How To Reviews

How To: Buy your first mountain bike

Understand the various bike types and which components matter most
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 »

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    • Aglo says:

      That don’t work with my hanger :).
      It’s a Syntace X12 hanger by the way.
      But I carry one with me,why carry a temporary hanger if you can carry the correct hanger.

  • gil says:

    Chain quicklink like a SRAM powerlink
    Old rear deraileur cable
    Toilet paper unless you want to use a sock

    • John says:

      Right. Other wise, you might have to use leaves, and that can be problematic. Especially if you’re like my friend’s son, who didn’t know what poison oak and sumac look like, and wound up using it to wipe.

      He definitely knows what it looks like now, though.

  • George says:

    Spare derailleur cable. Takes no room, no added weight and will save you limping home on a single speeding.

  • Midgemagnet says:

    A bit of old tyre sidewall and a stout needle and thread for patching sidewall blowouts and – in tick country – a tick removal tool and small zip bag for sending tick samples off to the Lyme disease testing lab.

  • Dave King says:

    Also:

    Spare cleat bolts
    Der cable
    Der hanger
    Chain pin

  • andrew stevens says:

    I always carry a mini vise grip. fix bent der.,& hanger Used once to hold on broken quick release, cuts cables and housing…….

  • jeff says:

    lately I’ve been carrying the spare cotter pin that comes with shimano brake pads. Have had two riding buddies lose their brake pad bolt on rides. Also, one of these was fixed with bailing twine, modern bailing wire. That would be good to carry.

  • Tomacc says:

    “set of hex keys”??? Sorry, what 4? I’m riding since 20 years and never needed anything like it.
    For a 200km MTB ride all I need is:
    1. Tube
    2. Chain quicklink
    3. Pump
    4. Patch kit
    5. Money

    That’s essential. All the rest You wrote about is like a waterproof jacket and a tent.

    • John says:

      You’re lucky, as I’ve used Allen wrenches many times. Admittedly, if you maintain your bike well, and threadlock your bolts, you’re less likely to need them. But, the problem is that many riders don’t, and you may have to deal with their problems on a group ride.

  • jay says:

    extra rear d hanger
    20 bucks
    eyedrops
    A few extra bolts
    a handful of advil and 3 perkoset

  • Nick Janssen says:

    No chain tool or spare link or chain pin?
    Since switching to tubeless, chains breaking happen far more often than flat tires or other mechanicals on our group rides.

  • dan says:

    Tweezers are something everyone should have in a first aid kit. They’re not very big and are useful for removing all kinds of thorns, cactus spines, splinters, insect stingers etc.

  • Franky says:

    I’ve used glueless patches for over 20 years and only had four fail, the very first one I tried using, a cheap brand that failed, and then two I tried to get to stick on a latex tube with no success but they did last till I got home. I’ve had as many as 15 glueless patches on a 5 year old tube that was in one of my main tires, and not one ever let go. I use only the Park brand, I have heard the Lezyne glueless patch works great but I haven’t tried those to make any intelligent comments on them yet.

  • Mars says:

    Bear spray,
    toilet paper,
    emergency blanket,
    matches/ lighter,
    string/cord,
    compass,
    lights,
    extra clothes.

    And the one thing I should carry, but don’t have, is a SPOT tracker.

  • BobK says:

    Disappointed the IPA didn’t make the kit but otherwise all good advice.

  • Big Mama says:

    Umm…cel phone? I will admit there’s not service everywhere I ride but it seems like a no-brainer.

  • Will Urich says:

    Nobody’s said it, so I will – You all missed the most essential part of your gear….:

    Weed and a pipe or artifice to smoke that shit out of.

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