There are all sorts of things to consider when choosing the best mountain bike: Where do I buy from? What size do I need? How many gears do I need? Does the name brand matter? What’s a good price? Hopefully, I can answer all of these questions and then some for you.
Determine Your Price
Mountain bikes are pretty much like any vehicle; there’s practically no limit to how much you can spend. If you’re a casual enthusiast you may want a $50 bike from a chain retailer or if you’re a “hardcore” professional you could end up spending thousands on a bike. To keep your spending under control, figure out what price range you are willing to pay for your new bike and try to only look at bikes within that price range.
What Type of Bike do You Need?
I’m assuming you are interested in a mountain bike. These are generally designed for more rugged terrain and aren’t necessarily for cruising at high speeds on flat streets. Even within the category of mountain bikes, there are a variety of specific bikes designed for several different riding styles and terrain. You will need to figure out what type of riding you will be doing most of the time. Is it smooth trail riding, cross-country racing, all mountain cruising or lift accessed gravity mayhem? Make sure the bikes you look at fit your riding style and not the sales staff.
Enjoy a quick video of an example of general mountain biking.
These usually have less than about 4.5 inches of suspension travel. These bikes are built for efficiency, low weight, and self-propelled speed. While they can handle most trails, they do not handle the rough stuff as well as longer travel bikes. So, if you want to win a cross country race, get to the top of the hill first, or if you ride on relatively smooth trails then these bikes are for you.
These usually have about 4 to 6 inches of suspension travel. These bikes are built for more aggressive terrain than cross country bikes but are generally slightly heavier. They aren’t exactly cross country race bikes, but they are perfect for aggressive trail riding as well as long epic rides. If you are looking for an all-around mountain bike that can take you almost anywhere without busting a lung, these bikes are for you.
These usually have about 6 to 8 inches or more of suspension travel. These bikes are built for abuse. Big drops, jumps, long shuttle rides, and other stunts are where these bikes shine. While most of them are still designed to get you up the hill as well, you will notice the extra weight. If you want to spend most of your time in rough terrain, big drops, jumps, and manmade stunts, and you don’t care how long it takes to get you there, these bikes are for you. These are also great bikes for riding the lifts at your local mountain bike park.
These usually have about 7 to 10 inches of travel. These bikes will suck up almost anything you throw at them, but pedaling up a hill can be quite a challenge. Downhill bikes are designed for high speed and highly technical downhill racing and little else. If you think you might want to get into downhill racing, get a freeride bike. If you’re really serious about it, a dedicated downhill bike is for you.
Within all of these bikes, there are often styles that are specifically designed for the female physiology. Women’s specific mountain bikes are designed to fit a majority of women but cannot be designed to fit all women. You should try to test ride both women’s specific mountain bikes as well as non-women specific bikes and decide for yourself which designs fit your body best. The majority of women-specific designs are designed around an average woman’s body. This body standard is smaller, lighter weight, and has a shorter torso and arms than the body standard of the average male that most non-women specific bikes are designed around.
If this average female body standard describes you, then you will most likely find a better fit with a woman’s specific design. Otherwise, if your build differs from this average woman’s body standard, a nonwomen’s specific design may be a better choice. For some women, it simply boils down to size. There are a few companies now that offer extra small and XX-small size frames; some are women’s specific while others are not. Generally, you won’t notice a big difference unless you’re a very petite woman but if you can’t find the bike you’re looking for don’t be embarrassed to look in the kid’s sections; kid’s mountain bikes are every bit as professional as adult’s bikes they’re just designed smaller.
Comfort vs. Efficiency
The next thing you want to determine is if you need a full suspension or a hardtail bike. A full suspension bike has suspension on both ends (sort of like shocks) and a hardtail has none on the back. I always recommend a full suspension mountain bike if you can afford it. Hardtails, without rear suspension, are lighter weight and pedal more efficiently but full suspension designs offer more comfort and better control. You will want to decide based on your price range, riding style, and terrain.
Full-suspension mountain bikes are much more comfortable, enjoyable, and better controlled when compared to their hardtail counterparts. The trade-offs of a little extra weight and slightly less efficiency are well worth the added benefits.
Some people will disagree with me on this subject. Hardtails do pedal more efficiently especially when the terrain is smooth. Hardtail mountain bikes are also a bit lighter than full suspension designs and require less maintenance.
A good number of cross-country racers still use hardtails for the above reasons, but most endurance and other types of racers have switched over to full suspension. I should also note that hardtails are also especially popular among the dirt jumping crowd where they pump better from jump to jump.
Unfortunately, full suspension mountain bikes are a bit more expensive than hardtails. If you can’t afford a full suspension with decent and reliable components, I would recommend buying a good reliable hardtail from a specialty bike shop before going to a mass merchant such as Costco or Wal-Mart for a bike that may fall apart after you ride it for a few days.
Which Components are Right for You?
Because of the seemingly endless combinations of components, you can have in your mountain bike it’s almost impossible to compare them all side by side. I recommend finding a few components that are most important to you for comparison and make sure the rest fall within some sort of minimums for your price range. I usually start with the fork and then look at the wheels and rear derailleur.
If you’re not very familiar with the individual components that make up a mountain bike then the primary ones you should at least be concerned with are the breaks and the tires.
The affiliate links below will take you to Amazon where you can see full product descriptions and images.
Breaks: Disk Breaks & Rim Breaks
The two types of breaks for bicycles are disk brakes (like modern car breaks) and rim breaks. Rim breaks are the most common breaks for bikes; they’re the primary types of breaks on any budget bike and any bike that’s over 20 years old. Disk brakes are more advanced and they’ve only been used heavily on bikes for about 20 years. Rim breaks work by having a set of pads that presses up against the rim of the bike to stop the wheels. Disk brakes work much like disk breaks in cars: a hydraulic system compresses brake pads against a type of rotor to slow down and stop the bike. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
If you want better, more consistent brake performance in all conditions and don’t really care if it weighs a little more or costs a little more, choose disc brakes over rim brakes. If you want the lightest set-up you can have and are willing to accept small variances in brake performance, or if a low price is really important, choose rim brakes over disc brakes.
Mountain bike rim brakes have gone through several design changes over the years. They started with the original cantilever brakes, went through the dark U-Brake years, and are now known as V-Brakes. V-Brakes work well in most conditions.
Rim brakes have some drawbacks. They require straight un-damaged rims to perform their best. Rim brakes perform poorly in wet or muddy conditions. Over time, Rim brakes can wear right through the side of your rim literally causing the side of the rim to blow off (I’ve seen this happen and it is not pretty.).
Disc brakes have been around for a long time in cars but weren’t seriously used on bikes until the mid to late 90’s. There were definitely some issues with some of the earlier models but the disc brakes of today, cable actuated or hydraulic, perform quite well.
The performance of disc brakes is considerably better than rim brakes, especially in wet or muddy conditions. Disc brakes usually require less force to apply and aren’t affected by the condition of your rims or wheels. The biggest downside to disc brakes is the added weight. By the time you add everything in, including front and rear brakes and the added weight of the disc specific hubs, you end up with around 150 to 350 grams additional weight to the whole bike (It doesn’t seem like much weight but remember this is not a street bike; you’ll be riding this up steep hills). This weight number greatly depends on the wheels, rims, hubs, and disc brake system you choose.
Cost is certainly an issue as well. Disk brake systems are usually more expensive compared to rim brakes. Mechanical or cable actuated disc brakes are a closer match but will still cost a little more. Hydraulic disc brake systems can cost significantly more.
To switch from one system to the other you will in most cases not only have to buy the new set of brakes but you will have to buy a new wheelset as well. Disc rims usually cannot be used with rim brakes and the standard hubs that are used with rim brake wheels usually cannot be used with discs. The trend in the industry is certainly towards discs and the technology is improving every year.
Learn how to change your own bike brakes and any other parts on your bike with DIY Bike Repair. 200+ step by step videos, TuneUp Secrets and Upkeep Tips Book, Complete Bike Repair and Maintenance Manuals, Free Lifetime Updates, Free One-On-One Training (limited spots!) Learn More about DIY Bike Repair
Some people will have absolute success with tubeless tires and some people will have nothing but trouble. What makes the difference? Well, it can be a lot of factors like different rims, tires, and tubeless tire systems as well as different riding styles and terrain. Overall I do recommend tubeless tires to anyone who wants higher performance and fewer flats but doesn’t mind a little extra installation trouble and maintenance. How much trouble these systems can just depend entirely on the bike that you chose.
So what’s the physical difference between tubeless tires and tubed tires? Well, tubed tires are the traditional tires that many people are used to seeing on bikes. The bike has an outer layer of the tire that everyone sees and inside of that, between the outer layer and the rim, there’s a rubber tube. This tub is soft and pliable and is filled with air. Conversely, tubeless tires do not have this tube. Tubeless tires work exactly like the tires on all modern cars; the outer layer fits against the rim and is held onto it by air pressure. Instead of having an inner tube to hold the air, the seal between the outer layer and the rim keeps it in.
In general, tubeless tires weigh less than tubed tires, allow for more traction and are not susceptible to pinch flats—flats that occur when the tire gets pinched up against the rim. Tubed tires are less expensive, more widely available, easier to install and easier to repair in the event of a flat.
With the right setup, going to tubeless tires will improve your bikes performance. This is especially true for riders who have to run higher pressures to prevent pinch flats. I recommend using an internal tire sealant such as Stan’s No-Tubes for a more robust system and fewer flats. I still recommend this even if you have tubeless specific rims and tires.
If you use a tubeless kit to convert your standard tube/tire system into a tubeless tire system make sure your tire, rim, and kit are compatible. Check the web site of the tubeless kit manufacturer for compatibility.
You can use non-tubeless tires if you use an internal sealant but don’t use super-light tires with thin sidewalls. Thicker sidewalls provide better cornering performance and if you ride in terrain with sharp rocks they provide better protection from sidewall cuts and tears. You will still need to carry an extra tube and pump. All tubeless tire systems let you put a tube in if you get a flat and you can’t get your tire to seal up again.
If you try to lower your tire pressure too much, you will be more likely to damage your rim when you hit rocks and you may feel the tire roll under during hard cornering. When this gets really bad, you can burp air out and end up with a flat, unsealed tire. Follow the installation instructions carefully and pay attention to every detail. Take the necessary time to get compatible products and to install them correctly. A properly installed tubeless tire system is capable of handling any condition and riding style. You can easily race cross-country or downhill with tubeless tires.
From the performance standpoint, tubeless tires are hard to beat. Tubeless tires don’t pinch flat so they let you run lower tire pressures. Lower tire pressure is the best way to improve a tire’s contact with the ground and, with that, comes better bike performance. That being said, tire pressure is one of the most influential adjustments you can make to your bikes performance.
- Tubeless tire supporters claim that rolling friction is reduced in a tubeless tire. Most people won’t see a noticeable difference either way but many say there is evidence to support this.
- Using an internal sealant is well worth the little added weight. Tubeless tires still get flats from thorns and other punctures. It is in most cases more difficult to fix a flat in a tubeless tire than a standard tire.
- Compatibility is a big issue. Choose the wrong tires or rims and you will end up blowing your tires right off the rim either during installation or on the trail.
- While it is tempting to go with the lightest tires you can find it is more important to get a tire that will perform well and won’t end up forcing you to put a tube in later. No amount of sealant will plug a good cut or tear in a tire sidewall.
Don’t expect to lose a huge amount of weight. Some systems are lighter, some heavier, it all depends on the system and the tires used. The real benefits are a better performance with lower tire pressures and fewer flats.
Seat Types: More Important Than You’d Think
Your seat must fit your type of riding and your body. The faster you ride, the more likely it is you’ll want a narrow, racing-style seat. This is because a fast-riding position on a bike shifts you forward placing more weight on the hands and feet and reducing a lot of the weight on the seat. Also, as you pedal more vigorously, you spin faster and you can’t tolerate interference from the sides of the seat.
As you ride more casually, however, such as on a cruiser bike with wide backswept handlebars, most of your weight is planted directly on the seat. Plus you don’t pedal quickly at all. These factors make a wide, heavily padded saddle ideal to support your weight and provide cushioning.
Equally important, most manufacturers offer their popular seat models in both men’s and women’s versions and there are significant differences.
Because male and female pelvises differ (women’s are wider), it’s usually a good idea for men to start with men’s saddle models and women with women’s saddle models (though not always: women sometimes do fine on men’s seats). The men’s is a bit longer and narrower while the women’s is a bit shorter and wider.
See all Men’s Bike Saddle Models
See all Women’s Bike Saddle Models
Next, the seat must fit your particular anatomy. You can sometimes see how you fit a seat if you sit on it for a while then get off and immediately look closely at the back of the seat top. If a saddle is right for your body, its rear will support your sit bones (the ischial tuberosities – those two protrusions that bug you when you sit on a hard bench). These bones will form dents in certain types of seats. If the seat is correct for your anatomy, the depressions will be centered on the pads of the seat on either side.
While the rear of the seat supports your sit bones, the front (nose) of the seat is designed to help you control the bike with your thighs and support some of the body weight.
The problem with the nose of the bicycle seat is that it bothers many riders, both women and men. This is the part of the seat that’s most likely to compress nerves, irritate, cause chafing and generally abuse the body. Fortunately, there are plenty of seat models currently available that address the issue with various innovations.
Certain models incorporate a channel centered down the length of the seat. Others use a hole toward the front of the nose. Seats with channels and holes are often called Cutaway seats. Some seats feature soft foam or gel in the nose and soften the base of the seat beneath to reduce the stiffness. These are usually called Gel seats. The important thing to know is that if you find the seat’s nose a problem, there are models designed to remove the intrusion. Try a few until you find the model that works for you.
There are 7 basic types of seats you can look into: Racing Seats, Mountain Bike Seats, Gel Seats, Suspension Seats, Cutaway Seats, Extra Wide Seats, and Leather Seats. Racing seats are great when you’ll be wearing cycling clothing and going fast. Mountain Bike Seats are best for general purpose riding; this is what you’ll likely want to choose for your mountain bike. Gel, Suspension, Cutaway, and Extra Wide seats are made for the sake of comfort. Gel seats have a soft gel covering that molds to your body and can be found in any of the other designs but they do add some weight to your bike. You can also get a gel seat cover for your existing seat. Suspension seats generally look like racing seats but they have a suspension system so that they have more give and can bounce under pressure. Cutaway seats have sections cut out so they introduce less stress to certain pressure points and can alleviate pressure, tingling, and numbness. Extra Wide seats are exactly how they sound; they have wider-than-average frames and usually some extra cushion. While they’re very comfortable they can make it difficult to pedal fast. Leather seats are somewhat hard to find; they look nice and can eventually mold to your body but they’re expensive and susceptible to water damage.
If none of the standard types of seats really work for you there are a myriad of alternative designs that incorporate all sorts of strategies to make you comfortable. Some seats are like hammocks and others have two pads for the buttocks, there really are a million varieties. The only caveat to these is that many of them are far from optimized for mountain biking. If none of the 7 basic types of seats work for you then definitely consider sticking to a low-impact biking path.