Buying a new mountain bike can feel like a daunting task, whether you’re buying your first mountain bike ever or your first one in a while.
Between the sport’s state of constant change, the staggering amount of information, and the huge array of choices, it’s hard to know where to start looking. If you’re feeling lost, consider these seven guidelines a starting point to making an informed choice about your next mountain bike.
Your local terrain, style of trails, and riding ambitions are key points in narrowing down your choices. The forgiveness of a 150mm full-suspension bike may be the ticket if your rides tend to include thousands of feet of rocky descents, but if you’re traversing smooth cross-country trails, the responsive ride of a lightweight hardtail might be more fun (and save you some cash). Seek out manufacturer’s demos for a chance to ride a few different bikes on your local trails. Ask your fellow riders what works for them, and what else they’ve tried. Finding a bike that complements the terrain you will be riding most of the time will make every ride better.
Roadies have known this forever, but it’s equally true on the trail—a bad fit can transform a dream bike into a torture device. While you should fine-tune saddle height, stem length, and handlebar position, they won’t correct for the wrong size frame. The manufacturer’s sizing recommendations are your best starting point, and keep in mind that your body is unique. Factors like your limb length, flexibility, and preexisting injuries can influence your fit, and it’s a good idea to mention them to your salesperson so he or she can factor them into your sizing decision.
It’s been hard for traditionalists to accept that the 26-inch wheel appears to be headed for extinction at the hands of larger diameters and plus-sized tires, but for all of the attention that wheel size gets, it doesn’t actually matter that much. Sure, if you’re especially short of stature, bigger wheels make it difficult to get a good fit, but as far as handling traits, you can find bikes of every flavor in every conceivable wheel size that ride amazingly well. You’re buying a bike, not just a pair of wheels. Fit and feel are far more important factors in finding your ideal ride than the diameter of the wheels.
While there are exceptions, it’s rare to find a worthy mountain bike that retails for under a grand. For full suspension bikes, that cutoff point is higher. That’s not meant to be elitist—entry-level bikes are typically built with components, most importantly suspension forks, that aren’t up to the rigors of the trail. The more often and harder you ride, the more those shortcomings become legitimate safety concerns. There are some great deals to be had on used bikes, but the used market is flooded with poorly maintained bikes that quickly become money pits. Buying a bike from a reputable brand built with proven components means you’re more likely to get multiple seasons out of the bike. And while wear items like tires and chains will always be unavoidable casualties riding, starting off with a better bike makes it less likely that you’ll need to pony up for big upgrades like wheels or a new suspension fork.
This might seem like it contradicts point #4, but the highest-end option isn’t always the right choice. High-end components typically offer tangible benefits, especially in terms of weight, which makes top-tier options the obvious choice for racers and the performance-obsessed. On the other hand, flyweight race components are often designed with shorter intended service lives. Today’s mid-range drivetrains, suspension components, and frames ride circles around their highest end predecessors from only a few years ago, and generally offer similar durability to their premium siblings.
A brand new bike assembled by a professional mechanic will require maintenance as early as the first ride—it’s an unavoidable part of being a mountain biker. Creaks, rattles, and groans are your bike’s way of asking for help. If left unaddressed, they can result in component failures, and neglect-based failures are not covered under warranties. You don’t have to learn everything, but having the right tools and some patience will increase the lifespan of your bike, and fixing your own ride can be pretty damn rewarding as well. Whether you learn by signing up for a local class on bicycle maintenance or by trading a mechanically-savvy friend some beers for a tutorial, learning to work on your own bike is something you should plan on budgeting a little time for. If nothing else, be ready to air up your tires before you ride, keep your chain lubed, and learn how to tighten a headset. Buy a torque wrench at the same time that you buy your bike.
There’s simply too much to know about bikes for any one person to have all the answers. That being said, it’s helpful to get pointers on bikes, components, and riding technique from those with more experience, especially those in your local riding community. If you’re looking for another source of trustworthy advice, the members of Backcountry’s Bike CS Team are diehard riders, and a fantastic resource.