Get the Most Out of Mountain Biking: Bike Buying 101
One of my favorite ways to unwind is to get on my bike and go for a ride. Whether I’m flying downhill or enjoying a new fire trail, I find that my rides are always better when I’m on the right bike. How to choose a mountain bike is something every new rider has to learn. If you buy the wrong kind of bike, you will not enjoy it as much.
How Much Money Do You Want to Spend?
The first thing you have to consider is your budget. Decide just how much cash you want to spend on your new bike. This doesn’t have to be a hard limit, if you can save up a little extra or wait a little longer, you might get a nicer bike. Just don’t break the bank for a new hobby.The Best Mountain Bikes Under 500 Dollars
When I first started biking I forgot to factor in the other stuff I’d need. Don’t make my mistake, set aside money for it. While mountain biking doesn’t need a lot of gear, there are a few things you will want. You will need a helmet and a good pair of gloves. You’ll also need a roadside bike tool kit and a few water bottles.
You might want niceties such as a hydration pack or even upgraded bike parts too. When you are first starting out you won’t need much more than the basics. As your skills develop, you will find the best items to help you along.
If your budget is tight, you will have some restrictions. For example, a hardtail mountain bike is less expensive than a full suspension bike. Cheaper full suspension bikes are a waste of money. They just don’t hold up.
Finally, buying a more expensive bike means that you are getting a lighter, better made product. So don’t go too cheap on your new ride.
What Kind of Rider are You?
There are several different kinds of riding styles popular in the mountain biking community. These include cross-country, downhill riding, trail riding and endurance riding. What kind of riding are you interested in?
- Trail bikes are the general duty mountain bike. They can handle most situations a typical new rider would find themselves in. They have 120 to 140 mm of travel.
- Cross-country bikes are built to take longer rides or even tour with. They are the lightest mountain bike. They are sometimes sold with fully rigid frame and fork. Most have up to 120mm of travel.
- Endurance, or enduro, bikes have between 150 to 180mm of travel. They are built to handle rough trails, serious jumps and stunt riding. They can even be ridden uphill, with some work.
- Downhill mountain bikes have 200 to 250mm of travel. These specialized bikes are too heavy to do anything other than ride them downhill. They are very good at handling any terrain at high-speed.
Hardtail or Full Suspension?
Before we go any further in this mountain bike buying guide, I should explain some terminology. These are hardtails and full suspension bikes. A hardtail is a bike that has a suspension fork but a typical bike frame in the rear, or tail end, of the bike. A full suspension bike has a suspension fork and some type of rear shock absorber built into the frame.
Travel just means how much the suspension on the bike squashes down when you hit a bump. Really squishy suspension is great on a hard trail. Trust me though, you might want to buy a bike with a lockable fork if you do any riding on the street! Being lockable just means that there is a switch that turns the suspension system off, making the bike easier to ride uphill or on a flat surface.
The more suspension the bike has, the better it can absorb shocks on the trail. If you are on a really rough trail that means more comfort and control. There is no such thing as an inexpensive full suspension bike. If your budget is lower, you should get a hardtail.
About Hardtail Bikes
These are lighter, more agile and easier to ride than a full suspension bike. You can ride one on nearly any trail. But they are going to be a lot rougher on your hands, feet and rear on harsh rides. They really excel at cross-country and trail riding.
- Trail hardtails feature strong but somewhat heavy frames. They will often have forks that can be locked for street riding or cruising with the kids.
- Cross-country hardtails are mountain bikes built for the long haul. They feature geometry and gearing suitable for riding up hills with ease.
About Full Suspension Bikes
If you aren’t seriously interested in riding rough trails, then these are not the bikes for you. Even a full suspension cross-country bikes will be heavier and somewhat less responsive than a hardtail. What they do offer is a smooth ride over bumps. Full suspension bikes are great for enduro and downhill riding.
- Enduro suspension bikes are heavier than trail hardtails. They have brawny frames to handle those drops and shocks.
- Downhill suspension bikes have the strongest frames, a lowered saddle position and a smaller gear ratio.
What Kind of Frame?
I am not a racer. But I know many enjoy it. Racing, or just fast riding, requires a lighter bike. This is when you should think about the materials used in the frame.
- Steel is the traditional material. Good steel is reasonably light, resists rust and is extremely strong. It has been in use for years. A steel frame can be in use safely for far longer than other types of frames.
- Aluminum is a modern favorite. It is lighter than steel, but not as durable. Aluminum frames cannot be repaired like steel bike frames. It is so light that most don’t mind.
- Carbon has been used in road cycling for years. Only recently have they made mountain bikes out of the stuff. It is super lightweight and strong. It is shaped in ways impossible with metals. It is also extremely expensive and requires careful upkeep.
Frame geometry is something else to consider. Get a bike with a head angle you are comfortable with. A steeper head angle means that the bike will be more agile. It will be easier to control while climbing or on the flats. A slack head angle means the bike will be slightly slower while turning.
A quick word about men’s and women’s frames. Personally, I think you should just ride what is most comfortable. Most women have a different body shape than men. Women’s frames have a shorter top tube and different saddle position to accommodate different body shapes.
That doesn’t mean every woman will need a woman’s frame. There are also plenty of men who’d fit better on a woman’s frame, too. Learning how to choose a mountain bike means trying a lot of bikes, even ones made for the other gender. Always ride the bike that you feel most comfortable on.
Your Wheels Go Around and Around
No mountain bike buying guide is complete without a mention of the great wheel size debate. There are three sizes of wheels for modern mountain bikes. Everyone has a favorite. I say they all have their place on the trail.
- 26 inch wheels are the standard. They are very maneuverable in all kinds of riding conditions. Some believe they are harder to control in rougher conditions.
- 29 inch wheels are either loved or hated. A 29er bike has to be much bigger to accommodate them, smaller riders may find them very uncomfortable. Fans say these wheels are extremely stable, offering the most control to the rider.
- 27.5 inch wheels are also called 650b wheels. These are smoother than a 26 inch wheel, but are more responsive than a 29 inch wheel. A 27.5 inch wheel bike is also smaller than a 29er.
Wheels need tires. The tires that your bike came with might be perfect for your needs. Most included tires are just general purpose. Most shops will allow you to change out the tires for something that will work for you.
Fit Your Bike like a Glove
Bikes come in different sizes for a reason. We are not all the same. Finding the right size for you means you will need to head to a shop and try out a lot of bikes. If you have to buy online, be sure to check your own measurements to those offered online.
Once you have your new bike you should get a fitting. This means that an expert helps you to adjust your saddle, your stem, handlebars and much more until you are perfectly fitted into the bike. A good fit is the difference between a good ride or sore knees. Trust me, you don’t want to skimp on this.
One simple upgrade can make your fit much easier. A dropper post allows you to raise and lower your seat on the fly. This means your seat will always be in the best spot for both uphill and downhill riding. A lot of modern bikes come with these handy posts as standard equipment.
Finally, don’t forget to have fun. It’s why we ride!