The mountain bike
Essentially when choosing a mountain bike, it’s pretty straight forward: you’re looking for a bike that you can a) afford and b) like the colour of. Of course it’s not quite that simple with so many manufactures offering a wide range of bikes, but it’s a great place to start.
Good mountain bikes start at around £250, which might not sound cheap but for that money you’ll get a bike that you’ll enjoy riding and one that will handle the off-road sections you throw at it.
If you’re looking at getting serious, then you’ll hit the £500 - £1000 price bracket. Here you’ll get a bike that really gives you an edge both on and off-road and you’ll start to get a few more gadgets to play with too.
Heading up over the £1000 mark, you’ll find that bikes tend to be fall into several categories: hardtail, cross-country (XC), full suspension cross-country, freeride (aka all mountain) and downhill (DH).
The bike you choose really depends on your style of riding and how much riding you plan on doing. If you’re unsure and looking for a mountain bike that will do a bit of everything, then go for a freeride or all mountain bike - these are designed to do a bit of everything and modern freeride bikes really are the best option for the mountain biker looking to do a bit of everything.
This is where things really get exciting. For the purist the good news is that there are manufactures out there making simple no frills bikes.
For the modern gadget freak the better news is that modern bikes are loaded with toys to make you go faster and rider harder than ever before. Disc brakes and suspension are now common place on mountain bikes and they make the experience a whole lot better.
Of course they add to the choices when it comes to picking a new bike but as you’d expect as you climb the price ladder the choice and spec gives you a choice of equipment utilising a range of exotic materials and technology that would make an F1 driver green with envy.
The Mountain Bike - Chris Juden - CTC Technical Officer
The basic, common or garden mountain-bike has:
- fat (40 to 60mm) knobbly tyres for cushioning (tyres are front-line suspension) on rough surfaces and flotation plus grip on soft surfaces.
- very low gears (down to 20in) to overcome the drag of ploughing through loose material whilst climbing steep gradients,
- straight handlebars for wrenching the front wheel around obstacles and against the grip of vegetation or mud (wrists in-line maximises leverage),
- stronger frame in case of accidents and nowadays almost all have front suspension at least.
All these features help you deal with challenging terrain.
Actually: the smallish (about 26in overall) diameter tyre does not roll so easily over rough or loose ground as a bigger one might, but a 559mm rim makes for a slightly stronger wheel and provides more clearance for suspension.
So, whilst “29in” (622mm rim) mountain-bikes exist, they have not become popular. Children’s mountain-bikes have even smaller 507 (24in), 406 (20in) or 349 (16in) size wheels. (For more about wheel sizes click here.)
The common, low to mid-priced mountain-bike still sells in greater numbers than any other sort of bicycle. It is likely that most of them are never used for their design purpose. Go read about hybrid and trekking bike if your off-road horizons include nothing rougher than canal towpaths and old railways.
Stick with your choice of a mountain-bike if the firm intention is to avoid tarmac – never mind how rough or soft the alternative may be. For extra comfort look at those described as ”freeride” mountain-bikes.
All the above provide a fairly upright riding position, befitting the average person not in a hurry. If you want to ride hard and fast offroad you’ll want something called a cross-country mountain-bike (look for “XC” in the catalogue). This style provides the more stretched-forward riding position that helps you deliver more force to the pedals – but makes your arms and back hurt if you don’t!
If you’re a small person it may be best to stick with mountain-bikes even if you have no intention to tackle severe terrain, since the smaller wheels make a better-fitting bike for you. It is always possible to fit smoother, narrower tyres. You could also check out urban mountain-bikes that come with such tyres already.
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes - Ian Warby - Senior Development Officer Off-Road
Chris gives a pretty comprehensive insight into the technical side of a Cross-Country Mountain Bike so there's not a lot more to add on that front.
What to look for? If you're looking to spend a few hours in the saddle out on the trails both ride position and bike weight are crucial. Budget can affect both of these but laying out a little more cash to make sure you have the right bike for the riding your looking to do will pay back in the long term.
If you go for the cheaper full suspension bikes, make sure you know what your getting. Sometimes it's worth going for a better spec hardtail over a low end full suspension bike that might not give you the performance benifits you are looking for.
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes - Chris Juden - CTC Technical Officer
Cross-country mountain-bikes are designed to go as quickly as possible over whatever nature may throw in your path.
A truly competitive “XC” mountain-bike provides a forward-leaning body position close to that of a road-racing bike; and since it has to go uphill fast as well as down, it must be reasonably light. That used to mean a “hardtail” (a mountain-bike with front suspension only) but technology has been refined to the point where more can be gained than is lost by suspending both wheels. Expect between 50 and 100mm (2 to 4 inches) of suspension travel and to pay as quite a lot: lightweight efficiency never comes cheap.
Hardtails are still favoured by many cross-country riders and these light but sturdy bikes provide the best basis for conversion to other uses, e.g. to make a tough commuting bike. If you may want to do this, check that the frame has fixings for a rear carrier, some don’t anymore, and that the disc brake isn’t in the way (a common problem with cable-operated discs, hydraulic ones are more compact).
Since so many people like to use mountain-bikes on road, manufacturers now provide urban mountain-bikes already fitted out with smooth tyres and a rigid fork.
The riding position on an XC racing mountain-bike, whilst efficient, is not so comfortable if you ride slowly. A shorter, raised handlebar stem or riser bar (handlebar where the grips are higher than the centre) will give a more relaxed ride, or look at freeride bikes.
Freeride Mountain Bikes
Freeride Mountain Bikes - Ian Warby - Senior Development Officer Off-Road
Freeride Mountain Bikes have really opened up a whole new range of possibilies of what can be done and where you can go on a mountain bike.
Freeride or All Mountian Bikes are packed with a range of features and components designed to help you go faster and make the most of your handling skills over the toughest technical terrian. With between 120mm - 200mm of suspension travel, powerful disc breaks and suspension design that puts the power through the rear wheel, rather than into the shock, these bikes can do anything and everything when it comes to riding off-road.
What to look out for? Freeride bikes aren't cheap but it's worth investing in a good one. Take you time to find the model and spec that suits your riding style (some are better at going down and up hill than others).
Remember to work in the cost of maintaining your suspension. It won't cost the earth and there a plenty of companies out there that offer a great service. Remember it's your riding skills that count, the bike will help but you'll still need the skills to tackle the toughest terrain; don't expect the bike to do it for you.
It's also worth remembering if you're pushing you limits it's worth investing in a good helmet and some body armour.
Freeride Mountain Bikes - Chris Juden - CTC Technical Officer
“Freeride” is marketingspeak for aimlessly messing about on a mountain-bike. It’s what mountain-biking was all about before things got all serious and competitive.
So a freeride mountain-bike has a reasonably upright riding position, just like any cheap and basic mountain-bike. The big change since the old days is full suspension – and suspension front and rear that actually works isn’t cheap!
The amount of suspension travel is a trade-off between more to swallow bigger bumps and less to minimise weight and energy-sapping bobbing – so you can get some enjoyment out of riding uphill too! Expect between 100 and 140mm (4 or 5 inches) and a specification that’s a step up from basic. Disc brakes are the norm on freeride bikes.
These attributes make a bike that’s more than a mere plaything. A freeride mountain-bike will also provide a most comfortable ride to anyone who wishes to enjoy riding over rough ground and isn’t in too much of a hurry.