How to choose the right mountain bike for you

By Tim Robson April 17, 2014
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Choosing the right mountain bike and gear can determine whether you love your new-found pursuit or fill the shed with another set of unrealised ambitions.

THE YANKS WOULD like to take the credit for the invention of the mountain bike. More accurately, there was a key group of American guys who turned a misspent youth of bombing down Californian forest fire access roads in the 1970s into a commercial consideration. Off-road cycling has, in reality, been around since the bike was invented.

In many ways, bikes haven’t changed much since the early days. Sure, there have been steady improvements and refinements, but no one’s been able to markedly improve on basic items such as Frenchman Paul de Vivie’s chain-derailing gear system or on John Dunlop’s pneumatic wonders.

And that’s an important lesson to hang onto throughout this process; whatever it is you want to do, or wherever you want to go, simple and dependable will invariably be the best bet.

Mountain biking developed from a desire to travel through nature in a low-impact way. There will always be a competitive element but the upshot of tech advances means that today you can find a bike that’ll be lighter, better-equipped, stronger and better value than ever before.

Mountain biking is an egalitarian pursuit. It doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re at, mountain biking is easily accessible. Even competing against the pros is surprisingly easy to do.

What kind of mountain bike?

Modern off-roaders can be divided into three broad categories: touring or cyclocross bikes, front suspended ‘hardtail’ bikes and dual suspension bikes. Within each set are subsets.

Dual suspension bike types, in particular, range from whippet-light, short-travel carbon machines through to 200mm-travel mini motocrossers sans engines.

There are different wheel sizes to consider. Then there’s the variety of material applications now used in bike building: chromoly steel, aluminium alloy, carbon fibre, combinations thereof…it can be a daunting task sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Ask yourself a few questions and you can quickly narrow the field. First, you need to have an idea of what you want to use it for and what you expect out of it. Be realistic about your budget; good bikes aren’t cheap and there are extras to factor in, such as helmets, shoes, hydration packs and tools.

The best place to buy your first bike is not the internet, either. If you’re serious about getting the best bike for your buck, you need to find a specialist bike retailer. Chances are better than even that you’ll be coming back to them time and again for advice, spares and repairs, and if you build a good relationship early, it’ll far outweigh any savings you may make buying a bike online.

By all means, do your research online. When it comes to spending serious bucks, though, we recommend explaining what you want to do to a bike shop staffer. Chances are they love bikes more than anything else, and they’ll bend over backwards to make sure you choose right.

Dual suspension mountain bike

Choose if you want to go harder and faster for longer

Dual-suspension bikes also come in an incredible variety of travel lengths, frame materials and spec levels. At one end is the short-travel (100mm) cross-country race bike; built light and stiff, it’s perfect for shorter, faster outings. At the other end is the 200mm-plus-travel downhill bike. Think motocrosser without the motor, and you’ll get the idea.

It’s built tough and works best at 45km/h and above. Both machines are a compromise when it comes to long-distance, all-day (or even all-week) work.

Enter what the bike industry is currently calling the trail bike. Rear-wheel travel numbers are in the 125mm to 160mm range, with a suspension fork set to match. Its gearing range is wide and flexible, and its large disc brake set-up is powerful and bulletproof. Frames are predominantly built from alloy in the lower-to-mid price range, while carbon fibre takes over at the upper middle through to $12,000 dream-machine territory.

A trail bike essentially defines the modern mountain bike. It’s rugged, yet light; flexible and easy to ride, yet capable of conquering incredibly difficult terrain. If you can stretch your budget to the $3000 range, you’ll buy a bike that can be dragged to the end of the earth and back again.

Modern suspension components are very reliable units, but more complexity equals more pain the further afield you travel from civilisation. Most suspension parts need to be serviced once a year, while other components such as chains, gear cassettes and front chainrings should be eyeballed every six months.

How fast things wear out depends entirely on how you treat them. Riding in wet, gritty conditions will accelerate wear rates on these crucial parts, while cleaning and lubing the drivetrain regularly will extend service intervals. One money-saving tip: change the chain before the more expensive cassette and chainrings wear out, and you’ll eke more life out of them.

A dual-suspension bike can’t, as a rule, be fitted with racks and panniers, though there are solutions to add on-bike storage if needed.


Touring/Cyclocross mountain bike

Choose if you plan to ride long-haul

A touring bike looks very much like its blood relative, the mountain bike, but is built more solidly, sports more relaxed frame geometry and is fitted with stronger brakes and lower gearing than a roadie. It’s a simple job to fit pannier racks and bags, and its 700c-sized wheels will accommodate wider, knobblier tyres for gravel roads or narrow, slick tyres for on-road work.

A cyclocross bike is very much the modern iteration of the old-fashioned tourer, and it’s come back into fashion in the last couple of seasons, so there is a surprising number to choose from. Many ‘cross bikes can now be specified with disc brakes (as opposed to rim brakes).

Discs are generally more powerful and require much less hand effort to slow the bike down; helpful for a fully laden run down a steep South American road! The trade-off is added complexity, particularly with the hydraulic type, and they can make the fitting of racks more difficult.

Frame materials run the entire gamut of the bike building spectrum. If you’re planning a round-the-world cycle tour, though, a chromoly steel cyclocross bike is an almost unbeatable choice. It’s far easier to find someone who can weld steel in the wilds of Pakistan, for instance, than someone who can repair a cracked carbon frame tube. The bike’s light, comfortable and a fully customised frame isn’t as expensive as you might think.


Hardtail mountain bike

Choose if you’re looking for the Swiss Army knife of mountain bikes

A hardtail has suspension forks up front and a traditional two-triangle frame build. It’ll also have flat bars and plenty of room in the cockpit for all body shapes and heights. It’ll be the first category you’ll come across where the wheel size conundrum will rear its head.

The hardtail is a simple, rugged device that can be crafted from a variety of materials in a variety of ways to suit a multitude of uses.

A bit of background: the first mountain bikes were cobbled together from bits of old beach cruisers, which used a 26-inch wheel. The first production bikes sported the same size and the industry grew up using the 26-inch wheel as a standard.

About a decade ago, though, a new movement towards a larger wheel gained momentum in the US.

Essentially sporting the same diameter as a road bike’s wheel, the 29-inch wheeled bike (or 29er) is now a widely accepted standard. More recently, another wheel standard – the 650b or 27.5-inch – is set to make the 26-inch wheel all but extinct for the average trail rider.

So what’s the difference, you ask? Without getting bogged down in the semantics of it all, there’s not a great deal in it for the average rider in terms of each wheel size’s ability. Taller people will find 29ers a more natural fit, while smaller people will graduate towards 27.5-inch wheels. If you’re in the hunt for a bargain, a 26-inch bike is still a top option.

A suspension fork helps a rider maintain control and reduces fatigue, but makes it more difficult (although not impossible) to set a bike up with front panniers.

Disc brakes have 100 per cent penetration into the hardtail world. Cable-actuated versions are more backwoods-friendly than stronger but more finicky hydraulic set-ups. If you’re confident in your mechanical skills, hydraulic discs are incredibly reliable, amazingly strong and relatively easy to service.

A hardtail’s trump card is its rugged simplicity. It’s also a great place to start your mountain bike journey without having to outlay a king’s ransom.