I know my local mountain bike shop rents bikes, and I’m in the market to buy. How do I test ride a mountain bike?
To test ride a mountain bike, treat the demo bike as if it were your own. Make any adjustments required to the handlebar, pedals, tire pressure and suspension to fit your riding style. If possible, test the bike on terrain you would normally ride. Also, try at least 2 or 3 bikes before purchasing.
Is it worth test riding a mountain bike?
I would argue that it’s more important to test ride a mountain bike before buying than it is to test drive a car. Why? Because the bike/rider relationship is incredibly intimate. Any car will get you there, but not all bikes respond to your body in the same way.
Every bike has a personality. If you’re serious about riding, it’s worth taking the time to find the one that fits you best. This is especially important if you plan to spend money upgrading to a higher quality bike. A hardcore biker might have a bike worth more than their car!
Don’t be ashamed to demo a bike. If your passion is MTB, then it’s worth test riding. A quality ride is not cheap. So take your time deciding.
The shop you choose makes a huge difference
Before you shop for a bike, you might have to shop around for a good bike shop. The best bike shops are hip, friendly and informative. They go out of their way to help you, since they love bikes too. If you don’t feel this vibe, you should look elsewhere.
The right bike shop makes a difference after you buy too. When you need tune ups or have questions, they are there to help. The best shops make you feel at home, and this translates into a better experience out on the trail.
What is a demo bike?
Demo is short for demonstration. These days, many shops have demo bikes to try. These models are supplied by the manufacturers to allow you to try before you buy. Take full advantage of this.
In the old days, shops didn’t have demos. So they let you carefully ride out in the parking lot while they watched over you like a prison guard. Now, to improve the sales experience, bike brands have mountain bikes specifically destined for test rides.
Some shops charge a demo fee
I was hoping this went out of style, but I think some shops still charge a demo fee. If so, ask ahead of time if part (all?) of the fee can go towards the purchase of a new bike if you buy from them.
Set up is key for a demo that counts
My first experience with a bike demo was, well, not so great. I wasn’t patient and just jumped on the bike and circled around the parking lot. I didn’t have the right shoes, didn’t even adjust the seat, and the bike felt all wrong. Thankfully, one of the shop dudes came to the rescue.
He helped me adjust the bike to fit me. Just a few tweaks here and there transformed everything. Now, when I demo a bike, I begin the prep even before I leave my house.
Gear up as if you are going for a real ride
When you go for a test ride, treat it like a real ride. Wear your riding gear and bring a helmet. Testing a bike in real world situations is the only way to go. Otherwise, you’re gambling with your money.
Some things to take to the test:
- Bike tools
- Spare inner tube/pump
- Water bottle and energy bars
- Riding clothes
- Saddle/seat post
- Charged cell phone (more about this later)
You might think this is an exaggeration, but some shops let you take the demo with you to try on your local trail. So like I said, prepare as if you were going for a bonafide ride – the only thing you should leave at home is your bike.
You might want to call in advance to schedule your demo. Make sure the shop has the bike you are interested in and that they let you take it for a real ride.
Bring your pedals and shoes
Remember, you’re trying out a new bike, not pedals and shoes. So remove your current pedals and bring them along. This is especially true if you use clipless pedals. Even though nearly all clipless brands are compatible these days, the demo ride might have flat pedals.
Even if you use flats, bring your own. You want your test ride to focus on the bike. If you have to get used to different pedals too, it might distract you from evaluating the bike.
The best demo mimics the real ride experience, so bring the foot gear you’re used to.
The other contact point – your seat
You might think it’s a pain to bring along your bike saddle, but the demo bike seat might not fit you well. You could end up thinking the bike is uncomfortable, when all along it’s just the seat.
Even though most seat posts are standard in size, you might discover that yours doesn’t fit. You can still remove the saddle and install it on the demo bike’s seat post. Yes, it’s a pain, but a sore butt might be worse.
Before you ride, setup the bike to fit you. Ask the shop for guidance if needed. Some places where you can make quick adjustments are:
- Tire pressure
- Brake lever angle
- Gear shift angle
- Handlebar position
- Shock sag, rebound and compression damping
Shock adjustment might be tricky. If you don’t know much about it, the shop gurus should be able to give you a few pointers. You can also sit on the bike, and they can make adjustments for you at the shop. If the shock on the demo has an easy to understand adjustment, don’t be afraid to fiddle around with it on the trail.
Some might say you should swap out the stem and adjust handlebar height for test rides. This is a bit more time consuming to change. If it’s a really expensive bike, the shop might do it for you. Check for rolling eyes though since you might be asking for a too much.
Some demo models are specially set up for quick stem height adjustments. They do this by having a longer fork stem and then stack in a bunch of spacers. A couple of allen wrench turns later, and you have the handlebar height you want.
Ride the demo like it’s yours
If you ride the demo bike like it’s made of crystal, then you have no idea what it can – or can’t – do. Now I don’t mean you should try to trash the bike, but ride it like you own it. If you can, take it to familiar trails so you can focus on the ride characteristics.
Here are some comparisons to consider. Describe the ride as:
- Solid vs. heavy
- Agile vs. twitchy
- Light vs. fragile
- Steady vs. clunky
Try many demos and record your results
Ideally, you want to try more than one demo bike. How many? As many as you can! This is especially true for newer riders. Think of it like this. If your current ride is mediocre, any upgrade will make you smile.
If you try several models though, you’ll get a better feel about what makes a bike better. It’s not unreasonable for people to try 4 or 5 demos before buying. And this is where your cell phone comes in handy.
It might be hard to remember your impression about each bike. So snap a picture and record your thoughts in a voice message to yourself. Mention the good, bad and ugly and also set yourself free to express other things. Did you feel like you were riding on a cloud, a Humvee or a Formula One racer?
If you’re a nerd, make a chart
For the picky intellectual rider, you might go back home and make a chart. Listen to your recordings and fill in the blanks. You can set up categories for bike qualities, such as:
- In air behavior
You could also do a star rating from 1 to 5 for each category and overall. How do I know so much about what to chart for demo bike evaluations? Yeah, I’m a nerd too.
Even if you don’t make a multicolored 3D interactive chart on your computer, you can still think about these factors while you ride.
What if the demo is too expensive? A word about components
When you demo a bike, it can be a bit misleading. One brand may offer several models of the same bike frame. The more expensive models have better components, so the ride experience is better too. Sometimes only an expensive model is available for demo.
You might decide not to try a demo since the new bike sticker price is too high. Here’s a secret: ride it anyway. You might be able to get the same frame but with cheaper shifters, brakes, derailleurs, etc. Later, you can always upgrade the components as they wear out, but you still have a sweet frame.
Even if you don’t buy the same brand, it’s loads of fun riding a tricked out top end model.
Can I buy a demo bike?
Well I guess you could, but do you want to buy a demo mountain bike? Some shops might sell their demo rides, but most stores only sell new bikes. A demo is a used bike. You could look for used bikes on eBay too if you want.
I’m not saying it’s a terrible idea to buy used, but you’ll end up replacing parts sooner, that’s for sure. Still, if you know for a fact that the bike frame is killer, and the price is low, then maybe buying a demo is okay.
Look out for a mountain bike demo day near you
A lot of brands, especially the larger ones, sponsor demo days. Basically they pull up with a bunch of bikes for many people to try out at once. This kind of event is awesome, since your local bike shop might not have every option to demo.
There are several ways to find out about demo days, such as:
- Ask your bike shop and get on their email list
- Join email lists of brands you might be interested in
- Check out Facebook events and bike brand pages
- Go to local mountain bike races or festivals
Just like if you go to a bike shop, show up for the demo day prepared to ride.
Check out the Outerbike event
There are even mega demo events. If you’re lucky enough to live near Moab, Crested Butte or Bentonville, you can check out Outerbike. It’s a super cool event, and you can test ride on some of the most epic singletrack on earth. TONS of brands participate, and you might even be able to land a discount.
The only downside is that Outerbike charges an entry fee. Still, you could make it a day or even a vacation option. You won’t get bored around all that bike candy and gorgeous landscape, that’s for sure.
Rent a bike or check out brand HQs
If you go to any resort that has MTB trails, they’re sure to have rentals. Treat this like a demo ride while you enjoy some great riding. Be sure to pull back into the rental shop to swap out for different models.
You could also make a visit to a brand’s headquarters. They probably will set you up with a ride to try out. In many cases, this might be the best way to test more exotic brands. These companies tend to be located in awesome riding destinations. Whaddya know? Another reason to make a trip to an MTB mecca!
Brand demo tours
Many brands also travel around the country with a truck full of demo bikes. Check out to see if one of these brands is coming to a trailhead near you:
One last ride
Before you make the final decision, give your top choice one last test ride if you can. If the machine feels like it disappears underneath you, then you’ve found your bike. Again, if the price is too high, look for the same frame, but with less expensive components. You can upgrade later, but the frame is what counts.
If it comes down to 2 or 3 choices, I would go for the one with the best component package. Look closely at the wheel kit, since that’s an expensive upgrade point.
As you go along the demo adventure, pay attention. You’re going to learn a lot about parts, rides, geometry and general MTB knowledge. Then the next time you want to change rides, it’ll be a snap