With roots dating all the way back to the 19th century, the sport of mountain biking has been evolving and gaining in popularity ever since the first custom-made off-road bikes started to emerge in the 1970s.
By the mid-1990s, mountain biking had exploded onto the cycling scene and quickly evolved into a full-fledged sport. With more and more people venturing off the paved roads every year, the sport of mountain biking is constantly growing.
Whether you’re out cruising a local bike trail or tearing down alpine singletrack, having the right bike is essential.
Choosing a Mountain Bike and Frame Style
Deciding what kind of mountain bike to purchase can be somewhat overwhelming for first-time buyers. There are many types of bikes to choose from, and many price ranges.
More expensive bikes come with better components and typically weigh less than cheaper models. However, the most expensive mountain bike isn't necessarily the best for a first-time buyer.
Bike prices range from a few hundred dollars into the thousands of dollars. The cost may intimidate more frugal individuals, but it is certainly possible to purchase a capable, good-quality bike for under $500.
With this in mind, new buyers should also be aware that a $150 mountain bike from Wal-Mart is probably not going to last if used for anything other than easygoing rides on sidewalks and bike paths. The best place to purchase a quality mountain bike is a bike shop or reputable sporting goods store, such as REI or Sports Authority.
There are two main types of mountain bike frames: hardtail and full-suspension. The frame of a hardtail bike is closer to that of a traditional road bike, with no rear suspension. A full-suspension bike employs rear suspension as well as front. Hardtail bikes are generally less expensive and lighter.
Full-suspension mountain bikes offer much more shock-absorption over rugged trails, but can be heavier. Depending on your budget, many new riders choose to start out with a hardtail and may upgrade to a full-suspension later, as they gain experience.
Mountain Bike Shocks, Brakes and Wheels
The amount of shock-absorption in a fork or rear shock is called “travel” and is typically measured in millimeters. The larger the travel, the greater the shock-absorption.
Full-suspension bikes typically feature more travel for aggressive trails. A cross-country mountain bike may have less travel, but is still quite capable for moderate trail riding.
Many modern mountain bikes now feature disc brakes, the majority of which are mechanical (cable-actuated). The breaking power is determined by the size of the rotors and the strength of the caliper.
Other bikes may include traditional rim brakes, sometimes called V-brakes, or some combination of disc and rim brakes.
Tip: If you are used to riding a traditional bike with rim brakes, make sure you get used to the increased sensitivity and power of a disc brake system before hitting the trail. If you grab the front brake lever too hard you may just go over the handlebars.
The vast majority of mountain bikes come equipped with 26” wheels, but other sizes are sometimes made available for specific uses (such as 29” cross-country wheels).
Most mountain bikes include spoked wheels with inner tubes and tires; however, tubeless tires are sometimes available on more expensive models. Unlike road bike tires, MTB tires have a much more aggressive tread pattern to maintain traction on a variety of off-road conditions.
Picking a Frame Size, Purchasing Gear and Getting Started
Choosing the right frame size is probably the most critical consideration when choosing a bike. Generally, you want the top tube to be anywhere from two to six inches below the top of your inseam. Any sales associate at a reputable bike shop can help fit you for a bike.
Be sure to utilize their expertise before making a purchase. Also, many bike shops will allow you to test ride the bike out in the parking lot. Take a few for a spin before making a final decision.
Once you purchase a bike, a proper-fitting helmet is the next most important purchase. Remember to take it slow on your first few rides, until you get used to the new bike. As you increase in skill level and endurance, you’ll be able to tackle tougher trails and explore many popular mountain biking destinations.
There are many bike clubs and organizations for new riders to join, and some bike shops also organize group trail rides. Riding with a group can be a great way learn new skills and meet new people. As always, be safe and have fun!