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How to Choose the Right Mountain Bike

Blister Mountain Biking 101 - presented by High Brew Coffee

Intro

Plenty of articles have been written on how to select a mountain bike, but far too many of those articles act as though there is a simple step-by-step formula that, if followed, will lead you to the correct conclusion. But the truth is that there are too many variables you need to consider for any overly-simplistic formula to be useful. So we’re going to discuss those variables below.

Furthermore, plenty of these “How to Choose a Bike” articles lean heavily on semi-arbitrary classifications of bikes that happen to be in vogue at the moment — “Enduro” vs. “All-Mountain” vs. “Trail” vs. XC vs. “Whatever Catch Phrase the Bike Industry Invents Next.” But these “categories” are far too vague to be helpful, so classifying either yourself or the bikes you’re considering (and operating on the assumption that you / they fit perfectly into any given category) is both a hindrance and a waste of time.

The better way to think about these things is to start by acknowledging that everything is a series of tradeoffs, and choosing the “right” bike for you is about figuring out which tradeoffs line up best with your priorities. To that end — and to minimize the risk of ending up with the wrong bike — here are a mix of 19 facts, questions, and pieces of advice for you to consider when buying a bike:

#1: No Bike Excels at Everything.

That unicorn bike doesn’t exist. I don’t care what that guy on [insert bike forum name here] says about that one bike. He’s wrong.

Having said this, there are quite a few bikes that both climb “pretty well” and go downhill “pretty well” that’ll probably work for a lot of people. But it’s still a series of trade-offs to get there.

#2: What, Specifically, Do You Want This Bike For?

To ride singletrack? Search out huge descents? Just get in shape a bit? Commute a lot, but also ride a few mellow trails from time to time?

The more singular your focus, the easier it will be to pick out a bike. So if you want one bike to race XC on one weekend, take to the bike park the next weekend, and go on a huge backcountry ride the weekend after that … be aware that the trade-offs you’re going to have to live with are more severe. The more you can prioritize one aspect of use (e.g. “I want a bike that absolutely rips on descents), the easier time you’ll have.

#3: What’s Your Budget?

Another fact: good bikes are expensive. So if you’re looking for a “serious” mountain bike that will hold up to frequent off-road use, inexpensive bikes will likely let you down.

So what’s the minimum you should expect to spend?

Right now (summer ‘17), I’d put that threshold for a new bike at around $1,600 for a full suspension bike, and around $900 for a hardtail. You can certainly spend less than that, but the quality of the bike you’ll be able to get drops off pretty sharply.

If you’re using a less-expensive bike mostly on pavement and smoother trails, it might hold up ok. But if you’re getting into any particularly rugged terrain, you’ll likely start exceeding the capabilities of the bike pretty quickly.

Of course, buying a used bike or finding the occasional good deal might yield a great bike for somewhat less money.

#4: Used Bikes are Great (Sometimes).

There are some good deals on used bikes out there. In my opinion, the quality of those deals tends to drop off precipitously for bikes that are more than 4-5 years old. Older bikes tend to need a fair amount of service, the geometry starts to look pretty dated, and you start getting into annoying issues with compatibility with modern components. And yes, it’s terrible that the industry keep changing bike “standards,” but it is what it is, so buying a bike that doesn’t work with any of the newer standards just means your options for replacement parts is limited. And with older bikes … chances are that you’re going to be replacing parts sooner rather than later.

#5: Pick 2 out of these 3 Things…

It’s been said many times, but it’s true: a bike can be cheap, a bike can be durable, or a bike can be light. You get to choose two of those attributes, but you don’t get to have all three.

Maybe you robbed a bank and you love to ride. Sweet! For $8,000.00, you can totally afford a carbon wonder bike that’s both light and strong, but it is most definitely not cheap.

Or maybe you’re broke, so you’re ok lugging a heavy bike around and up hills to save some dough. If that’s you, then, somewhere, a steel hardtail is calling your name.

Or maybe you just like to huck your meat all the time, and the most important thing to you is that you don’t crack your frame every time you head out on a ride — especially since this bike needs to last you 5 years or more. There are a number of companies making overbuilt aluminum frames that are specifically designed to take a beating, and these will be the bikes for you.

#6: What are the Trails Like that You Ride / are Actually Going to Ride?

If you live someplace flat and smooth, a bike with a bunch of travel (fantastic as it may be), is probably overkill. Conversely, if you live someplace with lots of steep, rocky trails, it’s probably worth dealing with some extra weight on the climbs in order to have a bike that’ll hold up on the descents.

But this goes way beyond just the simple question of how much suspension makes sense, because bikes keep getting longer, lower, and slacker, while the trails in lots of places are staying the same. So if your regular trails involve logging lots of miles with minimal elevation change, you probably want something more XC-oriented.

On the other hand, if you live somewhere where you’re logging short distances and a ton of vert, you might prefer something with slacker angles, since there’s a good chance you’ll be spending some time on steeper descents.

#7: What Does Your Local Bike Shop Say?

Some shops are certainly better than others, but good ones can be immensely helpful in steering you in the right direction. They know the local trails, and with a bit of discussion, they should be able to point out some solid options. They will, of course, be biased toward whatever brands they carry, but there’s also something to be said for owning a bike that you bought from — and that’s carried by — your local shop. If and when something goes awry, having a shop going to bat for you on a warranty issue can be a lifesaver (or at least a wallet saver).

#8: What Kind of Bikes Do Your Friends Ride?

If you plan on riding with a group, see what sort of rigs they’re on. There’s nothing wrong with riding an XC-race bike with a group of people that are on long-travel rigs, but you’ll probably end up waiting for them at the top of the climb, and they’ll probably end up waiting for you at the bottom. Sometimes it’s more fun when everyone’s on comparable equipment. But disregard this if your friends are the kind of people that have no business making important life choices like choosing a bike.

#9: Don’t Get Hung Up on Classifications.

The bike industry likes to classify everything — “Trail” bikes, “Cross Country” bikes, “Enduro” bikes, etc. And sure, those classifications can be convenient handles or shortcuts when talking generally about a bike. But don’t get too fixated on those distinctions — there are some trail bikes that are reasonably competent XC bikes. There are Trail bikes that descend better than some Enduro bikes. And I’m not sure anyone really knows what the difference between an Enduro, All-Mountain, and Freeride bike really is. It’s easy to get locked into thinking you need a bike in a given category, when in reality, there are probably some other bikes that should be in the mix, too.

#10: Wheel Size: Should You Go 26”, 27.5” (aka, 650b), or 29”?

This is definitely a matter of personal preference, but generally speaking:

29ers roll over stuff better and hold speed better through chunky terrain. The downside is that they take more effort in tight situations, and they accelerate more slowly.

27.5” wheels are easier to turn, and thus tend to make a bike feel more playful.

26” wheels barely exist anymore on new bikes, but there are still some great deals on used 26ers. But while 26” wheels are alive and well for some bike genres (e.g., fat bikes, plus bikes, and dirt jumpers), for traditional mountain bikes, 26” wheels are increasingly rare, which means finding good replacement parts — including tires — becomes more difficult every year.

#11: Plus Bikes — What are they, and Should You Get One?

Plus bikes come in a few flavors these days — from 26+ to 29+ — but the most common iteration is 27.5+. “Plus”-sized tires are generally between 2.8” – 3.0” wide (wider than that and you start getting into fat bike territory), and they have a lot of things going for them. Namely, they provide a smooth ride and tons of traction. They also have some downsides, including some durability issues with the tires, slower acceleration, and an imprecise “pingy” feeling at speed. Plenty of bikes are convertible between 29” wheels and 27.5+ wheels, so that could be an attractive option if you feel like dipping a toe into the “Plus” waters, but you want an out if Plus isn’t for you. In short, Plus tires make the most sense if you like the idea of gaining some extra cushion and grip, and you’re less concerned about rallying down trails at top speed.

#12: Fat Bikes — What are they, and Should You Get One?

Fat bike tires — which are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 4” wide — have the same upsides and downsides of Plus tires, but those pros and cons are even more exaggerated. While Plus bikes tend to feel like a bulked up, extra-traction-y version of a “regular” bike, fat bikes are their own special thing. The frame and a number of the parts are built very specifically around the big tires, and aren’t compatible with non-fat bike setups. In other words, unlike a Plus bike that might be convertible to 29” wheels, if you buy a fat bike, you’re committing to owning a fat bike.

If you frequently ride in soft conditions (whether that be mud, snow, sand), fat bikes are easily your best option. And if you simply like the idea of trundling along on massive balloons that sound like a squadron of B-52’s on a bombing run, then you should definitely go Fat. But to an even larger degree than Plus bikes, if you’re looking to push yourself and ride aggressively, fat bikes probably shouldn’t be at the top of your list. They don’t handle as precisely at top speeds and in rough terrain as smaller tires, and the big tires can take a lot of effort to move around.

#13: Carbon vs. Aluminum Frames

If you have the budget to swing a carbon frame with nice parts, then by all means, swing it. But if your budget leaves you deciding between an aluminum frame with nice parts, or a carbon frame with not-so-nice parts, I’d recommend the aluminum option unless you are hellbent on upgrading. Yes, carbon is lighter, carbon frames tend to be stiffer, and carbon has a nice, damp ride quality to it. But there are plenty of nice aluminum frames on the market, and higher-end components generally make a more noticeable improvement on ride quality than a carbon frame does.

#14: Spend Your Money Where it Matters Most.

A bike’s wheels, fork, and rear shock will make more of a difference in the ride quality of the bike than any other component. They’re also the most expensive components to upgrade. I’d take a nice wheelset over a high-end drivetrain any day of the week.

That said, the first thing I change on most of the bikes I ride is the tires. They’re (relatively) cheap to change, and having my favorite tires on the bike makes a huge difference in how the bike handles.

And if you’d like some more info on tire options and differences, check out our Mountain Bike Tires 101 article for all the information you’ll ever want (and some that you probably didn’t want).

At the other end of the spectrum, I’d put parts like the bike’s stem, handlebar, and crankset at the bottom of the list of parts to upgrade. Unless you have a fitment issue, there’s little reason to upgrade those unless you’re trying to save weight.

#15: Buy the Correct Size.

Related to point #11 — don’t get hung up on a bike’s stated size. Bike sizing is all over the place, and one company’s “Medium” might be equivalent to another company’s “Large.” Bikes from companies like Kona and Devinci tend to be big. Bikes from companies like Specialized and Trek tend to be pretty average. And bikes from some other companies (like Pivot) vary a ton even within their own lineup, with their newer models being quite big, and their older models being quite small.

That doesn’t make any of those bikes “good” or “bad,” it just means you should go with what feels right, even if it means buying a different size than what you’ve owned in the past.

#16: Special Advice for Small and Tall Riders:

If you’re particularly small or particularly tall, your options become more limited.

For people below 5’3”, I’d probably steer away from 29” wheels unless you’re really sure that’s what you want. It gets difficult to cram big wheels into a small frame without some weird tradeoffs.

For especially tall people (folks over 6’2” or so), I’d keep an eye on the bike’s chainstay length. Because regardless of wheel size, super short chainstays can make tall people feel too far off the back of the bike.

Also pay attention to a bike’s sizing — each company’s geometry and sizing is all over the map these days, so I like to compare each bike’s reach measurement. One company’s size “Small” might be equivalent to another company’s “Medium.”

Taller and shorter folks should also pay attention to the bike’s dropper post length — short people might not have enough clearance with anything but the shortest droppers, and most tall people prefer an extra long dropper.

#17: Suspension Setup Matters.

Test riding bikes is great, but keep in mind that any given bike can be made to ride fairly differently with pretty easy tweaks to the suspension. So if you ride two pretty similar bikes and absolutely love one and absolutely hate the other, make sure it wasn’t just an issue of one having the suspension more appropriately set up for your preferences.

#18: Read Real Reviews.

Yes, this is shameless self-promotion, but it’s also the right thing to do.

Start by taking a look at our 27.5” Bike Guide and our 29er Bike Guide to start narrowing down your search to a few bikes. From there, you can then read our full, in-depth reviews of each bike to see which seem to best fit your priorities.

#19: Know Thyself.

There are a lot of nice bikes on the market, and even many of the more budget-conscious options are better than the top-of-the-line models from a decade ago. But just because a bike is objectively “good” doesn’t make it the right bike for your particular purposes. And that’s really what it all comes down to: finding the bike that works best for your riding style, your riding abilities, and the terrain you’ll be riding the most. In order to do that, this final piece of advice should really trump everything else: be honest with yourself about your abilities, and about the sort of riding that you’re actually going to be doing.

I’ve seen plenty of people buy a rad enduro bike because they think the bike is “cool,” only to realize that a rad enduro bike is overkill for 99% of the trails they ride. So they end up riding less because smooth, flat cross-country trails aren’t actually that fun on an enduro bike, and their shiny new toy just stays in the garage collecting dust.

Conversely, I’ve seen people buy lightweight, short travel rigs because they’re overly concerned about efficiency on long rides, only to realize later that nobody’s timing them, and something with a bit more cush is actually a lot more pleasant (and fun!) on those long rides, even if the bike is a bit less efficient while pedaling.

So the more accurately you can assess your priorities and decide what you actually want to do with the bike, and thus what the bike actually needs to be good at, the easier it will be to find a bike that checks all of your particular boxes.

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