You’ve had a go on a borrowed or rental mountain bike, and you’re hooked! You head off to your local bike shop, only to be bewildered at the wide range of models and styles on offer – and all at different prices.
What kind of bike is best for you is down to two things: where you ride, and your available budget? If you’re not 100% committed to the sport yet, you can find lots of second hand bargains on sites like Pinkbike or eBay although it’s a good idea to know what you’re looking for. It can be tricky to choose the right bike for you and the trails you ride, but fortunately there are some basic rules that define what category bikes are placed in. So, let’s huck into the Broken Riders guide to buying your first mountain bike…
Hardtail or Full suspension?
The design of mountain bikes falls into two categories: hardtails or full suspension. Hardtails have a fixed frame, with no rear suspension and either a suspension fork or a fixed fork. Full-suspension bikes have both front and rear suspension.
Both hardtail and full suspension bikes are available in 27.5” and 29” wheel sizes. Shorter riders may benefit from the smaller 27.5“ wheel size, although these days most bike brands have their frame designs so well-honed that bikes running 29” wheels can be just as comfortable and easy to handle as their smaller-wheeled counterparts. A bike running 29” wheels will have the advantage of being able to roll over trail features more easily and should be faster on flatter terrain.
Due to the simplicity of design and fewer components, hardtails are often less expensive and easier to maintain than full-suspension bikes. At the budget end of the spectrum hardtails are generally designed for easier, cross-country trails but will really struggle when the terrain becomes more technical and physically demanding.
Many brands also make hardtails for more aggressive riding. Although still hardtails, these bikes have slacker geometry and longer travel front suspension to make the bikes more capable and stable on steeper trails. Dropper seat posts, uprated brakes and chunkier tyres are also a feature of these types of bikes. Also, hardtails are often used for riding dirt jumps and pump tracks, when you need a stiff bike to be able to ‘pump’ through the jumps and track features.
Hardtails also come with carbon fibre frames, and these are the most expensive types of hardtail bike. Generally used for rapid, cross-country racing, these bikes are lightweight and built for speed across smoother trails.
Full suspension bikes tend to be grouped into categories based on the type of mountain biking they’re designed for: cross-country, trail, enduro or downhill. The various types can be found below.
The design of cross-country full suspension bikes tends to favour shorter travel suspension so that the power you put through the pedals is converted into forward momentum rather than being soaked up by the suspension. Also, cross-country bikes are generally best suited for use on smoother trails with less extreme features (although if you watch the pro-riders hauling around a World Cup circuit, you’d be amazed at what they manage to ride over on their cross-country bikes).
Cross-country bikes tend to have a maximum of 120mm suspension travel, and the focus is on a lightweight machine designed for maximum pedalling efficiency. Choose this type of bike if you ride on trails that don’t have many jumps or extreme features and are considering entering cross-country races or cycling purely for fitness.
Trail bikes are currently what are considered an ‘everyday mountain bike’. Designed for maximum fun over a wide range of trails, these bikes are the most adaptable and can handle a quick spin around your local forest trails or a multi-day trip to a purpose-built trail centre such as Bikepark Wales. Available with either aluminium or carbon fibre frames, trail bikes are the most frequently ridden mountain bikes as they’re a kind of ‘jack of all trades’ bike.
A trail bike will have longer suspension travel than a cross-country bike, usually from 130mm to 150mm. The bike will also have a longer wheelbase, more powerful brakes, and beefier tyres than a cross-country bike. A trail bike will benefit from having a dropper post as the kind of terrain they tend to be used on will have multiple drops and jumps as well as climbs.
Designed primarily as race bikes, enduro bikes can be pedalled uphill to the start of the trail, but really come to life when heading downhill. Enduro bikes are slightly heavier and have more suspension travel than trail bikes - anywhere between 140mm and 160mm. Often with uprated components such as brakes and wheels, enduro bikes must deal with the tough terrain ridden at race speed on a trail with many challenging features. These bikes always have a dropper post and are available with either aluminium or carbon fibre frames.
Prior to the term ‘enduro’ being created, these bikes were known as ‘all-mountain’ bikes.
Downhill bikes have one purpose – to go downhill fast! The design and components are optimised for challenging downhill trails with the most extreme features such as gap jumps and drops. These bikes aren’t designed to be pedalled uphill and their heavy weight makes it virtually impossible to use a downhill bike as an everyday trail bike.
With around 200mm of suspension travel and the strongest, heaviest components, downhill bikes use a ‘dual crown’ fork similar to those used on off-road motorcycles.
Before you buy
Do your research. Learn about the different disciplines and the bikes that are made for it. There are many mountain bike magazines available, and all have good reviews that can guide you to the right bike. Ask other riders for their thoughts, and of course, visit your local bike shop to see what’s on offer.
Whatever bike you decide to buy and whatever trails you plan to ride it on, it’s always a good idea to try before you buy. Many bike shops will let you rent a bike for a day to try it out on your local trails. The ‘direct to consumer’ business model offered by some companies makes this a bit trickier, but most of these will have rider days at trail centres where you can try out all their models and decide which works best for you.
When you do decide on which type of mountain bike to buy, leave some money in your budget for a good quality helmet, gloves and maybe some knee protection – and of course a Broken Riders riding jersey or technical bamboo tee!
Finally, it may pay to invest in some skills coaching to get you started. There are many mountain bike skills to learn and basic skills coaching from a decent coach will enable you to have a lot more fun on your mountain bike!
Of course, in addition to the bikes above there are also e-MTBs. However, having only ever ridden a couple of e-MTBs (and neither for longer than about four hundred metres), I don’t feel qualified to discuss any of the various types available or give any insight into what they’re like to own and ride regularly.