With more genres of mountain biking than ever before, it can be difficult to figure out how to enter the sport – both in terms of equipment and in terms of aligning your own interests with perceived marketeers’ niches. To a large extent, what you ride should be determined by what is available in your area in terms of trails. It’s going to be arm pump and crash central on an XC hard tail when your local trails are serviced by a ski lift, have large gap jumps and are boulder and braking rut strewn. Likewise (sorry to burst the marketeers’ bubble) it makes no sense to go riding a top end 6″ travel enduro bike complete with pseudo body armour on an XC course – it’s just going to be hot and slow.
Beginner Mountain Bike: Start Simple
Short of those living in a ski resort, I suggest starting simple. Most will enter the sport in the cross country or trail riding domain. Here are a few guidelines to get a beginner mountain bike right:
- Ride a hardtail: Most entry level trails can comfortably be done on a hardtail – both comfortably in terms of ability to ride the trails, and comfortable to the hip pocket. Hardtails also have the benefit of fostering good technique in a rider – something best done early in any venture.
- Big wheels: After several years riding all kinds of wheel sizes, I suggest 29” wheels as a starting point for almost anyone buying a cross country bike – an exception to this is for shorter riders where 29” wheels lead to a bike that is difficult to manoeuver. Yeti cycles seem to lead the market on this idea, offering smaller wheels to those approximately shorter than 170cm (5’7”).
- Avoid fashion trends: Having the latest gear or latest standard inevitably costs more money, and while I am a strong advocate of the bigger wheels, they have rightfully ripped the bottom out of the 26” wheel used market in hardtails, making it a potentially attractive area for those who are mechanically minded to explore.
- Use durable materials: Having the right setup is more critical than the right materials. Go for aluminium instead of carbon since the performance difference at entry level is really not that important.
- Shimano is your friend: I’m about to make a controversial point, largely related to personal opinion, however I am a Mechanical Engineer with component design experience. Avoid SRAM if you can. They have made some great innovations, however in my experience durability and serviceability of their components is often lacking.
Make Small Adjustments
In the early stages of your relationship with your new bike, some of the biggest differences in ride quality can come from fine tuning your setup, not spending piles on new shiny parts. First of all is getting your seat height correct – I won’t go into this here as there are plenty of articles on the topic. Here are my recommendations for refining your ride in the order they are likely to be encountered:
- Tyre pressure. It’s worth experimenting with tyre pressure to refine your bike’s grip characteristics. Few other variables in bike tuning can have such an impact for such a simple change. Tyre pressure ratings on the sidewalls can be a reasonable starting guide, however lower pressures can be run (down to 20psi on most applications). Experiment, ask riders on your local trails what they run – the most relevant will be those of a similar weight riding tyres of a similar size.
- Suspension setup. Firstly, follow the manufacturers recommendations on spring and compression damping settings. When set correctly you should be using most of your travel on your chosen terrain. If this is not the case, I suggest letting some air out of air sprung forks, and removing preload or moving to a softer spring on coil forks. Rebound damping is the single biggest tuning feature available in suspension to tailor it to your local terrain. Rebound should be set as fast as possible (damping circuit open) so that there is no nasty feedback from the front wheel when lifting the bars. Rebound is usually the red knob on most forks and shocks. Not adjusting rebound or using too much rebound is one of the most common mistakes among cross country riders, and I encourage you to use it to get the most out of your suspension – cheap suspension well setup is more effective than high end that has never been adjusted to suit the rider
- Change your stem. As noted in my previous article, adjusting or changing your stem can have a large impact on how your bike corners and handles. Cut your bars if you find they are too wide.
- Learn how to make tyres tubeless. Similar to tyre pressure adjustments, a further refinement of tyres is to make them tubeless. Tubeless has its advantage in the ability to run lower pressures (more grip) without the usual penalties in rolling resistance and pinch flats. I suggest kits that use latex sealant and rubber rim strips.
- Replace contact points. Contact points are the most personal point on the bike and can make or break your enjoyment on the trail. Fortunately changing your saddle and grips is not super expensive. A second contact point is the bikes tyres. Some bikes simply come new with poor tyres, and although making them tubeless and running suitable pressures can offer improvements in ride, sometimes it’s just better to upgrade to something suitable for your local trails. Once again see what other riders are using in your area.
Here is the tip the marketers do not want you to know: making small adjustments as listed above to any given bike can make a bigger difference than moving to the next segment. For example, changing your bars, stem, suspension settings and tyres on a 5″ full suspension bike may give you the same or better performance than moving to a new 6″ suspension for the purpose of better descending. It also has the added bonus of familiar components.
6″ travel front and rear is the standard for most gravity and trail disciplines these days, short of full-blown downhill. Wheels are still up for debate, however I still recommend 26″ wheels for this category. I won’t go into huge detail in this section since this is an article for beginners, however there are a few points worth touching on for those considering either buying their first bike in this category, or those looking to add a second bike to their fleet.
- Suspension design: Another field where quality is more important than quantity. Look for designs that actively tune out pedalling input as opposed to those that rely on the shock. These designs are easily recognised: they have 2 pivots between the rear wheel and the crank. Specfic designs include Specialized’s FSR or ‘horst link’, the DW link, and VPP. If a 4 bar linkage rear end does not have these 2 pivot points, it really is no more than a fancy single pivot design relying on shock technology to remove pedalling effects. I suggest looking at refined single pivot designs as an alternative such as those by Orange and Santa Cruz – these have been around for a long time (more than 20 years of design experience) and are surprisingly refined. Single pivot bikes are also suitable for trails serviced by ski lifts – their simplicity is an advantage when it comes to servicing them, and with the rutted trails ski lifts service, you’ll need to be doing a bit of that.
- Adjustability suspension and geometry: Bike companies spend a lot of time getting geometry to work, and consequently know more about it than your average punter. Don’t go messing with it trying to make it better. In my opinion companies that offer adjustable geometry are usually chasing punter dollars or just fence sitting. Don’t do it. Travel adjustable forks are another marketing trap. It may sound appealing to be able to drop the travel for a big climb, however what it does in practice is make the bikes geometry suddenly unfamiliar, and accentuate the differences between front and rear suspension. Reliability is also worse, not to mention additional weight and cost. Again don’t do it.
- Air vs coil suspension: In a nut shell, air is for racing, coil for trail. Air is easier to tune initially, coil takes time, but can be even easier if it is set by your shop at purchase and forgotten about. Coil offers smoother and more consistent performance – all good reasons why tuning company PUSH are offering a coil shock as their first entry into the market
- Dropper posts: While they offer much novelty value, their use outside of racing is questionable and difficult to justify. They are expensive and require servicing, and their function can be replaced by adding a quick release seatpost clamp for those times when you really need to drop the saddle for a descent.
- Drivetrain: Single ring is pretty much king, just choose the correct size ring – I recommend around 32 tooth. 8,9,10,11 speed really is unimportant, however there are advantages to clutched rear deralieurs (noise and chain retention) and wide-narrow drivetrains (chain guides are not required).
It’s tough to overemphasise that correct setup and fit are the biggest variables in getting the bike right for your requirements. Next most important is getting the contact points right. However with all these things in mind, the time always comes when you want to upgrade – be it for improved performance, fit or a change in style. Ultimately it is better to sell and upgrade wholesale – remember you’re reading this because you want to be riding bikes, not learning how to become a wheeler dealer.
XC Hardtail Recommendations
Cube LTD Race 29 Highlights
- Manitou Marvel TS Air forks;
- Shimano XT chainset;
- Shimano XT rear derailleur;
- Shimano XT front and rear hubs;
- 10-speed drivetrain.
Cube LTD SL 29 Highlights
- 100mm Fox Float CTD suspension forks;
- Shimano XT chainset;
- Shimano XT brake/shift levers;
- Shimano XT direct mount front derailleur;
- Shimano XT Shadow 10-speed, direct mount rear derailleur