Buying your first mountain bike – top tips and handy hints

Recently I seem to have come across lots of people wanting advice on buying their first mountain bike so I thought I’d collate it all into a post to make things easier.

So if you are reading this you have either decided you want to buy a mountain bike or you are looking for advice to give to someone. Well there are 2 ways to go about it, the short way or the long way.

First off the short way is just to go into a good bike shop (I’m going to write another post on how to find one of these) and just ask straight up “Whats the best first mountain bike you have for me?”. Chances are they will try to ask you a load of questions which you may or may not be able to answer but if you push through that and dogmatically focus on the answer to the simple question they will make a recommendation and point you to a bike. There is a damn good chance that this will be entirely suitable and highly likely the bike you will end up with if you go the long route. Staff in good bike shops know what they are doing, know what are good bikes for folks to get started on and know local trails. Take their recommendation and buy that bike.

There you go, job done. Now just go and ride!!

The problem with the short method is for a lot of people they need to be surer than that and need a whole load of information to understand the decision. I get that, its the way I buy stuff to so lets look at the long method.

So when you go into ‘the good bike shop’ the staff are going to need some information so they can advise you best, lets start there.

The first questions you need to know the answers to are “Where am I going to ride my mountain bike?” and “Who am I going to ride with?”. These are crucial questions to find answers to because without these answers chances are buying a mountain bike will be a complete waste of money anyway.

If you don’t already have a good answers to these 2 questions one of the best places to start is again your ‘good bike shop’. Go and talk to them about the local trails and clubs then go and check them out the trails yourself Even without a bike its worth a look to see whats there. Many bike shops will have demo bikes available, take one with you. Even if there is a ‘hire’ charge this will be 100% worth while.

The reason you need to have answers to these questions is that the type of bike that would be ideal as your first bike could vary dependant on the types of trails locally and the people you will be riding with will also make a difference.

This point is important. When buying a new bike you are probably best off buying something quite similar to the people you are going to be riding with, if you are going to ride regularly you are going to end up with one anyway so you might as well bite the bullet nice and early.

It happens all the time, it goes something like this: A person goes to a shop to buy a bike so they can ‘try out’ this ‘new to them’ sport with a load of friends who have encouraged them to do so. These friends have all the gear including skill compensating dual suspension bikes. Newbie has checked out the cost of these and once his eyes stopped watering they decided to dip their toe in the water with a budget hard tail (only front suspension) that cost 25% of their mates bikes. Newbie then goes out with the gang for rides with said mates only to find that while they love a lot of the experience they have a sore arse and are constantly left behind. They lust after  a bike like the friends have.

This goes 1 of 2 ways. Either the person stops going riding with this gang and the cheap option bike sits in the corner collecting dust or they buy another bike like their mates and wish they had just done that in the first place.

So at this point you have the information for the next phase of your bike purchase. You have a good idea of where you are likely to ride and who with. Hopefully you’ve hired or demoed a bike at one of these locations or borrowed one from a mate. This way you will know that you enjoyed it and so the money wont be wasted.

The next phase is about working out what bike is going to be most suitable for you. The trap folks fall into here is looking at spec sheets and price. They do this because its easy. The problem is what matters most is what bikes fit you best and this cant be done from internet spec sheets or catalogues. Fortunately it is relatively easy to do but it does take a bit of time.

What you need to do now is go to as many different bike shops as you possibly can and sit on as many bikes as you possibly can, if possible ride them around the car park. You should also have a quick go on as many of your friends bikes as you possibley can. Even better is hiring bikes and demoing bikes. NB it does NOT matter what the spec is. Its really really surprising what you will find out from this exercise.

Different bikes fit different people differently. What you are looking for are the bikes that feel right for you. Everyones body geometry is subtly different. Some folks have long arms in proportion to their height, some folks have long legs and a short body, some are statistically normal, it doesnt matter. Interestingly different manufacturers tend towards a different fit, some have short top tubes, others are proportionally longer, different seat angles change things again. Remember IGNORE the specifications and the bits hanging off the bike, its all about what feels right.

Try lots of bikes and talk to lots of shop staff. They wont mind (or they shouldn’t!!) its their job to help you and if they do the job well you are highly likely to appreciate it and buy stuff off them when you are ready.

So now you know where you are likely to ride your new bike and who with so you will be narrowing down the type of bike that is going to be best for you. You’ll have tried a few bikes out and hopefully found some that for some weird reason felt ‘righter’ than others. You will have also visited your local bike shops and made a judgement on whether they are a ‘good’ bike shop or not. You have your ‘short list’.

Bear in mind that recommendations you get from a lot of people will be based on what suits them or feels right for them. Don’t ignore it but don’t give it anywhere near as much weight as what feels right for you

As long as you are buying a bike that feels right you cant really go wrong. If you are someone who needs to buy a bargain then do your shopping around, just don’t fall into the trap of buying a bike that you don’t know will feel right.

The specifications of the components don’t matter too much for now, its difficult to buy a bad bike nowadays if its from a reputable brand. As this is your first bike its not guaranteed you are going to get maximum use out of it so its worth airing on the side of caution. If you use the bike lots then you will end up replacing some bits through wear and tear anyway so upgrades can be done then. As you go through this process you will learn loads anyway and will want to change things to customise the bike so it suits you even better.

For your first bike my recommendation is to buy from one of those ‘good bike shops’ you’ve visited as second hand is fraught with pitfalls if you don’t know what you are looking for. One option is to buy a second hand bike off one of those riding buddies you’ve identified. People tend to be reluctant to sell bad bikes or the wrong bike to someone who is going to give them hell for it later. But new bikes do just work and there is a lot to be said for that plus you will get some initial servicing as part of the deal and this is very useful.

At then end of the day the best bike is the one you’ve got and can ride so get one and get out there riding. Don’t get caught procrastinating to the point where you don’t ride enough.

So to summarise:

  1. Have a good idea where you are likely to ride and who with.
  2. Visit as many bike shops and sit on/ride as many bikes as possible
  3. Talk though recommendations with lots of shop staff.
  4. Buy a bike that feels right, dont worry about the specifications and bits too much, they are not very important and can be changed
  5. Go ride the hell out of it and have a ball



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