Buying a mountain bike
Are you wondering what fun lays beyond the end of the pavement? Do you want to ride in trees and fresh air instead of endless buildings and car exhaust?
Mountain Bikes are big fun and can prove to be very versatile bikes. A mountain bike will get you out on dirt roads, flowing single-track and even epic downhill runs. At the same time, they are no strangers to the urban jungle where curbs, stairs, parks and other obstacles wait to be conquered. Even on the flip-side of the coin, many commuters love their mountain bikes for their upright riding position and durable wheels, even though they may never leave the asphalt. Versatile and flexible machines, indeed!
Here is a primer to help you understand what Mountain Bikes have to offer today and find a bike that suits your riding style.
Basic Terminology and Styles
Modern mountain bikes come in many different flavors. Some are very purpose-specific, while others allow a wider range of use. Here are a few of the more popular styles of mountain bikes, their characteristics and intended use. Understanding these fundamental terms will help you navigate through the showroom and find a bike that will take you where you want to go.
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes
Evolving from the very first mountain bikes, cross country bikes range from general purpose, recreational bikes to the lightest-weight racing bikes. Typically constructed with a rigid frame (aka “hardtail”), a XC bike may or may not have a suspension fork up front. These bikes climb very well due to their lighter weight and ably tackle the tightest singletrack with their nimble handling.
Downhill Mountain Bikes
Almost like motorcycles without an engine, DH bikes offer front and rear suspension, very aggressive tires, disc brakes and armored drivetrains to tackle the wildest descents. While a DH bike excels at the gravity game, their weight and purpose-specific gearing make them poor climbers. Catching a chairlift or shuttle to the top of the trail is how a typical ride will start.
Dirt Jumper Mountain Bikes
Not unlike a big-kid BMX bike, a Dirt Jumper is designed to catch air at the terrain park, loading dock or ramps. Sturdy, hardtail frames, beefy suspension forks and disc brakes are prominent features of this category of bikes. They don’t go far, they don’t go fast, but if you have a penchant for getting the wheels off the ground, this is the type of bike for you!
All Mountain Bikes
All Mountain bikes hit the happy medium between XC and DH bikes. They are a compromise between downhill durability and suspension and cross-country climbing ability. An AM bike gives you enough climbing ability to ride to the top of the hill, then bomb down the run with greater ability than a cross country bike could offer.
Single-Speed Mountain Bikes
As the name implies, SS bikes have only one gear. Riders value them for their simplicity and light weight over their ease of climbing a hill or ability to cover long distances.
29-er Mountain Bikes
Twenty-niner refers to the wheel size on some newer bikes. Where a traditional mountain bike uses a 26” wheel, 29” advocates like the smoother ride and greater obstacle clearing traits of the larger diameter wheel. 29” Wheels are now found on everything from XC to DH bikes. Additionally, there are now 27.5” wheels, splitting the difference and claiming to be the perfect compromise. Don’t get hung up on wheel size—If you find a bike that does what you want and feels great, THAT is the right wheel size for you!
Looking at Mountain Bikes, you will see frames made from steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber, depending on the price range and style you are looking at. Cross country and All-Mountain bikes will be made from any of the above, where downhill bikes and dirt jumpers favor aluminum and steel for the durability those materials offer.
With the exception of the most basic mountain bikes, Suspension is what makes a modern mountain bike tick. Cross-country bikes benefit from it and downhill bikes would be nothing without it. Though it comes in many forms, your mountain bike needs suspension. Here are a few keywords and their definitions to help you better understand what’s going on.
Travel—Travel refers to how far or how much movement a suspension unit will allow the front or rear axle to move. It is the measured difference from fully-extended, leaning against a tree to fully-compressed after landing hard, either in millimeters or inches. Cross-country bikes have smaller amounts of travel, maybe 3-4” in the fork or rear linkage. All-Mountain bikes may be in the 5-7” range and downhill bikes can be 8”+! More travel means more ability to soak up larger bumps.
Damping—Soaking up bumps is not simply about compressing a spring inside the shock. How a suspension design allows the shock to extend back to normal ride height is equally important! Damping units inside the fork are small chambers that control the movement of an oil reservoir and restrain the extension of the shock to a slower rate that is more easily handled by the rider. Without damping, a suspension’s re-extension would be like a pogo stick and cause more handling problems than it is worth. More advanced suspension units, whether forks or rear shocks, have adjustments that allow a rider to tune the damping characteristics to their liking.
Whether front or rear suspension, a more economical Mountain bike will have more basic adjustments and a higher-end bike will offer the rider more control of the suspension tuning. Basic suspension units with minimal adjustment are not bad. Think of the car or truck you drive—the suspension works well for it’s intended purpose, even though you have no adjustment options. Adjustable Mountain bike suspension is more akin to what is found on rally cars or desert race trucks, where a team knows the specific handling they want and can tweak the suspension controls to achieve the desired results. For a beginner, even suspension with minimal adjusting ability will probably work out fine.
One of the greatest advances in bicycles in the past few years has been the wide range of gearing available. Many riders returning to the sport recall “It was so hard to get up the hills!” or “I always had trouble moving the lever to the right spot and the bike would forever make this clacking or grinding noise.” Here are the two things you need to know about gearing on a modern bicycle.
First, the gear range on most any Cross-country or All-Mountain bike is huge! Regardless of how many specific gears a bike has, the lowest will allow you to ascend hills with ease and allow you to cruise as fast as you want going down. You can tackle any terrain while staying seated, pedal at the rate that is right for you and not feel limited at all.
Second, while 21 (or more!!!) gears may sound daunting, moving through the selection is easier than ever before. Shifters for front and rear are numbered and will “index”, pop or lock into gear without any grinding or alarming noises. Whether a shifter requires a twist of the wrist or a push with your thumb, shifting gear to gear is a click-click-click process much more like shifting a modern car—you put the lever in the right spot and the drivetrain does the rest.
Drivetrain parts come in a wide range of models from several manufacturers. As you spend more, you will get more durable, lighter components with more possible gear combinations. Some of the more specialized bikes like Dirt Jumpers, Downhill or Trials bikes have cranks and derailleurs that are built with added strength and durability for the abuse that area of the bike is known to get. Most any drivetrain on any model you could look at will shift and perform great. Reasons to look at higher-end parts are weight, long-term durability and future repairability.
Brakes are another area that has seen great improvement in recent years. If it has been a while since you’ve ridden, you may not even recognize some of them! Modern brakes can be divided into two categories—Rim Brakes and Disc Brakes.
Rim brakes, most commonly a “v-brake” on today’s Mountain bikes, are what you may be most familiar with. Though the caliper itself may look different, the brake operates by squeezing a rubber block against the rim, just like brakes always have. They are simple, light and amazingly powerful compared to previous designs. What has not changed over the years is water and mud, both of which reduce a rim brake’s stopping ability.
Disc brakes borrow technology from the motorcycle/automobile world and combine it with bicycle simplicity. There is a steel rotor mounted near the center of each wheel and a brake caliper bolted to the fork or rear frame. As with car brakes, they work very consistently even when wet and the brake pads last a very long time. Disc brakes are a great choice for bikes ridden in wet weather or harsh conditions. Disc brake performance also does not suffer a bit if a wheel gets bent, dented or otherwise damaged, making them even more popular with more serious riders.
Seats are an important topic and perhaps the main objection a person may have against riding. The selection of seats available is huge and finding the right one may seem like the search for the Holy Grail. Know this—whether you want a seat that is skinny or wide, thin or thick, lightweight or sprung like a couch, it is out there. Each person has different needs and wants here, so the best thing to do is talk about it with one of our staff. Chances are that the seat that comes on your mountain bike will be the best you’ve ever ridden. On the off chance it is not, however, we can find one that fits you like a glove. Everyone is different and a test ride is the only way to know if you’ve got it right.
Bikes come in a variety of sizes. When you come in to test ride something, one of the first things we do is get a bike fit to you. In addition to frames coming in different sizes, seats and handlebars can move up, down, forward and back and getting them in the right spot is key to your comfortable ride. Do not hesitate to tell the staff member helping you if you need a change made, even if you’ve had your bike for a week, a month or a year. As you get more accustomed to your bike, develop your skills and build your fitness, your position on the bike may need some subtle alterations. We can’t feel what you are feeling, so your communication is essential to us getting it “right”.
In the same way that buying skis does not fully prepare you to hit the slopes, there are many bicycle accessories that can complete or enhance your experience. There are safety, comfort, maintenance and entertainment options aplenty.
The most fundamental accessory is a modern cycling helmet. New helmets are lightweight, ventilated and the cheapest insurance you will ever buy. Buy a good one in a style that you will wear. You won’t regret it.
Our most popular accessories are hydration packs, cycling shorts, locks, chain lubricant, gloves, tire pumps and spare tubes. Whether you hit the trails, ride to the coffee shop or get some big air with friends, we’ve got what you need to enjoy the ride.