Choosing Your Mountain Bike

Buy a Mountain Bike

If you’re looking for your first mountain bike or a new ride and walk into a High Street Mountain Bike Store or visit one online, you will likely wonder where to start. Price is the starting point for many riders so that does narrow things down. Once you know your range, what next?

  • What size frame do you need? What’s the frame made out of?
  • What are the gear components? Do they offer what you will need? Do you know what you need?
  • Disk brakes or rim brakes?
  • Do I need just front or front & rear suspension?
  • What about wheel size? There are 3 to choose from.
  • Flat pedals or SPD’s?

There’s plenty of good advice out there, in this post I will share some of my own pointers and encourage you to ask questions in the comments.

Overall Cost

Loosely, most sellers group bikes into four categories:

  1. Under $500 (€451, £409) *
  2. $500 – $1000 (€903, £819) *
  3. $1000 – $1500 (€1354, £1229) *
  4. Starting at $1500

* These are guide rates only and represent the top price in each category.

I just did a quick Google search for this awesome bike “BMC Teamelite 01 XTR Di2″. I saw it advertised at $10,600 (€9,573 £8,691) and found the same bike for less at several outlets in European locations and at that price, many will include the cost of delivery. If you are willing to buy a 2018 version or earlier there are some great offers out there. But, what is the trade-off? What difference does a year or two make to what you will be getting?

Frame Size

A while back, I arrived at a friends house unannounced and he was about to go out for a ride. I had no bike or kit with me so, I borrowed some kit and his spare bike which was at least two sizes too big for me. I needed a medium (17 – 19 inches), the borrowed bike was XX large (23 inches +). We followed a familiar trail but I have to say that it was the most uncomfortable ride in a very long time. The correct frame size is crucial so check out this guide, know your measurements and try before you buy.

Frame Chart

Frame Materials

Generally, because there are some exceptions, most mountain bike frames are made up of two triangles.

Bike Frame

You will find at least four frame options.

  • Steel
  • Aluminium
  • Titanium
  • Carbon Fibre

Like anything else, there are positives and negatives with each material and knowing the differences is important.

Steel

The diamond frame (shown on the image) is the most common frame design, steel tubing is the most popular frame material and is usually ‘butted’. The walls are thinner in the centre than the ends of the tubing because greater stress occurs at the ends and because the ends are welded or brazed to other frame tubes.

Two types of steel frame exist:

  • High-tensile steel
  • Chromoly (chrome-molybdenum)

High-tensile steel is strong and long-lasting, but not as light as Chromoly steel. Steel is the least expensive material.

Aluminium

Aluminium is a lighter material and historically the first alternative to steel frames. At one-third the density of steel, aluminium tubes are often greater in diameter than steel because it is also one-third of the rigidity and strength of steel. Widely used on mountain bikes and providing a light, solid and efficient ride. It’s a lightweight option and good on price too.

Titanium

Lighter than steel and just as strong, titanium has a high strength to weight ratio. On the downside, it’s not cheap to extract the raw material and it’s difficult to weld. It can flex while sustaining its shape and is usually found on high-end mountain bikes and has excellent resistance to corrosion.

Carbon Fibre

Tough and exceptionally lightweight, carbon fibre is made up of knitted carbon fibres glued together. No metals involved, also resistant to corrosion and can be moulded into any desired shape. It has a lower impact resistance than other materials and is likely to damage if (or, should I say “when”?) crashed. CF is popular but expensive. Although prices are getting lower.

Decisions, decisions. . .

There are plenty of factors to consider before choosing a material that is right for you.

  • Your weight; if you are heavy, you might need to consider a high strength frame material to enable flexing without breaking.
  • Do you live in a damp / humid place? Consider aluminium over steel, it won’t rust as fast.
  • How long do you plan on owning your bike and how’s your bank account looking? Steel is the least expensive metal and Titanium the most expensive. Aluminium and carbon fibre are fast becoming more affordable. Do your research and especially if you’re tempted by the apparently cheap, non-branded CF frame offers coming from China.

Gears

So long as they’re well maintained and used properly, gears enable you to ride more efficiently and consistently so you can sustain your energy longer. When you’re shopping for a bike it’s essential to understand how they work so you can choose the set that suits you best. Most bikes will come with a pre-mounted set but there are still plenty of questions to answer.

Understanding how your bike gears work can help you choose the right components when you’re bike shopping. It will also help you get the most enjoyment out of your bike when you’re out so you can Just Ride.

Bikes have one, two or three front chainrings, also known as the crankset. A bike with two chainrings often called a double, a bike with three chainrings, a triple. Each chainring has multiple teeth where the chain connects.

The bike’s rear cassette is the stack of cogs (gears) mounted on the right-hand side of the rear wheel, with the small cog farthest from the wheel and the large cog closest. Each cog has a different number of teeth; fewer is harder to pedal.

Derailleurs move the chain between the front chainrings or between the rear cogs. Cables run from your shifters to your derailleurs. When you press on your shifter, it moves your front or rear derailleur, so the chain moves where you want it to go.

Many bikes have front and rear derailleurs, some mountain bikes have only a rear derailleur and therefore come with only one shifter. (These bikes have more cogs in the rear cassette, giving you a broad range of gear choices even with a single front chainring).

Shifters enable you to move the chain between your front chainrings and the cogs of your bike’s rear cassette. Each shifter controls one cable attached to one derailleur.

On mountain bikes, the shifters are mounted on the handlebar and two styles of shifter are popular.

Thumb shifters have two levers for each hand—one lever moves the chain up through the gears and one moves the chain down. On one hand, the top lever makes the gears harder, and on the opposite hand the top shifter makes the gears easier. This is my shifter of preference because it’s quick to select when necessary and allows more focus on the ride line.

Grip shifters let you switch gears by twisting the indexed grip of your bike forward or backward. Like with thumb shifters, twisting one way moves the chain up through the gears and twisting the opposite way moves the chain down.

Simple enough in theory but if you ride cross-country or enduro, you need to know that you have the gears to manage the terrain and when to select each gear.

There are many gearsets available and the differences isn’t in the scope of this article although rest assured that an article on this will be coming soon along with reviews of new developments from the likes of Shimano.

Disk or Rim Brakes?

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here so hold tight. Out on a sandy trail with my wife a short while back after a heavy rainfall, I heard some choice words coming from behind me during a descent. I applied my disk brakes and although a little longer than usual because my tire tread had disappeared beneath a coating of thick, sandy mud, I did stop. My wife on the other hand had stopped dead and fallen off without using her rim brakes. Basically, mud had built up around the rims and brakes effectively stopping her wheels from turning.

The main difference between rim (aka v-brakes), and disc brakes is how and where braking force is applied.

Rim Brakes:

  • A brake caliper applies force to the wheel rim.
  • Rim brakes use cables to close the caliper
  • Friction between brake pads and rim slows the wheel and stops you.

Disc Brakes:

  • A caliper brake applies force to a rotor connected to the wheel hub.
  • Friction between the brake pads and the rotor slows the rotation of the wheel.

Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Rim Brake +:

  • A bike with rim brakes is typically lighter than the same bike with disc brakes.
  • Bikes with rim brakes tend to be more aerodynamic.
  • Installing and setting up rim brakes is much easier than disc brakes. (However, if you have your disc brakes set up correctly, switching wheels becomes easier.)
  • Rim brakes are typically more affordable.

Rim Brake – :

  • Stopping is less responsive than disc brakes.
  • Brake pads wear faster.
  • Rims wear down over time from stopping so eventually the wheel will need replacing.
  • Tire size and rim width are restricted.

Disc Brake + :

  • Disc brakes are more responsive and efficient.
  • Better stopping in wet conditions.
  • More adjustability with braking responsiveness.
  • You can use wider tires without the limitations of brake calipers.

Disc Brake – :

  • Typically, more expensive than rim brake wheels.
  • Initial set-up and maintenance can be complicated but there are plenty of high-quality tutorials to get you started. Look at YouTube.
  • Disc brake bikes can be less aerodynamic than the same bike with rim brakes.

Opinion

On long or technical descents, wet & muddy conditions, I wouldn’t dream of going back to a bike without disc brakes. They are sharp when they need to be, and control is superb. Once you learn ‘How To’, looking after them is easy. As I mentioned earlier, they don’t clog up in muddy conditions as my wife’s rim brakes did. OK, that was funny but can also be very frustrating and her choice of wide tyres exacerbates the mud problem because the distance between tyre and brake is narrow. No such issue with disk brakes.

Suspension

A mountain bike with no suspension may not give the most comfortable ride but a bike with full suspension may not give a better ride than a hardtail (front only suspension). It depends on the type of terrain you’re riding.

A full suspension bike will get you over the rough stuff and help you keep a good controlled riding line with a fair amount of comfort. FS is generally heavier than hardtail (more components) and there’s more to work on if things go wrong.

A hardtail is usually cheaper than FS although think about it. If you can afford FS but only need hardtail, you may be able to pick up a hardtail with higher end suspension. Typically, I ride hardtail on smoother terrain and have to work harder to keep a good line on rough & rocky terrain. Hardtails have a positive impact on courses where big efforts and climbs are necessary. Being lighter than FS, uphill and longer distances are easier.

Think carefully about the terrain you’ll be riding most of the time and in the ideal world, get one of each 🙂

Wheel Size

There’s a lot of research out there about the best size of MTB wheels. Generally, 26″ wheels are associated with kids’, dirt jump and freeride. 27.5″ for riders who prefer maneuverability and a bike that they can get easily off the ground. It offers a more playful ride feel, quick acceleration off the line and out of corners, nimbler handling for maneuvering around obstacles, and is the best choice for smaller riders, downhill racers and many gravity riders. A 29er is great for riders who favour speed and rollover capability; a versatile bike for a variety of rides. It offers extra stability for increased confidence, more rubber on the ground improves traction, has better momentum and holds speed longer, rolls over obstacles more easily and is a great choice for beginners, most trail rides, cross-country or enduro racing.

Flat Pedals or SPD?

Pedals are one of three contact points where your body and your bike connect, so must provide good contact as well as control. They’re also the means you transmit the power in your legs into the bike drivetrain to move you forward.

They’re a crucial part of your bike and they come in various shapes, sizes and styles. The important question to ask yourself is whether you want flats or clipless. Clipless is an odd word choice given that your shoes clip onto the pedals (SPD = Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, originally released in 1990).

Flat pedals are a platform for each foot. They’re double-sided, so it doesn’t matter which way up they are and there’s usually some extra grip provided by strategically placed pins.

The bigger the pedal’s face, the greater the area you have to place your foot and the greater the contact between you and your bike. Shoes must be considered too. Will a foot slide off the pedals in wet conditions? I can tell you that slipping can be a painful experience and it’s one of the reasons I switched to clipless.

Clipless pedals mechanically attach to cleats fixed into the bottom of the shoes. Like ski boot bindings, they are adjustable and designed to release in case of a wipe-out. I have to say that there have been a couple of times when they didn’t. Initially clipping in and out took some practice as did dis-mounting on too steep climbs without falling over. During the first couple of ‘clipless’ rides, I also noticed a dull ache in one of my calves but fixed this with a minor adjustment to the shoe cleat position.

Clipless pedals are also double-sided, but since they rely on a mechanical attachment, rather than the surface area and pins to keep rider and bike connected, they’re typically smaller than flats.

If you can’t decide ‘trail’ pedals provide a halfway house between clipless and platform pedals. They marry a mechanical cleat-attachment device with a large pedal body for a ‘best of both worlds’ option.

Relating to efficiency, I think clipless are slightly more efficient than flats but there is no scientific evidence to support this. Since switching, I’m happy and wouldn’t switch back. It’s one of those preference things.

Bottom Line

If you are just starting out or upgrading there’s plenty to consider and far more than just the price of bike or accessories. Some of it is affordability, personal taste and preference but quality matters too. So shop around, research and test if you can. Read plenty, get on a few forums, ask questions and make informed choices.

Need to know more? Ask questions in the comments, you will always get a response.

Get out there and Just Ride, it’s a beautiful sport.

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2 thoughts on “Choosing Your Mountain Bike

  1. I’ve been looking into mountain biking for a fun, cheap (after the initial investment) excuse to travel around and be outside. Picking a bike can be a tough decision due to the huge variety. Your guide was very helpful and informative. I am going to do a bit more searching now that I know some more about it.

    1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for your comments and I’m pleased you found the guide helpful. I’m about to publish a new post that looks specifically at types of mountain bike, I will send you the link as soon as it’s done. Best regards, Steve

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