If you are in the market for a new (or second hand) bike, there are a lot of things to consider. The different types, sizes and componentry mean that it’s not a straight forward decision. It can be difficult to know if you are getting the right bike. If you’re not sure where to start, let us clear things up for you!
Cycling is such a diverse sport and even the mountain biking discipline has a variety of sub-disciplines. There is a lot of choice out there and it’s all too easy to make the wrong choice. We will walk you through the questions that you should be asking yourself and the key features you should be looking for in a bike.
What will the bike be used for?
There are loads of different types of bikes, including BMX, road, track and, of course, mountain bikes! We know where our strengths lie, so we will just stick to mountain bikes in this article.
Will it be for mountain biking only?
If you want to use your bike for a few different purposes (like commuting or on the local linear path), you might want to consider a “hybrid”. These tend to have widish tyres with a limited amount of grip. This means that you can go off-road with them, however they won’t perform as well as something designed specifically for off-road use. The plus side is that they will roll really easily. This means you can get to work and around town with less effort. Hybrids will also sit you in a more comfortable body position, which feels nice but won’t give you much control on anything even remotely rough.
Mountain biking is the priority!
Sweet, so you want a bike to ride trails on. The next question is…
What sort of mountain biking do you want to do?
Mountain biking is a diverse discipline of cycling that is most simply categorised into cross country, trail and downhill. To briefly explain each:
Cross country is generally about efficiency over longer distances. If you intend to climb lots of hills and enjoy the subsequent descents, you might be in this category.
Downhill is potentially simplest category to explain. If all you want to do is ride your bike down steep, rough trails and catch a lift back to the top of the hill in a bus or train, this is you.
Trail is best described as somewhere in between cross country and downhill. Generally these rides hunt for exhilarating descents and enjoy the undulating terrain on the way there.
Once you have figured out your favourite flavour of mountain biking, you are one step closer to knowing what to look for in your next bike.
The most obvious difference between bikes designed for the disciplines above, is probably the suspension “travel”. That is to say, how far the suspension lets the wheels move up and down (generally measured in millimetres). A downhill bike might have 200mm of big, heavy, impact-absorbing travel. This would not help the efficiency of a cross country bike, so they tend to come with about 100mm of lighter weight suspension. Does this mean that a cross country bike can’t ride a downhill track? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. If a rider was to ride a cross country bike down a harsh downhill course, what’s lacking in travel would need to be made up for in rider skill, and I would expect it to be extremely hard work! I would also expect things to break a bit sooner as the bike just isn’t designed for that sort of riding.
What is a hard tail?
Almost all mountain bikes will have suspension on the front (the forks). Many will have suspension in the rear too, and we would generally call these a dual suspension (or “dually” if you are cool). If they don’t have suspension in the back end, it would be a hard tail. It makes sense, right? The primary job of suspension, is to keep the wheels on the ground when the bike is travelling over rough terrain. This provides a more even amount of traction and allows the rider to go faster, easier and with more control. There is, however, a downside to dual suspension bikes and one of the main drawbacks is that they are heavier and harder to pedal due to energy loss in the rear suspension system.
Hard tail or dual suspension?
If you are shopping for your teen or pre-teen child, they are almost certainly going to want a dual suspension! These bikes are nice to ride, feel smoother and project the image that most young people want to convey to the world! And, because your child is smart, they will have a long list of well researched reasons as to why they need a dually… We disagree! On a hard tail, the rider will experience more feedback from the trail (a bumpier ride). This means that they will need to employ more skill and technique to get the same outcomes as they would on a dually. Since the bike does less, the rider has to do more. That, in the simplest terms, is why riders that learn on hard tails tend to develop better skills and habits than those that learn on a dual suspension. It’s also nice to have somewhere to go… If you start with a $12,000 top of the line bike, the next upgrade just isn’t going to be as exciting. This effect, for a young person, can contribute to early burn-out in sport as they have had and done it all by the time they are 14.
If you are a more mature rider and able to initiate your own deliberate practice habits, a dually may be for you. Just remember that to get the most out of a dual suspension bike, you want to pair your capable bike with good technique. Don’t fall into the trap of relying on the bike to do all the work for you!
What is the difference between the $1,000 and 10,000 bike?
You should now have a pretty good idea about what type of riding you want to do and picked a suspension setup to suit. This should have narrowed down the frame options for you. You will find that most brands will have one or two different models of frame in the style you have chosen, perhaps a hard tail and a dually version. But even within the same model of bike, the price can vary substantially.
There are two main factors that affect the cost of the bike. Firstly, the price will represent the amount of technology and engineering in the frame. If you want the latest and greatest, expect to pay for it because the engineers, materials and processes used to develop the bike are not cheap. They will then have different levels of specification or “spec” which basically determines how good the parts they put onto that frame are and the materials used. Here is a brief overview of some of the options that are offered by the Giant brand at the time of writing:
|Type (Decision 1)||Model /Frame (Decision 2)||Spec (Decision 3)|
|Entry Level Mountain Bike (hard tail)||Talon (80mm)||Talon 4 ($750)
Talon 3 ($850)
Talon 2 ($950)
Talon 1 ($1,200)
|Cross Country (hard tail)||XTC (100mm)||Advanced ($3,400)
Advanced SL ($6,600)
|Cross Country (dually)||Anthem (110mm)||Advanced Pro 2 ($6,800)
Advanced Pro 1 ($9,300)
Advanced Pro 0 ($14,000)
|Trail (hard tail)||Fathom (130mm)||Fathom 2 ($1,800)
Fathom 1 ($2,200)
|Trail (dually)||Trance (130mm)||X 29 2 ($4,500)
X 29 1 ($5,200)
Advanced Pro 2 ($7,300)
Advanced Pro 1 ($9,000)
Advanced Pro 0 ($14,000)
|Trail (dually)||Reign (180mm)||Reign 2 ($4,400)
Reign 1 ($5,700)
Advanced Pro 2 ($6,600)
Advanced Pro 1 ($9,000)
|Downhill (dually)||Glory (200mm)||Glory 1 ($6,800)
Glory 0 ($9,200)
Giants entry-level mountain bike is the Talon, and you can see that the price varies from $750 up to $1200. The frame at either end of the spectrum is identical and the difference is in the parts you get. The cheaper options will come with basic parts that will do the job. As you spend more, you might get nicer brakes, forks, drivetrain, wheels etc.
As you go to the higher-level models, such as the Trance or Reign, you get an option of frame material (aluminium alloy or carbon composite). The carbon is newer technology and has some characteristics that most riders would find desirable, so you will pay more for these frames. These bikes all work really well and you might not even notice much difference between the $5,000 and $15,000 models. Generally, the difference is in the weight and tunability of the parts. The more expensive models will have more dials to twist and lighter weight parts which is fantastic for experienced riders who want to get the most out of their bikes. These functions won’t help the novice much and your pennies would most likely be better spent elsewhere.
I just paid $10,000 for my bike and it’s falling apart! Can I get warranty?
We highly doubt it! You need to understand, that when you pay more for a bike, you are buying performance. You are not going to get a more durable machine, so look after it. You wouldn’t smash a shopping trolley into your Ferrari and wonder why it got a dent. If you paid $10,000 for your bike, the wheels, derailleur, cassette, bars, saddle and everything else will be most likely be lighter and probably break a whole lot easier. Your forks and shock might have preload, high speed & low speed compression damping, beginning & ending stroke rebound damping and other tuneable options. If you don’t know how to use such equipment, you might end up paying more for a bike that you can’t tune correctly and doesn’t work as well! However, if you know your way around a bike, $10,000 for all this probably sounds like a bargain to you, so go for it!
What parts do I need?
If you are just starting out, there are a few things to look out for that will make a noticeable difference to your riding experience on an entry level bike. You don’t absolutely need them, but they are generally good bang-for-buck items that will improve your riding experience.
- One-by drivetrain. Before about 2010, most mountain bikes came with multiple chain rings around the rear wheel (seven or eight) and at the cranks (up to three). Finding the desired gear meant setting a combination of front and rear gears. This is confusing to learn and meant there were more moving parts that were susceptible to malfunction and needed tuning. Modern technology allows manufacturers to squeeze more gears onto the rear wheel, meaning the front gears are no longer needed. We think this set up is worth paying a little extra for.
- Hydraulic disc brakes. Again, some entry level mountain bikes may still come with brakes that operate by clamping onto the rim of the wheel, but most will come with disc brakes now. These can be in the form of cable or hydraulic, depending on the type of connection between the lever and the calliper. Cable operated brakes have a lot of friction where as their hydraulic counterparts do not. Hydraulic brakes feel smoother to operate and are generally more powerful, meaning you can operate them with less effort and more control. Again, we think these are worth the dollars.
- Forks with motion control. Some of the cheaper forks resemble a pogo stick, in that they are simply a spring in a telescopic post. You won’t get much performance out of these. Look for a fork that has some form of motion control. This means that there is internal components that control how the fork responds to forces as it compresses, and how quickly it rebounds. These usually have a blue knob (for setting “compression” damping) and a red knob (for stetting “rebound” damping) but not always – the tuning may be set in the factory.
In our experience, the components above are generally grouped on entry level bikes. That means that if you get a basic drivetrain, you will likely get basic brakes and forks, but the higher model with better drivetrain will also have better brakes and forks too.
Avoid These Mistakes
There are a few common mistakes we see that can be easily avoided.
Bike is too heavy. If rough, technical trails excite you it can be tempting to get the most rugged bike you can find with lots of suspension. These bikes tend to be extremely heavy and really only perform when pointed down a hill. Riding on flat terrain, let alone up hill, is extremely difficult and can really limit the amount of enjoyable riding to be had, especially when the rider is under 60kg.
Over biking. It is also important not to get a bike that is too capable. Consider that downhill bikes with big suspension are designed with steep European alpine trials in mind. They may not be the best choice for most trials in Adelaide. Sometimes, less is more!
Under biking. Same as above, but the other way around! Make sure your bike is up to the task you set for it. If it isn’t, you might be making your job harder than it needs to be. Initially, this can be a bit of fun but what starts in laughter often ends in tears…
Bike is too big. Particularly for young riders, going too big can be nasty. Don’t “get something they can grow into”. You can’t break your growth plate by wearing the wrong size jumper, but when your ability to move your weight to the extremities of the bike is reduced, bad things can happen.
Bike is too small. Honestly, this one isn’t as bad as going too big, but small bikes can be harder to control than they need to be.
The Final Word
So in a nutshell, when you are choosing a new bike you want to consider:
- How the bike going to be used
- What style of riding you will be doing
- If a hard tail or dual suspension will be best
- How fancy your components need to be
Don’t forget to:
- Get the correct size (ask you local bike store for advice on this)
- Be honest with how capable your bike needs to be – We see far too many young kids on bikes that are designed for advanced adult riders on advanced trails.
Of course, there are many factors we have not mentioned here and we have steered clear of many kinds of bikes used for other cycling disciplines. We hope that we have clarified the process for anybody who has no idea where to start and we encourage you to shop around and speak to your reputable local bike stores to get advice on your individual needs.