So you want to buy a new mountain bike. Advancements in material, frame, and suspension design mean bikes are being made for very specific purposes, so the decision of which bike to choose is no longer just about color and size.
Begin by finding a shop with experienced sales people and several brands to offer you. Be prepared to ask questions, provide honest answers, and test ride as many bikes and styles as possible before you buy. Remember that different shops offer different levels of expertise, so ask around about which ones mountain bikers go to the most.
The first question a reliable salesperson should ask you is, "How and where do you like to ride?" Be honest, as your answer will go a long way toward determining the type of mountain bike that fits your riding style. This isn't a time to be macho or over-exaggerate your abilities. If you’re not a climber, say so. If descending intimidates you (or you tend to pinball down the trail hitting everything in sight), say that too. If you’re unsure how to respond, just start by telling the salesperson where your favorite trails are and how fast you ride them; that’s often enough information for them to make recommendations.
That said, it helps to have done at least little bit of research beforehand. And while it’s definitely more complicated than it once was, if you’re patient and ask the right questions, you can find a mountain bike that’s ready to rip up the mountain, down the mountain, or both. So to make life easier, here’s a run-down of the different styles of mountain bikes currently occupying most sales floors. For help, we spoke to Zack Vestal, marketing manager at Scott. We started by asking him about tips for choosing the best mountain bike, and his response was as we expected: It depends on how you ride.
If you’re a casual rider who doesn’t plan on getting too aggressive or riding through technical terrain, consider a hardtail.
“If you’ve never owned or ridden a mountain bike,” says Vestal, “a hardtail [a bike with no rear suspension] is a good place to start.” They’re simple and sturdy, which means they’re also affordable. Around town, campus, or on the bike path, an entry level hardtail is usually the first choice for budget-conscious or entry-level riders.
If you’re a competitive rider who wants to be the first to the top of the climb or over the finish line, consider a cross-country (XC) bike.
“XC bikes are lightweight and emphasize pedaling efficiency over lots of suspension travel,” Vestal says, “making them the perfect choice for racers who want to climb or cover long distances at maximum speed.” That said, they’re less forgiving when it comes to going downhill, so you’ll have to pick your lines carefully rather than plowing through challenging terrain. XC riders traditionally prefer hardballs because they’re lighter and more efficient, but many are moving to full-suspension bikes (with suspension in both the fork and the rear of the bike) with just enough travel to enable them to descend faster — but not so much that they lose speed and pedaling efficiency when climbing.
If you’re not a racer but still want a bike that offers balanced performance when climbing and descending, consider a trail bike.
These full-suspension bikes offer more travel than XC bikes, meaning they’re more forgiving when descending rough, rocky trails. But they don’t have so much travel that the bike feels heavy and sluggish when climbing. “Trail bikes are the most versatile and capable bikes in terms of uphill and downhill performance,” Vestal says. “You can easily pedal to the top of the most challenging descents — and still have fun getting back down.”
If you prefer adrenaline to aerobic exercise and don’t care how long it takes you to ride to the top of the climb, but you want to be first one back down, consider an Enduro bike.
“Enduro bikes are biased toward getting down the hill fastest and first,” Vestal says. Enduro bikes offer more travel than cross-country and trail bikes, but they’re also heavier. “You can still pedal to the top, but it will take some effort. However, these bikes are capable of getting down the gnarliest and most challenging descents in style.”
Keep in mind: Some companies offer “All-Mountain” bikes with a little more travel than a Trail bike but a bit less than an Enduro bike. If that’s the case with the brand you’re considering, ask your salesperson where the bike falls in relation to bikes in the other two categories.
If gravity is your only friend and you have a pickup truck to get you to the top of the mountain, consider a downhill bike.
With more suspension travel than bikes in any other category, downhill bikes are made to get you down the mountain as fast as possible, absorbing everything you hit along the way — like a motocross bike without the motor. But for most riders, downhill bikes aren’t a practical consideration as they’re too heavy and springy to be ridden anywhere else.
Now that you have a better idea of what type of mountain bike you’re looking for, you’re ready to talk about wheel size. The days of the 26” mountain bike tire have passed — first by the 29”, then the 27.5”, and now the 27.5”+ (say, “27.5 plus”). Each size offers its own benefits, but for you it just means more options to choose from.
What about tire size?
In some cases, the brand made the choice for you, as a few companies (such as Trek and Orbea) choose a tire size that best matches the size of bike (larger sizes come with a 29” wheel and smaller sizes come with a 27.5” wheel). But many brands offer identical models with 29”, 27.5”, and 27.5”+, adding one more layer to your decision. Here’s a brief run-down of each:
- 29” tires: These offer the best pedaling efficiency, and their larger size means they roll faster over rough terrain. This makes them great for climbing and speed — a perfect choice for XC bikes. “They’re great for Trail bikes too, in which going up and going down are equally prioritized,” Vestal says.
- 27.5” tires: They are ideal for more aggressive riding, so you’ll see a lot of them on All-Mountain, Enduro, and Downhill bikes. “27.5” wheels are stiffer and stronger,” Vestal says, “so they’re better suited to bikes with longer travel.”
- 27.5”+ tires: You get the same rolling diameter of a 29” tire, but in an extra-wide package that provides more traction and floats over obstacles and rough trails (especially when run at lower pressures). “They’re good at almost everything,” Vestal says. “They add a ton of confidence such that whatever bike you’re on becomes more capable.” Better still, a new industry standard for rear axle spacing and drivetrains make it easy for companies to build frames compatible with both 29”and 27.5”+ tires — without sacrificing handling or drivetrain performance. So buying a 27.5”+ bike is bike like getting two for the price of one.
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