With the inevitable march of technological innovations, venturing into the world of mountain biking can be intimidating for many beginners.
Just where do you begin with so many different kinds of bikes, brands, features and materials? While it’s easy to spend a small fortune on a bike, you really don’t need to break the bank to get out riding in the hills. But there are some key things you need to know before parting with your well-earned cash to make sure you get the most for your money.
In this mountain bike buyer's guide, we’ll take a look at what you need to know when shopping for your first mountain bike, and the 7 essential features your bike needs to have.
What rides are you going to use your mountain bike for?
When choosing your mountain bike, you’ll need to think about how long your rides are likely to be, and the type of slopes you’ll be tackling. You might want to start out on some gentle inclines and descents to get yourself used to the joy of mountain biking. Or if you’re a thrill-seeker, then you might prefer less pedaling and more downhill fun. Whatever you fancy, it’s essential to have the right mountain bike.
How long are your rides?
The amount of time you spend in the saddle is a key factor when choosing your mountain bike and what features it needs to have.
For rides of less than an hour
If your rides aren't very steep and are on easy ground, without too many obstacles, you’ll want a bike with:
- An 80mm suspension fork - for comfort and safety
- Knobbly tyres - for extra grip
- Gears - for adapting to the steepness and tackling both climbs and descents
For rides of between 1 and 3 hours
On winding, rolling terrain, your bike will need:
- Disc brakes that are effective in all weather conditions
- Suspension with an 80 to 100mm travel
For rides of more than 3 hours
On more challenging terrain, go for a bike with:
- An aluminium frame with variable thicknesses or a carbon frame to optimise the bike's weight and rigidity and, therefore, performance
- Air suspension, to improve shock absorption and for more accurate adjustment
- A single chain ring system for faster and more effective gear shifts
How big are the hills?
There are several different types of mountain bike on the market, and the size of the hills you’ll be riding will play a part in choosing which type of bike to go for. Cross-Country or Trail centre riding? Let’s go through these two disciplines in a little more detail, so you’re able to recognise the most common characteristics of each category to help you discover how to choose a mountain bike, and which is best suited to your needs.
Cross-country mountain bikes are all about going fast, and require intense effort to cover rolling, steep trails. The hardtail cross country bike still looks the most like a classic mountain bike first did in the 1980’s, though they’ve evolved greatly over the decades. XC mountain bikes come in full suspension or hardtail designs - hardtails can be a more affordable entry into cross-country. And the frame geometry, suspension and materials make XC mountain bikes light, responsive, precise and optimised for improving your race time.
Cross-country mountain bikes are usually made of carbon fibre, and focused on minimising weight. And they usually have 100mm of suspension travel—sometimes less—to maximise pedalling efficiency. An XC mountain bike is for you if you just want to go fast, and aren’t overly concerned about comfort. But if you’re looking for something a little more comfortable and easy to ride, then you might want to consider an all-mountain bike instead.
Trail mountain bikes
The purpose of a Trail MTB is to climb and descend anywhere, tiring yourself out on the uphills and enjoying an adrenaline rush on the downhills. If comfort and an enjoyable ride are more important to you than performance, opt for a bike with both front and rear suspension for those long rides.
Longer travel, more relaxed geometry, and tough components separate these bigger bikes from their siblings. They come into their own when the trail gets steeper, descents are longer and rougher, and the jumps get bigger. So, if you want a bike that will be more comfortable on descents, no matter what you run into going downhill, then an all-mountain bike could be the one for you. But consider a cross-country mountain bike if you want something more efficient on climbs, or want to get into racing.
7 features to look for in a mountain bike
While it’s tempting to pick up a cheap mountain bike in a discount store or online if you’re new to cycling, it’s likely it will have a weak, heavy frame made from low quality steel rather than a lightweight aluminium or carbon fibre frame. And it will normally have poor quality components that won’t last very long if you take your bike on challenging terrain. So even if you’re a beginner, it’s worth investing a little more money in your new mountain bike so you get a quality bike that lasts to guarantee a good riding experience. That being said, you can get a lightweight, good quality mountain bike from as little as £229.99 at Decathlon, so it doesn’t have to break the bank.
Spending a little more will get you a lighter bike, which will make getting up hills much easier. And going top-end will bring even greater weight savings, smoother gearing, and better quality materials and components.
Let’s take a look at 7 essential features your first mountain bike should have:
Disc brakes are an essential part of the modern mountain bike. With superior stopping power and reliable all-weather breaking, they have all but replaced rim brakes.
Choosing a first bike with rim brakes to save on cost means that you can never install or upgrade to disc brakes. The mounting points necessary for disc brakes come as a part of the frame, and will not be present on a bike that comes with rim brakes.
You can choose either hydraulic or mechanically operated disc brakes. With the former providing more stopping power, whilst the latter is more cost effective. Don’t forego this all-important feature for supreme stopping power on the trails.
A derailleur hanger
Crashes are inevitable when you begin trail riding. So, one of the most important things to look for in a beginner bike is a derailleur hanger, which connects your derailleur to your frame. Designed to break upon a heavy impact, they will sacrifice themselves to save your frame!
A bike with a derailleur that mounts directly onto the frame is a warning sign. They leave you vulnerable to irreparably damaging your frame upon impact. Derailleur hangers are cheap and easily replaced, so don't buy a mountain bike that doesn't have one.
Quick release wheels
Flat tyres are common out on the trails and are an inevitable part of mountain biking. So when you have a puncture, you’ll want a quick release lever to quickly and effortlessly remove your wheel.
Many cheaper mountain bikes will use nuts to secure the wheel, meaning you’ll also need to carry the correct tools out on your rides with you. This can be inconvenient, and time consuming for you and your riding partners in the event of a puncture.
Identifiable by pinch bolts, a threadless stem is an essential addition to any mountain bike. When riding over rough terrain, the stem can take a hammering. And if damaged, a one-piece stem can be hard to replace as you are limited to old, unreliable parts.
Threadless stems are easy to service and replace while also offering a much tougher design to handle the rigours of off road riding.
A modular crank and chainring
When it comes to crank and chainring assembly, you should avoid a bike where they are riveted together. Ideally they should consist of several independent pieces bolted securely together.
In cases where they consist of one large piece, a crash that causes damage means that the entire set has to be replaced. To avoid this costly process, don’t buy a bike with an all-in-one crank and chainring system.
Hardtail or full suspension?
A mountain bike with both front and rear suspension may be out of the price range of most seeking their first mountain bike.
Hardtail bikes—those which have only a front suspension—are often the best choice as a first bike. Not only are they cheaper, but they’re also great for improving your skills. As a newcomer, you’ll learn how to maneuver the bike better, and a hardtail bike will force you to choose a better line on the trail - forcing you out of the saddle more often.
Beginner riders generally won’t maximise the potential of a high-end bike with full suspension, so it might be better to hone your skills on a hardtail first.
Weight, longevity and price - Can you have all 3?
In short, no you can’t! You need to compromise somewhere as you can’t have all 3. We can all benefit from a lighter bike, but unless you are competing, weight is not of primary concern for a beginner. If you want to keep costs low, be prepared to buy a slightly heavier bike. A lightweight durable bike doesn’t come at a cheap price, so beware of models on sale that claim to exhibit all 3.
Discover what other essential gear you need to start mountain biking, and the top places to ride.
At Decathlon we’re here to help. We know it can be a daunting experience as you delve into the world of mountain biking.
We stock a wide range of mountain bikes, and by selecting wisely you can choose a bike which will not only serve your needs, but which can also be easily upgraded as your skills improve and you tackle more challenging terrain.
From there it’s a question of getting faster and fitter, jumping higher and further, and becoming better simply by trying to keep up!