Bike Buying 101
August 15, 2016
Okay, so you've decided that you are going to start mountain biking. Everybody else is, right? But the next step — buying a mountain bike — can be an intimidating proposition, even for a longtime mountain biker looking to upgrade.
Dual-suspension vs. hardtail, component packages, disc brakes, V-brakes, aluminum frame, carbon fiber, 29ers — it's almost as complicated as buying a car, and with higher end bikes it can be almost as expensive. It's all about what you're going to use it for, and you want to get your money's worth.
With that in mind here are some quick hits on what's worth considering when buying a mountain bike.
Where to start? Hardtail vs. Full-suspension
The two biggest factors are what type of terrain you want to ride and how much you are willing to spend. One of the bigger price range differences in mountain bikes falls between a front-suspension (or hardtail) and a full-suspension bike — one with both front and rear shocks.
"Sometimes it comes down to budget," Danielle Tarloff, a certified specialized bike fitter for Wilderness Sports in Dillon, said. "Any full-suspension bike is definitely going to be typically more expensive than a hardtail. But it depends on what kind of riding they want to do."
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Expect a decent hardtail setup to retail between $500 and $800. By contrast, a reasonable full- or dual-suspension mountain bike can run closer to $2,000. Get fancy enough and they can be well over $5,000.
One of the benefits to a hardtail is that you can get nicer bike components for less money; the rear shock and the complex frame in a dual-suspension substantially increase cost. But if you're not looking to charge down highly technical advanced singletrack trails or hit jumps and drops, the rear-suspension is much less necessary.
If you're just starting out and money is a factor, a hardtail is definitely the way to go. It may also be the better option if you're more interested in traveling longer distances as opposed to short aggressive downhill trails, as hardtails make climbing easier with better pedaling efficiency.
That said, if you think you might want to some day advance to more aggressive trail riding and you have the cash, a dual-suspension will be the better option.
"If they're riding technical singletrack absolutely," Tarloff said of dual-suspension bikes. "It's going to increase the fun factor."
Bigger is better? The rise of the 29er
In the '90s and early 2000s, the 26-inch bike tire was the norm in the mountain biking world. The 29ers — bikes with 29-inch wheels — were much more of a niche market. But now the "bigger is better" argument seems to have won and the 29er is here to stay. In fact, in the last five years or so, most mountain bike models have switched to either 27.5-inch tires or 29-inch tires, with a 26-inch bike becoming increasingly rare.
The main advantage with bigger tires is that they make it easier to roll over obstacles like rocks and logs and you have a higher ground clearance. When the 29er style first gained momentum, the bigger wheels came at the expense of maneuverability. Advances in frame designs have since leveled the playing field.
So which is best for you? If aggressive downhill and sharp turns are in your future, a 27.5-inch tire on a dual suspension bike may be the way to go. But if you're looking for benefits climbing and riding longer distances, then a hardtail 29er might be the one to go with.
The best way to answer any of these questions is to get out and demo.
"Everyone should at least test ride before they buy it," Tarloff suggested.
Keep an eye out — some resorts and recreational areas will host free demo days. Most rental shops, like Wilderness Sports, will also credit rental charges toward the purchase of a new bike.
Components and the pitfalls of cutting costs
Frame style and tire size are really just the beginning. Big price jumps also come in components packages — breaks, shifters, derailleurs, etc.
"The more you spend, the lighter that bike is going to be," Tarloff said. That's the general rule — lighter weight frames and wheel sets will drastically increase cost.
Tarloff said the first place to upgrade is generally the wheels. Many companies sell base models with cheaper, heavier wheel sets. Nicer derailleurs (the parts that shift gears) are another good place to start. A more expensive derailleur will shift better, be lighter and last longer.
Lastly, consider buying at the end or beginning of the season. Most shops start selling their demo fleets and discounting the current year's model's toward Labor Day. At the beginning of a season you can also get a good deal on the previous year's model.
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