Ah, the mountain bike, the Swiss Army knife of bicycles. There isn’t much you can’t do on a mountain bike, in fact, with the right tires on it you can go anywhere. Pop on some aggressive dirt tires and you can climb single track hills that are too tough to run up with relative ease. Road tires and you’ve got a stout commuter that won’t end up with a bent rim every time you hit a pot hole. Go with a less aggressive knobby tire and you can cruise in comfort down any dirt road on the planet. Mountain bikes are awesome. The only thing they aren’t is fast – unless your trip to grandma’s house is actually over the mountain and through the woods… In that case, it’s fast.
That said, being the most represented of all bicycles, the question is where do you start when you can pick up a mountain bike at many grocery stores? Therein lies the rub. Mountain bikes come in many “grades”. You’ve got the grocery store brands with plastic brake levers and cheap components that weigh a metric ton (not really but they are heavy). Then you’ve got the big-box sporting good store brands that are absolutely a step in the right direction but still on the heavier cheaper end of the spectrum. Then you’ve got the bike shop, entry level and high-end mountain bikes.
Mountain bikes are no different than road bikes one respect: The more you’re willing to spend, the better the components will be, the lighter the bike will be and the better you can expect the bike to operate. The addition of the grocery store bikes adds a new dimension though – serviceability. I know my way around a bike, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to adjust the cheap brakes on a grocery store bought bike so they don’t rub on the five pound steel rim. The rule here is to pick the most expensive bike one can reasonably afford. To a certain extent, you do get what you pay for.
Now, before I get into this, this post is designed for noobs, based on some of the issues and situations that I dealt with as a noob. I won’t be getting into the finer points of downhill mountain bikes vs. general purpose mountain bikes, etc. If you know what a downhill bike is (and have the money to buy one) you don’t need this post.
Some things to consider though: Size, 26’er or 29’er, no suspension, front suspension (hard tail) or full suspension (shocks on the front and rear wheel), brakes (rim or disc) and steel, aluminum or carbon frames. One of the things you won’t have to worry about, at least for now, are tires – tires for mountain bikes are exceptionally affordable ($20-$40 ea.).
Let’s look at the size of frames first:
Size is quite straight forward – check with the bike shop but your choice of frame size will be influenced by whether you choose a 26″ or 29″ wheel. You will want a smaller frame if you go with a 29’er, typically I ride a 19.5″ to a 20.5″ frame on a 26″ wheel, but I’d get an 18.5″ to 19.5″ for a 29’er.
Steel frames are exceptionally versatile, easily fixable, exceptionally inexpensive, very durable and incredibly heavy. Steel, as much as it is adored by hipsters, is generally reserved for the lower-tier grocery store mountain bikes – the one’s with the ultra-cheap shocks or no suspension at all. In the mid-90’s my wife and I bought new “mountain bikes” at Sears and I think we paid $150 for each of them. Now, if they’re taken care of they work just fine – in fact, I just fixed my wife’s up and we’re donating it to a less-fortunate friend. It’s a decent tool around town bike but it weighs, even with the cheap plastic brake levers, about 2-3 times that of my new road bike – and it’s a small-ish frame.
Aluminum frames are much lighter and provide an excellent platform for mountain bikes. If you plan on actually riding your bike in the mountains or on single tracks, this is where to start. The frame is light enough that you’ll be able to use it to climb up even the most egregious of hills. I am an occasional mountain biker and have a five year-old aluminum Trek 3700 – an entry-level high-end bike (they run about $400). A friend of mine rides at least four times a week and is much faster and more accomplished and he has an aluminum Cannondale Scalpel ($3,000+).
Carbon frames are definitely nice and light but as far as noobs go, probably not all that necessary as far as this post is concerned – you really get into some cash upgrading to the carbon mountain bike frames.
What about suspension?
Suspension will greatly depend on your planned use of the bike. Shocks rob you of power so the weaker the suspension and the more shocks you have on the bike you have, the less power to the pedals you’ll have. On the other hand, riding on rough terrain robs you of power as well so the more suspension you have available, the more efficient you’ll be on rough terrain. The general rule with suspension is this: The rougher the terrain, the more you want to have. Also, and not to beat the issue too much, when it comes to shocks, you get what you pay for. If you’re only paying $400 for a dual suspension bike, they’re saving you money by using cheap shocks. They’ll work for a time but good luck over the long run. Decent dual Suspension mountain bikes start at almost $2,000. Personally, I’m partial to the front suspension (hard tail) mountain bikes but only because I’m a part-time mountain biker. I’m not going to sink a couple thousand bucks into a bike I’m only going to use a few times a year. For all but the most serious mountain bikers, a front shock should be plenty. The decent front suspension mountain bikes will start at around $400. Also, and this is important, the grade of shock is important! All low-end and many entry-level high-end bikes still use a pretty cheap front shock. If you’re going to ride hard, consider the next level up from the entry-level high-end bike.
For brakes, there are two options: rim brakes or disc, and in the disc family are mechanical and hydraulic. The rim brakes are the simplest and easiest to maintain but the disc brakes stop better and work much better in mud. Obviously the mechanical discs are cheaper and easier to maintain than the hydraulic. One important thing to keep in mind with the disc brakes: the lower grade discs (the stopping surface) are susceptible to warping if they are heated up and then splashed with water – think steep, long downhill, hard on the brakes, then bam, right through a puddle at the bottom of the hill. If you’re planning on hard riding, you’ll need the better discs.
Finally we come to components… Both Shimano and SRAM components are excellent, and I would even venture that the SRAM line, at least in this neck of the woods, are more popular (I’ve heard they’re more ergonomically functional). The same rule for road bikes, however, applies to mountain bikes as well: Buy the bike with best components you can afford – the higher the component line, the better they work and more durable they are.
This is a lot of information to digest, there is no doubt. I like to go by this simple test: When I buy a bike I like the price to sting just a little bit – this way I know I got the best I could…