you are confident that they took plenty of time and care to set you up correctly then we highly recommend spending a few more dollars shortly after with someone who specialises in proper bike set ups. Spend it now, record the measurements and you’ve got what you need for many years riding on this and your next bike.
So, we’ve looked at the size, suspension, type, cost, brand, wheel size and bike set up too. And we’ve tried to not confuse you with too many details and technical mumbo jumbo but still give enough information to cover the important aspects you need to know. We hope you found this helpful.