A Comprehensive Guide to Buying a Mountain Bike

Written by : Bob Sharp; in :
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Choosing the right Mountain Bike to buy can be a bewildering experience, particularly if you are new to the sport. Everything from frame size and material - to suspension type and brakes are described using terminology that can be downright confusing.

This comprehensive guide to buying a mountain bike is designed to strip the mystery from the process. It describes in layman’s terms just what you should be looking for to get the bike that is perfectly suited to your needs.

Whether you are looking for a bike to do some light off-roading at the weekend and still be capable of that Monday commute, or are looking for a downhill thoroughbred, for those adrenalin-pumping white knuckle rides, this article will help you pinpoint the right bike.

Of course, one of the most crucial factors to discuss is the budget. This is where compromises have to be made between what you want, and what you can realistically afford.

For that reason, the first topic I will cover is just how much a mountain bike will cost you.

Setting the right budget

Choosing the Right Suspension for a Mountain Bike

There are two terms that you will see bandied around when the suspension is being discussed, these are hardtail and full suspension, a quick description of each is below:

  • Hardtail: A hardtail bike has front suspension forks only, hence the name.
  • Full-Suspension: Full suspension bikes have both front and rear suspension, this used to be rare in cheaper bikes, but I’m pleased to say that it is now possible to get a decent full-suspension bike sub-$500.

Is a hardtail or full-suspension bike the best option?

Choosing the right suspension doesn’t necessarily mean picking a bike purely on the basis that it has full suspension, choosing a hardtail is the best option in many instances.

Why choose a hardtail mountain bike?

I’ve always been one to try and keep my life as simple as possible, and this applies to my mountain bikes too. Hardtail bikes are less complex, lighter, and you get more bang for your buck.

Performance-wise I have had some fantastic hardtail bikes that outperform many (cheaper) full suspension bikes. They are lighter than full suspension bikes of similar price points, and they are a more practical option if you intend to use your bike for that commute to work

Why choose a full-suspension mountain bike?

If you are serious about doing off-roading then a full-suspension mountain bike is the perfect option. Although full-suspension bikes are generally heavier than their hardtail counterparts it does help ease those long days on the trails.

There is another plus to a full-suspension rig. I am not as young as I used to be (it would be a surprise if I was) and over the years my knees and back have taken a hammering and are starting to creak a bit. A full-suspension setup greatly eases the stress on my back and joints.

One downside to a full-suspension bike is the reduced traction they offer on uphill slogs and when using it as a road bike.

Front Suspension - What does suspension-travel mean and how much do I need?

When you see mention of travel when referring to suspension, it is simply the maximum distance that your front fork can move when under compression. The greater the amount of travel the more shock absorption the suspension will provide.

High travel suspension is great for smoothing out fast and bumpy downhill runs, but it comes at a price. Similar to how full-suspension can detrimentally affect uphill and road cycling, front forks with long travel are compromised when it comes to mixed terrain or paved surface riding.

A guide to how suspension travel is categorized is below:

  • Short Travel Suspension: Anything up to 120mm is considered to be short-travel suspension. This amount of travel is ideal for smoother trails, fire trails, and tarmac. For faster and bumpier downhill runs short-travel suspension can make the steering unpredictable and twitchy.
  • Long Travel Suspension: Anything from 120mm upwards is considered to be long-travel suspension. This will give you far more confidence for faster and more technical downhill runs but will concede performance on other surfaces and uphill slogs.
  • Adjustable Suspension: These are forks that can be adjusted to suit the terrain. Adjustable suspension allows you to lock the amount of travel when necessary.

Rear suspension – Coil or Air Shocks?

The shock is the component of the rear suspension that absorbs the impacts of the trail. There are two main types to consider.

  1. Coil Shocks: These are simpler than air shocks both in design and maintenance requirements, although they are the heavier of the two choices. Many riders prefer the more consistent performance of a coil shock.
  2. Air Shocks: These are lighter and easier to adjust than coil shocks, however, they are prone to performance changes due to environmental variables like temperature and humidity.

For beginners, the coil shock is the easiest option. For those that don’t mind tinkering with their equipment and want more control over suspension performance then the air shock is the better option.

Choosing the right brakes for a mountain bike

Hurtling down a hill at full pelt is not the time to find out that you made the wrong choice with your brakes. When it comes to mountain biking there are a few choices that can supply the necessary stopping power.

Caliper Brakes

When you think back to your very first “proper bike” as a child and the types of brakes it had, then you are probably thinking about caliper brakes.

This type of brake has been stopping bikes successfully from time immemorial. These are still found on some cheaper mountain bikes and are completely fine for light off-road cycling and for road cycling. But if you intend to do any sort of serious off-roading then there are better options.

V-Brakes

V-Brakes work on a similar principle to caliper brakes but offer far greater stopping power. The similarity between the two systems is that they both use brake pads that apply pressure to the rims of the wheels to provide the stopping power.

The major difference between this type and caliper brakes is the longer arms of the V-Brake systems. These arms allow for more leverage which increases the stopping power.

Cantilever Brakes

Cantilever brakes are another take on the V-Brake system. These use similarly long arms to provide the necessary pressure to the rims of the wheels. The difference is how the power is transferred from the brake lever to the arms.

Whereas a V-Brake system applies pressure to both arms the cantilever system uses vertical pressure applied to a straddle cable between the arms to activate the brakes. This system makes less them less likely to get clogged up with mud.

Disk Brakes

This is the type of brake that any mountain bike worth its salt will have installed. These days disk brakes can be found on any range of bikes from kids cycles to top-of-the-range MTBs and road cycles.

These supply by far the best stopping power of any braking system and lose very little, if any, performance in adverse conditions like rain, or muddy trails.

There are two types of Disk Brakes, mechanical and hydraulic. The hydraulic systems provide more powerful and effortless braking, however, there are more components to fail.

Mechanical brakes are less efficient but are less prone to failure.

Whichever you choose, if you are looking at doing serious off-road cycling then go for a disk brakes system.

Choosing the right frame

This choice has two main considerations to look at. The first is the material used in the manufacture of the frame. The second is the size of the frame.

The first choice will ultimately be driven by budget considerations, the second is down to the size of the rider.

Let’s consider the materials first.

What is the best material for mountain bike frames?

  • Steel: This is the material that most cheaper bikes will be made from. It is the heaviest of all types of frame, however, if carrying a bit of weight isn’t an issue then they are strong and stiff enough to do the job well-enough and can be a great place to save a few bucks without compromising quality.

One thing that is worth pointing out and this applies to all the frames, is that although lightness is an advantage a heavier bike can still outperform lighter versions on downhill runs.

  • Aluminum: Aluminum frames are lighter than their steel counterparts and don’t compromise on strength. They do tend to flex more than both steel and carbon frames, which can give them a more forgiving feel when riding rougher terrain, but this same forgiveness lessens the overall “snappiness” that stiffer frames can offer.

They are usually more expensive than steel frames, but less expensive than carbon fiber frames.

  • Carbon Fiber: As noted, carbon fiber frames are the most expensive of all frame types. These are ultra-light and extremely stiff frames that are usually only found on the very highest-quality bikes.

A Carbon Fiber frame is the most highly engineered of all types and many riders claim the stiffness and lightness have given them an incredible speed boost. If you are on the market for a carbon fiber bike, then research thoroughly before you take the plunge.

Choosing the right frame size for mountain biking?

It is essential to pick the right frame size if you want to ride comfortably, safely, and not pick up an endless string of strains and niggling injuries.

Another factor is how we shop for our bikes nowadays. Increasingly, we purchase bikes from the internet without trying them out for size first. But you can still take the guesswork out of buying the right size frame. The table below lists the ideal frame size dependent on your height and inseam.

Inseam

Height

Frame Size

75cm – 77cm

5’ 0” – 5’ 6”

15” – 16”

78cm – 81cm

5’ 7” – 5’ 9”

16” – 18”

82cm – 86cm

5’ 10” – 5’ 11”

17” – 21”

87cm – 90 cm

6’ upwards

20” – 22”

As you can see this isn’t an exact science, there are crossovers in the sizing chart, but these can be adjusted for by changing the seat height.

Choosing the right gears for mountain biking

Once again the choice of gear is highly dependent on the type of riding you intend to focus on. For those planning to do a lot of climbing, you will be better choosing a system with a higher range of gears, for mostly downhill riding this isn’t as essential.

Most basic mountain bikes will come with a two or three cassette system, this refers to the number of front cogs of the bike. This is then paired with a rear cassette that will commonly feature 7, 10, or 11 cogs (normally 7 for a triple front cassette and 10 or 11 for a double).

Most hardtail mountain bikes will have a double cassette at the front and 10 or 11 cogs at the rear.

Many serious downhill bikes are now coming with a single ring at the front, this cuts down on maintenance and decreases the chance of the gears being clogged with mud.

For most people, a double cassette at the front paired with 10 cogs will cover just about any eventuality.

Choosing the right wheel size for mountain biking

When I began Mountain Biking there was a choice of 26” wheels and … well that was it really.

These days there are three sizes to choose from and a raging argument about which is best. For me, the 29” wheel is too large, and on many bikes the pedal clearance is too limited with this size of wheel, but much of that is a personal opinion that others vehemently disagree with.

The three sizes are listed below.

  1. 26” Wheels: The original, but not necessarily the best. These are still popular for those who like dirt jumping but have become increasingly rare on generic mountain bikes. Due to their small size, these can feel twitchy over obstacles, but some riders still prefer them claiming they are stronger and lighter than the larger wheels.
  2. 27.5” Wheels: In my mind this is the goldilocks size of wheel. It copes with obstacles better than the 26” wheel and doesn’t compromise too much on weight and strength. 
  3. 29” Wheels: These offer an advantage in overall obstacle handling but at the cost of nimbleness, weight, strength, and in many cases are a hazard with the pedals. However, the larger tires do afford greater grip and stability.

Conclusion

I hope this guide has helped you choose the perfect bike and explained much of the terminology that is used in the trade. Choosing the correct bike will ensure that you

get years of pleasure and not a dusty ornament that will sit shrouded in dust in a dark corner of a shed.

These days the range of fantastic bikes that are available without breaking the bank is growing. Manufacturers like Mongoose and Schwinn, who were always known for producing top-end expensive bikes, are now catering to more modest budgets. Except for carbon fiber frames bikes, all the recommended features in the sections I have covered are available on bikes that cost less than $500.

Happy riding!

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