How to choose the right mountain bike

Even though it doesn’t seem like much, a good mountain bike is a complex machine made of several highly researched components and built from hundreds of parts.

The bad news is, there’s a lot of ground to cover if you want to get the full picture and become an expert in picking exactly the right components for your preferences and riding style.

The good news, however, is that I’ve squeezed the knowledge accumulated from protein promo and my years of riding and following closely the bike industry into this short guide to help you get 90% of what you need to know in 10% of the time.

This guide is aimed mostly at beginners who want to invest in a great mountain bike that will serve them for a long time without spending countless hours gathering detailed information that they don’t really need and which may end up confusing them.

Riders who already have some level of experience, have been riding for some time and want to switch from an entry-level cheap bike to a “true” mountain bike will also find in this guide what they need to know to pick a two-wheeled machine that keeps a smile on their face whenever they go out riding.

So what do you need to look at when purchasing a mountain bike ?

There’s two main things to keep in mind. The first one is that you should get a bike that suits best what you intend to do with it. That means a bike that is fast enough uphill, and descends well enough to inspire confidence and allow you to tackle rough terrain while improving your skills.

How good a climber versus how good a descender that bike needs to be depends mainly on the trails you’re hitting and whether you focus on the former or the latter. Bikes tend to be better at one or the other depending on their frame’s geometry and suspensions.

What if you pick the wrong bike type ? Well, a bike made mostly for going fast downhill is heavier and harder to pedal uphill than one designed for pedaling efficiency and going fast on the climbs. A bike build light and easy to spin cranks with, with less suspension travel, is going to be harder to control on rough terrain.

The second one is based on your preferences and may influence your choice between a few pre-selected models : which components do you prefer ? If you are new to the sport, chances are you won’t have any such preference. You might then struggle a bit to really pick one single model out of what fits you, because bikes have evolved so much in the past decade that all brands produce great products with similar performance.

If you already have strong preferences, it usually means you’ve been riding for quite some time already, and this guide might not be the best suited for you, as it is mainly made to explain the basics to beginners. However, I do cover some ground on the components side in the second part of this book.

o those details ARE important. But how important are they to YOU ? Chances are, if you are just getting into mountain biking, you will not immediately notice the difference between how two derailleurs shift, or how stiff different wheelsets are.

Maybe you don’t actually care about that and just want to ride a good bike and have fun with your friends or family. If that is the case, I have good news for you. This guide will provide you with the advice you need to easily understand a few key concepts that will help you tremendously in picking the right bike for you. In this case you may want to jump to the “Bike types explained” chapter, which is the best value for your time.

Maybe you would actually love to learn more about the technical side of the sport and how components make your ride feel smoother ! That’s great too, and while we may not get too technical in this guide, it will definitely get you started on your path to a better understanding of the ropes. I cover those in the “More info on components for intermediate riders” chapter.

In any case, my advice would be the following : it’s great to learn as much as possible about our sport if that’s what you really want, but don’t get too caught up with the technical side of things. In the end, most skilled riders I know who spend a lot of time riding don’t really care about getting the latest and shiniest drivetrain or having the exact right tire pressure : actual riding is where the fun’s at.

Unless you’re competing, riding a $2,000 bike should deliver as much fun as a $6,000 one. Also it’s great to have high performance components, but sometimes you just like the feel of a cheaper alternative.

That being said, you’ve done the right thing by buying this guide, because you do need a bare minimum to get you started !

Bike types explained

So how does one get to choose a bike from all those different models ?

Well, the main thing you have to consider is the kind of mountain bike you need. And by that I mean from which category to choose from.

Bikes are made to fit a need, and those needs are classified in a few categories. Remember when I talked about bikes made to be good at climbing and others at going downhill ? Well, that’s why we are using those categories.

Without further due, let’s see what they are.

  • Cross-country (XC)
  • Trail bikes
  • All mountain (AM)
  • Enduro
  • Downhill (DH)

Chances are, whatever mountain bike you own or look forward to owning fits in one of those categories. All the bikes in such a category have similar frame angles and suspension travels. However, they differ in so many different ways depending on how expensive they are. Let’s get you started with an explanation of those categories and what you will find in a bike from each one of them.

Cross-country bikes are made to go fast uphill and on the flats. Suspension travel is usually around 100 to 120mm, which makes XC bikes pretty poor descenders. Besides, built very light to enhance their uphill capabilities and help you on the climbs, their frames can’t withstand the abuses of hardcore downhill riding. Those bikes are made for two things : pedaling as fast as possible and winning XC competitions.

One thing that should be mentioned is that you can still find hardtails in this category. Hardtails are bikes which have a suspended fork but no rear suspension, in opposition to full suspension bikes. Those have almost entirely replaced hardtails because of how good they’ve become, but if your budget is low and you’re not riding on very steep and treacherous terrain, you should consider buying a good hardtail rather than a poor full suspension mountain bike.

Trail bikes are more playful. While not as fast as XC bikes, they pack more travel (120 to 140mm) and a more heavy duty frame, which makes them more suited for handling difficult terrain. However, they are still light enough to be efficient when spinning cranks. This is the kind of bike you should get if you want to have fun on your local trails, unless those are located on very rocky, alpine terrain.

All-mountain bikes are, as their names suggest, built for riding the mountain. Built around 150mm of suspension travel, with tough components and frames, those bikes can handle the abuses of alpine descents while remaining very capable climbers. The all-mountain category is less represented than it used to be, because of the rise of Enduro mountain bikes. Still, AM bikes are well rounded machines to ride on demanding terrain.

Enduro bikes are currently the big focus of both the industry and riders. They represent what your everyday mountain bike rider loves to do : pedal up the mountain without spending too much energy, and bomb down the hill with a big grin on his face. That’s why those bikes are excellent descenders, built with 160 to 170mm of travel and strong frames. Uphill speed isn’t their focus, but the improvement in suspension designs, weight reduction and components performance make them ok climbers that will take you wherever you want, as long as you’re not in too much of a hurry.

Last but not least, Downhill bikes are basically heavy tanks, made for one thing and one thing only : bombing down the mountain as fast as possible. 200+mm of suspension, quad-piston brakes and reinforced frames make them monsters capable of eating up any kind of terrain, as long as your skill level is up to the part. However, don’t even think about going uphill with those : the only way they are is either on your back or on a chairlift.

Understanding the market

So you found the type of bike that really matches the type of terrain you want to ride, what now ?

Well, you’re not done yet, because you now have to find what model you like best, and which version of that model matches both your budget and your preferences.

The mountain bike industry is made of quite many manufacturers, which is a very good thing, because it drives research, gives you more choice, and promotes a healthy competition among those brands. But it also means that as a newcomer, you might feel a bit lost. Besides, even when you do focus on one single brand, they seem to offer dozens of models from which you can hardly spot the differences. We’ll take a look at those brands in the next chapter, but in the meantime, let’s see how to understand the brands’ offering.

As we’ve seen in the past chapter, bike types are the main concepts that define what a mountain bike is made for. Every brand uses this to introduce you to their models.

From there, most brands offer one model for each type, sometimes more. That model’s specs revolve around a frame with a specific geometry (tube lengths and angles), and suspension travel.

That model is then offered in different versions, which means it may be available with different frame materials, components and color scheme. It usually is a matter of price point : different versions are available at different price points to allow you to pick the one that fits best your budget. While different versions of a same model should handle similarly, a higher end version usually is lighter, suspensions may be more efficient, and so on. So if you are looking for a bike then check out Over The Edge Tahoe, they rent different type of mountain bikes.

Brands to get you started

The truth of the matter is, no brand is “better” than another one, or definitely cheaper. Just as you can’t really buy a “bad” bike anymore, unless you picked up a Chinese no name two wheeled piece of metal at Wallmart.

Most manufacturers offer similarly spec’d mountain bikes for about the same amount of money. That’s more or less true, because a few brands are known to be pushing prices for premium products.

Depending on where you live, however, some brands can be more attractive than others. A Canyon or YT bike, shipping from Germany, is less expensive if you buy it in Europe than if you have to import it to the USA, because those brands sell directly to the customer.

Most brands, however, sell their models through a network of local bike shops (LBS). If you live in a remote area and you are just getting into the sport, purchasing a bike from your LBS is the best option : it is the best way to get both great advice and qualified maintenance. A LBS, however, usually only carries a few brands, which will limit your choice to the models offered by those brands.

So what are the most well known brands ? Here are some of them, sorted alphabetically :

  • BMC: based in Switzerland, this company is a big name in the cycling industry for its road and XC involvement.
  • Cannondale: one of the biggest brands, known for its “lefty”, single-legged fork.
  • Canyon: a German company that sells directly to the customer, making their bikes very well spec’d for the money.
  • Commencal: a company based in Andorra producing high performance mountain bikes with matching prices.
  • Giant: the world’s largest manufacturer, based in Taiwan.
  • GT: founded in ’79 in California.
  • Intense: another manufacturer based in California.
  • Kona: founded in Vancouver, BC, their headquarters are now located in Ferndale, Washington.
  • Lapierre: French brand whose R&D consultant is 10 times DH world champion Nicolas Vouilloz. Only started selling in the USA very recently because of a suspension design whose patent was held by Specialized in this country.
  • Nukeproof: based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
  • Orange: hailing from the UK since ’88.
  • Pivot: launched in 2007, this is a pretty new company, but it is rising fast in popularity.
  • Polygon: founded in ’89, this Asian brand is relatively  new to the occidental market as they just expanded to Europe in 2011 and America in 2014.
  • Rocky Mountain: this Canadian brand is based in Vancouver, BC.
  • Santa Cruz: as the name suggests, founded in Santa Cruz, CA. Their iconic model, the Nomad, is highly praised by Enduro aficionados. Highly involved in Downhill racing with a team known as the “Santa Cruz Syndicate”, whose riders all are past world champions.
  • Scott: known mainly for its DH model, the Gambler, biking is only one of this company’s activities.
  • Specialized: one of the biggest brands. US based.
  • Trek: also one of the biggest brands and US based.
  • Yeti: there’s much love in the community for this manufacturer based in Colorado with a long mountain biking history.
  • YT Industries: a German company focusing on gravity oriented mountain bikes. Supported freeride athletes like Cam Zink, Kelly McGarry and 2014 Rampage winner Andreu Lacondeguy. Now getting into Downhill events with Aaron Gwin, former Specialized athlete with which he won the 2015 world cup.

How to choose : 3 key points to help you decide

So what to look at when trying to pick one bike from another if you’re a beginner ? Well, here’s what I recommend you look at primarily once you’ve already decided on the type of bike you need :

  • Distribution mode : is that brand distributed by your LBS? If so, you will greatly benefit from his experience in case you have questions and/or issues. Even though prices can be lower, I would not recommend buying from either a distant shop or an online retailer if you’re purchasing your very first bike. When I bought my last DH bike online from YT, one the wheels’ dust cap had come off. I was able to put it back together without any trouble, but if you’re a beginner and any such issue happens to you, you might not even notice it, let alone be able to fix it. When buying from your local bike shop, you are guaranteed to take home a 100% functional bike, and should any problem arise, the shop won’t mind taking a look at it and helping you out.

 

  • Has the bike been extensively reviewed by specialized sites and/or magazines ?If so, the reviews may help you make up your mind and decide between bikes with a slightly different personality. Hopefully by the time you read such reviews, this guide will have helped you understand the basics needed to grasp all but the most technical ones. I would stay away from users’ reviews for now. They tend to be partial and vary greatly depending on the reviewer’s background, available trails, and skill level. Even though they can be helpful to an experienced rider, they could potentially lead you on the wrong path or just plainly confuse you.

 

  • Do you like the bike visually ?Let’s not lie to ourselves : we all love great looking items, and even more great looking bikes, just as we would rather drive a beautiful car or play a nice guitar than ugly ones. You’re more likely to ride a bike that you like than one you find ugly. There are so many great mountain bikes out there that you can actually make this a valid decision making point.

As for which specific version of a model you should pick, here’s my advice : only buy as much of a bike as you need.

Do you really need a carbon frame if you’re just starting out ? Probably not. But if you can afford it, sure, go for it. A great frame is actually the best thing to put money in, because it’s the most expensive part of a bike. Actually, it “is” the bike. You can switch any other component, but the frame is what gives most of the bike its personality, and what you can’t change. You can actually strip all the components and swap frames : you will have built another bike.

With experience, you will be able to determine what is worth upgrading or not, so it might not be the best choice to go first for the ultimate bike, and find out later on that it’s really light but you don’t find the brakes powerful enough, or that performance-oriented drivetrain is too demanding for your legs on very steep terrain, or even that you didn’t really need to spend that extra $2k to have fun with your friend.

I currently own two main mountain bikes. My all-mountain is 4 years old and has an aluminum frame with triple chainrings. Not great by today’s standards, but it certainly doesn’t stop me from having great fun on both alpine climbs and descents. I don’t actually care about being the first to reach the top of the mountain and great suspensions are far more important to me. I don’t need a premium drivetrain, not having the lightest bike is not my main concern, and I can upgrade suspensions easily.

My new Downhill bike has only seen one season and sports a carbon fiber frame. I picked the CF frame because it was as cheap as an aluminum frame from other manufacturers and only about $500 more expensive than the aluminum frame on that specific model. And it looked pretty. However, I didn’t add the $1k needed for top of the line suspensions. Why ? Because they were race-oriented, took a lot of time to dial in precisely to outperform the lesser ones, and to me it just wasn’t worth it.

So better is not always the answer. Don’t fall for tales of awesomeness and buy what you don’t need, especially when you don’t precisely know what you need. Even the most entry-level version of a model made by a good manufacturer is a great bike that will serve you many years, as long as its general focus matches yours.

More info on components for intermediate riders

If you are more advanced, you probably know what you want and don’t want already. Reading reviews will be the most beneficial to you, as you will be able to grasp the smaller details.

Just as it is the case with bikes, there is so many components out there that a full review of what the market has to offer in this guide is impossible.

So let’s get you started with what your focus should be on component-wise:

  • Frame :carbon or aluminum ? There is usually a big gap in price between a carbon and an aluminum frame. Is it worth it to you ? If yes, go for it. Carbon frames used to be more fragile than their aluminum counterparts, but it doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. They’ve actually been around for quite a few years now, without riders reporting major issues regarding frames breaking, aside from defects or maintenance related issues. Just inspect it regularly and be careful not to over-tighten bolts on carbon components. If not, don’t worry. Your bike is likely to be only about one pound heavier than if it had a carbon frame.

 

  • Suspensions :when the new Pike came out, it annihilated the competition on its segment for two years. Be aware of what’s trending in the suspensions department, as they play a huge role in your bike’s handling. Rockshox and Fox are the main manufacturers of both forks and rear shocks. Avoid cheap coil spring forks : unless they’re dual-crown and made for downhill bikes, all good forks now use an air spring.

 

  • Brakes :whether you’re a gravity-oriented rider or you simply want to have great control on your speed and stop as short as possible, brakes are of utmost importance. Two key factors : power and modulation. The more powerful a brake is, the faster you will stop. The more modulation it has, the better you will be able to control the power of your brakes and how much pressure is applied by the pistons. A third very important point is the feel of the lever. It can be very different from brake to brake and it’s totally up to you to decide what you like best.

 

  • Drivetrain :single chainrings in the front are getting more and more common. They shave weight by removing the front derailleur, ease of use is increased by leaving you with one straightforward shifter, and cover close to the range of a 2×11 drivetrain thanks to cassettes that are getting bigger and bigger.

 

  • Wheels and tires: wheels are usually a compromise between toughness, weight and price. You know the drill, you can only get two of those qualities at the same time. Obviously, lighter wheels are the preferred choice of XC racers while Downhill riders pick the toughest ones. Tires should match your riding conditions : you may have to swap or upgrade them soon after buying your bike if performance is what you’re after. Mud tires are different from those made for rocky terrain, and heavier tires offer more protection against thorns and sharp rocks while lighter ones help tremendously with pedaling.

There is many more customizable components that can influence your ride, but we’re already going past what this guide was made for : helping you buy a great bike. The after-market component offering is another huge topic that I will cover in a yet to be released guide, which I expect to be much more thorough and technical than this one.

Sizing

One last thing you have to make up your mind on is the size of your bike. Frames are usually available in 3 or more sizes to accommodate smaller and taller riders. Manufacturers publish sizing recommendations based on how tall you are, which are a good starting point. They usually are pretty accurate unless you fall in between sizes.

If you buy from a local bike shop, you should be able to try different sizes and pick the one that fits you best. With experience, you might also prefer a slightly longer or shorter frame. A longer bike is more stable at speed while a shorter one is more maneuverable. Too short a frame can also make you feel cramped when pedaling.

One thing to keep in mind is that sizes can vary greatly between brands, especially because mountain bikes’ geometries have evolved to a point where your position on the bike can feel very different between two models meant for the same sized person.

Also, everyone’s limbs and back are different in size relative to their height. That’s why a bike that fits your friend who’s the same height as you are may not be optimal for you. Being able to try different sizes at a local bike store is definitely a good thing, especially if you are not used to shopping for bikes and don’t know your anatomy’s characteristics yet.

While this is way outside the scope of this guide, there is some range of adjustability to make a bike fit your anatomy better. Outside of the obvious seat post height adjustment, you can also move your saddle forward or backward, opt for a longer or shorter stem, add or remove spacers on your fork’s steerer tube to raise or lower your handlebars, as well as opt for handlebars with a different rise or sweep.

Things you may not be aware of

Here I would like to address two things that most beginners or riders who aren’t following the industry closely may not be aware of.

The first item I would like to cover is the dropper post. What is that ? Well, it’s a seat post whose height can be adjusted on the fly thanks to a remote lever. What’s the point ? The magic of that component is that you can have your post high for pedaling, and lower it when going downhill so that you can easily move around your bike and absorb impacts with your legs.

Unless you’re an XC racer who strives to shave every gram off his bike, or someone who just wants to go out for an easy ride with his family on Sundays, you should definitely get one. Actually, they have become so popular that most companies now offer their bikes with dropper posts right out of the box.

Another thing to be aware of is that unless you’re going for a cheap bike, pedals aren’t included. That’s because you can go with either “flat” or “clipless” pedals, and that choice is entirely up to you.

Flat pedals can be ridden with any shoe. They usually have small metal pins to help your soles stick to them, but other than that, your foot is 100% free and not clamped to the pedal in any way.

Clipless pedals, however, are used with specific shoes that clip into them, trapping your foot for good. The pro of such pedals is that you can lift with your foot that is not pushing, thus increasing your power output and allegedly allowing you to pedal “rounder”. You can unclip by twisting your foot, which takes a little time to get used to.

If you’re a beginner, I would advise going for flats, as they allow you to learn proper technique and make you feel a lot more at ease when tackling difficult terrain because you can easily take your feet out in case you start losing control over your bike.

Even if you’re using flat pedals, I would recommend investing into a good pair of riding shoes (Five Ten makes great riding shoes for flat pedals) : their special rubber is made specifically to stick to those pedals and their reinforced sole allow you to transfer power efficiently, unlike other sport shoes that usually are a lot softer.

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