How To: Buy your first mountain bike

Understand the various bike types and which components matter most

Buyer's Guides How To Tech
A quick breakdown of mountain biking disciplines and key features of bikes. Photo courtesy of Art's Cyclery

Understanding the various mountain biking disciplines will aid in your buying decision (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy of Art’s Cyclery

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Art’s Cyclery web content editor Brett Murphy, who uses his mechanical engineering background to explain the latest industry advances and breakdown component design. The original post can be found here.

So you’ve finally decided to add a little dirt to your life and buy a mountain bike? Awesome! It’s a decision you wont regret. Just know that the sport has a bit of a learning curve when picking out your new bike and its key parts, so best to educate yourself before heading to the bike shop or perusing the Internet. For starters it’s important to understand the various mountain biking disciplines and the key features of the associated bikes. Local terrain and riding style will go a long way in determining the kind of bike you need. But in general mountain bikes can be categorized into three primary categories; cross-country, trail/all-mountain and freeride/downhill. Here is a rundown of each.

XC bikes are weight conscious and have suspension travel between 80 and 120mm. Photo courtesy of Art's Cyclery

XC bikes are typically lighter and have suspension travel between 80mm and 120mm (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy of Art’s Cyclery

Cross Country

Cross country riding typically consists of fire roads and singletrack that’s geared primarily toward a rider’s endurance and power output. While still requiring a fair amount of technical skills, cross country is more about efficiency and suffering than other MTB disciplines. Cross country bikes are typically lighter and usually have suspension travel between 80mm and 120mm. For years, cross country was the sole domain of the hardtail (no rear suspension), but today there are many snappy handling and fast-pedaling full suspension designs available. This additional travel provides a more supple ride at faster speeds, but usually adds some weight and expense. Road riders will likely feel most at home riding cross country, with its focus on higher cadence, clipless pedals, and less challenging terrain. Cross country bikes also have geometry that more closely resembles road bikes.

For many — if not most — new mountain bikers the optimal first bike is a hardtail XC machine, which are typically more affordable than their full suspension brethren.

For many — if not most — new mountain bikers the optimal first bike is a hardtail XC machine, which are typically more affordable than their full suspension brethren (click to enlarge).

Best to look at both hardtail and full suspension bikes when doing your pre-purchase research. As mentioned above, full suspension bikes are typically more capable on more technical terrain and can still climb fairly well. But they’re likely to be heavier, more expensive and more difficult to maintain. That’s why many new riders start out on hardtail mountain bikes, which are often the most affordable on the bike shop floor.

Trail and all-mountain bikes have slacker angles, longer wheelbases, and travel ranging from about 140 to 170 millimeters. Photo courtesy of Art's Cyclery

Trail and all-mountain bikes have slacker angles, longer wheelbases, and travel ranging from about 140mm to 170mm (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy of Art’s Cyclery

Trail/All-Mountain

Bigger drops, rock gardens, and more technical, winding trails usually require a bike with more travel than your average cross-country bike. That’s where the trail and all-mountain bikes come in. For this style of riding, pedaling efficiency is not a premium, although a good trail or all-mountain bike will still pedal uphill well. Full suspension bikes are a must for this style of riding, and these bikes have slacker angles, longer wheelbases, and travel ranging from about 140mm to 170mm, with trail bikes falling on the shorter end and all-mountain pushing up to the 170mm mark. Most new mountain bikers will fall into this category, where the bikes can climb capably and help keep you out of trouble when the trail gets technically tough.

Downhill bikes have around 200mm of supple travel for big drops and absorbing violent impacts at high speeds. Photo courtesy of Art's Cyclery

Downhill bikes have around 200mm of travel that’s meant to handle big drops and absorb violent impacts at high speed (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy of Art’s Cyclery

Downhill

Beginner mountain bikers should probably steer clear of downhill bikes, which are all about carrying as much speed as possible through obstacles that might appear to be more of a cliff than a trail. Downhill bikes have around 200mm of travel that’s designed to handle big drops and absorb violent impacts at high speeds. These bikes are typically geared strictly for going fast downhill ( seven speeds of low gearing) and don’t offer much in terms of climbing or even flat trail performance. Most downhillers also have a cross country or trail bike for days when they feel like a more rounded workout. Downhill bikes have very slack head angles (down to 63 degrees), long wheelbases, and do not handle well when climbing.

Continue to page 2 to learn about the key components when buying a mountain bike »
About the author: Arts Cyclery

This article was originally published on the Art's Cyclery Blog. Art's Cyclery is dedicated to offering free expert advice, how-to videos, and in-depth product reviews on ArtsCyclery.com to help riders make an educated decision when selecting cycling gear.


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  • oldmtb says:

    2x 10 drivetrain, shimano derraileurs and brakes. Tha’ts the cheapest, easiest to maintain and most durable.
    If Marzocchi suspension is still around I’d recommend Marzocchi forks and rear shock because they’re the most reliable and maintenance free. Fox, and rock shox tend to be princesses who need lots of maintenance.

  • emaN says:

    No love for hardtails? Definitely an easier entry point for most people, less money, less maintenance, easier to adapt to from road/cruiser/hybrid/bmx bikes.

  • Brandon says:

    I don’t always agree with the Angry Singlespeeder but for a beginning mountain biker, I would be much more likely to recommend his advice. http://reviews.mtbr.com/the-angry-singlespeeder-youve-got-too-much-bike Learn the basics before you start insulating yourself with a long-travel trail bike with a dropper seat.

    Even this article’s brake recommendation is questionable. At this point in the evolution of mountain bikes and components, I would also highly recommend disc brakes for mountain biking. But mechanical disc crakes are perfectly fine, especially for a beginner.

  • Richard says:

    If you want to do a variety of riding, consider a 120MM (apprx) full suspension trail bike. I started with a 100MM XC bike with a 71.4 degree head angle. See http://reviews.mtbr.com/tech-talk-how-frame-geometry-affects-a-bikes-handling regarding bike geometry. After the first year, I wanted something more versatile. Also, if you are an older rider (like me), you will appreciate the full suspension.

  • emaN says:

    While I completely agree with the ASS about using a full-rigid SS as the best first mountain bike, the experience is too harsh for most newbie riders. It seems to make a good second step for those looking to build their skills.

  • Phil says:

    I have mixed feelings about the hardtail thing. Suspension is so developed now I would have to say full suspension cross country is a great starting point. Lock out the rear and you have a hard tail. There is a maintenance issue with full suspension, but in reality only marginally more than a hard tail as you really are only talking about one more component. There could be pivot bearing failures, but most just starting out, especially lighter riders, will not cause great wear to pivots under moderate riding. There is a weight difference, but the difference is only marginal. A nice tire upgrade from steel bead tires to folding tires will drop significant rolling weight making up much of the difference. I’m not so sure about mechanical disks. Good yes, but often heavy (especially the Tecktro brakes) and arguably hard to adjust for a noob cyclist. Shimano deor hydros a very reliable, lighter and don’t suffer the adjustment issues.

  • Farmer Ted says:

    Sorry, but this article misses the mark by a wide margin. Anyone’s first mountain bike should be something that fits them, that they feel comfortable on, is suitable for the area they ride in, and they can afford. It should also probably be low maintenance. Yeah, riding full suspension is nice, but it’s a headache to setup and maintain for someone who doesn’t understand it. A hardtail is light simple and will help build skills because you have to be more conscious of line choices on the trail. Despite the current ‘gravity/ enduro slant that everything seems to have to it these days, most folks really don’t do that kind of riding so don’t believe the hype.

    Unless you’re mechanically inclined experienced in bicycle maintenance, you don’t need a tubeless setup, dropper post, or hydraulic brakes on your first mountain bike they just add more complexity than is needed, really. Get something you like, that fits your skill level and budget.

    Another thing to consider is a used bike. Since mountain biking appears to be the ‘new golf’ for mid life crisis doctors, there are many really nice used bikes to be found on places like craigslist that have just a few rides on them and are a fraction of the price of a brand new bike.

    I live in Colorado and have been riding for 25 years and am glad I had the opportunity to learn on rigid and hardtail bikes(including BMX bikes) ; the skill set learned with those bikes puts me leaps and bounds beyond most other casual riders. By the way, I still don’t run tubeless or dropper posts…too much of a headache. I’ve used mechanical discs in the mountainous terrain of my local area and they are more than adequate and very easy to adjust and maintain. While I definitely appreciate the benefits of a longer travel bike (and that’s what I ride most of the time), I still own and ride short travel and hardtail XC bikes and they are more than adequate for 99% of the terrain out there…you just have to go slower on descents and pick your line better.

    Don’t believe the marketing hype. Do your research, and pick the bike that feels best to you.

    • Lance legStrong says:

      Farmer Ted, great blog post, whatever it’s called. I couldn’t agree more. Seems to me…folks that write these reviews are always positive, always pushing anything new…hmmm, I wonder how that works out? $$$

      I was happy with my 26″ wheel, then it was 29 29 29. Where I ride it is deep muddy jersey, down by the river mud, roots, and green-head flies. Now, with 29″ wheels, the camel-backed, spandex boys can roll over anything and everything, no longer have to get off your ars, lean back and lift for the roots. Now it’s 27.5, what next? 28?

      same with the seat post. I standup, lean back, get behind the seat, no issue hear. I liked my 3×10, now all high end bikes are pushing 1×10. I made my 3×10 into a 2×10 because I didn’t use the large chainring for high gears, not super low gears like it says in the article. I also like the clearance as there are downed trees all over the trails. I also prefer the 2 chainrings incase I come around a corner and there is a step climb, I can drop to the low/small chainring and have a really lo gear.

      Same with clip less pedals. I like flat peddles where I can put my feet down. If I try to clear a tree, and the chainring slams on it, I can put my feet down and walk over.

      Another thing about the article was the “test test test” discussion. Not going to happen. When you go to the local bike shop, you gat 10 minutes, in town, around the block test! The bike dealer doesn’t let you borrow the bike and go to your favorite single track to test, then show up a few days later to “test test test”.

      Also, xc is speed and endurance, agreed, but it can be very technical, lots and lots of slow, steep, gnarly rooted, washed, sand, and the beloved green-head fly rides. I would say the difference may be in the fact that I like to get the workout versus the adrenaline rush from a steep rocky, high speed decent.

  • Farmer Ted says:

    Also…gearing. Make sure the bike has gearing that will allow you to ride the terrain you want to ride without pushing it up every hill. I see so many folks who drink the Kool Aid and want the latest fad 1x systems but don’t realize that they are giving up gear range and spacing with that kind of system. A 2×10 setup is going to be the best option for a newbie as it gives the widest range of gearing, doesn’t sacrifice the low end, and keeps gear spacing close enough to be useful for folks who may be less than fit.

    Make sure you can pedal the bike up the climbs in your area unless you like walking it everywhere, and, once again, don’t believe the hype!

    Yes, the 1x systems are slightly lower maintenance but front derailleurs really aren’t that difficult to set up.

  • JF says:

    I tend to agree…a beginner needs simplicity, and relative low cost VS quality ratio. Also, I was surprised that there was no mention o fatbikes. I find them an attractive niche. I consider myself intermediate, and decided agains hydraulics. I have a variety of terrain, including bringing my bike in the arctic when I work there. So Arctic winters = lots o possible complications. I also live far from any bike supply shops, so again, simplicity. Any beginner is likely to be an ok mechanic at best. So the KISS approach rules, in my humble opinion. By not spending too much on a first bike, but keeping it quality nevertheless, it always makes a great second bike for a friend, or a good replacement while your main machine is on the fritz or xyz reason. As far as SRAM-Shimano goes…. I have Shimano 105-Sora on my road bike, SRAM X7-X5 on my fatbike, both suit my need. They sift when I ask them to, brake when I need it, and none of them left me stranded. The only issues I had was 1) Lasco crankset kept getting loose on the fatty (switched to X5-GXP BB, sweet since), and 2) KMC chain breaking, switched to Shimano, no issues since.

    My final comment: A good beginner bike is one that will get you back smiling and wanting more, and not cursing. There are awesome bikes in the 600$ range, if you can live with basics and simplicity. There are awesome rides for 10 000$. But one thing I have learned, I’d rather spend the 600$ on a bike, avoiding credit charges, and keeping my free cash to explore new trails, camping in new territories, finishing a day of riding with great food and wine, then spending lots of $$$ in interest for a bike I could not afford.

    My 0.02 cents.

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