Choosing the Right Mountain Bike
Written by John Long

As mountain biking becomes more popular in our area, we’re seeing more trails and better trails emerge. Along with that, more riders are looking to upgrade their ride or get into that first real mountain bike. If you stick with any of the big name brand bikes, it’s difficult to buy a “bad bike”. However it can get confusing when you try to choose the right bike for you. There are several different styles, frame materials and build packages to choose from. How to proceed?

Step 1– Decide what trails you intend to ride and how aggressively you intend to ride them. Tip; go out with a friend, borrow or rent a bike to figure out this step.

Step 2– Decide on a price point

Step 3– Research what’s available to get the most for your money.

Once you’ve answered these questions you can move ahead. There are so many types and build packages available. They come in a huge variety of brands. What’s the best for me? And where to begin? First of all, riding on any mountain bike trail is very demanding and requires a machine that’s up to the task. It’s highly recommended that any rider purchase a bike that’s suitable to the trails they intend to ride. Several options are at hand for getting into the sport, or upgrading what you already have. The best option is the LBS (Local Bike Shop). It’s a bit of a myth that the LBS is the most expensive option. The local shops are just as competitive on price as many on-line options. Buying from local shops also comes with significant advantages. Local shops have well informed staff who can answer any questions you might have and they have knowledge of the local trails and terrain. Luckily, in our area we punch above our weight for quality bike shops. All of the shops in our area are great. They carry very nice name brand bikes with at least one flagship brand and one or more others available as well. More on that later. All of the shops also have competent mechanics on staff with full-service departments should you ever need repairs or adjustments.

The secondary market is an excellent place to save a few bucks on a quality bike. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are terrific resources for finding a suitable ride. The biggest tradeoff when buying used? You usually sacrifice any factory warranty when you buy second hand. Also new bikes generally come with a period of free adjustments when you buy from a local shop. There are also some direct-to-consumer brands and many online shops where one can purchase a quality mountain bike as well. The tradeoff here is dealing with any warranty, repair and adjustment issues that may arise. Generally, avoid mountain bikes from the big box discount stores. There are exceptions, but bargain bikes available from discount big box stores are only minimally suited to the rigors most trails dish out. These bikes are also notorious for being poorly assembled and in some cases misassembled (backward forks, misaligned brakes etc.).

Let’s dig into the nuts and bolts of the actual machines. There are several different types of mountain bikes. They come in many formats and frame/suspension configurations as well as a variety of wheel/tire sizes. The two main standards of wheel/tire size are 29” and 27.5”. 29” bikes have excellent ability to roll over trail obstacles, while the 27.5 is known more for being nimble and playful.

Fully Rigid– No suspension at all.

Hard Tail– Just what you might think. No rear suspension, usually faster, but not as forgiving on rough terrain.

Full Suspension– Has a suspension fork and some sort of shock and linkage mechanism for the rear wheel that allows the rear wheel to soak up bumps and aid in softer landings when jumping or dropping off of obstacles

Single Speed– Just like it sounds. These bikes only have one gear. They challenge the rider to optimize gear ratios for climbing, flats and descents. They also challenge one to preserve momentum when exiting turns and during descents

Carbon Frame– Lightweight and strong

Aluminum Alloy Frame– Lightweight, durable and corrosion resistant

Steel/Chromoly Frame– Strong and durable

Without getting too deep in the weeds about head angles and bottom bracket heights, here are some facts about modern mountain bike styles and the tradeoffs involved;

XC– XC stands for Cross Country. The lightest and raciest bikes. The sports car of mountain bikes. They are built with pedaling performance in mind. They are best at climbing and built for endurance and efficiency. What the XC bike sacrifices for its lightweight and uphill capability is downhill capability. XC bikes can be fully rigid, hardtail or full suspension. The amount of travel (the distance the front and rear wheel can move up and down) is usually on the low side (100-120mm). If long distance and speed are your thing, XC is your bike.

Trail– The most versatile bike. The SUV of bikes. These bikes are usually capable climbers and great descenders. The geometry is more relaxed which is more forgiving on descents. The suspension travel is a little longer (120-140mm), which allows the bike to soak up bigger bumps and drops. A trail bike is a good first choice, especially if you’re not exactly sure what kind bike would suit you best. Trail bikes are right at home on just about any trail in the US.

Fat Tire– Initially intended for riding on snow, these bikes are like monster trucks. They come fully rigid to full suspension. They’re called “Fat Bikes” because of their signature fat tires, usually measuring around 5” in cross section.  Not known for being nimble, they will roll over just about anything that can be cleared by the bottom bracket.

E-Bike– A Mountain bike with an electric motor that allows the rider to be assisted on the climbs. This type of bike is gaining quite a bit of popularity because it allows riders to get to the top quicker and fresher so they can fully enjoy the downhills.

All Mountain/Enduro– These bikes are burlier cousins of trail bikes. The enduro format still requires riders to pedal and climb when transiting to the timed stages. The timed stages are usually downhill and feature trail obstacles that require stronger frames and more suspension (140-180mm). These bikes also feature longer wheel bases and geometry that is more at home for downhill riding.

Downhill– Built with burly strong frames and dual crown forks more resembling something found on a motorcycle. These bikes are built for downhill speed. The suspension has the most travel available (170-250mm). Travel that can withstand the gnarliest terrain with big drops and jumps. This bike is the least pedal friendly. The frame geometry is optimized for riding the most extreme downhill lines.

As mentioned earlier, Springfield is pretty blessed with several bike shops, and they’re all great. They all carry high quality mountain bikes, and many carry more than one brand, with access to others by special order. If you have any questions, your local bike shop is more than willing to set you up with a ride that will suit your needs. All of the local shops have competent service departments as well, so when you need repair, or adjustment, they can get you taken care of.

About the author: John Long is a BICP Level 2 Instructor, a member of MORC, and Dirt Society. He currently races for SBC/BO (Springfield Brewing Company/Bicycle Outlet) race team. John is an avid volunteer, regularly doing trail maintenance and leading skills clinics for club members. John also teaches MTB skills for Ninja MTB Performance.

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