Buying your first mountain bike can be a very intimidating experience. It’s a blessing and a curse to have so many options. This industry is constantly growing, expanding, and making a product for every type of rider on the trail. With so many options, it means that there is a bike out there made just for you. However, with so many options, it means that there are many bikes you’ll need to sift through before finding your true match.
The most important thing to remember as you delve into the task of purchasing your first trusty mountain bike is to make your bike fit your needs and not your needs fit your bike. The perfect bike is an extension of your body, flows along your desired terrain, and should never feel like a “pain” to ride.
So in order to begin your journey to your two-wheeled best friend, you must first ask yourself a few questions.
What Type of Mountain Bike Are You Looking For?
If you walk into a bike shop and tell an employee that you are looking to buy a bike, this is the first question that they will ask you, and believe it or not, the correct answer is not ‘a mountain bike.’
Cross-Country Bike: A cross-country bike is designed for speed and distance. While cross-country mountain bikers enjoy a good descent, they are mostly concerned with how fast they can navigate all terrain. The uphills are just as important as the downhills to an xc rider. Cross-country mountain bikes are the best type of mountain bike to ride up a hill or on a fire-road, but they can still shred a descent.
Cross country mountain bikes are designed to be twitchy, fast responding, and lightweight. These differences are largely accounted for by the steeper head tube angle (meaning the wheel is closer to the frame), lower bottom brackets, and smaller amounts of suspension than other type of mountain bikes. A cross country mountain bike can be a rigid bike, a hard tail bike, or a full suspension with 100-120 mm of suspension. These bikes will allow you go travel the furthest amount of distance with the least amount of effort.
They can be built according to the rider, but generally speaking they put the rider in a more aggressive position. They usually have narrower bars, longer stems, and slightly less wide tires than their mountain bike counter parts. All of these changes are built with speed and efficiency as the first priority. These changes slightly sacrifice downhill handling and the ability to send larger features.
Who Should Ride An XC Bike: If you are looking to race cross country races (races that time you both up and downhill) then look no further than a cross country bike. If you are a bike packer and plan to travel great distances on your bike than the xc bike is for you as well. Finally, if you just want to be prepared to ride with (and keep up with) your friends on most types of terrain then a cross-country bike is a safe decision.
Trail Bikes: A trail bike is an “in-between” type of bike. It’s pretty good at climbing and pretty good at descending but doesn’t take the cake in either. A trail bike will generally feature 120-150 mm of suspension, which is just enough to take on some gnarly terrain or give you a little extra confidence. The suspension and geometry, however, isn’t so specialized for descents that it will drastically affect your ability to go uphill. While a trail bike is slower than a XC bike on the uphill, you shouldn’t have any problem while completing your joy rides.
The trail bike will be heavier, have larger travel, a shorter stem, a higher bottom bracket, and have a more slacked out head tube angle than the cross country bike.
Who Should Ride a Trail Bike: The trail bike is perfect for a casual rider or a weekend warrior. The added suspension will give you a more comfortable ride and give you a little extra confidence on the descents, but it shouldn’t prevent you from keeping up with your friends on the climbs. I would highly recommend a trail bike as a first mountain bike for most beginners.
Enduro Bike: The enduro bike is heavier duty than the trail bike and features different geometry. The enduro bike is built for gnarlier terrain than the trail bike and might fit a rider who plans to ride more difficult trails. An enduro bike will have 150-180 mm of suspension.
An enduro bike will, once again have a more slacked out head tube angle (placing the wheel further in front), a heavier frame, more durable components, wider bars, higher bottom brackets, and a shorter stem than the trail bike.
The enduro bike provides a sturdier feel and allows for better handling ability than a cross country or trail bike. The enduro bike is build for very difficult and gnarly terrain. It descends beautifully and installs confidence and comfort in its rider. The enduro bike is also designed to be able to ride uphill but will definitely limit your ability and speed as a climber. On this bike you may have trouble keeping up with friends on climbs if they are running a trail or xc bike.
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Who Should Ride an Enduro Bike:
If you hope to race Enduro races (racing downhill segments but riding uphill in between) then you will need to purchase this bike. Additionally, if you plan to ride particularly difficult terrain, shuttle downhills, or ride lifts then the Enduro bike will be essential to your riding experience. It is a good bike for someone who is primarily focused on his/her downhill ability but will occasionally want to ride uphill or have the ability to ride transitions between downhills.
Downhill Bike: The downhill mountain bike is the burliest of all mountain bike types. This bike is designed to go downhill, over rock gardens, jumps, and on the steepest trails.
This bike will be very heavy, with the shortest possible stem, wide bars, large suspension, and will be made from the most durable equipment. These bikes will have 190 mm of suspension or more so it is no surprise that this bike is not designed to go uphill.
Who Should Ride a Downhill Bike: If you are very confident in your bike handling skills and see yourself riding down difficult terrain at extreme speeds then a downhill bike might be for you. This bike limits where you can ride, and should only be purchased by riders who plan to shuttle descents or go to ride lifts. If you don’t already have experience riding at downhill parks, I would not recommend this bike as your first mountain bike.
How Much Can You Spend on a Mountain Bike?
After you have decided what type of mountain bike you want to buy, the next thing you must decide is how much you are willing to dip into your savings. The truth is, you can spend a whole bucket load of money on a bike, so you should really set your budget before falling in love with a bike worth more than your car (unless you’re into that.)
What Can You Get for $500-1500:
Unfortunately, this would be considered a very inexpensive mountain bike. It is enough to spend as a beginner, but you won’t be turning heads on the trail.
In this budget range you will be able to purchase an aluminum frame and wheels, entry-level suspension, mechanical or entry level hydraulic brakes and an entry level drive train. You’ll need to spend time tuning this bike up to make sure that you keep the components functioning properly.
This bike is the price to enter the sport, but what could a little more dough get you in the way of a bike?
What Can You Get for $2000-3000?
This bike will be a middle of the road build, and plenty for a beginner rider out on the trail.
For this price point, you have a few more options of how to spend your money. You could buy a carbon bike with low end components or an aluminum bike with nice components. You will have a little bit more research to do, but it’s always fun to actually get to choose how to spend your money and find joy in what you get for it.
What Can You Get for $4000+?
What can’t you get for more money when it comes to the bike industry? For 4000+ dollars you will get a carbon bike and wheels with high end components. The more money you are willing to spend the nicer components, drive train, suspension, and extra bonuses you can get. If money is no object for you, you could be the envy of all of your friends sporting a bike worth over $10,000 out on the trail.
So, What’s The Difference?
When you are considering the difference between a couple thousand dollars, it seems important to know what you are getting for that extra chunk of change. What are the factors that drive the price up? Can you take some things and leave others to save you a few dollars? Here’s the break down.
Mountain Bike Frame Materials:
Aluminum: Before carbon, aluminum was the leader in the frame design industry. It is generally considered to be a light and stiff material, although while not as light and stiff as carbon, its price tag reflects that. Aluminum is a less expensive option when it comes to frame materials.
Aluminum is generally alloyed with a different metal and can be made into nicer and less nice options. While it is not top end, it is generally considered “good enough” by many riders. In addition to being a cheaper price point, it can also last longer than other frame materials. Aluminum may dent and cause cosmetic damage but is not likely to fail, thus creating a bike you can use for as long as you desire.
Carbon: Carbon is the “it” material when it comes to bike frames. It is currently considered the best metal for making frames. It is the lightest and stiffest and still malleable material on the market.
Since carbon is malleable it can be manipulated into the most aerodynamic shapes and re-enforced in areas that need extra strength. When you watch the best mountain bikers in the world, they are racing on carbon frames. The one downside to carbon bikes is that damage to the frame is often fatal for the bike. You cannot continue to ride a carbon frame that has been cracked or damaged because the bike is no longer safe to ride.
Titanium: Titanium is considered to be a fancy metal. It’s high end, light weight, stiff, expensive and dampens the ride very well. So why aren’t more people riding it? It seems that if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a bike you might as well go for the carbon. Titanium has found an awkward in between within the bike industry.
Mountain Bike Suspension:
The suspension that you want is probably as heavily influenced by the terrain you ride as by the dollars that you want to spend.
Rigid: A rigid bike is the best way to save money on suspension because there is none. The downfall of no suspension means that you cannot, or will not want to ride your bike over rough terrain. A rigid bike will keep you constrained primarily to fire roads. In my opinion, this is not the way to try to save money on your bike.
Hardtail: Hardtail mountain bikes are usually a little bit less expensive as well because you are only paying for a fork. You can switch out the fork on your mountain bike and pick the quality of your fork. If you aren’t paying for the rear suspension you might be wiling to spend a little extra cash on the fork.
The downfall of a hardtail is that you will only find a hardtail in the XC or trail bike variety. This bike will be great for climbing, but bumpy and harsh on more technical terrain.
Full-Suspension: Full-suspension bikes are inherently the most expensive type of suspension because you are paying for both a fork and a rear shock. If you plan to ride difficult or rough terrain you will enjoy a full suspension bike. You can get an xc or bike that is a full suspension and enduro, and downhill bikes are all guaranteed to be full-suspensions.
Even within the full-suspension bike world, there is a large difference in price range. The biggest difference between high-end suspension and low-end suspension is in stiffness, weight, and adjustability. High-end suspension will feel better as you encounter rougher terrain, verses low-end suspension will have a point where it no longer responds appropriately.
With high-end suspension, you also have the ability to adjust the feel. You can adjust air pressure, reactivity, compression, and speed of rebound. While some of these things may seem somewhat trivial to the beginner, the quality of your suspension makes a big difference in both your speed and comfort.
Mountain Bike Wheel Size:
Wheel size is yet again another critical decision you will face when it comes to picking your dream machine. Wheel size is one of the final decisions that you are completely committed to. Meaning, you cannot change wheel size a few years down the road when you change your mind. If you want to change your wheel size, you will need to purchase a whole new frame. Therefore, you should be very informed when you pick your wheel size.
The truth is, world cup mountain bike races have been won on 27.5 and 29 inch wheels. One is not objectively ranked as better than the other.
27.5 Inch Wheel: This wheel size is more twitchy and reactive. They are better for tight and twisty trails. If you live in a location with lots of twists and turns or very tight switchbacks, then you might give 27.5 a try. They are also faster to get up to speed from a stop and can assist a rider who wishes to get up to speed quickly.
On the flip side, it is more difficult for 27.5 wheels to roll over big obstacles and to navigate chunky terrain. They carry less momentum on wide-open terrain.
29 Inch Wheel: This wheel size will better help you navigate extremely technical terrain. The larger wheel size will allow you to roll over big obstacles and handle rocky sections. The bigger wheel requires more effort and energy to get up to speed, but once the speed is obtained, it is easier to carry momentum.
The biggest downfall of the 29 inch wheel is its ability to navigate extremely tight twists and turns. The bigger wheel requires more space and we all know that in mountain biking, sometimes every inch of the trail counts.
Plus Size: A plus sized wheel is a 27.5 wheel with a 2.8/3.0 wide tire. This wheel offers a totally difference ride experience. The wider tire offers more confidence and is great for beginners who are still establishing their skills.
The biggest downside of this wheel is that the wider tire creates a greater contact surface on the ground and is therefore a slower riding option.
Fat Tire: A fat tire bike is just what it sounds like. This bike was designed to be able to ride on snow and sand. The wider tire allows for greater traction and allows you to plow through the deep terrain. If you don’t plan to ride on snow or sand though, this bike isn’t for you.
Mountain Bike Brakes:
After you pick your type of bike, suspension, and wheel size, your decisions will get down to the more detailed elements of the bike. These are parts that you can always upgrade as you undoubtedly become more and more dedicated to this sport.
Disc Brakes: Nowadays almost all mountain bikes are made with disc brakes. While it is possible to still buy a bike with cantilever brakes, they will greatly limit your ability to ride fast. Disc brakes are the style of choice for mtbs, but which type of disc brakes should you choose?
You can add disc brakes to your bike. I have detailed instructions in this article – How To Install Disc Brakes on a Mountain Bike
Cable/Mechanical: Cable or mechanical brakes are entry-level brakes and are usually only found on bikes that are under $1,000. They have less stopping power, less adjustment ability, allow for less modulation and require a lot of maintenance. Really the only draw to cable/mechanical brakes is that they are cheap, which for some people, is all that matters.
Hydraulic: Hydraulic brakes offer better modulation feel, lots of variance, better stopping power, and an all around better ride experience. Within hydraulic brakes, there are many levels that an individual can purchase. More money will buy you more adjustments including reach and contact, as well as lighter weight and different materials (carbon etc). Cross country and trail bikes will feature a two piston braking system and enduro and downhill bikes will have a 4 piston system. The more pistons a bike has the more stopping power it will have as well.
MTB Drive Train:
The drive train is another piece on the bike that can be upgraded as you become more dedicated to the sport. In my opinion, however, the better the drivetrain the more enjoyable the riding experience. There is nothing more frustrating than gears that don’t shift the way you want them to as you are trying desperately to crest over the top of a steep climb.
As you spend more money on a drive train you will gain more precise shifting, better bearings, nicer material (carbon etc.), and an overall lighter drive trainer. Nicer drive trains will feature 11 or 12 speeds in the cassette, but bikes under $1,000 will usually have 9 or 10 speeds in the rear.
1x Chain Ring: A 1x chain ring is currently the thing to run on a mountain bike. A 1x means that there is only one chain ring on the front so all of the shifting occurs in the rear on the cassette.
This is the most popular option now because cassettes are getting larger thus offering enough gear options in the back. By eliminating a 2nd or 3rd chain ring on the front, the bike is lighter and the shifting is more reliable.
2x Chain Ring: A 2x chain ring offers two rings in the front and greatly expands the amount of gears on the bike. These chain rings are on their way out and are generally considered to be equipment of the past. While they do offer more gear selections, they are heavier and less reliable.
Where to Buy Your First Mountain Bike:
Now that you know exactly what you want for your first mountain bike, it’s time to figure out exactly where to purchase it.
Local Bike Shop: Many first time mountain bike buyers walk straight into their local bike shop and purchase the first bike that matches their budget and is recommended by the employees there.
It is always great to support the local bike shop, however, the selection within the shops can be limited. Bike shops are only distributors of certain brands of bikes, which greatly limits your options. Every brand of bike will ride differently. The benefit of purchasing a bike in a bike shop, however, is that you can test the bike that you want to buy by riding it around the block and if you decide to purchase it you can walk out the door with the bike fully built and ready to go the next day.
Online Retailer: Purchasing from an online retailer will give you many more options. In fact, you can find almost anything online. Some online retailers even allow you to pick and chose parts for yourself (for a price of course).
The downfall of purchasing from an online retailer is that you will not be able to test the bike prior to purchasing it and since the bike will be shipped you will have to wait a few days and put it together yourself when it arrives.
Buying New or Used: Of course, you always have the option of buying a used mountain bike. A used bike will allow you to get nicer equipment for a lower price. The downfall of purchasing a used bike is that you will not be able to find as many options and you are restricted to the taste (and upkeep) of the person who rode it before you.
Building Your Own Bike: Another option you have when purchasing your first mountain bike is to build the bike on your own. That means you would buy the frame and then buy all of the other pieces separately. The upside of this option is that you get to pick every part of your bike. The downside is that this is a lot of work. While it is a special opportunity to be able to build up your own bike, I would not recommend this for a first time mountain bike buyer because it requires a lot of knowledge of your own needs and the compatibility of different parts.
If you’re looking for what you need to buy to build a MTB read this article – Mountain Bike Build Checklist – With Download
If you’d like to read all about the cost of building vs buying a mountain bike read this – Should I Build vs Buy a Mountain Bike (Price Comparison)
Renting and Demo Days: As a first time mountain bike buyer it is always best to try out some brands before you buy. Many bike companies will offer demo days. On these days you are able to go and test out any number of bikes for a few hours. You can usually find out about these events online or through a bike shop that is a distributor of the brand.
How to Fit the MTB:
Even after purchasing your first mountain bike, your job is not done. You will need to spend some time making the bike fit your body.
Basic Measuring: You will first need to decide what size of bike you need. The best way to do this is to actually get onto the bike and try it out. When you are seated on the bike with your foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke your knee should be bent 25-35 degrees. You can adjust the height and orientation of the saddle in order to find that sweet spot.
Next, you will need to adjust how far you bend over in order to reach your bars. For fitness riders, your torso angle should be 40-50 degrees. Stem length, saddle orientation, and handlebar width all impact how far bent over you will be when you ride.
Another common complaint about a new bike is the feeling of the saddle. Remember that you can, and probably should switch the saddle that the bike came with. You can go into a bike shop and sit on a mat in order to have your sit bones measured. With that measurement you can determine what size and shape of saddle that you want to ride. Don’t underestimate the power of a comfortable saddle.
Simple Upgrades for Your MTB
After you buy your dream bike, you will likely discover what adjustments that need to be made.
It’s pretty simple to swap out components (stems, bars, and seat post) for lighter and fancier versions. You can change your drivetrain, brakes, and saddle for an upgrade.
One common upgrade seen nowadays is to put a dropper post on your bike. A dropper post will allow you to get down lower when descending, thus lowering your center of gravity and allowing you to go faster.
One final thing to consider when buying a bike is to plan all of the extra equipment into your budget. The truth is, the bike is not the end of the road, you’ll instantly be flooded with other equipment that you absolutely need.
Helmet: This one is mandatory. Please don’t ever ride your bike without a helmet. Your life is not worth the risk. Even if you totally trust your skills, remember that crashing is not always in your control. You can buy a fancy light weigh aero-style helmet, or you can purchase a cheap one at any local sporting goods store.
Tires: Tires are a huge part of your experience out on the trails. The different tread patterns and widths of tires with greatly impact how you feel on the trail. Consider purchasing a few types of tires in order to match various types of terrain. At minimum, purchase an extra “all-around” type of tire in case you slash one on a rock.
I love playing with MTB Tires! Below is a listing of articles about tires and terrain.
- Do you ride in slop? – Mountain Bike Tires for MUD
- Love Rocky Terrain? Learn about the Best MTB Tires for Rocks
- Is Sand your thing? Go WIDE – Read – The Best Mountain Bike Tires for Sand
Riding Shorts: While you don’t need shorts with a riding chamois, you’ll be happy that you have them. If you don’t want to look “funny” riding around in spandex, you will still want a chamois to wear under your baggy riding shorts. It’s a comfort thing.
Pedals: If you plan to ride with clipless pedals, you will need to factor that into your budget. You will also need to pick your style and brand.
Shoes: Even if you don’t wear shoes specific for chipless pedals, you will likely want shoes to wear while riding.
Shoes are one of those purchases that you end up saying “Man I wish I got these sooner” Read about what I think are the best MTB shoes in this article – Finding and Selecting Mountain Bike Shoes
Gloves: At first you might not realize the importance for gloves but after your first crash you’ll be headed to the store for some gloves. If you aren’t worried about keeping the skin on your hands, then you will still want gloves because they help you maintain a solid grip on the bars when you start to sweat.
Hydration Bottles or Pack: You will need a way to carry your water while you ride your bike. Consider purchasing a hydration pack, a bottle cage, and a bike specific water bottle.
Tools: Finally, you will also need a few extra tools. Even if you plan to only have your bike serviced by the professionals at the bike shop, you will need a few tools to carry with you on the trail. Begin with a lightweight Allen wrench set, an extra tube, and a CO2 or mini pump to carry with you.
Buying Your Best Friend:
On any given week, I spend more time on my bike than I do with my best friend. While that might not be the case for you, purchasing your bike is entering into a new relationship. Your bike will likely see you at your best and at your worst. Just like any relationship, don’t rush into it, take your time, make sure it’s right, and when you feel brave enough, make the commitment.
Hannah Finchamp is a professional mountain biker for the Orange Seal Pro Team. When she isn’t riding her own bike she is coaching others to reach their goals as a Certified USA Cycling Coach and Certified Athletic Trainer. To learn more about the author please visit www.hannahfinchamp.com and follow Hannah on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/hannah_finchamp/?hl=en