How to choose a mountain bike

Guide: How to choose a mountain bike

How do I choose a bike? What frame should it have? What brakes should the bicycle be equipped with? You can find the answers to these questions and to some others if you carefully read our guide of choosing a mountain bike.

What mountain bike suits me?

If you aren’t too sure what kind of mountain bike you should ride, let me introduce you to the several categories of bicycles in order to understand which of them suits you best.

We distinguish several segments: recreational/leisure bikes, Cross Country/Marathon bikes, All Mountain bikes,  Enduro bikes, Freeride bikes and Downhill bikes. There are three types of wheel sizes in the first three categories: 26 inch, 27.5 inch and 29 inch. We shall discuss the wheel size issue later in this article.

Recreational / leisure bikes

Recreational bicycle

May look like mountain bikes, as they are equipped with less performance components they are not meant to be ridden on mountain trails. For this type of bikes, even manufacturers recommend recreational rides around town, through parks and at most gentle forest trails. Not fitted with rear suspension, these mountain bikes are actually among the most affordable in the categories presented above, as they can be purchased for amounts between 250 and 450 euro.

Cross country and marathon bikes

Cross country bicycle

Distinguish themselves as they are robustly constructed, yet even those that can be ridden in the toughest conditions are quite expensive. This type of bike can be used on forest paths or mountains trails and are generally equipped with a 100 to 120 mm travel fork.

Cross country full suspension bicycle

These mountain bikes are also known as XC bikes and they are lighter than recreational bikes, due to their higher quality components which also make them lighter. Prices for a decent cross country bike start at 600 euro and can reach 8,000 euro or even more for top models. There are two types of XC bikes: hardtail and full suspension.

All Mountain bike

All mountain bicycle

Is the ideal companion on those nicely diversified mountain trails. They benefit form full suspension, the fork and shock offering a travel between 120 and 150 mm. As you may observe the travel provided by the suspension is longer, allowing you to attack the most demanding trails. These bikes are equally effective uphill and downhill and are the perfect option for those riders who tackle a variety of tracks but also take part in various competitions. Prices for a decent All Mountain bike generally start at 1,000 euro.

Enduro bikes

Enduro bicycle

Form a relatively small segment, offering an alternative for very difficult tracks, with the advantage of lower weight than Freeride and Downhill bikes. They are heavier than All Mountain bikes, but are stronger and have even longer suspension travel, 160 mm. All bikes in this category come as full suspension and some of them may prove to be quite good climbers when having to pedal uphill. Prices start at 1,400 euro.

Freeride and Downhill

Freeride bicycle

Are the very top of technology when it comes to riding on extreme trails. 180 to 200 mm travel suspension enables the rider to overcome the toughest obstacles, all the bikes being supplied as full suspension only. This category is reserved for the “connoisseurs”.

At this time maybe you have made yourself an idea about what kind of bicycle fits you. The quest it’s not over, now you have to choose the most important: the bike components.

Hardtail or full suspension bicycle? Which should I choose?

Although this is an extensively discussed topic on Bike Advisor, I can tell you that it is worth buying a full suspension only if you have a good budget. These are more comfortable than hardtail bicycles, take into account that for the entry-level price class full suspensions bikes are very heavy and come equipped with basic components, so you won’t be fully satisfied when pedaling on demanding mountain track. Most full suspension offered for less than 1,200 euro are heavier and poorer equipped than the hardtail bikes in the same price category. Also, the resell value of a full suspension dramatically decreases because its construction is more complex and there are several components that should be replaced after a certain time.

What wheel size should you chose: 26, 27.5 or 29 inches?

The 26-inch wheel mountain bike is already a classic and until recently this was the single and the most prevalent segment of bikes built for mountain trails. Meanwhile, 29er bikes appeared on the market, equipped with larger wheels, and they are mostly oriented towards taller cyclists. Large wheels offer many advantages, such as a bigger contact patch with the ground, a higher rolling speed, an easier passing over obstacles, but also some drawbacks as they are a bit more difficult to handle or, for riders below 1.75 m, they are rather big sized. 29 inch wheels mountain bikes are also heavier due to their bigger components such as forks and tires. 27.5 inch wheels bicycle represent a powerful new trend, ready to impose itself on the market as an ideal solution for those who think the 26-inch wheels are too small, while 29-inch wheels are too big.

Here’s a comparison focused on the issue of 26 vs. 29 inch mountain bikes.

What if I ride mostly in the city?

Many people choose to purchase a mountain bike, even if they know they are going to ride mostly in the urban area. If you want a good compromise in order to use your mountain bike daily through the city, and escape to the mountain on weekends, you should look for a set of slick or semi-slick tires. These tires have a very smooth profile and inflated to the pressure recommended by the manufacturer will make your pedaling a lot easier on paved roads thanks to lack of rolling resistance as it happens for knob tires. In the photo below, you may clearly distinguish the two types of tires.

Bicycle tyre type

V-Brakes, mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes?

Low cost bicycles are generally equipped with V-Brakes. These brakes enjoy the advantage of being lighter, but as they work on the bicycle rim they are not as strong and effective as disc brakes. Also braking capacity is considerably reduced in wet conditions.

Mechanical disc brakes are a cheaper alternative to hydraulic brakes and luckily, there are several well-established models on the market (such as those coming from Avid or Hayes) providing good braking performance. They are easier to service than hydraulic brakes, as they don’t require bleeding.

Hydraulic disc brakes represent the peak of bicycle breaking technology. These are high performance brakes, and depending on the size of the rotor you choose you may even enhance their performance. A larger rotor implies a greater braking force, but also adds additional weight to your bike. 160 mm front wheel rotor are recommended for riders under 80 kg, 180/185 mm are best for those over 80 kg. Extreme trails require 203 mm rotors while a 140/160 mm rear wheel rotor is enough even for XC and Marathon races.

Air or coil fork?

The type of fork of is mentioned in the bicycle tech specs, as this key component of the bike may do its work based on coils or an air cartridge. Coil requires less maintenance, but entry-level models fail to offer smooth damping, weigh more, and respond less to settings. Of course, there are coil forks that can keep up with the air cartridge forks, at least in terms of refinement of damping.

Air forks can be found on more expensive bikes, they have a more complicated construction, are slightly more difficult to service, but they do provide better damping and are also lightweight. Not to mention the effective several settings such as preload, rebound and compression speed.

Drive train

It consists of front derailleur, rear derailleur, chain, crankset, sprockets and gear shift levers. As we have quite a number of parts here, you may wonder what kind of transmission your bike should have.

In the comparation chart below you can see the range of parts offered by two main manufacturers, Shimano and SRAM. For a longer life of the drive train and for better performance, we recommend choosing parts starting with Deore for Shimano or from X5 for SRAM. Bicycle parts placed below in the range will do their job, but the materials and technology used do not promise a long life for a certain component and also weigh a little more.

Shimano SRAM comparation chart

If you want a transmission that provides an excellent price/performance ratio we strongly recommend Shimano SLX / XT components or SRAM X7/X9. Bicycles equipped with such transmissions are generally more expensive, but you will enjoy their performance for long.

Crankset: double or triple chainrings?

Three years have passed already since many manufacturers started offering cranksets with two chainrings, as they offer multiple advantages compared to three chainrings: they are lighter, require fewer gear changes and in combination with the right cassette  they offer very much similar ratios to three chainrings cranksets.  In any case, double chainrings are particularly recommended to racers, as 2 x 10 drive trains require extra pedaling power.

Bicycle cranksets types

Frame size and its geometry

Frame height is given in inches and it represents the distance from the bottom bracket (crank shaft) to the top of the seat tube (be careful not to take into account the seat tube).

To precisely determine what frame size suits you, follow the table below. Attention! A 29er frame has different sizes from those of a 26-inch wheel frame, so best is to take the bike out for a spin before purchasing!

How to choose bike frame size

However, not only frame height is important. The top-tube also plays a good part, as the longer it is, the more you will lean on the bike. If you cannot opt for a frame with a shorter top tube, you still can compensate by replacing the stem with a shorter one.

The wheelbase, that is the distance measured between the rotational centers of the wheels, gives a bike’s character. A longer wheelbase provides better stability while the chainstay is responsible for controlling the bike into corners: the shorter it is, the more responsive the bike becomes. The headtube angle is also worth being mentioned here, as the straighter it gets, the more your bike gains in point of agility. Last, but not least, there is seat tube angle: bikes with steep seat tube angles have a good climbing capacity.

See below the names of the frame’s tube.

Bicycle frame tubes names

New or second hand bike?

This question always manages to stir up controversy in a way or another. If you decide to purchase a second hand bike, we recommend searching for one that is at most three years old, assuming that it has been moderately used during this period. To check the manufacturing year, simply perform an Internet search to see if information given by the seller matches the specifications for that year. Also, it is highly recommended to test the bike before you purchase it.

You may find here extensive advice on purchasing a second hand bicycle.