North by Northeast

So You Want to Buy a Nice Bike… part 3.1 – Mountain Bikes
15 June, 2007, 5:32 pm
Filed under: buyer’s guide to bikes

If you were to take a quick poll of people and ask what type of bike they own, most would answer “a mountain bike.” There are so many out there now a days – they’re almost like seeing SUVs driving down the street. Do all these people need a mountain bike?

Luckily, the trouble of a bicyclist choosing to ride a mountain bike on the road is not nearly as bad as someone driving a Hummer as their commuting vehicle. When you ride a mountain bike on the road all you’re doing is pushing more weight, with more rolling resistance from knobby tires. It’s not the end of the world.

That said, I think you’ll be a happier cyclist if you choose the right type of bike for your type of riding.

Let’s talk about mountain bikes. They’re the most popular style of bike in America. Why? They’re comfortable. The geometry has you in a more natural position than a road racing bike, and they trace their heritage back to the old Schwinn cruisers. The first mountain bikes were customized cruisers, blue-collar style, designed to race down a hill called “Repack” on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California. It was called repack because after each ride, they’d have to repack the bearings in their wheels. The good news is you’re not likely to have to ever do that to your bike. A few years later, Specialized began selling the first mass produced mountain bike, the Stumpjumper. You can still buy one today. No really, they’ve remade the original to celebrate the 25th anniversary.

Today’s mountain bikes (from here out, MTB) bear little resemblance to the custom cruisers. Even the original Stumpjumper made some really smart changes to the original cruisers. The parts that make them popular are straight bars and fat tires. Thanks to its popularity, you can buy a decent mountain bike for less money than you can buy a decent road bike, which has in turn increased their popularity some more.

Why would you want a MTB? If you want to ride on dirt trails, you’re probably looking for a mountain bike. That said, if you only want to ride hard packed dirt (like a dirt road) you could ride a hybrid bike or a cyclocross (CX) bike. Both of these would be better if you also want to ride at least 50% of the time on pavement. Both hybrids and CXs have fatter tires than road bikes, and sometimes they have knobs for traction when the dirt is less hard packed. Some cruiser/comfort bikes are also OK for hard packed dirt, but you probably wouldn’t want to ride anywhere with hills, where their weight, gearing, and geometry would make climbing strenuous. We’ll talk about all these types of bikes in later entries.

One of the things that really ticks me off when people think of mountain biking is that it is an extreme sport. Yeah, you can jump off stuff, or ride the ski lift to the top of the mountain and ride a double-diamond slope at 50 mph, but most people don’t. For some perspective, on one of the very first group rides I took with NEMBA this year, two of the people on my ride were over 50 years old. They weren’t jumping off things.

When you go to the bike shop, you’ll see this extreme image manifesting itself in the design of some of the bikes. You’ll see bikes with large coils for rear suspension, and motorcycle-style “double-crown” front suspension… with up to 7 inches of movement on each end. That’s probably more than your car has. Look at the frames, they’ll have all sorts of extra pieces of metal, called gussets, welded on at points to aid strength. These bikes are heavy-duty, have graphics that reinforce that, oh, and they’re just plain heavy.

You don’t need these bikes. Don’t be sold these bikes. Stay away.

There are people who do need those bikes, and they’re great for that. A good deal of the people who buy those bikes will never really need all that suspension, or those gussets. They’ll curse their weight when they have to go up hill – which will be at least as much as you go down hill. Actually, more so, since you can’t go up as fast as you can go down. And that suspension will suck up some of your energy that would otherwise go into turning your wheels.

That said, this is not an indictment of suspension. But it’s important to have the right kind and amount for what you plan on doing. If you want to jump off things with your bike, check out these “hucking” style bikes. Otherwise, we’ll assume someone entering mountain biking from scratch will want to start with riding “cross-country” style. This means that you want to ride on unpaved trails and roads. You want to go up hills and down them. You’re probably not jumping off boulders.

There are three styles of suspension for XC riding to consider. Rigid means the only shock absorption you’ll have will come from your tires, whatever is inherent in your frame, and your arms and legs. People who ride fully-rigid MTBs are few and far between. They tend to be a little more hardcore than the rest of us. Some of these people ride bikes with larger-than-standard, 29″ wheels, saying the larger diameter, greater momentum allow their wheels to roll over bumps and obstacles without additional suspension. We’ll talk more about wheel size in a future post. You’ll find very few fully rigid mountain bikes in stores. I don’t know if that’s marketing or demand, but likely a little of both.

The next type of bike is called “Front Suspension” (self-explanatory) or a “hardtail.” Shocks up front. This type of bike has dominated the sales XC bikes for the last 10 years.

The last type of bike is “Full Suspension” or a “softtail.” Shocks at both ends. This type of bike has shot up in popularity as the the quality of the rear suspension systems have improved, prices have dropped and competition has increased. This is (if not already, probably soon will be) the most popular type of cross-country bike.

What’s the right one for you? Suspension has its pluses and minuses. Plus sides should be obvious: comfort, which leads to more endurance, and its easier on your body, since it would have to absorb less abuse from the trail. However, suspension adds cost, weight, increases the complexity of the bike (more parts to fail), increases maintenance (you won’t be servicing it yourself), and by its very nature, absorbs energy. Some of your pedaling power is lost to your suspension reacting to the movements of your body on the bike. When you have suspension on the back wheel, where your pedaling energy is directed, you lose a lot more energy than with front suspension alone. However, there are certain situations (especially downhill, but occasionally uphill as well) where suspension will help you maintain traction, which will aid in the safety of riding off-road. Certain kinds of suspensions can actually push the wheel down into a hill so you can continue cranking away, when an unsuspended wheel would still be bouncing over an obstacle. Comfort and traction are the two biggest reasons to ride with full-suspension.

If you’re going to ride in the cross-country style, you’ll want to be sure to get a full-suspension bike that’s Cross-country specific. These are the ones that can help climbing and weigh the least. There’s another style to consider called “All-mountain” which is cross country with more of a nod to downhills and drop-offs, so the suspension has longer travel (how much it can move to absorb shock) but at the cost of weight and some additional efficiency. But they are tougher systems. All-mountain will most likely be the majority of full-suspension bikes you’ll see on the showroom floor, because they blend the style more people ride (cross country) with the style everyone wants to pretend to be (downhill, big hit, hucking). Bike marketing at its best. But if you ever want to ride something truly scary, these bikes (and the downhill and jumping specifics after them) are the right tools for the job.

I used to think that to become a skilled mountain bike rider, everyone should start riding a rigid bike. You’d really learn to handle the bike and avoid obstacles, plus you don’t have to carry the added weight along for the ride. However, since decent suspension can now be had at every price point, the comfort for you will probably aid in your enjoyment of the sport. If you ride on any sort of trail or rutted dirt road, some suspension is probably a good idea.

The big question then is should you start with just Front Suspension, or go all out and get comfy with full suspension? Tough one. I’d decide based on two major factors, and one minor one. Major factors: cost and weight. Minor factor: maintenance. The added complexity of rear suspension means greater maintenance costs. You most likely won’t be tweaking it yourself.

Personally, I ride a hardtail. I’ve been riding for 15 years (on and off) and my first bike was rigid, then my second and now my third and current bike both had front suspension. The reason I don’t ride fully-suspended to have a lighter bike with less complexity. However, I am seriously considering a softail to compliment my hardtail. Of course, I’m one of those people who aspires to own many bikes.

Recently, my wife began riding with me. She had zero experience with mountain biking. I thought long and hard about the best bike for her, because selfishly, I wanted her to enjoy herself. You can see how that would be good for me 🙂 I got her a woman’s-specific cross-country bike with front suspension. This has allowed her to try out the sport at minimal cost, but with some added comfort. Now that she’s ridden for a year and a half, I can see that she’s at a point where she’s going to stick with the sport, but sometimes she’s uncomfortable because she’s more into riding along than conquering all the bumps and obstacles that are found on much of New England’s trails. This leads me to believe that when we can afford it, that we’ll upgrade her to a full-suspension bike. Since we’ll be buying her a more expensive bike, the weight for the next one will probably be similar to her current, less expensive bike, but with the added benefit extra comfort, control and confidence. She won’t notice the weight penalty since she never rode an extra light hardtail. For reference, my moderated expensive hardtail (about double the cost of her current bike) is about 25lbs, hers is about 30lbs. For about triple the cost of her current bike, we should be able to find a competent cross-country bike with full suspension for a similar weight. It should last her a good long time (and I’ll convert her current bike into essentially a “hybrid,” road-going bike).

This is a route I think many people take. Buy a decent hardtail, go out and ride, see what you think of the sport. You’ll decide one of three things: one – it’s not for you. Possible, but not likely 🙂 Two – what you have is just right and you’re happy. Or, three – you like it, but would enjoy a little more cush beneath your toush. In which case you trade up to a plusher ride.

That’s the basics, along with my personal strategy for buying a starter mountain bike.

The next section will cover what to do if you don’t want to ride on dirt the majority of the time.


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