Beginners Guide to Buying a Mountain Bike

So let’s assume that you want to be an MTB Britain sort of mountain biker. You’d want a bike that Can cope with long hard rides, some scary downhills and quite a few rocks to keep the mud at bay. There are two sorts of bikes that fit the mould for all out cross country riding (Free riding? Whatever.) – the light to medium weight full suspension and the hard tail.

Of the two we’ve come to prefer the full suspension bike, but bear in mind the following disadvantages:

  • More weight, the full suspension bike will weigh at least 2 pounds more than a friends hard tail unless you’ve spent way more money.
  • More Money, expect to pay a lot more to keep the weight down than those with less bouncy back ends (sorry).
  • More Maintenance: rear shock servicing by mail order, pivot lubing and replacing.
  • Slower climbing: due to increased weight and a little energy loss in the damper/spring.

The advantages are:

  • More fun!
  • Higher downhill speed and improved control.
  • Safer on that bail out line, although this can be cancelled out by your increased speeds!
  • Less fatigue on long hard rides.
Specialized Rockhopper Comp 2019 Mountain Bike in Blue
The Specialized Rockhopper Comp Mountain Bike - If you can afford it, buy one!

Hardtail or Full Suspension Bike?

The real question to ask yourself is, 'why don't I want a full suspension bike?'

Good reasons are:

  • I want to race cross country and winning is the name of the game.
  • I want to race my mates UP the hills and would truly hate losing.
  • I can’t afford one.
  • I’m too lazy or don’t have time to do the maintenance.

If you’re on a low budget it makes sense to buy a hard tail, these bikes can do almost all of what mountain biking is really about, for less time and money. Full suspension bikes below £1,000 and over 30 pounds in weight are seriously out-performed by their lighter, stronger, harder rear ended, brethren. One of the main reasons for this is that the extra expense of the rear end will seriously deplete the money left over for the front fork. A really good suspension fork is going to win the day for the hard tail, until a price for the full susser is reached where a decent fork (and frame) is supplied.

Hope we haven’t put you off full suspension. Personally, I wouldn’t go back to a hard tail (oh no, I can almost sense the e-mails winging our way already) but I might if I was younger, had less money and rode less rocky trails. Almost every hard tail owner I meet at some point tells me that you don’t need a full suspension bike. This is true, but then you don’t need a mountain bike at all. You only want one to have fun on, and like blondes, full suspension bikes are more fun! However, there is definitely some sense in the new free ride hard tails, with longer travel forks and lower back ends. These make great all round play bikes, although the more extreme ones are poor climbers. If you can’t decide between a hard tail and a full suspension bike, buy a hard tail below £800 and a full sus. Above this (the same for dollars in the USA) if in doubt over which full suspension bike to buy, get the lightest as most people need to ‘adapt’ to full suspension before they easily accept the compromises of a heavy steed.

Rockshox Pike Fork
RockShox Pike

Size Does Matter

Mountain bike frames are built low. This is because if you bounce off the saddle, you don’t want to land on the cross bar, which can cause seriously painful and embarrassing damage. Smaller frames are also stiffer and a bit lighter, therefore MTB’s always show a lot more seat pin than road bikes.

To choose your new bikes size, put the seat pin an inch from the top end of it’s travel (look for the max height line on the pin) then sit on the bike, if you can’t reach the floor or the pedals, the bike may be too big for you. Alternatively it may have an extra long seat pin. Compare it to other mountain bikes you have seen, is the seat pin very long? If you’re still in doubt, set the saddle height so that whilst sitting on the saddle and peddling backwards, your knees almost lock out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Again the seat pin should be more than half extended, or the frame is too large. If you could still pedal comfortably with the seat pin a fraction over it’s limit mark, you need a larger frame.

At the lower price points there are some important points:

  • Make sure the bike has alloy rims.
  • V type brakes are essential.
  • Avoid narrow tyres, especially if the tread around the middle of the tyres is continuous.
  • Avoid full suspension!
  • It becomes valid to lift the bike to try and gauge if it’s way overweight!
  • Look for a chainset with replaceable rings (cheaper ones are in one piece).
  • Go with an established big brand like Trek, Giant or Specialized. These companies do the volume needed to hit really low price points without too many silly-cheap components. Halfords Carrera brand also has a few gems at their higher price end.
  • Buy your bike early in the year from last years stock. Also see if the shop will throw in a helmet, you really must have one of these!
  • See if your employer offers a ‘Ride to Work’ scheme – you can save around 40% off the price tag.

Whatever you end up buying, ride it just for the pleasure of being out on a bike. They’re the same hills on a cheap bike as they are on a top of the range, full suspension bike.

Important Considerations

The important factors are these:

  1. Don’t spend more than you can really afford.
  2. Don’t buy a bike that’s too big for you.
  3. Choose a bike that suits your riding style.
  4. Get a cut price deal unless you’re feeling very flush.
  5. Buying from a local shop makes sense as they can give you a lot of after sales service.
  6. You can get a great deal online too – check out Evans Cycles, Wiggle or Halfords and have the bike delivered to you.

See our Beginners Mountain Bike FAQ – for answers you won’t get from some publications.

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