With every year, choosing your first mountain bike becomes harder and harder as the genre fractures into more and more sub-sectors, offering vast choice and myriad new technologies separating each class of bike into a ride for every situation and terrain. So which do you choose? Will a hardtail not go where a full-suspension bike will go? How much of a difference will the frame material make? And does it matter which size wheels you go for?
You may choose a task-specific bike if you’re seriously committed to riding trails, downhill or full mountain, but most bikes will tackle all terrain to a degree; it’s just a matter of where you’re willing to compromise...
If your budget will only just stretch to four-figures, then you’ll be looking at a well-kitted out hardtail (no rear suspension) or an entry-level full-suspension bike. And suspension on both ends doesn’t instantly add up to more fun, as a full-susser can take the edge off softer trails where a hardtail will excell. Over trickier terrain the hardtail will be twitchier than the full-susser, which you’ll be able to ride faster as it soaks up the bumps better. A few years ago, your fore and aft suspension would wallow and sap power once on the flat, but now with lock-outs and improved tech, full sussers are more rideable and hardtails offer excellent equipment for their asking price. You really are spoilt for choice.
Forget the bells and whistles and pay attention to the frame - this is your bike’s foundation and if you get the right frame for your needs, what’s attached to it is less important, as a good frame will last and can be upgraded later on.
It goes without saying that lighter is better, so a super expensive carbon frame will indeed make muscling your bike through direction changes and popping air off tree-root kickers easier and more fun. But until you’ve ridden one, you won’t know. Most frames are formed from lightweight alloys anyway, and as they benefit from the trickle down of technology from the manufacturers’ flagship models, there are few bad examples out there.
So, the question is all about geometry: how serious is your riding? You’ll essentially choose between relaxed or neutral geometry and a more aggressive, racey frame. The former will be more all-day comfortable and user-friendly, with its slacker geometry and relaxed cockpit. But on a serious downhill trail, it will feel less responsive than a race-bred machine. The sportier set-up will have a longer stem that stretches your arms forward and place you over the bars. It’ll have a steeper head angle and consequently feel twitchier, requiring smaller inputs and turning sharper but at the cost of user-friendliness. The more hardcore the geometry the more one-track minded your bike will be.
So, you’ve settled on your frame, but now you’re told it comes in a number of sizes. Does it matter? Well, certainly not as much as it does on a road bike where precision tailoring is critical, but you definitely want the right fit. However, the rules are different for mountain bikes because, unlike on a road bike, MTB riders have more dynamic movements and need to shift around the bike much more, which needs to be taken into account. It also means you have a bit more leeway in frame size. However, too small a bike and you’ll restrict your movements and limit the power or speed of your inputs. Too big a frame will also limit your ability to move around the bike as you’ll find it harder to hang over the back wheel or shift right up over the bars quickly. The best solution is to take expert advice in any of Rutland Cycling’s stores, or book yourself in for a bespoke bike fitting service at our Whitwell store on Rutland Water.
Uldis managed to book me in at short notice and took great care of myself and my bike during the fitting and I'm very pleased with the result. I feel I can enjoy my new bike now even more. Even the touches of getting the bike into the workshop before and after the session were not expected and make this session great value for money. I will certainly recommend your services to my cycling friends and hope you will continue with this high level of service in future.
Wheel size will make a noticeable difference and big 29” wheels are all the rage at the moment, and for good reason. A bigger wheel will roll more effortlessly over rougher terrain and so you can ride trails faster and carry more momentum, making 29ers great fun for downhill. But on a more technical trail, the bigger wheel can feel cumbersome and harder work in the tighter sections, where a 27.5” wheeled bike will be more maneuverable and sharper to turn. These are essentially the two wheel sizes to choose from these days, with the 27.5” size starting to replace the traditional 26” size wheel, offering the ideal compromise between the biggest and smallest wheel size.
Once the frame and running gear are sorted, the trinkets that hang from it are the next most important aspect, making the difference between seamless gear shifting and precision braking or clunky gear changes and seat-of-the-pants stopping. Fortunately even the cheapest bikes these days feature perfectly adequate components for the average rider, but the more you spend, the better the spec, and the more effortless your riding will be.
Most MTBs feature disc brakes, which work in all kinds of mucky conditions, unlike old-school rim calipers. At the cheapest end of the scale you can find cable operated disc brakes, but the majority of mountain bikes run hydraulic disc brakes, just like a car or motorbike. These can provide powerful but progressive one-finger braking, even in the wettest of conditions.
Your groupset is the gear cassette and derailleur on the back wheel and typically will offer 7-10 gears. Coupled with a twin or triple chainset up front gives you up to a 30 speed bike, for bombing down the fastest hills to climbing back up them again, and every gear in between. However, competition bikes aren’t likely to need all those gears, and so having just a single chainset and no front derailleur reduces weight and simplifies frame design. SRAM announced a 1x11 (one chainring up front and an 11-speed cassette on the back) in 2012, and the 2014 Commonwealth Games saw all competitors using a 1x11 drivetrain. Most gear systems are one-touch thumb and finger operated shifters making for quick and efficient gear changes. The more you spend, the smoother and more positive the gear shift.
Accessories and Clothing
Although you might not need to kit yourself out in as much bespoke clothing as for a road bike, you’re still going to need a helmet. MTB lids are lightweight and aerated for comfort but competition helmets tend to be full-face like motorbike helmets. You can pick up a very good helmet from as little as £39 new. The rest of the kit is up to you but a proper pair of shorts will make your riding easier and more comfortable and a decent base layer will wick sweat away and keep you cool. Gloves will prevent blisters and aid your grip on the bars, plus protect your hands should you hit the deck. And MTB shoes offer far superior grip on beartrap pedals than normal trainers, and most can be fitted with cleats for SPD-style clip-in pedals, like those used on road bikes.
With the bike and kit sorted, you might want to consider accessories such as bike racks for transporting your ride to the trails; hydration packs for carrying your tools, snacks and water; a high-powered lighting system for fast riding in the dark; a bike tool and puncture repair kit, at the very least; and a work stand for taking the back ache out of cleaning and maintenance. Oh, and after spending your hard-earned on a new ride, be sure to secure it with a decent lock.
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