How to Shop for Your First Mountain Bike

Couple riding mountain bikes
Couple riding mountain bikesstockstudioX / Getty Images

If you’ve been wanting to learn to mountain bike, you know the barrier to entry is real. In addition to forking over some serious cash for a machine, there are about a zillion micro-decisions to make before you can actually pedal on a trail. And most of those decisions revolve around terms and experiences you know nothing about yet, considering you’ve probably only been out a handful of times, if at all.

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“There are so many different mountain bikes to choose from that it can start to feel overwhelming,” says Nick Martin, founder of The Pro’s Closet, the largest e-retailer for pre-owned bikes and cycling gear. “It all comes down to what’s right for you, your trails, and your ambitions.”

Here’s everything you need to consider (and answer) to get your first set of wheels.

Consider This Your Two-Year Bike

You’ll probably upgrade your first bike after a year or two. That’s about the time it takes to grow as a mountain biker and figure out which discipline you like (trail, cross-country, enduro, downhill), says Austin-based Specialized ambassador Tracy Brown, co-founder of All Mountain Brothers, a movement and platform to encourage and motivate POC mountain bikers.

If the idea of dropping one month’s rent (or two or three) on a rig you won’t even want in 12 months makes your heart race, don’t have a panic attack just yet. The resale market for mountain bikes is huge. The ideal beginner bike you settle on now will still work great for the new wave of beginners down the line.

Determine Your Realistic 18-Month Ambitions

Most experts will tell you to first consider the terrain you’ll be riding, but pretty much every beginner is going to learn on easy trail. The real question is how ambitious you’ll get over those next 12 to 24 months.

Your first choice off the bat is whether you want front suspension only (called a hardtail) or full suspension. Hardtails are cheaper, lighter, and easier to maintain with fewer moving parts. But, with shock absorption only in the front, they aren’t as good on technical terrain. Full suspension, meanwhile, lets you run through rocks and get more confident and comfortable on gnarly trails, Martin explains.

Most people start with a hardtail. They’re cheaper and can handle pretty much all terrain you’re going to be on for the first year, unless you live near Moab or in the Rockies. Because they don’t absorb as much shock, you’re forced to learn to pick good lines (that’s your path through the rocks and roots on a trail). Then, as you get more comfortable heading into harder terrain, most people will upgrade to a full-suspension bike (and feel more confident dropping the cash on a sport they know they like).

If you’re the kind of guy who likes to wade in or will be starting alongside other beginners, go this route. (For what it’s worth, you’re not settling here: Hardtails excel on less technical trails so much so that cross-country cyclists usually use them.)

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But there’s definitely a case for beginners going full send on a full-suspension purchase, Martin says. “Learning good lines can be done on any bike, and a full-suspension bike could potentially increase a new rider’s confidence and comfort,” he explains. “It can also help them experience a mountain bike’s total capabilities and try lines out on the trail they wouldn’t otherwise go for.”

In other words, they could help you get more comfortable (especially depending on where you live) and advance faster. And if your goal is to learn the basics, then start ripping rockier trails with your more advanced friends ASAP, you want a full suspension from the start.

Nail Down Your Budget

The question of new versus used is largely dependent on your budget, but also on your mechanical skills. Any used bike is going to require more maintenance, especially on full suspension, which has more moving parts that can bend and break, though you can definitely find a well-tuned, pre-owned machine. It’s often easier to nail down your price range, then look at what’s realistic within that range.

For $500 to $750, you can get a decent, bare bones, entry-level new hardtail, Brown says. Often on a used bike at this price, you’ll end up putting a decent amount of money into fixing it up.

At $1,000, you’ve hit the sweet spot for a high-quality used hardtail that’s only a couple years old, Martin says.

For $1,500, you can get a fabulous new hardtail, or a used full suspension that’s just a few years old.

Bump that up to $2,000+ and you’re looking at a killer new full suspension with no worry over the state of the mechanics.

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You Probably Want a Trail Bike

Mountain bikes are like running shoes—there’s a different type for every discipline (cross-country, enduro, trail, downhill). But you don’t need to be that specific yet.

“For those who are searching for a single, do-it-all bike solution, we often point them toward mid-travel trail bikes,” Martin says. (Travel is the amount of give in the front and rear suspension; shorter is better for speed, longer for severe terrain.)

These bikes can handle a huge range of riding—whether it’s full suspension or a hardtail—feature between 120-140mm of travel, and have a slightly slacker, trail-focused geometry.

In other words: Unless you’re trying to race, this is ideal for meeting friends at the trailhead and riding a mix of climbs and descents.

Go to an Actual Bike Store 

Definitely go into a store to get properly fitted. Having the right size frame is paramount for a comfortable, safe ride. And trying bikes out with knowledgeable salespeople is the best way to ensure this. Then, buy from the bike store, a used site, or a reliable e-retailer—not Walmart or Costco.

“Big-box stores may sell bikes, but they take the one-size-fits-all approach to sizing,” Brown says. “There’s a lack of variety, the bikes are often assembled incorrectly, they use low-quality parts, and the bikes just don’t last long on the trails.”

Martin agrees, adding: “In some cases, parts fail in a way that can compromise a rider’s safety. These bikes are simply not built to last or handle modern mountain-bike trails.”

Bikes from reputable stores and brands will be safer, more reliable, and greatly improve your riding experience. Plus, they’ll either last you longer or have a higher resale value, Martin adds.

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Splurge on Moving Parts and Comfort

It’s easy to get sucked in to light frames and new tech, but you want to put more stock on moving parts—those that are most likely to bend and break—as well as comfort, Brown says.

Splurge on a high-quality drivetrain, brakes, suspension (“well-tuned forks and shocks can greatly increase traction and comfort, which can help you ride faster,” Martin says), a saddle that fits your sitting-bone shape, and a helmet that fits comfortably (non-negotiable).

Additionally, Martin adds that quality tires will make the most noticeable difference on your first bike. “Tires that are lighter, stickier, or faster can help transform your ride.”

Things you can skip for now: a dropper post, carbon anything, full suspension if you’re going hardtail, clip-in pedals (“ride the pedals you’re comfortable in—there’s no right answer and both work well,” Martin says), and wheel size (though, when you’re ready, high-quality wheels can lighten your bike, making it feel livelier and easier to accelerate, which will increase control at high speeds, he adds).

Opt for a Reliable, Well-Known Brand

“Almost every major brand makes a solid entry-level option, which is really just a more basic component spec and a lower price,” says Martin. The biggest difference from brand to brand is really just in resale value—some brand names are going to carry more weight in the used marketplace, Martin says.

Bigger brands do typically produce better quality for the price. If you’re able to produce larger quantities of a bike, you can sell them at a better value, which means better component specs at the same price as a competitor, Martin explains.

No brand is immune to abuse, dents, cracks, or excessive wear, so if you’re buying used, inspect it thoroughly. (The Pro Closet just launched a Certified Pre-Owned program to guarantee all their used bikes have been professionally serviced and inspected to run as new as possible.)

But Brown says that in his experience, Specialized, Scott, Trek, and Kona bikes are all extremely reliable and will last a long time.

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Don’t Stress so Much—Just Buy What You Can

If you realize six months in you want or need other features, the resale market is huge and a lot of companies have return policies or buy-backs if you change your mind.

Remember, the goal is to get out on the trail. “Just because the components aren’t the latest and greatest, or the geometry isn’t updated, doesn’t mean a bike can‘t be fast or fun,” Martin says.

Whatever you can afford or have access to in order to make that happen, hop on it.

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