Tips for Buying a Beginner Mountain Bike

Mountain bikes are probably the most popular type of bicycles for beginners these days. This is mainly due to the fact that mountain bikes allow you to ride in a more upright position than road bikes, and features like knobby tires and suspensions allow you to ride off-road also.

Once you start looking to buy mountain bikes, you will find that there are several different types of mountain bikes with many options. To help you find the right starter mountain bike, here are our Cycling For Beginners tips for finding the best beginner mountain bike for you:

Get Ready to Spend Some Money

O.k., so there are a lot of cheap, fancy-looking mountain bikes at big-box retail stores – many for very cheap prices. Here’s the deal: in order to get a good mountain bike that you will be comfortable riding and that will hold up to riding off-road (or even city riding) you should generally avoid those cheap bikes. Look, I’m a cheapskate myself, but those bikes are junk and will break quickly and you could injure yourself also. Let me over-generalize and say that any new mountain bike under $200 is likely to be junk, new mountain bikes between $200 and $400 are questionable, and new mountain bikes over $800 may be more than a beginner mountain bike rider needs to spend.

Assess Your Mountain Bike Suspension Needs

Mountain bikes generally come in 3 varieties of suspension: (1) no suspension; (2) front suspension fork (no rear suspension); and (3) full suspension (front and rear suspension). The first two types are generally referred to as “hardtail mountain bikes”, while the third type may be referred to as “full suspension” or “downhill” mountain bikes. Good full suspension mountain bikes are usually only needed by serious riders looking to spend over $1,000 who know what specifications they want, so most beginner cyclists are better off going with a quality hardtail mountain bike.

While many older mountain bikes and some new 29er mountain bikes (discussed below) will come without any suspension, the vast majority of mountain bikes sold today have a suspension fork (which holds the front wheel). Not all suspension forks are the same, as they have different amounts of “travel” (amount of movement, usually in millimeters) – the bigger the number, the more cushioning the fork. If you plan on mainly riding on pavement or gravel paths, you probably need either no suspension or a minimal amount, while if you are planning to ride on rougher trails you might look for forks with over 100 mm of travel.

Weigh Your Mountain Bike Frame Options

Mountain bike frames are usually made of either steel, aluminum or carbon fiber, though there are many variations. Carbon fiber is very lightweight, but is also expensive and probably more than most beginner mountain bike cyclists need to spend. Steel is tough and usually cheaper than aluminum, but also tends to be a few pounds heavier – which can add some challenge to climbing hills. Aluminum can be a good happy medium (costing a little more, but being a little lighter), though I certainly would not rule out steel framed bikes altogether.

26 or 29 Inch Mountain Bike Tires

Up until just a few years ago, almost all mountain bikes had 26 inch tires. These days, while the majority of mountain bikes still come with 26 inch tires, more and more people are buying mountain bikes with 29 inch tires – often called “29ers” or “niners”. The bigger tires provide a bit more bounce and can also roll over larger obstacles more easily. On the other hand, bikes with the bigger 29 inch tires are sometimes not quite as maneuverable in tight spaces as bikes with 26 inch tires. So, the choice is yours – either size will probably be fine for most beginner mountain bike cyclists.

Mountain Bike Gears

Most mountain bike gearing these days involves 3 rings on the crank (connected to the pedals by crank arms) and 7 to 9 gears on the cassette in back (giving you 21 (3×7), 24 (3×8) or 27 (3×9) “speeds” in all). On the other end of the spectrum, many people also like the simplicity and lighter weight of single-speed mountain bikes, especially single-speed 29er mountain bikes, which are low maintenance and are really popular for riding in muddy and/or snowy situations where a derailleur for gears could get clogged up. Of course, a single-speed mountain bike does not have extra gears to help you climb hills, but you will get a great workout climbing on a single-speed bike – and as silly as it may sound, there is something really nice about the simplicity of not having to think about shifting gears.

Mountain Bike Brakes

For years mountain bike brakes were all rim brakes, and these do a good job in dry weather, but are not as effective when the rims of the wheels get slick with rain, mud, snow, etc. These days many mountain bikes are being sold with disc brakes, which generally work better in slick conditions – but generally add over $100 to the price of the bike. Some bikes come with rim brakes, but also have tabs on the frame where you can upgrade to disc brakes later, when your budget allows. In any case, be aware that the type of brake will also usually affect your choice of certain accessories – mainly racks and fenders – many of which are specifically designed for mounting on a frame with one brake type or the other.

So, there are a lot of different beginner mountain bikes to choose from, with lots of different components. We hope that these tips help you find a good beginner mountain bicycle! We’ll be posting several mountain bike reviews in the next couple of months, so be sure to check back often!  If you have any questions or comments, please share them in the comment form below!

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