We know from the Mountain Bike Action
website rider survey that a large number of you are undecided on what brand and model mountain bike to buy. We feel your pain. Buying a big screen TV is probably easier. That's why we offer up this simple (well, as simple as possible) guide for narrowing your search.
THE HEART OF YOUR BIKE
Think of bicycle companies as frame companies. They offer their frames in three ways: 1) They sell complete bikes. The companies make the frame and choose the parts (called spec’ing) to turn their frame into a ready-to-ride bike. This is usually the best way to go, value-wise. 2) They offer the frame with build kits. These kits include most of the parts you need to build up the bike (and, in some cases, the company will build it up for you). 3) They sell you the frame and let you do the rest. This may surprise you, but many affordable mountain bikes have the exact same frame as the ultra-expensive model in the same line. The price difference is dictated solely by the components chosen for that model.
Buy your bike completely assembled. You can consider building a bike from the frame up once you have more knowledge and experience.
Mountain bikes are split into two main suspension categories: hardtail (a rigid rear suspension with a suspension fork) and dual suspension (a suspension fork and suspension for the rear wheel). Dual-suspension mountain bikes offer the rider more comfort, better traction and a better overall riding experience. They are more complicated mechanically, slightly heavier and require an increased level of periodic maintenance and tuning. Hardtails require better rider skills to make up for the missing rear suspension. Since there are fewer moving parts, a hardtail doesn’t have pivots that wear out, or shocks to service and adjust.
If you are willing to spend $1500 or more, buy a dual-suspension mountain bike. If you are going to spend less than $1500, buy a hardtail.
Mountain bike frames are made from aluminum, steel, carbon fiber or titanium. Steel and titanium are still popular for hardtails (because of the material’s ride quality), but both have declined in popularity for use in dual-suspension frames. This is because dual-suspension affects the ride quality more than the frame material. Aluminum is the most popular material for mountain bikes because of its strength, weight and relatively low cost. Its weakness (a harsh ride) is erased with dual-suspension. Carbon fiber, a very tunable material for strength, ride quality and weight, is used for making higher-priced frames.
No one material is perfect. Each has a trade-off. Still, if you are confused by all the material choices, limit your selection to aluminum frames for now.
The $1400 Giant
Trance X 4 uses the exact same frame as the $3775 Trance X 1. The price difference reflects lighter components, more external adjustability and additional features. But the heart of both bikes is a strong one.
The components bolted to a mountain bike frame vary dramatically in quality, weight, durability and performance. More expensive bikes have the best components, and that’s why bikes sharing the same frame with different components may reveal up to a 5-pound difference on the scale. These higher-budget bikes offer more external tuning options and tool-free adjustments. Surprisingly, you’ll find that the most affordable components perform pretty well if you keep them adjusted properly and service them regularly. It is over time that the more expensive components show their true value.
Beginner’s tip: Giant
all have reputations for offering a better component selection at a given price point.
There are three readily available wheel sizes for mountain bikes: 26 inches, 27.5 inches and 29 inches
. You can check out our April 2010 issue where we compared all three wheel sizes side-by-side. While there are exceptions, our rule of thumb is if your bike is going to be dual suspension with over 4 inches of travel, choose a 26-inch-wheeled model. If you are looking at short-travel dual-suspension or a hardtail, choose a 29-inch-wheeled model. The 27.5-inch wheel size (also referred to as 650b by bike geeks trying to intimidate new riders) may be the best of both worlds for mountain bikes. KHS
have championed the new wheel size and more brands (Scott
and Rocky Mountain
) are being added every day.
Twenty-niners or 27.5ers will make you a better rider faster. If you are going to spend less than $800, 26-inch-wheeled bikes are better because they are lighter.
There is a revolution going on in mountain bike drivetrains and, unfortunately, the new bike buyer is going to be a casualty of this war. Why? It is still so new that the ideal combination of gearing has not yet been established, even for specialists like cross-country racers (who are using 2x10, 1x10 and even 2x9 options). What are these numbers separated by an “x”? The first is the number of chainrings on the crank, and the second is the number of cogs on the rear wheel’s cassette. It is impossible for us to give a definite recommendation. Rule of thumb is that experienced riders sticking to 26-inch wheels will have fun experimenting with a 2x10 system, while beginners and 29er riders should stick to the 3x9 or 3x10 options.
Play it safe and let others work out the gearing ratios. Your bike should have a 3x9 or 3x10 drivetrain; change "should” to “must” if you are going for a 29er.
Trailbikes are the best choice for the vast majority of riders. Dual-suspension trailbikes offer 4 to 5 inches of travel, solid tires with a wide contact patch, and components that are durable and lightweight. Hardtail trailbikes are equipped with similar tires and components. The only thing missing is the rear suspension.
Spending the big bucks ($1800 and above) gets you a lightweight bike with excellent components. Riders with tighter budgets can still get a solid performer (and remember, it may have the same frame as the more expensive model). The components will be heavier and won't have the ease of adjustability of the more expensive bikes, but an inexpensive trailbike will work fine if you take the time to perform regular maintenance.
If you are buying your first (or only) mountain bike, limit your shopping to this category.
We had almost written this category off as
too heavy for trail riding and too lightweight for being a true park
bike. Just to make your job of picking the right bike harder, bike
brands are making this category lighter in weight and better at pedaling
performance than ever before. Travel falls in the six-inch range with
larger diameter axles and increased frame rigidity over trailbikes. In
the hands of skilled riders, most black-diamond runs will pose a
challenge, but not enough to get off and walk. This bike is killing the
All-mountain may be best reserved for when you
have built up your skill set to the point where you want to ride more
Cross-country race bikes:
Cross-country hardtail race bikes with 26-inch wheels make horrible trailbikes. They are temperamental, fragile and can be punishing to any rider who is not in excellent condition. Dual-suspension and 29er hardtail cross-country race bikes can be an excellent choice for a trail rider who rides flowy trails, rides smoothly and is not a jumper. Still, trailbikes have become so good that riders who used to buy cross-country race bikes for trail riding are no longer forced to. One final note:
there is no such thing as a great, inexpensive race bike. If you are serious about racing, it will cost you.
A good choice if your trails are relatively mellow without technical drops or terrain that requires extra suspension.
Jump/pump track bikes:
Mostly hardtails crafted from aluminum and steel, these bikes are more versatile than you would expect. The majority end up in the hands of younger riders who use them for daily transportation, trail riding, pump tracking and jumping in dirt jump parks, skate parks and urban settings. They are heavy (to withstand abuse), but that doesn’t seem to matter to a 15-year-old who has power wattage to spare. Expensive jump frames are a luxury you can survive without, because they have not proven to last longer than mid-priced frames (and the nature of the sport is to break stuff). You can’t go wrong with a jump frame or bike from Azonic
The best bike for younger riders who want to try everything from trail riding to jumping.
As the name implies, these are one-speed mountain bikes, stripped down to the basics (although we are seeing high-tech components, like disc brakes, being incorporated into single speedom). The majority are made to more closely resemble a cross-country race bike than a trailbike, because weight is a major factor and there is no rear suspension. Most single speeds are made by custom frame builders, but production single speeds, like the Redline MonoCog 29er
, sell for less than $800 (complete) and are a blast.
While we wouldn’t recommend a single speed as your only bike, it is our first choice for the second bike in your collection.
Unless you live in an area where downhill and shuttle runs are readily available (Santa Cruz, California; North Shore in Vancouver, British Columbia; Nelson, Canada; or Kamloops, Canada), these heavy, long-travel bikes (although hardtails can be used for this type of riding) just don’t make sense. They are too heavy for extended periods of climbing, and even with stable-pedaling-platform suspension, they are a chore for anything but downhill riding. These bikes are best left for the four months that ski resort bike parks are open in the summer.
If you live in an area with challenging stunts and terrain, there is nothing that gets the job done better. Just don’t believe you can press this bike into service for trail riding.
Downhill racing bikes:
Bike companies have pulled out the stops for making downhill racing bikes. This means they are good for one thing...downhill racing. If you don’t plan to race, pass on these ultra-specialized race sleds.
A good choice only if you are sending in an application for a racing license at the same time.
Although cyclocross courses include dirt, the bikes are closer relatives to road bikes than mountain bikes. They will not withstand the abuse a normal off-road trail throws at a bike. This is not a substitute for a mountain bike.
Not a choice for mountain biking.
MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION REPRINT
This story first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Mountain Bike Action
Magazine. The March issue is the 2011 Trailbike Buyers Guide. If you are new to mountain biking, it is an excellent resource to help you get on the right bike from the beginning. If
you found this information helpful, don't miss another one by subscribing
today (click here, already). Mountain Bike Action Magazine is a monthly publication about all things mountain biking. You can also order the March 2011 issue by calling (800) 767-0345.