So You Wanna Buy a Mountain Bike
Online or in-store?
There are several good articles here on the interweb with advice on how to buy a mountain bike. They will include breakdowns of the different kinds of bikes, or what you should look for when you’re shopping for one. And of course, you’ll have to decide whether you’ll actually buy a bike online from a consumer-direct company, or walk into your local bike shop (LBS) and kick some tires.
If you shop online, you may well get a deal that’s too good to pass up. Consumer direct cuts out the ‘middle man’, but of course you’ll have to consider that shipping will likely be your responsibility (ie., cost), and so will bike building and tuning. If you are handy with bike tools and own enough of them to get the job done (or know someone who is or has), then this is a really good option. You can always take your new bike frame and parts into a shop, but expect to pay about $100 in fees for a straight-up build.
Before you pull the trigger on an online purchase, however, you’ll need to do plenty of research because essentially you’re on your own. Bike manufacturers’ websites will invariably provide all of the geometry and specifications information, but you’ll need to know what all of those numbers mean if they’re to make any difference. If you’ve been riding for a good long while and have owned many bikes, you probably already know what geometry and size numbers to look for in an ideal new mountain bike.
For clarification, bike manufacturers will be glad to offer phone or email support if you have specific questions. Not to be overlooked or underestimated is the knowledge of the crowd – from reviews of specific bikes, to direct comparisons and esoteric online forum discussions – the opinions and reports of fellow bike riders and owners out in the real world can be invaluable. Beware of fanboys or negative naysayers, though. Both groups of people may be prone to giving misleading or unhelpful information based on their own personal experiences or biases.
Keeping it real?
If you go into your LBS, you will invariably be asked what kind of riding you do – or more importantly – are planning on doing. This is a legit question, despite the fact that any shop would love to sell you an $8K enduro rig, even if the closest you’ll get to a race is watching the live feed online.
Most often, people will overestimate how much riding they’ll do and how aggressive they’re going to get. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably really stoked to ride a lot already, so that won’t apply to you. However, it’s fair to say that you won’t know what kind of riding you’ll do in the future until you get good enough to actually do it. So really, this is much more of an organic process than a quick 5-minute survey of your current skills and future aspirations.
In any case, shops will at least have bikes that you can throw a leg over to size up, and in most cases, you’ll be able to take a short spin and do the parking lot test, at least. That won’t tell you much about a bike’s handling and characteristics, though. Some shops occasionally do demo days at trail centres. For that matter, so do manufacturers themselves, and this is a great way to give new bikes a go on real trail when you’re in the market. Keeping an eye on your targeted brands’ web sites and social media is the best way to learn about upcoming demo opportunities.
Your LBS will probably only carry a limited range of mountain bikes, however. Even the biggest and best bike shops are unlikely to carry a full range of XC, trail, enduro, DH and DJ or slopestyle bikes, in addition to the varieties of road bikes that they may carry, too. Typically, a shop will only carry a few brands, and not even the whole lineup, if the brand(s) even span the range of disciplines from XC to DH.
Obviously, budget will play a huge role in deciding which mountain bike to buy first, or next. If you already own a decent bike and you ride a fair bit, then you’ll probably lean towards either an upgrade on the bike you have or a different style or discipline altogether. If you live in a town that’s close to lift-access downhill tracks, then maybe you want to consider forking over for a full-on downhill race rig.
Of course, a dedicated DH bike will not only set you back a good chunk of cash, but it will only be useful for riding DH tracks. This is where a long-travel trail bike or enduro race bike might come in handy, as they’ll do double duty and allow you to pedal to the top of said tracks before dropping in. You’ll need to have sharper bike-handling skills to manage steep and gnarly trail on shorter-travel mountain bikes, but it’s great practice for learning how to choose lines quickly and carefully, or at least creatively and cunningly!
Having a one-bike quiver – a do-it-all type of trail bike that you can ride anywhere and everywhere, sounds like a great idea that won’t cost as much as multiple bikes for different applications, right? Yes and no. Yes, because hey, that’s a great bike that can handle almost anything, as long as you pony up enough cash to build it light and strong. But also no, because you’re gonna have to spend a lot of money on that baller frame and all of the pricey parts to build it, and you’re also going to put a lot of wear and tear on that bike and parts, including frequent tire changes. And of course, the old saying “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind when limiting yourself to just one bike.
Overlapping bikes in a quiver can get very expensive, but if your skills are sharp and you’re good at choosing lines, then having just a short-travel or hardtail mountain bike, plus a long-travel bike – which can also be a hardtail – is a great scenario. The major advantages to having a hardtail as a second capable trail bike include:
- the greatly reduced cost of purchasing a great frame at the outset
- the very low cost of maintenance compared to an intricate full-suspension layout, not to mention the decreased likelihood that parts on that frame will fail or need repair – more time riding, less time in the shop!
- the greatly reduced impact that adverse weather and conditions will have on your bike – hardtails are a classic wet-season option when summer disappears for a half-year (in many climes)
- they’re cool, yo! – and you get more trail feedback, direct transfer of power to the rear wheel, and practice choosing lines that won’t make you explode on the trail
Pick a wheel size and be stubborn about it?
It used to be that 26″-wheeled mountain bikes were everything – every discipline and every type of bike had the same wheel size, from rigid XC to full-on DH. Both 27.5″ and 29″ wheel sizes have surpassed and nearly eliminated 26 from the spectrum – they still make great DJ (dirt jump) and slalom bikes, so if you have the chance to pick one up if that’s the kind of riding you want to do, then go for it! But for just about everything else, one of the two latter sizes will be your only option for a new bike, unless you’re looking for a fat bike. Most fat bikes are shod with 26″ wheels and massive tires for floating over snow and lose terrain. Once the huge-volume tires are factored in, you’re basically talking about the same effective wheel size as any other type of trail bike.
The prevailing wisdom when choosing between 27.5 and 29 has been that the smaller wheel size was best for long-travel and quicker and sharper handling in tight situations, as in ‘gravity’ riding – blasting downhill at speed. The larger 29″ wheel size was better suited to short-travel, flowier cross-country riding and racing, as the larger diameter wheel could more easily float over small obstacles like roots, rocks and divots in the trail and keep rolling, fast.
You can basically throw all of that old wisdom out the window now. Both wheel sizes have been optimized for all types of trail and all disciplines of riding and racing. There are certain characteristics that still hold true, mostly. The smaller 27.5 wheel-sized bikes will generally feel a bit poppier and livelier in tight, fast downhill and ‘freeride’ situations, and the larger ‘Niners will smooth out small bumps and roll faster when stuck to the ground.
Related article: Ultimate Guide to Fat Bike Maintenance
There are now many bikes that blur the lines between the two, so ultimately you should go on feel and try to consider where you’ll be doing most of your riding. Of course, many bikes have the ability to switch between wheel sizes, and some can even accommodate plus tires, too. So an ideal addition to your quiver might just be a bike that can switch up from 27.5″, to 27.5 Plus (+), 29″ and possibly even 29+. The major advantage with a bike frame like this is that you can convert a trail bike into an all-season plus or fat bike for bike packing or generally just riding in conditions that your ‘regular’ mountain bike can’t handle.
So what do you do?
Suffice it to say that if mountain biking is your passion, and your lifestyle and identity are defined by it, then it’s never a bad decision to significantly upgrade your current frame or parts. If your ultimate goal is to widen and improve your skillset, then adding different styles of bikes to your quiver will allow you to unlock your potential and abilities. A great example of this is to add, or upgrade to, an aggressive hardtail. When there is no plush suspension out back to gobble up obstacles, riders are forced to choose lines more carefully and to respond more quickly and decisively to trail feedback.
If you plan on travelling extensively with your bike, take into account the can’t-miss epic trails that you’ll want to hit up when riding abroad, and maybe that jack-of-all-trades bike starts to look more appealing. If you plan to try bike packing ever, then seeking out a versatile, bomber hardtail is your best bet on a new rig. If you just can’t get enough and want to ride all year long in places that get cold and snowy, then maybe your next mountain bike should be one of the rad new fat bikes that can be kitted out to ride all year, anywhere.
If all of the above sounds great, and you dream big about riding everywhere all the time, then you should definitely be prioritizing your bike budget and start saving up because you’re gonna need it! And if all of the above sounds a bit romantic and you prefer hard facts and science, then just use this fool-proof mathematical formula for the number (n) of bikes you should have – (n) + 1 = the correct number. And as always, keep the rubber side down!