How To Choose The Best Mountain Bike For Your Needs

A mountain bike is a gateway to a world of fun, excitement, and physical fitness. It’s also a significant investment, and you’ll want to get a bike that will keep your rides fun and make sure that your equipment isn’t holding you back. There’s a staggering range of bikes on the market, with price tags ranging from a few hundred dollars to many thousands. You have to sort through multiple wheel sizes, suspension types, drivetrain components, and other features.  It’s a lot to process and it can be confusing at first glance, but it’s not that difficult to cut through the chatter and focus on what you need to consider to get the best bike for you.

It’s important to remember that while a bike and the gear that goes with it can be a significant investment, mountain biking can be a quite inexpensive sport once you have what you need. A bike can last for years, and if you choose the right bike from the start you can go years without needing to upgrade. Many areas have trails you can ride for free. Some riders do become obsessed with upgrades and that can get expensive, but it’s rarely necessary. Making good choices from the start and not getting carried away by the hype that surrounds new products can set you up for years of riding with very modest ongoing costs.

Let’s take a look at mountain bikes and how to choose one.

What is a Mountain Bike

That’s obvious, right? We all know what a bicycle is, and a mountain bike is just a bicycle designed to be ridden on rough surfaces. That’s true, but it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. We tend to think of “a bike” as a single product. Once we’re shopping, though, we learn that a bike is a collection of products, often from many different manufacturers. We often identify a bike by its frame, but most manufacturers offer their frames in several versions with different component sets, often at very different prices. For example, Giant offers their popular Trance Advanced Pro 29” frame in four different builds ranging from $3,350 to $10,500!

Most riders buy built bikes with component selections provided by the frame manufacturer. That’s usually a good decision. Manufacturers know what components will suit the type of riding that a given model is designed to do, and because they buy components in bulk they can get them at lower prices than you’d get if you bought components one at a time. Experienced riders with very particular needs might choose to build a bike to their personal specifications, but most beginning and intermediate riders will be better off with a built bike.

You don’t need to be an expert on every part of the bike to choose a mountain bike. It’s still a good idea to be familiar with some of the basic features of modern mountain bikes. Here are some terms you’ll hear a lot when you’re making comparisons.

  • Suspension. Mountain bikes use different types of suspension systems to soak up bumps. Rigid bikes have no suspension. Many fat bikes use rigid frames and forks, relying on oversized tires to cushion the ride. Hardtail bikes have a front suspension fork, while full suspension bikes have a suspension fork and rear suspension. Full suspension bikes tend to be significantly more expensive than hardtails with similar components, and are often heavier. Fox and RockShox are the dominant suspension manufacturers, and their products are standard equipment on most mid to high end bikes.
  • Wheel size. Once upon a time all mountain bikes used 26” diameter wheels. Now that size is rare, except on fat bikes, and most mountain bikers use either 27.5” or 29” wheels. Not so long ago the difference was clear. 29” wheels were for long-distance riders who needed sustained momentum and preferred to roll over obstacles, 27.5” wheels were for technical trails where agility is needed and riders dodge around obstacles rather than riding over them. Today those distinctions are increasingly blurred as manufacturers bring out 29” bikes designed for gnarly surfaces. Taller riders will generally prefer 29” and shorter riders may want 27.5”, but today’s bikes defy easy categorization. Consider trying bikes of both sizes before making a choice, if you can!
  • Geometry. Conversations about bike geometry can get very technical. In general terms “steeper” geometry is more appropriate for distance riding, climbing, and smooth surfaces, “slacker” geometry is suited to steep terrain or technical descents. The easiest reference point is the head tube angle, which determines how far in front of the handlebar (and the rider) the front wheel sits. A “steep” head tube angle of 68° to 70° places the wheel under the bars, and indicates a bike oriented toward climbing and distance riding. An intermediate angle of 66° to 68° is common on bikes aimed at general purpose riding, while “slack” angles below 66° are for jumps, drops, and aggressive descents. Most manufacturers list the head tube angle in their online geometry specs, and it’s an easy way to determine the type of riding a bike is designed for.
  • Seatposts. The seatpost connects the frame to the saddle. It’s a simple enough part, but for years created headaches. On climbs you want the seat placed high, and on steep descents you want the seat low and out of the way. Riders on rolling trails once had to stop constantly to adjust seat heights. Modern dropper seatposts, which can be raised and lowered at the touch of a button, solve that problem. Dropper posts may not be standard equipment on less expensive bikes, but they make a very useful upgrade, especially if you ride rolling trails with frequent transitions between climbing and descending.
  • Drivetrains. The drivetrain is responsible for moving power from your pedals to the rear wheel. Older or lower end bikes usually have 2 to 3 chainrings in front, with a front derailleur to move the chain from one to another, and 8 or 9 gears in the back. Newer or higher end bikes use a single front ring with from 10 to 12 gears in back, offering a similar gear range in a simpler package. The dominant drivetrain manufacturers are Shimano and SRAM,and many manufacturers identify their build kits with the drivetrain line. If you see “SLX” or “XT” on a build kit it indicates the use of the Shimano SLX or XT drivetrain components, while “NX” or “GX” indicates the use of the SRAM NX or GX parts.
  • Brakes are for controlling speed, and stopping. That’s important. Almost all modern mountain bikes use disc brakes. Lower-end bikes will use cable-activated mechanical disc brakes, which are effective but place more pressure on the hands. More expensive bikes use hydraulic disc brakes. Brake rotors range from 160mm to 210mm. Larger rotors do offer more stopping power, but effective braking is more about technique than power.

Most bikes from major manufacturers offer a high degree of component interchangeability. Not every component will fit on every bike, but in almost every case you’ll have multiple options for upgrades down the line. If your budget is only enough for the more basic models in a product line, don’t worry. Most credible bike manufacturers spec entirely functional parts even on their entry level models, and you can replace components as you go along if you feel that they are impeding your performance. Many riders find that the most important upgrades are to their legs, their lungs, and their skills. Those upgrades are free: all you have to do is ride your bike!

How Will You Ride?

Mountain bikes can be roughly divided by the type of riding they’re designed for. Knowing the type of riding you’re likely to be doing is an important step toward selecting the right bike.

There are three primary factors that define the type of riding you’re likely to do.

  • Your personal preferences. What do you imagine when you think of yourself riding a mountain bike? All-day rides on smooth, rolling trails or unpaved back roads? Steep drops and big hits? Forest trails with roots and rocks, steep climbs and abrupt descents? The way you want to ride will have a bearing on the equipment you choose.
  • Your experience and skill level. You may imagine yourself riding in a Red Bull Rampage, but if you’re new to the sport it will take you some time to get there. For some time you’ll be focusing on basic bike handling skills, not epic stunts. Of course if you want to buy a bike that’s ready for epic stunts you can, but you’ll be paying a lot of money and carrying extra weight for strength and features you aren’t using.
  • Your environment. Most of us do most of our riding on trails near where we live. We may do an occasional road trip to a cycling destination, but most of our riding is close to home, and it makes sense to buy a bike that suits the type of riding you have close to home. Check out the local trails, talk to local riders, and ask at local bike shops, and you’ll have a better idea of what type of riding is accessible and what you’ll need to handle it.

There’s an enormous spectrum of mountain bikes on the market, but most of them fit into a few basic categories defined by the type of riding they’re intended for.

  • Cross country bikes are designed for fast riding over long distances on relatively mild terrain. They prioritize low weight over the kind of burly design and components needed to soak up impacts. Tires are generally fairly narrow, reducing rolling resistance, and suspension travel is relatively short, in the range of 100 to 120mm. Cross country bikes usually have relatively geometry, with head tube angles of 69° to 71°. If you want to do long rides, you want to ride fast, and you don’t expect to be riding rough terrain and steep descents, look at cross country bikes.
  • Trail bikes are the jack-of-all trades mountain bikes. They’re designed to handle some steep terrain and rough surfaces and most can handle some jumps and drops. They’re often heavier than cross country bikes but are light and efficient enough for extended climbs. They have bigger tires and burlier components than cross country bikes. Suspension travel tends to be in the 130 to 150mm range, and the head tube angles will range from 67° to 69°. These all-around bikes are usually the best choice for a beginning or intermediate rider.
  • Enduro or All Mountain bikes are at the rugged end of the trail biking spectrum. They usually carry large tires and long-travel full suspension, with travel in the 150-170mm range. They can still be efficient climbers, but their suspension and geometry are designed to optimize performance on descents. Geometry can be very slack, with head tube angles below 67°, placing the front wheel well ahead of the handlebars.
  • Downhill and Freeride bikes are designed for extreme speeds and huge stunts. They are highly specialized machines designed for a very specific type of riding, and they are generally not appropriate for general purpose use. They typically use very strong frames and components and feature long suspension travel, making them expensive and relatively heavy. They prioritize the ability to take hits over pedaling efficiency, and they can make climbing difficult.
  • Fat bikes are a relatively recent arrival on the mountain bike scene, but they’ve achieved considerable popularity. They use extremely large tires, sometimes up to 5” wide. Many do not use suspension, relying on the oversized tires to soak up bumps, making them a cost-effective entry point to mountain biking. Originally designed for riding on snow and sand, they’ve become common on many types of trails, with riders appreciating the traction and stability they offer. Some people love the fat tire look and some hate it, but it’s worth taking a close look at what fat bikes offer.

It’s important to be realistic when assessing your needs and choosing a bike type. For most beginning and intermediate riders a general purpose trail bike will be the best choice.

What Can You Afford to Spend?

Your budget will have an impact on your choice. Spending more will get you more features and  better quality components. That’s usually reflected in lower weight, greater durability, and better performance. All of that is desirable, but if you’re a beginner or intermediate rider you’ll need to look for the best compromises. The difference between less expensive and more expensive components is not always dramatic. A Shimano SLX rear derailleur weighs 316 grams and costs $75. The top of the line XTR rear derailleur weighs 240 grams and costs $257. Most riders wouldn’t notice a performance difference, and many would choose to save the $182 and try to take the 76 grams off their waistlines!

Most mountain bikes from major manufacturers will have adequate components. If the bike is inexpensive they may be entry level components, but they will work and you can upgrade with better ones if they break. You may not be winning bling points on the trail but you’ll be riding! If you want to learn more about the specific component sets available there’s lots of information available online. If you don’t, just focus on finding a bike that fits your budget and your target riding style and trust the manufacturer to choose the right components.

Let’s look at some common price ranges and what you can expect to find at different price points. Make sure you include a good helmet in your budget!

  • Under $500. Yes, you can buy a mountain bike for less than $500. Giant, Trek, Diamondback, Cannondale and several other credible manufacturers sell bikes at this price point. You’ll be getting a basic XC-oriented hardtail with entry level parts, but it will be a mountain bike and it will get you on the trails. I would recommend avoiding the “mall bikes” found for low prices in some big box stores. They are likely to be heavy, they often use no-name components that may not be compatible with potential upgrades, and they are often assembled by store staff who know little or nothing about bikes.
  • $500 – $1000. You’ll still be looking exclusively at hardtails at this price range, but they’ll be carrying better quality components. Most bikes will still have old-school drivetrains with 2 or 3 chainrings and a front derailleur, and front forks are likely to be unsophisticated but adequate models from SR Suntour or X-Fusion. You’ll start seeing some bikes with hydraulic disc brakes, and you’ll have more options when it comes to frame geometry. If you’re interested in riding steep or rough trails look for lower head tube angles, wider tires, and longer handlebars.
  • $1000 – $1500. At this price point you’ll start to see a few full suspension options in the mix, including capable bikes from Diamondback, Mongoose, Jamis, Giant, and others. Hardtails will still offer a considerably higher grade of components, and with hardtail options in this price range you’ll start seeing modern drivetrains with single front chainrings and mid-range components like the Shimano Deore and SRAM SX and NX. Brakes will be hydraulic discs, though some bikes may use the cheaper but still effective models from Tektro.
  • $1500 – $2000. Now we’re getting into some serious bikes. Full suspension options are still limited and many serious bikers recommend going with a hardtail if you’re spending less than $2000. The hardtail bikes in this price range will carry solid mid-range components from Shimano, SRAM, and other name brands. You’ll see models with longer-travel forks and slack angles, suitable for more rugged trails. Hardtails will usually carry dropper seatposts, though full suspension bikes may not: the cost of the rear suspension will require compromises elsewhere.
  • $2000 – $3000. Now you’re in the sweet spot. Hardtails in this price range will have very high quality components and some will offer carbon fiber frames. Full suspension bikes will come with solid mid-range parts. You won’t be looking at the top-of-the-line models from the prestigious boutique bike makers, but you’ll be choosing from a huge range of high quality models from respected manufacturers. Expect suspension from Fox or RockShox, SRAM or Shimano drivetrains and brakes, and parts of equal quality across the rest of the build.

Can you spend more than $3000? Of course! You can spend 3 times that or more, if you have the money and you want a bike that will turn heads in any company. You’ll get a lighter bike, but whether you’re really getting appreciably better performance is open to question. Unless you have very specific and very rigorous requirements, most beginner to intermediate riders will be perfectly happy with a bike in the $2000 – $3000 range. Many could get on a bike that cost twice as much and barely notice the difference. If you’re buying a hardtail you can do quite well for under $2000.

Here’s a tip from someone who’s been riding mountain bikes for a long, long time. Learning good shifting technique will improve your riding more than spending a ton of money on a top-of-the-line drivetrain. Good braking technique will improve your speed control more than high-end brakes. Good pedaling technique will improve your efficiency more than the latest hyper-engineered suspension design. It absolutely makes sense to spend enough to get a solid, well-built bike with good quality components, but there’s a point at which spending another $1000 just doesn’t get you that much improvement in performance. Remember those three most important upgrades: legs, lungs, skills. You don’t have to buy anything to improve those, just ride your bike!

Make Your Shortlist

Once you’ve decided what type of riding you want to do and set a budget, you’re ready to look at bikes. A few internet searches and conversations with local riders and bike shops should help you narrow down your choices. In most cases, bikes from different manufacturers that are in the same price range and oriented toward the same type of riding will carry very similar specifications and components.

Just as an example, if you’re looking for a general-purpose trail riding hardtail from a credible brand in the $1500 to $2000 range you’ll easily find half a dozen or more candidates. There will be some small differences, but all of them will be excellent bikes and any of them will make you happy. At this point you can start considering things like frame colors and aesthetic appeal. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to a few good bikes here’s nothing wrong with making the final choice on the basis of looks!

Fit Matters

Fit is critical to enjoyment and to safe, fun riding. Even a $10,000 superbike will not deliver a quality ride if it doesn’t fit its rider. Most manufacturers offer multiple sizes: S, M, L, and XL are common, but some have XS and XXL models as well. Check the manufacturer’s website for guidelines on what sizes fit what rider heights.

If your height gives you a clear indication of what size is right for you and if your physical proportions are close to standard, you may be able to judge your size easily. If you’re between two sizes, or if your body proportions are unusual the decision may not be so clear. Many bike shops offer bike fitting services that will measure your body proportions in detail. You’ll get a recommendation on what size to buy and the shop may suggest a different length of stem or handlebar, or a different saddle.

These services cost money but they can make a huge contribution to comfortable riding. If you have any doubt about whether a bike will fit, seeking professional advice is a very good idea. Making sure your bike fits you properly will do more to improve your riding experience than many component upgrades would.

Where to Buy

There are three main ways to buy a bike.

  • Direct from the company. Many bike manufacturers now offer direct-to-consumer sales over the internet. This is a low-cost model and if you know exactly what you and a direct-to consumer bike maker offers it, you can get an excellent price. On the downside, opportunities for comparison may be limited and the bike you want may not be available for this type of purchase.
  • Online bike dealers often stock bikes from numerous manufacturers, offering a great way to compare bikes in a consistent format. Many offer chat-based customer service from experienced bike experts who can answer questions and help steer you through the selection process. Remember that they may have an incentive to push the models that produce the best margins for the store! Many online dealers offer cut-rate sales, often at the end of the year, and these sales can be exceptional bargains if you don’t mind riding last year’s model.
  • Local bike shops often can’t match the prices that direct-to-consumer sellers or giant online bike shops offer. It’s still worth considering a buy from your friendly local bike shop. When you buy from a local bike shop, you’re not just buying a bike. You’re starting a relationship. Your shop will help you keep your bike maintained, and if you ask the mechanics at good times they’ll often help you learn to do basic maintenance. You’ll get good advice on parts and trails and you’ll meet other local riders. You’ll get personal attention and fitting assistance and your bike will be assembled and tuned by a capable mechanic. For many riders, that’s worth paying a little more.

I’m biased toward the local bike shop (obviously), but there’s nothing wrong with buying online, especially if you don’t have access to a good shop or the online deals are just too good to pass up. If you do buy online, it’s still a good idea to have your bike checked and tuned by a mechanic before you hit the trails. Most bikes require some assembly after shipping, and a mechanic can give your new ride a good checkout and show you some basic bike maintenance tricks.

Let’s Sum That Up

If you’re shopping for a mountain bike you’ll be following these steps.

  • Understand what you’re buying. You don’t need to become an expert, but you should be familiar with the basic components and types of bikes. Knowing a bit of the jargon will help you cut through hype and focus on what’s important.
  • Decide what type of riding you’ll be doing. There are several types of mountain bike, each designed for a different type of riding. Knowing something about the trails in your area and the way you want to ride will help you choose the right type of bike.
  • Know your budget. Each type of bike is available at a wide range of price points. More money will get you better parts, but you can get a perfectly adequate bike without hitting the top end of the market.
  • Make your shortlist. Knowing how much you can spend and what type of bike you want will help you narrow your search down to a few choices. They are likely to have quite similar features and components.
  • Make your choice. Once you’ve narrowed the search down to a few good candidates, choose what’s available and what you like best!
  • Think about fit. If you have doubts, a professional bike fitting session will help you assure that your bike fits you right. Don’t overlook fit. It’s important.
  • Decide where to buy. Local bike shops, online dealers, and direct-to-consumer sellers all have advantages. Think carefully and make your choice.

That’s a fair bit to go through, but a mountain bike is a major investment and getting the right bike for you will pay dividends in enjoyment and in safe, comfortable riding. At the end of the process you’ll have a shiny new bike just waiting for you to go out and get it dirty. That’s where the real fun begins!