Buying a Mountain Bike: tips and advice

So you have decided that you want to get into cycling, particularly Mountain Biking, but have come up against a plethora of advice and bike choices that are going to make your head explode. Buying a bike isn’t simple. Of course some people simply pop down to the local Halfords or department store and purchase the first bike that they come across that looks as though it can go off road. You could do this, but you would be ill advised to do so!

To begin with the bikes that are available seem expensive, very expensive. A top level Mountain Bike can cost upwards of £4k. This sort of investment would be silly for most people to even contemplate, but even the more inexpensive models are seen as costing too much.

So, how much should you pay? Well for now it would be a good idea to ask yourself what you will need the bike for. A rider who only wants to go on relatively flat forest fire tracks on the odd weekend will have totally different requirements to someone who wants to go downhill racing!

Because those who are into the more extreme aspects of Mountain Biking will for the most part be clued up about the equipment that is available, I will instead focus this article on those who wish to get a bike that can ridden on for general purposes. Those who wish to ride the occasional trail or bridleway to those who want to take things slightly more seriously and enter a race of some kind (yes, amazingly you can enter Mountain Bike races with very little experience, and all fitness levels are welcome).

I have been through the whole strapped for cash thing, while at the same time becoming increasingly interested in Mountain Biking, so I speak from direct experience on how best to spend money on a bike.

Generally Mountain Bikes have three base variations. Rigid (no suspension and increasingly rare other than as a novelty or for town riding), hardtail (front suspension only), and full suspension (suspension front and rear). Brakes come in two main varieties, Disc (a disc mounted on the centre of the wheel, much like your car), and V-brake, which clamps a brake pad onto the wheel rim.

Well made and set up disc brake systems are vastly superior to V-brakes. Discs are not affected by mud and water to the same degree as V-brakes making them more reliable in adverse conditions. V-brakes on the other hand are sometimes better on more inexpensive bikes because disc brakes made to a budget are rarely any good.

The disc brake systems themselves can either be hydraulic like your car. These are very powerful, with a price to match. Disc brakes can also be cable operated. Most cable operated disc brakes aren’t worth the packaging they come in, however the Avid BB7 is the exception. This cable operated disc brake is almost as good as many hydraulic versions when set up correctly.

How much?!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article you might be tempted to go to a store like Halfords to buy a cheap bike, for example one of their Trax Xcellerate full suspension bikes, which only cost £150 (or £250 before reduction). This looks like an amazing deal at first, but I can tell you rule number one. Unless the bike costs £1000 and up, or over £1000 before reduction do not even consider buying a full suspension bike. In fact do not even consider buying a hardtail for this price either.

The reasons for this are many. For one thing the components on such bikes are very cheap and actually quite unreliable. Often times they do not come set up properly from the shop, requiring you to adjust them yourself afterwards, and even then you will quite often find that they cannot be tuned precisely leaving you with very imprecise gear changes and a badly aligned chain. I have dealt with such bikes for friends on a number of occasions and I often dispair at how hopeless some of those bikes are.

Disc brakes on such inexpensive bikes actually border on dangerous in my opinion as their stopping power is often woeful. Because of the inexpensive nature of the components used on these cheap bikes, they are much, much heavier than those found on better built and pricier machines. This has a drastic effect on what the bike is like to ride. A heavy bike is no fun to ride, especially up hill! The handling is usually sloppy, and the frame geometry is often badly thought out to begin with. The net result of this is that someone who was at first enthusiastic about trying cycling ends up having a miserable time of it and gives up. The money spent, no matter how much you thought that you had saved, will have been wasted.

It makes much more sense to spend a bit more and get a quality bike that you will enjoy. If you find that you don’t enjoy cycling as much as you thought you would then the bike will have a higher resale value. I’ll say it again, it is a false economy to go for the cheap disposable option no matter what your reasons are. If you end up hating cycling it could be because of the useless bike that you bought, and if you end up liking cycling you will only end up spending more money on a better bike anyway, or wishing that you had bought one in the first place.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, how much should you spend on a bike?

Let’s say that you were wanting to dip your feet into Mountain Biking, but wanted a bike that would stand up to your demands should you progress more a bit later, or you could sell on if you didn’t like cycling after all. A general rule of thumb is to go for a bike that costs at least £500 if it is a hardtail, or £1000 if it is a full suspension model. Those are guidelines with the caveat being that end of season sales often see some incredible bargains, so keep an eye out and look for the original RRP of the bike.

This is of course assuming that you go into the purchasing blind, which I doubt that you will be. My other major rule is to go to a decent local bike specialist. Halfords, or Walmart, or Tesco etc are not bike specialists and their staff will generally not know the first thing about them other than what they may have been told during their brief training sessions.This isn\’t to say that Halfords for instance doesn’t sell good bikes, some of them are, but the staff lack the specialist expertise that is needed when guiding a beginner.

A decent local bike shop, or a national chain such as Leisure Lakes Bikes and Evans Cycles will be able to give you solid, reliable advice about your purchase.


Sizing a bike

In the old days sizing a bike was easy. Stand over the top tube and check the clearance for a few inches and you were done. Strictly speaking this has always been a bad way to size a bike, but it didn’t stop pretty much everyone from doing it!

Most Mountain Bikes these days have a sloping top tube and a high bottom bracket for maximum ground clearance. So measuring clearance over the top tube is a fruitless exercise now. Given that the bike will be used off road you will want a lot of clearance if you ever come off and want to avoid a rather bone crunching experience.

Because of the way that bikes are now produced you cannot rely on the seat tube measurement any more either. For example my old Marin Palisades was a 17.5″ frame, but when I came to get a new bike I got a 16″. So, how do you obtain a good solid measurement for the frame size that you will require?

Well, sizing a bike is actually a fairly complex procedure. Many people assume that all bikes are alike, however this really isn’t the case. Different bikes have different frame geometries, which affects handling and weight distribution. There are many web articles about how to size a bike, many of them quite in depth, but there is no substitute for going to a knowledgable bike shop and allowing them to take you through the procedure. Try to test a few bikes and get a feel for the differences. Don’t just go for the bike that looks the best!


If the bike has hydraulic disc brakes make a point about asking them how easy they are to maintain. Just like a car brake fluid needs to be changed every so often. Some brakes are easier to do yourself than others, and sometimes you may be better off taking the bike back to the shop for yearly maintenance.

If the bike has mechanical brakes in the form of V-brakes you should be okay regardless. While they do not handle bad weather as well as discs, they are for the most part pretty bomb proof and easy to maintain.

As far as the drivechain goes, most bikes come with either Shimano or S-RAM gearing. Both have their plus and minus points. Both are reliable and precise. Shimano tends to give smoother gear changes, but tends to clatter more over rough ground in my experience. While S-RAM gears give more of a ‘clunk’ when a gear change is made and do not clatter as much. I have also found that the X-9 derailleur system does not like wet and muddy environments at all, with the jockey wheel bearings ceasing up quite often requiring a dismantle and clean operation.

Another thing to take into consideration with modern Mountain Bikes is that the front suspension forks will also need yearly servicing. Just like the brake fluid change this can be done by yourself, however it is much more involved and really requires a totally clean environment to avoid contaminating the replacement shock oil. This is best left to your local bike shop, but you need to account for the cost. A service, seal replacement, and shock oil fluid replacement can cost around £60.

So there you have it, my basic primer to getting a Mountain Bike. I have purposefully not gone into too much detail, and I realise that some more experience bikers may lambast me for not going into much more detail and specifics, particularly regarding bike sizing. However I feel that in the case of newcomers such things are best left to an experienced cycle shop to take them through.

If I wanted to leave one message with anyone who reads this article it would be to reinterate what I said about not skimping on the cost of the bike. If you cannot afford £500 then save up longer, or use your deal sleuthing skills to seek out end of season bargains, of which there are many. I have sometimes seen a previous years model that would have sold for £500 going for £250, which is almost low end Halfords style pricing! So don’t think that you have to blow the bank to get a really decent bike, but by the same token don’t buy a dud just because it was cheap.

Categories: Bike, Mountain Bike

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