FAQ: Buying A New Mountain Bike

Q: What kind of bike should I get?

A: It really depends on the kind of riding you plan on doing. There are different styles of off-road bikes for different styles of riding. Here are some major categories:

Common First Bikes
Type of bike
Description/Typical usage
Comfort BikeFront suspension (sometimes), big seat, comfy seating position. Typically low-end components. For occasional rides on paved roads, paved trails, very smooth dirt trails.
HybridPrimarily road bike, that is capable of light trail riding. Front suspension (usually), narrower tires, taller frame, usually somewhat lower-end components. For commuting and road riding, as well as dirt trails that don't involve big jumps, steep climbs, or difficult obstacles.
HardtailSee below (very common setup). For any trails with jumps (preferably) less than 3-4 feet.
SinglespeedMountain bike with single gear front and back; often no front suspension. Build for simplicity & for testing a rider's limits. Not likely a good first bike!
Full-suspensionSee below (very common setup). For any type of riding. Basic full-suspension is "cross-country".
FreerideHeavily-built full suspension bike. For "Urban assault" (stairs, jumping off ledges), jumping off pretty much anything; a bit heavy for normal trails but can be used for that as well.

Special-use Bikes
Type of bike
Description/Typical usage
CyclocrossMore like a road bike with wider tires. For a specific type of racing, which involves getting off to cross many obstacles.
TrialsTuned for balance. Trials riding involved balancing on objects and lurching or jumping to other objects. This takes experience, though.
DownhillVery heavily-built full-suspension bike. Primarily for downhill racing, preferably something that doesn't require riding back up.

Once you've done your requirements analysis, its time for a feasibility analysis. Are you really going to be able to do the type of riding you had in mind? Most mountain bikers prefer "cross-country" riding; this is typical trail riding of distances anywhere from a few miles to over 20. Cross-country trails usually include some climbing, descending, and obstacles like ruts and hopping over fallen trees. Its fun, its great exercise, and there are many trails designed for this kind of riding. If you're planning on doing cross-country, you'll probably be able to find trails.

Other types of riding may not be available in your area. For example, if you live in hilly country, there may not be that many trails that will accomodate a comfort bike. If you don't live anywhere near a ski lift, you might have difficulties finding a place to ride a downhill bike.

If you want to buy a freeride bike to jump off hills, boulders and park benches, you probably will be breaking the law if you're in the U.S. Most U.S. parks don't allow riding off-trail (and few trails have boulders to jump off), and most U.S. urban areas don't allow riding off of the roads. Consequenses may range from bike confiscation to fines/imprisonment, as well as closure of trails to those who ride legally. If you're going to break the law, don't do it near legal trails where other mountain bikers might be punished for your actions. Better yet, don't break the law - make sure the riding you have planned is legal.

Even if it is legal, riding off-trail isn't generally advisable. Bicycles are nearly useless where there aren't trails/paths or roads. It takes more effort than most people can muster to ride a bike off-trail even on a grassy field (unless its all downhill). There are potential environmental implications as well; for example you could leave a rut that could start some major erosion; in some desert areas, cryptobiotic soil is easily injured and very slow to recover.

Q: How much should I spend?

A: As much as you can stand. For the first-time mountain bike buyer, the cost of mountain bikes may be a bit shocking. As a general rule, you'll pay the following:
Junk hardtail< $300
Light-use hardtail$300-500
Intermediate hardtail$500-800
Race-ready hardtail$800-2,000
Boutique hardtail$2,000+
Junk full-suspension< $800
Light-use full-suspension$800-1,500
Intermediate full-suspension$1,500-2,000
High-end full-suspension$2,000+

These numbers are rough personal estimates and subject to change. I'd say they're accurate to within $100 in any category, but someone else might say something otherwise. Please don't send me e-mail saying that bike "X" fits in category "Y", but cost only "Z".

Except in the cases of freeride and downhill bikes, more expensive typically means lighter. That doesn't make them any less durable; in most cases they'll be more durable than the "light-use" bikes. Light bikes make climbing and "cleaning" (making it over) obstacles more feasible for the average rider. Intermediate and (some) race-ready bikes strike a good balance of durability and low weight. If you a "Clysdale" (a rider over 200 pounds), you probably need to avoid some of the super-light race-ready bikes; some higher-end frames (as well as wheels) aren't built for that much weight. Lighter bikes don't tend to fare as well for high jumps, either.

This is your one-time chance to buy components at a discount! It will cost a lot more to buy a bike with cheaper components, then go back and replace those components. Most frequent riders have done the same thing: they buy a bike they feel is within their price range (typically around $300-500), then ride it a season or two and find they really want something better. If they bought a really cheap bike, they may spend an equal amount on repairs in the meantime. So then they go buy another bike, and that first one gathers dust in the garage. It would have been preferable not to spend $500 on that bike that nobody rides. Then again, they might not have known what they "really want" if they didn't have the cheaper bike. Its a common lament among mountain bikers that they went cheap and then had to spend considerably more money later; you don't really hear riders complaining that they spent too much. This is why it makes sense to as much as you can stand.

Just be realistic - don't expect bikes in the "junk" or "light use" category to perform anything close to bikes in the other categories. Riding a bike that performs poorly can be very frustrating and occasionally a little dangerous. It may appear that everyone else is nuts to spend so much money on bikes, but really there are good reasons. Realistically, somewhere around $1,200 tends to be the typical price-point for mountain bikers that ride hard and frequently. That probably sounds ludicrous to you, but unless you stop riding, there's a good chance you'll be buying one in the next two years!

Q: What's a "hardtail"? What's "full suspension"?

A1: A "hardtail" is a mountain bike that has a front suspension fork (like the one on the right) and no shock absorber in the back. Good hardtails are light, fast and responsive, and because of this they are good for climbing.
Even the cheapest mountain bikes these days tend to have suspension forks. That's not necessarily a good thing, since most of the forks on cheap bikes are of poor quality and will probably need replacing before too long. The cheapest forks also tend to be sold only on new bikes, and not separately. Find out the make and model of the fork, and search around on the web for it. The price will give you an indication of the fork quality.
Most decent bikes are sold with Rock Shox, Manitou, or Marzocchi. Marzocchi has been making forks longer than anyone and has probably the best reputation, but they tend to be expensive so you won't find them on anything but expensive bikes. Rock Shox and Manitou make lower-end (but reasonably good) forks. Other reputable brands such as Fox and Suntour make forks that may very well provide a good service life, but are not as well known for mountain bike forks. Replacement forks can be found at very low prices during sales and clearance events, so they can be upgraded later (sometimes at a bargain price).
A2: A "full suspension" bike has the front suspension fork and a rear suspension (like the bike on the right). These are highly recommended if you ride in a lot of rocks, as the rear suspension allows you to glide over rough terrain. They're also good for big jumps. The rear shock adds some complexity to the bike, and a good bit more weight at any give price point, plus there'll be a bit more maintenance. Plus, you'll pay a few hundred dollars more than a hardtail for a bike of otherwise equal components. Depending on your terrain, it might be worth it; riding a hardtail in big rocks can be brutal.

Q: What brand should I get?

A: Local Bike Shops (LBSs) generally all sell reputable brands. Most brands use similar components, so the major difference is often the frame. Look for a brand that has a good warranty, preferably a lifetime warranty, on the frame. Mountain bikes have become a very low-margin business, so many manufacturers are running in the red or may already be out of business; its preferable if yours isn't one of these. Still, unless you end up replacing the frame, it won't matter much over the long run what the brand is.

Also, there is a growing trend of extremely low-end manufacturers buying out reputable but cash-strapped brands purely for the name. They can then sell junk bikes with a good brand name on it. These bikes are usually sold at discount or sporting-goods stores, not bike shops.

Q: What size should I get?

A: See http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1998/03mar/kronpa.htm. Your LBS should be able to help you find a bike that fits you well. Bikes can have very different geometries, and generally the difference will be felt in the horizontal length between the seat and handlebars. Two brands with the same size may feel very different. Find one that feels good to you; other than the basic horizontal fit (which the LBS will take care of), its mainly a matter of personal preference. Unfortunately, getting a real feel for the bike will be close to impossible if all you are allowed to do is ride it in the parking lot, which generally is all you're allowed to do. If you decided you want it, make sure the LBS gives you the option to return it if you can't stand the fit.

Some bikes sit more upright and less "stretched out" than others. If you have had neck or shoulder problem in the past, this might be preferable. A long top tube (the tube on the top from the seat to the handlebar) will result in a "stretched out" position that might be faster and better for handling, given that you don't have such physical issues.

Realize, too, that there is a bit of flexibility in the size. You can raise the seatpost (to a certain extent), or get a longer seatpost of course. Do not ride with the seatpost raised beyond the limit (there's a line on the seatpost that shows this limit). You can also move the seat back and forth an inch or so, and get a shorter/longer stem to vary it a couple of inches. You can get a taller stem or riser bars (or vice versa) to raise or lower your position.

This is one of the most important parts of the buying decision. Don't take fit lightly. Poor fit can result in anything from poor handling to neck/back pain, so its an important factor.

Q: I found a bike at Wal-Mart (or Costco, or some other discount store) that has Shimano components, so it's a good bike, right?

A: No. Shimano has a very wide range of components, from the absolute worst to some of the best. The "absolute worst" is what you'll find on the discount-store bike. Also, the deraillers (the things that make the bike change gears) are often the only thing that's Shimano. The gears themselves, the brakes, shifters, and most everything else will be made by some third-rate manufacturer, and you can expect these to break rather quickly unless you just ride the bike around the neighborhood from time to time. Some bike shops initially (and probably still) would refuse to work on these because there's no way to make them work very well. This trend seems to be changing, as bike shops are finding that there's pretty good business in fixing these bikes that break constantly.

Q: How can I get a good deal?

A: Buy last years' model, or buy a slightly-used bike. Last years' model will be easier to find. You can find used bikes in the classified ads of your local paper, or online at www.mtbr.com or www.ebay.com.

Q: Should I buy online?

A: See the question about bike fit above. You might get a good deal online, but if you don't know whether the bike will fit you, you're potentially taking a big risk.

Q: Where can I see reviews of bikes and components?

A: There is a website that has a lot of reviews, www.mtbr.com. Do not put too much faith in these. People get very personal about their bikes and even their components for some reason. They will tend to say they're the best (or at least the best for their money) when they haven't even used the bike/component for very long and/or have little experience with anything else. You should already know they've convinced themselves that the bike/component was the best - that's why they bought it! MTBR can be useful if you use it right. Put more faith in opinions that reflect extended experience, and experience with other products. Look for trends, such as whether several people had similar problems with the product.

And you can always post a query to alt.mountain bike and rec.bicycles.off-road. But try not to ask the questions in this FAQ; there's a reason they're called "frequently asked", and people get tired of hearing the same questions.

Q: Do I need disc brakes?

A: You don't need disc brakes, but if you ride in wet areas you'll appreciate them. With normal rim brakes, dipping your wheel in the mud means you've just covered your entire breaking surface with a combination lubricant/abrasive. Disc brakes are more expensive than rim brakes, so this will add to the price of the bike (or direct less of your purchase price to other important things).

Q: What kind of components do I need?

A: Most bikes have Shimano shifters & deraillers; SRAM is the other main vendor. Shimano makes a wide range; the following table attempts to describe these and presents my best guess of where the SRAM line fits in:
ModelQualitySRAM Equivalent?
SIS, Tourney (or just says Shimano)Mainly designed for riding around the neighborhood
AltusSufficient for paved or very easy trails; avoid hills3.0
AceraSlightly better, but won't shift well under stress; capable for easy casual riding4.0
AlivioMinimal capable for recreational riding; will handle some hard riding5.0
STX / DeoreEntry-level components for hard riding; tough & reliable7.0
LXThe minimum standard for hard riding. Reliable & responsive9.0
XTMore responsive than LX, but still reasonable tough9.0SL
XTRLight, responsive racing components; tend to be quite expensive; often sacrifices toughness for responsivenessX.0

Look for a component set that fits your expected riding style.

Note:The numbered SRAM components aren't compatible with Shimano components. SRAM does make grip-shifters that are Shimano-compatible.

There are many other manufacturers that specialize in various components (Avid, Cane Creek, Race Face, Hope) and make great ones. Ask the LBS personnel for a comparison if you see a brand you don't know. Also, you can use the same test as forks above: if its not sold separately, its probably more questionable. If you're getting a full-suspension bike, make sure you get a good rear shock as well (it'll probably be something other than SRAM or Shimano).

Q: Why do I need more gears? Isn't 21 (3 front, 7 back) enough?

A: The chain has to be at least somewhat straight between the front and back gears. You can't, for example, use the small front gear and small back gear because the chain would be at an unreasonable angle for both gears. This limits the combinations you can use. There's also some overlap. The lowest gears on the 21-gear componentry aren't as low as the other components; this can make steep climbs considerably more difficult. Same issue on the high-end.

Q: What's better, grip-shifters or trigger-shifters?

A: Its purely a matter of preference. Either is fine. Some people who use trigger-shifters find that grip-shifters may cause inadvertant shifting.

Q: Those auto-shifting bikes look like they'd make riding easier. Are they any good?

A: These are the equivalent of department-store bikes, with less reliable shifting mechanisms. Avoid them.

Q: Should I get an aluminium bike? Steel? Titanium Etc?

A: First off, let's be clear about "steel". There are cheap bikes made of "steel" or "high-tensile steel". Avoid these; they're outrageously heavy and not particularly durable.

When bike shops talk about "steel", they're usually talking about an alloy of steel, chromium, and molybdenum (and probably some other metals in small quantities). It may also be called "cro-mo", or "cro-moly". These bikes tend to be quite tough, though they might be a bit heavier than aluminum at the low-end. Cro-mo bikes are known for a "plush" ride, i.e. they absorb some of the vibrations of riding on rough trials. They can also be welded if they crack. Light rust can be a minor problem, but cro-mo bikes certainly don't rust like car fenders!

Aluminum has become the standard for mid-range and high-end bikes. They tend to be relatively light, and a lot stronger than one might expect (given that most people's experience with aluminum is Coke cans). They probably do bend more easily than cro-mo, so make sure you get a good warranty (good brands should have lifetime warranties). If they crack, special equipment is needed to weld them. Traditionally, aluminum bikes have been considered "stiff", and don't absorb the vibration of rough trails, but they seem to have gotten better in this regard. Some aluminum tubes bend rather easily, so take this into consideration of you ride in rocks a lot.

Titanium bikes have come down in price, to where they are now somewhat reasonable for a high-end recreational bike. They combine the plushness and durability of cro-mo with the lightness of aluminum. Titanium is extremely difficult to bond; take effort to ensure the builder is a good one.

Carbon-fiber mountain bikes are also light and extremely plush. They are tougher than one might expect; if they are solid material, they can stand up to a pounding with a sledgehammer. Some full-suspension bikes have hollow carbon-fiber bodies, and can break or have a hole punched in them by a sharp rock. When carbon-fiber fails, it fails suddenly and spectacularly. It may not be a good choice for heavier riders, or anyone who rides frequently in rocks.

Q: I'm buying a bike for a woman. Should it be different than a man's bike

You don't need the low top tube, since she won't be riding with a skirt (you probably don't want that, since it'd reduce the frame strength). Some bikes are built for women just by having a shorter top tube length.

Q: Should I just get a seatpost shock absorber instead of a full-suspension bike?

A: While these soften the ride for the rider, they don't provide the ability to glide over rocks the way a full-susser does. They provide a subset of the benefits (albeit at a lower cost and weight), but are certainly not a replacement.

Q: The seat looks way too narrow. Should I replace it?

A: You can replace the seat with something more comfortable, but a wide, padded seat may tend to chafe on longer rides. Also, you'll need to slide back to the very back of the seat (or off the back of the seat) on steep downhills; wide seats can be a problem in that regard. A seat only needs to be wide enough to fit underneath your "sit bones". Feel around your butt area & you'll find them; they're big bones that hold pretty much all your weight. These are what you need to fit. This can be trial and error; try to make sure the LBS will let you return the seat if its uncomfortable. Sometimes you just need to ride in the narrow seat for a month or so to get used to it; if you think it will be bearable, keep using it for a while. Padded shorts help immensely.

Q: Do I need clipless pedals? Should I take off the toe clips?

You don't need clipless pedals, and its probably best not to use them until you're comfortable riding trails without them. The clipless pedals do allow you to use the entire stroke, and get more power out of your riding, but they're certainly not essential. If the toe clips make you uncomfortable, you can take them off as well; but try to put them back on once you get a little comfortable with the trail. They'll keep your feet from coming off the pedals, and may save you from some pedal-shaped indentations in your legs.

Q: Should I upgrade anything when I buy the bike?

A: Probably not, if you got a decent bike. You will find what items you want to swap out as you get more familiar with the bike. If you didn't get a decent bike, you'll probably be either replacing it entirely or hanging it permanently in the garage.

Q: Do I need a jersey, tights, etc?

A: You can ride in a t-shirt and street shorts, but the t-shirt will become soaked with sweat and the shorts can catch on the seat. Plus, you probably want some padding in your shorts. Modern baggy bike shorts have padding inside, and are pretty good about not catching on the seat. The jersey or coolmax shirt just keeps you from having to wear a nasty sweaty shirt. Just keep the color scheme within reason!

Q: What else do I need?

A: Well a helmet is always an obvious answer. Try to find one with good venting if you ride anywhere that's not always cold; beware, these will cost you, but its worth it! Two inches of Styrofoam insulation (on the part of your body that releases the most heat) can get very hot very fast.

Gloves are probably going to be more important for a good while. After all, when you fall, don't you naturally put your hands out? They also absorb a lot of trail vibration and can save you from hand/wrist pain and numbness.

Tools: At a very minimum, you'll need to be able to fix a flat on the trail. This means both tools and skills. You'll need tire levers, a patch kit, and preferably a spare tube. Use the spare tube for the first flat (you can fix it easier at home), then use the patch kit for emergencies. You'll also want a set of metric allen wrenches, a chain tool, and anything else needed. Look over your bike to see what nuts, bolts, etc are there and make sure you have the tools to adjust them. Zinn & the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance is a good read for bike maintenance. It's a good idea to learn some bike repair rather than taking it to the shop; not only do you save money, you gain the skills to fix problems on the trail.

Water: Mountain biking is one of the most intense physical recreational activities you'll find. You can get dehydrated quickly. Take plenty of water, or if you plan to ride often get a hydration pack (e.g. Camelbak).

Chain/component Lube: You'll need this sooner or later.

Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Absolutely! The growth in mountain biking has been accompanied with a growth in outcries to ban mountain biking. Much of this is due to absolutely appalling behavior on the part of some new mountain bikers. Don't be part of the problem! Be courteous on the trail. When you pass hikers, stop for them or pass very slowly. They're out there for the peaceful experience; do the decent thing and don't fly past them. Watch out for horses, they spook easily. Ride under control. Don't ride muddy trails unless you know for sure that you won't be tearing them up. See http://www.imba.com/resources/soft_cycling/index.html for more info.

You are now a newbie, and that's great! Learn how to control your bike, and keep it working properly, and how to stay on the trail, lest you become a Barney.

Mountain bikers have a long tradition of community. When we pass, we say "hi". When we see someone stopped to fix a problem, we stop and ask if they need help. Welcome to the community, and please be a part of it!

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