The other day, I was meeting with a friend for some much needed java. At first, we were discussing cyclocross, but inevitably the conversation turned to mountain bikes. He claimed he had no technical skills and was thinking about getting his first mountain bike. Of course, I could barely contain myself that he wanted to shred singletrack. However, there are so many different options when it comes to mountain bikes these days and it can be completely overwhelming to the point where you simply say, “meh, nevermind.” Don’t do it! All mountain? Full suspension? Hard tail? 26 or 29? Carbon? Aluminum? Riser bar or flat bar? Seat? Tubeless wheels? 3×9? 2×10? 1×1? Tire options? Grips? (Ergon, duh!) Shimano or SRAM? Are you stressed out yet?
The laundry list of questions is enough to make anyone’s head spin, particularly someone who is new to the sport and might have no idea what some of those things even mean. I was one of those people at one point, and the “friendly” guys in the bike shop went for their own interest (commission and what they thought was cool) and instead of selling me a bike appropriate for the use I needed, which was getting into racing. When you’re spending a $1000+ on a bike, how do you know how to trust? Yes, I said $1000… it’s difficult to get a bike that will last for less than that, especially if you are planning on riding 3+ times a week. I said difficult, not impossible.
The first piece of advice I give people is to go demo bikes at a bike shop. Need help determining what kind of bike to demo? If you’re coming from a motorcycle or dirt bike background, I’d say definitely start with checking out an all mountain rig which usually boasts more suspension(5-7 in) meaning you can go off some bigger jumps without blowing out your suspension. If you have no idea, demoing a 26 inch hardtail (a bike with front suspension only) and a 26inch full suspension (front and rear suspension, look for about 4 inches+ or so of travel), and then try a 29 inch hardtail. Most bike shops have a demo program. There are some frame brands that are better than others, but a lot of it is personal opinion. As far as materials, carbon is the big pimpin’ way to go, but there is nothing wrong with aluminum, steel, or titanium frames.
Should you get a hard tail or a full suspension for your first bike? This is an eternal dilemma for some people. It just depends on your personality type. The best analogy I can give is when you were learning to drive. Did you prefer to start with a stick shift? With a stick shift, you had to not only learn how to drive in traffic and cope with the basics of becoming a driver, but you also had to worry about shifting and stalling your car in addition to all the new stresses of the road. Did you start with an automatic and want to learn the basics first, and then try to get more fancy?
Now let’s take this analogy to a mountain bike. If you start with a full suspension mountain bike(analogous to the automatic car), you are essentially trying to learn the basics first. A full suspension allows for sloppier riding making things easier if you’re new to the trail. You’re able to run over obstacles because the bike soaks up the bumps. Climbing over rocks and roots, as well as going down them is a more comfortable ride. It’s also a less fatiguing experience overall on a FS (full suspension) Once you get more comfortable on knobby tires and dirt, you can certainly start working on taking cleaner lines through technical sections, cornering more efficiently, and descending with more confidence. Full suspensions are heavier than hard tails which is one of the main disadvantages. They are also not nearly as efficient on non-technical climbs due to the pivot points. Another headache with FS bikes is that they require more set-up than a hardtail. It’s important to get the correct air pressure and sag in your suspension, but most bike shops or bike fitters can help you with that. With extra suspension can also mean more maintenance, but you shouldn’t have to service your shocks too often. However, most shock companies offer a “lock-out” model which allows you to turn off your suspension.
Why would you want to start with a hard tail? Some people like to be thrown into the fire. Sink or swim. Starting with a hard tail will teach you to be a better technical rider from the get-go, but you risk crashing more and/or getting frustrated. If you can master the hard tail from the start, switching to a full suspension later will make you a bike wizard faster than going the other direction.
Now what about 29ers? I honestly have only ridden a 29er once, so I don’t have a lot of personal experience. However, I have heard that 29ers also simplify technical riding because your wheels are bigger. Also, once you get your bike up to speed, you carry your momentum. I know some bike companies are making full suspension 29ers too.
Personally, I started on a full suspension and slowly started transitioning to hard tail. If I didn’t race, I’d probably only ride a full suspension. I suggest to people that if they are going to own one mountain bike, go full suspension. Of course, I’m not Dear Abby of mountain bikes- this is all my opinion and there will be people who would argue to the death! I have been riding bikes a long time, and have been lucky to ride a lot of different equipment and brands, but I’m not 100% objective.
More questions on anything bike related? Feel free to comment.