Saturday, April 23, 2016

Buying Your First Mountain Bike

I get asked time to time about what kind of mountain bike to buy or what type.  It happened again recently by a fine young man looking to get his first bike.  After composing a long email to him about it, I thought it would be a good idea to share what I told him.  Now I'm not an expert on the subject, especially when it comes to the engineering and specifications side (know several great guys who are), but I do like to ride and I ride a lot.  Based on that here are my thoughts on what to look for or think about before buying:
General – buy the best bike you can afford, don’t say I’ll scrimp and then upgrade the components later. First you never do that because it costs more and you don't have the time.  Second if you are riding hard or a lot, you’ll be replacing other parts that break and won't have the funds to upgrade.  So buy the best and here are some decision points:
Complete Bike or Build My Own – A complete bike lets you start riding now, build your own takes time and will likely cost you more.  But you will know all about bikes if you build your own.  For me I like a complete bike and I then buy a good bike repair book, like Park Tools.
New or Used – New lets you break it in and you get any warranty associated with it.  Used lets you get more bike than you could afford new, but like buying a used car, you may have some components to replace sooner.  It can also be tough to know the true condition if you buying online like eBay.  At least on Craig’s List you might be able to test ride it.  I do the best of both worlds by purchasing a demo bike from a local bike shop like Peak Sports in Corvallis.  You get a discounted price because it is used, but it has also been well maintained by the shop.  You can also purchase last year’s new model after the current year’s bikes are out and save money there too.
Online or Local – You can get a bike with better components sometimes online, but you don’t get to test ride it and see if you like the feel.  There are some great online bikes, like the Airborne Griffin (, but you will have some assembly and you’ll need to figure out your bike size from their online resources.  Buying local gives you that, a local shop who knows the bike and you’ll have a place to take it for warranty work vs. having to send parts in to the online shop.  With that said, the local bike shop will work on your online purchased bike.  The other benefit of buying local is that you can go in and ride the bike and see if you like it before purchasing it.
Sizing – This is one good reason to buy local in that you can get the bike that fits you and your riding style.  For example, I’m about 5’7” so everyone would say I’m supposed to ride a medium size frame, but I have never felt comfortable because of my position on the bike with a medium so I have always purchased larges.  That only happens when you buy local and can ride different frame sizes and see what fits.
Wheel Size – There is a lot of selection and discussion around this topic.  For me my recommendation is don’t purchase a 26” they are really dead for mountain biking (in my opinion).  The 27.5 gives you the best of both world – good cornering but increased size for clearing obstacles and more travel.  For me I’m a 29 fan.  I’ve been riding them for 5 years now and I get all the clearance and I don’t notice that much cornering sacrifice.  You’ll be happy with either. Also, if you can get through axle wheels, meaning they have an axle bolt that holds the wheel on vs. drop outs, that will be the best. They are more stable and safer.
Weight – I’m not a weight weenie, meaning I’m not spending thousands to save ounces.  You’ll want a bike around 30 lbs. or under for riding around the Corvallis area and really anywhere in the Northwest, unless you want to do pure downhill.  The Mac Dun forest and most Oregon riding (besides Bend) is a lot of going up to go down, so you want a good climbing bike.
Must Have – A locking fork, locking rear shock (if a full-suspension) and disk brakes. The locking fork (and shock) will making climbing easier and really every new bike or 5 year old one will have disk brakes.  I’m okay with hydraulic or cable disc brakes, especially for your first bike.  Most are coming with hydraulic now, but the cable breaks are easier to adjust on the trail.
Dropper Post – I would almost put this in the “Must Have” category, because of the climbing and descending we do around Corvallis. Having it makes it easier than always having to adjust it before going down.  So if you don’t have one on your bike, make sure you have a quick release seat post.
Hard Tail vs. Full Suspension – If you are young and this is your first bike, most will say that for the riding around here you can get by with a hard tail which will save you money and let you get a better component spec’d hard tail.  But I am older and I like the plushness of a full suspension bike.  If you ride lots of roots or rocks or bumps a hard tail can be rougher on your body.  With a hard tail tire pressure is more important.  If you do go full suspension then you want to make sure your rear shock has a lock out on it which is a must for climbing.  The other thing to think about is make sure you can put a water bottle cage on the frame.  Some full-suspension frames don’t allow that and also make sure if you get a full suspension that it will fit the type of bike rack you’ll have.  Some full suspension bikes don’t fit the hanging bike racks (I’m a fan of the ones that hold the wheels, and don’t require you to take the front wheel off).
Riding Type – I like an all mountain bike which lets me climb, descend and ride for a long time in the saddle.  It will have more clearance in the fork but it is not a heavy downhill bike.  If all you want to do is do shuttle rides and fly through the air then you want a downhill bike with a dual crown fork, but it will be a bear to pedal up hill.  If you are racing cross country or you are going to do a lot of gravel road riding then a cross country bike will work.  It will be lighter and have less travel in the shock and fork.  For me an all mountain bike gives me the best of both and lets me ride any terrain – from Black Rock to Alsea to the Mac and any where else.  Of course I’m older and overtime I’ve been able to have two bikes, which I like because if one is in the shop, I have my back-up and if someone comes into town and wants to ride I have a second.  So I have a trail/cross country bike for long rides like to the coast or in the winter when we spend more time on the gravel and my all mountain for all the other times.
Gears - I tend to be a “boy scout” kind of rider, I want a bike that doesn’t hold me back from riding anything.  So that’s another reason I like a full suspension and I like having gears.  But gears can be goofy, for example my 3x9 has 27 options, but really there is overlap.  Some say you only have 21. Here are some thoughts on it from a biking forum: 
"A 3 x 9 setup does not have 27 gears, don't let anyone tell you differently because the 3 front rings are not meant to be used with all 9 cogs out back. If you use the ring/cog combo properly and don;t cross chain there are effectively 21 useable gear combos - granny ring +1,2,3,4,5 ; middle ring+1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 ; big ring+3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Use the small chain ring for gears 1-5 on the cassette, middle chain ring for 3-7 on the cassette, and the large chain ring for 6-9 on the cassette. You are overlapping and nearly duplicating some ratios here but you are creating the least stressful chainline which is important to the lifespan of your drivetrain. I use to think it was cool to steep climb in the middle chain ring and the lowest (1st) gear on the cassette (11-34). But it was wearing on my gears and chain because of the angled chainline. I now only steep climb in the small chain ring.”
So this is one reason why I have two bikes.  A Specialized Stumpjumper for technical stuff and a Specialized Epic for the cross country long days in the saddle stuff (and winter gravel road riding). In comparison, I will take my Epic on long cross country rides vs. my 2x10 StumpJumper. The Epic has a 3x9 and low granny gear for climbing (or when my legs are tired).  So with my 2x10, I probably have closer to 20 gear ratios (probably more like 17). But still a good granny gear to climb in.
So looking at a 1x10, you have 10 gears, and what I have seen is guys replacing their granny gear (the easiest) with a really easy after market one, so they have a steep climb gear to use.  If you get a 1x10 or even a single speed for a while you’ll probably be walking parts of climbs you used to make. But overtime if you keep at it, you’ll be stronger (and you can play with that replacing of the granny gear to something even easier to pedal).  So it comes back to the type of ride you want to experience.
Brands – I’m a Specialized guy (Stumpjumper, Enduro, Camber and Epic).  They are tough, well built and Peak Sports (a local Corvallis bike shop) is a great bike shop.  For a full suspension bike I would look at the Camber. I also like the Trek Fuel’s.  But most of the big brand bikes are all good.  In my riding group we have everything from Niners, Giant, Scott, etc. We have single speeds, hard tails, full suspension and 26, 27.5 and 29.  The best part is getting out and riding. I think you can't pick a bike without riding it.  It gives you a chance to get the feel of it and decide if it will work for you.
Riding Gear – Now we haven’t talked gear, so for helmets get one that protects the back of your head, and I’d get at least some knee pads.  For shoes, that is your choice and depends if you are clips or flats.  I purchase inexpensive shoes ones online that are clipless, meaning you clip in (I know it is weird, but it means you don't have the old "Toe Clips".  I am an SPD fan. I would wear gloves (full finger) and get at least one bike jersey because the three rear pockets are great to have.  I also like a visor on my helmet.
Bike Racks - I like a rack that doesn't make you remove the front wheel.  I don't like the ones that let you hang the bike off your rear hitch.  The hanging ones let the bike move around to much, don't work with some of the frame designs.  I like the roof top ones and the rear hitch ones that let you set up to 4 bikes on it.  Yakima and Thule are the big players, but I like a company called Hollywood Racks, they are heavier but cost less.  You can also get used ones from a place in Portland Oregon called "Re-Rack."  If you don't want to mount them on top of you car, then first make sure you have a hitch on your car.  If yes, check to see if it has a 1" or 2" "female" receiver.  If you don't have one, then when you go to a local hitch installer (like U-Haul), make sure they put a 2" receiver on it. You can also get racks that mount to your truck (if you have one) using straps.  They work, but they are the hanging kind.  Just make sure your exhaust pipe doesn't going directly at a wheel as it can heat up the rubber and blow your tire (yes I it happened to me). Also, they can scratch your car and make sure your bike doesn't rub against the car anywhere. They also make "suction" racks.  I've never tried them but I hear they work great.  You would need them for a car that didn't have a rack or  hitch.  Play it Again sports is another place to get starter racks.
Tires - Tubeless vs. Tubes - When it comes to inflating your chosen tire size you have two options.  1) The traditional way by putting a tube in it, or 2) going tubeless with a sealant.  Tubes are a little heavier (but I'm not a weight weenie remember) but can flat easily.  Tubeless makes the tire assembly a little lighter, but requires extra time, prevents most flats, but if you "burp" out and flat a tubeless tire on the trail, it is very hard to inflate it.  So you'll want to carry a tube and small pump.  Tubeless is just that, there is no tube in the tire.  The tire inflates against the sidewall of the rim and a liquid sealant seals most potential flats.
Other Items - You'll probably want to get a backpack with a water bladder in it like a Camelback, so you can carry a spare tube, bike specific multi-tool, a pump, some food, some zip-ties and toilet paper (you never know).  You don't want to carry around the kitchen sink, but it is nice to have things to get you back to the car if something goes wrong.
Bike Geometry - We could talk all day about that, so here is a good picture from an article in the March 2016 Mountain Bike Action that does a great job pointing out the different areas on a bike.

That is a lot and I hope it helps anyone out there looking for a bike.  Good luck, now go ride!

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