So You Want To Get Involved In Mountain Biking -
Part 2 - Getting Hold of a Bike
Part 1 asked us to carefully examine our motivation for biking, and take an honest appraisal of what we are likely to ride on as well as where we hope to develop our riding to. Here, armed with some of this information we’ll attempt to give you the options which will allow you to select the right design for you right now. We’ve already looked at whether to buy new or second hand, and the benefits and pitfalls of both, so this should finish the picture off and ready you for making your selection.
HEALTH WARNING - there is a lot of stuff in this article, please just dip into it wherever you need to go - there's a lot here to read in one go.
DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS DEPENDENT ON YOUR INTENDED USE
So going into a bike shop or on-line you may be bewildered by a huge number of different bikes and types, so I’m going to talk about some of the things that may get thrown at you when you start to look. We’ve already talked about brake types in part 1, so we’ll leave that aside, but there are many more basic differences out there. We’ll start with the big bits and work down.
FRAME / BIKE TYPE
There are lots of ‘types’ of mountain bike. Each type has a use that it is better suited for, and this use is either defined by what type of terrain you wish to ride on, or what you want to do when you’re on the bike. Many of these can be split into hard tail (no suspension or suspension only at the front) and full suss (full or both wheel suspension).
Obviously a full suss is a more complex bike to manufacture, and so will generally be more expensive to buy, and generally slightly heavier, but both cost and weight are also factors of component type too, so this is only a general rule.
We’ll start at the low technical end, and work our way up the scale in terms of choice of terrain to be ridden. Please be aware that I have tried to keep this simple for the beginner, but there are many bikes that will fit more than one of these categories and are niche or specialist bikes probably not best suited to being a first bike. The telltale will be the price tag.
1 STEEL HARD TAIL RIGID FRONT FORK (£100-£120) FROM A GENERIC SUPPLIER
This will sit you fairly upright, and will have no suspension. Being steel it will be a little on the heavy side, and it will have a basic padded saddle and caliper brakes of some kind. Most of its components will be stamped from sheet, and steel is chosen because it is cheap to produce, and easy to weld. This is a mass production bike made as cheaply and easily as possible. It won’t have much give on the rougher forestry trails, so you may have to stand up a fair bit to save your bum, and the weight may be a factor on the hills, but for just getting out this is a great way to start, particularly if you’re not so interested in speed, hills, or technical terrain. This is a great commuting bike, and will do you proud on towpaths and basic footpaths, although you might need to buy tyres specific to your needs for better grip if you are getting out a lot.
Great value - this may be a basic bike, but it has been going for years
2 ALLOY HARD TAIL HYBRID WITH RIGID FORK OR BASIC FRONT SUSPENSION (£250-£350 or so)
This bike will look a lot like bike 1, and is probably effectively a road bike with straight handlebars. It will be significantly lighter than bike 1 being made from a much lighter material. Aluminium is harder to weld, hence the price hike, but even in the most basic bikes you will often find better components, and many more lightweight parts such as seat posts and handlebars. In the higher end you are likely to see mechanical disc brakes, and more gears. These bikes commonly have a better shaped saddle, and better quality wheels. They are often sold as commuting bikes and are great bikes for forest tracks and trails, capable of getting up hills, and longer lasting. The forks are usually pretty basic with either no suspension, or suspension provided by an elastic plug somewhere in the fork, and performance-wise there is little difference.
GEARS VERSUS SINGLE SPEED
At this point it is worth mentioning single speed bikes. Often fitting in to one of the above types (but not exclusively) single speed bikes have no gears (like a BMX), just one which can be swapped in the garage for another to find one gear that suits all conditions. Obviously your speed on the flat can be limited, as can your speed uphill, but for a low maintenance bike for lightly undulating terrain a single speed can be both practical and strangely liberating too. They are a bit of a niche bike, but have a semi cult following, and are great for commuting in the city and surprisingly good fun on forest trails too.
3 ALLOY HARD TAIL CROSS COUNTRY BIKE (£450 - £800 +) OR TRAIL BIKE
All bike types 1 to 3 have similar geometry, but it is in this category that we start to see some differences in bikes. At the top end of this category we split into Cross Country and Trail bikes. The main difference between a cross country (XC) bike and a trail bike is in the geometry of the frame. For efficiency all the bikes so far have a reasonably upright feel to them. In shape they are not a million miles from a road bike frame, the main difference being the shape at the front to accommodate the more chunky front fork. This ‘steep’ frame shape suits the climbing position we adopt when riding, and therefore helps maintain speed when climbing. The spin off is that the rider is much more over the front wheel of the bike, which makes descending a little more thrill enducing as you are closer to the front. The fork is essentially closer to vertical on an XC bike.
Where trail bikes begin to separate from these bikes is in beginning to have a less steep fork angle. Effectively the bike is pushing the front wheel out forwards, leaving you to come up from behind, rather than being on top of the wheel as you are on an XC bike. Trail bikes are not quite as good at going uphill, but a bit less ‘sketchy’ going down the other side. In essence if you’re after the steeper descents you should consider the trail bike at this point. Certainly a beginner will feel more comfortable on a trail bike.
At this stage a mention of forks is worthwhile. Realistically if you’re paying between about £400 and £600 you need to read bike reviews to be able to tell if you’re getting a bike with a fork that’s worth the price or not. One of the reasons the Voodoo Bizango 29 has got such rave reviews in the last few years is that it has a great fork for the price where its competitors’ forks trail a long way behind.
There are a number of features you can find on forks as you basically spend more on them. The stanchions (shiny tubes at the top) can come in different thicknesses, the thicker they are, the less they flex under strain, roughly 28mm for a basic beginner fork up to 40mm for a downhill beast. As you invest more you will have greater travel, commonly 90mm to 200mm, and adjustment for how far they travel, how fast they compress, how fast they spring back again, etc. Many will be sprung (the cheaper end), some will have air compression (so they are light), and the cheapest will have a lump of rubber in them to provide the spring and so have no adjustment and therefore limited use.
Why would you want front suspension? Well some people don’t. Pushing down on the pedals, we lose power if the front of the bike compresses, so some choose not to have compressing forks. However they do have some advantages. A little ‘give’ from any fork will help with fatigue in your wrists on cobbled or rough tracks, so even fire road only riders can benefit from a basic fork. Moving on from there to forks with more adjustment will allow you to help keep the front wheel in contact with the ground.
Imagine riding on cobbles. Every time the wheel hits a cobble it compresses the fork so reduces fatigue in your arms, but as it leaves the top of the cobble, unless the fork pushes back quickly enough the wheel will now remain in mid-air – you are now airborne, only momentarily, but you are airborne nevertheless. Now imagine trying to change the direction of the wheel’s travel (steering) – nothing much will happen while it’s in mid-air, so the turn will actually feel like a skid. So a fork that pushes back quickly enough will keep your wheel on the ground, and make your steering more effective. That’s good right? Well on a basic fork you will now be doing great, but if you are now advancing in your riding you won’t want the fork to push back too quickly, because if you compress it a long way (off a small drop for instance) it will push you back really fast, and bounce you off the bike like you had a pogo stick on the front. So as your aspirations to ride increase you may have to think about better (and bigger?) forks so you control their function.
Argh – too much detail! – there’s loads more, but as a beginner, a fork with about 100mm of travel in a 28 to 30mm stanchion, sprung, and with some pre-load adjustment (allowing you to adjust for your weight!) will do you fine for easing the strain on the arms, a bit of spring for more bumpy terrain and help with the steering at speed on rough terrain. You’ve now got a fork found on many basic XC bikes.
4 'HARD CORE' HARD TAIL (£800 - £1200)
So having left the XC hardtail behind we move on with the trail bikes. To be fair, the XC bikes now continue getting more and more specialised with materials and components getting more specialised and lighter, and with a consequent greater cost, with XC race bikes rising into multiple thousands of pounds, and weighing just a few.
A hard core hard tail trail bike will have a progressively more aggressive front fork (more laid back, longer travel and thicker stanchions) and the top tube (running from the front of the bike to the seatpost) will drop lower and lower at the seatpost allowing more and more movement around the bike when crossing difficult terrain, and jumping. Aluminium may well at some point then give in to steel again (possibly having had a dalliance with Carbon), but much better quality and lighter than found lower down the scale. This being because steel is more flexible and ‘springy’ (read forgiving) than aluminium for thebigger impacts of starting to leave the ground more and more. As these bikes are for steeper and more serious terrain, their brakes will be more powerful, and their wheels will get stronger. As you go up the scale in both XC and trail bikes you will see lighter and more efficient components, and a greater use of carbon fibre (including parts or whole frames).
Slightly Less steep fork and shorter handlebar stem mark out the hard-core hardtail (also the larger brake rotor )
The lower the joint at the seatpost gets, the more specialised the frame is getting for moving about over the bike. You are soon in the domain of the jump bike – a very strong hardtail with stacks of standover height (when you stand on the ground with the bike between your legs it’s the distance from your crotch to the top tube). These are the bikes people ride at jump parks and are quite specialised.
In the last few years mountain bike wheels have moved from all being 26inch diameter, to adding 29inch and also 650b (about 27.5 inches). 29 inch wheels are about the same diameter as road bike wheels and 650b’s sit in the middle. So what are the advantages and disadvantages? In essence, the bigger the wheel, the faster running it will be as it rolls over stuff easier. A larger wheel will however have more momentum, and therefore be a little harder to get started rolling, and a little bit more reluctant to steer. Smaller wheels are generally stronger and less flexible.
The last element of advantage in larger wheels is what is known as the contact patch, or in other words the amount of rubber in contact with the ground. A larger wheel will have a larger contact patch, and therefore better grip in like for like conditions than a smaller wheel.
There are also some design considerations as for smaller bikes for smaller people a larger wheel makes it harder to fit into frames. Also with a larger wheel, forks don’t need to have quite as much travel.
In terms of the bikes we’ve talked about so far, then 29ers will retain your speed and make the journey smoother for anyone seeking less technical riding, where the 26 inch wheels will take more rough and tumble on the cheaper bikes. 650b’s will offer a good compromise and the rolling speed is noticeable on both 650b and 29 wheeled bikes. To be fair most XC bikers will go for 29ers, where more aggressive bikers will go for 650b, but you will find all sizes on bikes of all sorts, including 650b downhill bikes 29er Enduro bikes and 26inch in there too.
Advice? – go for 650b if you intend a bit of rough stuff but are spending less than £1000 on a hardtail as you won’t have top end wheels on your steed, otherwise 29 will carry you along really well. If you’re firmly committed to trail centres, then this is probably as far as you need to go.
650b (or 27.5 inch) versus 26 inch - not a world apart but there are advantages
5 YOUR FIRST FLIRT WITH FULL SUSPENSION
First question is: why have suspension in both ends in the first place? At its lowest travel end (about 100mm) it gives a bit of spring to get over bigger bumps, and the biggest effect is that on rough ground, where on a hardtail you would have been forced to stand up to pedal, you can now sit down and pedal. This will significantly add to your ability to keep going for hours, so makes these bikes great endurance bikes for big epics. The pay-off is however that the bike will weigh a little more than the hardtail, and with the bounce: a little less efficient in general. It will also (of course) cost more.
To be fair, there are some excellent XC fully suspended bikes, the Specialized Camber 29 being a fantastic example, with about 100mm of travel front and back, but most bikes will see about 120mm plus. As a guide, don’t really consider a full suss bike under £1000 as you will likely have a bike that has too many compromises. Remember the tale of the pogo stick front fork? – think what it would be like to have a pogo stick at either end – you have to be able to control the action of the suspension.
This is the point that frame design can go a bit bonkers. The bottom end (and well on from that from some manufacturers such as Orange bikes who are top-end builders) is the single pivot. Usually somewhere around where the pedals are connected to the frame (bottom bracket) there is a pivot and the frame itself is divided into two triangles. Frame designs then move on from here to multiple pivots with each manufacturer using their own designs.
You can hear stuff said about rear wheel ‘paths’ (the way it moves when it hits stuff), stiction and actuation (how easily it moves initially), linear movement (resistance to movement stays the same throughout the travel of the suspension) or progressive (resistance increases the further it travels – helps stop you using the whole lot of suspension on big drops). All of these things are valid designs, and really the only way you will be able to tell the difference is to ride the bikes. Find out about demo days, hire bikes, try friends’ bikes out, you really need to form an opinion on designs for yourself once you start moving over £1200 or so. Try before you buy makes sense when you are parting with this much cash.
160mm 26 inch wheeled 'Enduro' Bike
AND ON AND ON
Moving on from here the suspension designs don’t really change, they just move more. Commonly as you get to 120mm 29ers or 140mm 26ers you will be moving into the area of the ‘all mountain’ bike now more commonly known as an Enduro bike, especially as it moves to 160mm on the 26er. This is really the area of aggressive riding on and off trails, taking more ‘air’ and bashing through rock gardens. While extremely fashionable these bikes are best aimed at those with experience, otherwise they will be big bouncy and heavy in most cases, where they needn’t be. They will also quickly set you back £2500 or commonly more – quite a big investment for your first try out.
As you get to 170mm travel you are now moving into freeride territory, which is the type of bike commonly seen in videos of people throwing themselves off mountains, or jumping miles in the air. The only difference between these and full on downhill bikes is the fork really, as a downhill bike fork travel will go up to 205mm. I’m not really going to dwell on these as you’re really not going to be buying one of these as a beginner. Google Red Bull Rampage if you want to see what these bikes are built for.
Freeride and Downhill bikes - great for downhill, but not so good up (or very light to push!)
I could have started with bikes are a bit like horses for courses. My real recommendation is not to rush, try before you buy if possible, have a good hard look at yourself and decide what you really want to ride in terms of terrain, and how much you can afford, and of course if you really need a new bike at all. If it helps; take a look at the Voodoo Bizango, then try to come up with a bike that suits your needs more if you can.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you are very pleased with your new bike, that it’s great fun to ride, allows you to ride where and what you want to ride, and helps you progress your riding in any way that you want. Good luck, see you at part 3; getting on board.