How to buy your first proper mountain bike
If you are considering buying your first proper mountain bike, congratulations!
There is so much fun to be had on 2 wheels and amongst the best of nature, however you have been warned… Mountain Bike riding is addictive and you might find it taking you around the country in search of great trails and experiences.
Things to Consider in the purchase of a proper mountain bike:
- What do you want to do with it? (Race or explore local trails for fun? Or downhill stunts)
- Terrain in your local area
- Features of the bike and what they do
There are a number of shapes and sizes of proper mountain bikes, by proper I mean something you can actually ride off the road…sadly a $300 K-mart job is not up to the task.
Amongst these proper mountain bikes you will find there are some set up for Cross Country riding or XC, trail, All Mountain, Enduro and Downhill.
XC bikes generally have a light weight frame with an importance on being able to sustain uphill climbing without excess weight. Another factor of riding purpose build trails is being able to enjoy the downhill sections and being safe so there are in 99% of cases in Australia at least front suspension as standard on these bikes. The suspension allows absorption of shock and the amount of travel varies between brands and between each type of bike.
XC Bikes can have suspension on the front only (referred to as Hard tail) or front plus rear suspension (referred to as soft tails or Dual suspension). However the Dual suspension bikes, although much more comfortable to ride over a longer time will come at a greater cost. Generally it’s hard to find a Dual suspension for less than $1500 new (closer to 2 grand in most cases) so if price is an issue you might be better off to invest into a good hardtail and focus on better skills to deal with it.
XC bikes typically have 70 – 100 mm of travel in the suspension however there are some coming out with around 110mm now to allow more forgiveness in some elements.
Trail and All Mountain or Enduro bikes tend to be slightly heavier and have suspension on both the front and the rear of the bike. The handlebars are often slightly wider to afford more control and the travel in the suspension is generally 20-40% more than the XC type of mountain bikes coming in at around 120- 130 mm of travel. The focus of this type of bike is to be able to still hit an uphill but to be able to really hit the downhills confidently. Comfort of the dual suspension is great, especially when out on the trails for a few hours, but the biggest benefit is the amount of scope you have for obstacles as you progress your skill.
The next level toward downhill is the Enduro bike which features 150-170 mm of travel and hasn’t quite got as aggressive geometry as a full Downhill, but certainly not as efficient as an Xc for pedalling up a hill or along the flats. They can often allow you to attempt some features on a softer DH course when your skills have really been sharpened.
Downhill bikes, due to the angles of the frame and the size of the suspension, are not made to be ridden along the flats or up hills, in fact if you did try to ride along the flats it would feel like you are leaning way back as the frame is built around keeping the weight back when descending a hill. Downhillers are an entirely different breed of crazy (in a good way) if you start cross country or all mountain riding and find you need to jump off bigger things then you will likely head down this path and only then should you look at a DH specific bike. I believe you should at least be riding a mountain bike for a few months regularly before buying a DH bike.
What type of riding is available to you in the area? Is the track mainly tight bending single tracks or is there a wide long vast track with less turns and more obstacles. (if you only have a DH track nearby then maybe Dh is a possible starting point, but probably a good idea to have a few helpers with some skills). The type of tracks available can also help determine what types of wheel size you will need.
Wheel size is also an important factor when considering a bike and when doing such you need to consider a few factors.
MTB wheel sizes come in 26 inch (which is what most wheels were 5 to 10 years ago), 27.5 inch and 29 inch. Wheel selection is so much to do with terrain and the size of the rider and ability.
In a nutshell 26 inch wheel is being phased out by a few brands, however still has some fans especially amongst the riders needing really responsive turning capabilities on tight courses. This is great, however, the 26 inch is harder to roll over rough terrain.
27.5 inch wheels seem to suit a large cross section of the community especially with smaller riders and those that need the ability to turn well. They also have some of the same benefits of 29 inch wheels (more surface area/ contact points), making it easier to roll over obstacles like rocks and ruts.
29 inch wheels have a greater surface area and contact with the ground making them great for rolling over technical features, losing minimal momentum with obstacles and rocks. The greater surface area also allows greater traction on softer ground (such as sand) or when climbing up a loose dirt hill. Limitations? Smaller riders often feel this wheel size harder to control when cornering tight, I am 6 foot 2 and a heavyweight at 100kg plus and it really works for me so if you are on the bigger side don’t be shy to go the big wheel.
You can see how terrain would now influence your choice of wheel size – the answer? A good bike shop will let you go for a quick ride even around the shop carpark. The curbs and the tight cornering you need to do can be the perfect practice to at least compare bikes. A good bike shop can also advise you of the best bike size and shape for the trails in your local area and some will even arrange to take you out on a group ride into a trail and give you some pointers.
Things that also make up your bike:
Gears – Various systems are made for gear changing, these tend to make up a large amount of the cost of a bike. Brands like Shimano and SRAM have various grades of gears. When you get to the mid-way and top of the line components you are generally paying for a lighter version of the same thing (a smooth gear change experience that is dependable)… this may help you realise where some of the money goes when buying a bike.
Brakes– an important part for all mountain bikers is the confidence that comes with good brakes. For the bulk of mountain biking scenarios a disc brake will allow more consistent stopping even when the brakes are wet. Disc brakes should be standard on most bikes over $500 these days so check that out as a bare minimum for proper off-roading.
Pedals– Flat pedals are the easiest way to get into mountain biking and offer the chance to get out of a scenarios easier. A few practice laps on your local trail in shoes is a great way to get confident. However the more hills you plan on climbing or km covered in a session, the more you might want to think about cleats and specific cycling shoes to go with them. Pedals cost approx $70-150 extra and a pair of shoes can be purchased from around $99 or more. These allow greater efficiency of pedal stroke, making you at one with your bike. This makes it easier to bunny hop and other skills on the trails as your feet are connected to the pedal.
Dropper post – a fancy extra which can help descend on a mountain bike…effectively it just drops the seat out the way so you can put your bum backwards without hitting yourself in the process…it’s kind of low on the priority list but the more various terrain you visit with drops followed by climbs the more you will probably enjoy it.
Tyres– one of the things worth making sure is good on your new bike is the TYRES. Different terrain calls for different tyres types. I spend most of my time in North Queensland BUT also do a lot of riding around Australia and sample some variations in terrain. When I first got into mountain biking I had a bike that was too small for me and the tyres were made for light weight riders to ride in a rock less rainforest, needless to say I got plenty of punctures and pinch flats in the rocky north Qld trails and so learned very early on the power of a thicker tyre inflated to the right pressure to suit the terrain and the rider weight. After beefing up to a good tyre the next progression was tubeless and so the riding experience became much more fun with less stopping to change tubes and more riding.
Most new bikes in the more expensive price bracket come with a decent set of tyres, however sometimes you might find a set that are cheaper to bundle with a fully featured bike that won’t stack up…its worth upgrading…In fact I would even go as far as saying Tyre selection might be one of the most important decisions you make for your riding… Go check out your local bike shop and ask them about good strong tyres to fit to your bike (that suit your terrain and local area etc).
Enjoy the trails and sample a variety of locations on your bike, it can be as simple as a morning roll along the river or riding the roller coaster of trails on offer by the many track builders and clubs behind the sport… get amongst it!