Choosing the right first mountain bike depends on several factors.
This isn’t the time for worrying primarily about sparkles and bangles and color and shine.
You want to look the part on the trail, certainly. And you want your equipment to do the same.
But buying your first mountain bike is likely going to involve dropping some serious coin, even on the low end of things. So getting the right fit – physically and style-wise – matters most.
Sometimes, people overlook that.
It’s not uncommon for newcomers to prioritize price or looks when they first get into the bike market, said Colin Dierman, manager of Wamsley Cycles in Morgantown, W.V. Almost always that’s a mistake.
They end up buying multiple bikes, trading one for another, sometimes within the same riding season, in an increasingly frustrating attempt to get the “right” one.
“So usually we try to find out from folks what they’re going to use the bike for and then make sure they get a bike that’s appropriate for that use,” Dierman added.
What’s appropriate depends on several factors.
One is where the bike will most often be ridden, said Matt Waite, service manager at Trek Bicycle in Columbus, Ohio. A bike good for aggressive off-road trails on steep mountains in the West needs more suspension – meaning more shock absorption — than one used on the rolling hills of Ohio, he noted.
“It will help you absorb those big hits,” he said.
Manufacturers measure suspension in millimeters. A bike with lots of suspension will have 140 to 160 millimeters of travel, Waite said. One with less might have 100 to 120.
A bike that will be used primarily on a bike trail – the kind that’s mostly level and paved perhaps with crushed limestone – need not have all the features on one meant to withstand going over roots, rocks, logs and such, agreed Dierman.
That brings up cost.
Mountain bikes – which are broken down into sub-categories, from mountain to cross country to trail and more – can be expensive. Prices generally start at $400 or so. But some of those sold by Trek Bicycle go for more than $8,000.
Getting the most expensive one you can afford isn’t necessarily the way to go, though.
“The more expensive bikes are typically more expensive for some benefit. And if that benefit is good for the rider, sure, they should spend the money,” Dierman said.
But there’s no sense in paying for something you don’t need either, he noted.
That ties into what Waite calls frequency. New riders need to think about how much they plan to ride when looking for a mountain bike.
Waite said a rider with a $2,000 budget who plans to ride once a week during the summer riding season might be best served by spending all of his or her money on the bike. Another rider with the same budget – but plans to ride three days a week year-round – is better off spending less up front.
“We may recommend only spending $1,100 on the bike, knowing that it’s going to cost another $900 over the course of the year to maintain that bike with frequent riding, as things wear out or need serviced, like brake pads, rotors, bearings, tires, stuff like that,” Waite said.
Consider physical fit as another factor. That refers to both frame size and wheel size, Dierman said.
According to REI, the co-op retailer, frame size is dependent on the height of the rider.
“Many bike manufacturers include size charts that list a height range for each bike size. If you’re in-between sizes, it’s best to err on the smaller side as more sizing accommodations can be made with a smaller frame than with one that’s too large,” REI recommended.
A bike that fits properly is pleasant to ride, Dierman said. One that doesn’t isn’t, and it shows. Most end up in a corner, unused, because their owners find them too uncomfortable.
“They have a bad experience and that’s it. They’re done,” Dierman said.
As for wheel size, 26-inch wheels were long the standard for adult bikes. But now, though, wheels also come in 27.5- and 29-inch sizes.
According to REI, 29-inch wheels are harder to accelerate, but maintain their speed once you get rolling. They also roll over obstacles better, too.
The retailer says 27.5-inch wheels are a compromise between the smaller and larger options. They are more maneuverable than 29 inchers, but handle terrain better than 26 inchers.
The best way to test fit is to ride a few bikes before buying one. REI suggests visiting a bike shop and giving several models a go.
“Take each on a five- to 10-minute ride over some varied surfaces, including up a short hill. In most cases, one bike is just going to feel better for you than the others. You want a bike to feel like a natural extension of your body,” the company said.
Then, it’s just a matter of picking one and getting out there.
Mountain biking is a great outdoor activity, suitable for families and people of all ages and skill levels, Dierman said.
“You have this wide range of what you can do on a bike. It’s low impact on your body, so it’s good exercise without the harshness other sports can bring,” Dierman said. “It’s a lifelong capable activity, for sure.”
Beyond the bike: other essentials for your mountain bike
Getting into mountain biking involves buying more than just a bike. There are some other items needed to make every outing “comfortable and self-supporting,” said Mike Dierman of Wamsley Cycles.
A helmet. All helmets have to meet minimum impact testing standards. The more expensive are that way because they can be smaller and use less – if pricier – material and thereby by cooler.
A repair kit. Tires go flat, brakes fail, chains come loose. Carrying a basic repair kit — complete with a pump, spare tube or patch kit, and multi-tool with Allen wrenches — on the bike or in a pack can mean not having to push your bike all the way back to your starting point.
Eye protection. You probably don’t need anything but your normal sunglasses on a bike trail. But if you plan to get airborne – on purpose – this is important.
Gloves and padded shorts. Handlebars and small seats rough up body parts not used to them.
Water. Dehydration is a real threat anytime your active outdoors, be it biking, hiking, paddling or whatever. Carry a backpack with a built-in hydration bladder or carry a water bottle in a cage on your bike frame.
Lights. Invest in lights so that you can see and be seen, especially if you’ll be riding at dusk, perhaps after work.
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