Bikes can make you feel like a kid again, exploring new places and learning new skills. But, the buying process can be stressful and confusing. There are hundreds of options, with each company touting superior technology. Luckily, it’s hard to choose wrong. Mountain bike technology has progressed a lot over the last decade and at this point no one is making bad bikes. As long as you choose a bike that fits and is designed for your goals, you’re bound to have fun. Here are some tips that will help you find your dream bike.
1. Do you need a women’s bike?
Many brands like Cannondale and Juliana offer women’s bikes that are unisex frames stocked with components catered toward women. There are even a few brands, such as Liv and Canyon, that make bikes that have female-specific frames. But, more and more brands are discontinuing their women’s lines. Yeti dropped their women’s “Yeti Beti” line for 2020 and Specialized has decreased their women’s-specific offerings over the last couple years. Studies have shown that statistically there is no difference in body and limb proportions between men and women. Instead, there is as much variation in women of the same height as there is across both genders. Also, carrying a full women’s line is more expensive due to the need to stock different parts and frames. Companies usually offer fewer build options for women’s bikes due to this expense. For example, the Juliana Maverick and Santa Cruz Hightower are the same frame but the Maverick comes in three builds while the Hightower is offered in eight.
This may seem like it renders female-specific bikes useless, but not so fast. Many women’s bikes come with nice touches that can save you money on upgrades, like female saddles and more narrow bars. Advocacy also plays a large role in brands that offer women’s bikes. Juliana and Liv are two brands that market directly to women with women’s specific bikes (Liv actually makes female-specific frames, while Juliana sells Santa Cruz frames with different colors and different parts). These companies not only reach out to women, but they also strive to create a space for women in the male-dominated world of mountain biking. This can give women a sense of community, which is important in individualistic outdoor sports like biking.
2. Buy the bike that fits.
You can always adjust or replace the parts on your bike to dial in your perfect fit, but you can’t change your frame. Getting advice from your local bike shop can be extremely helpful if you don’t know your ideal geometry for a bike.
Unfortunately, sizing does not remain constant across all bikes or brands. A size “small” can be designed for someone who is 5’0” up to someone who is 5’8” depending on the brand and the style of bike. So, don’t take the stated bike size at face value.
The most important number for bike sizing in the complicated geometry chart that is posted on every bike’s webpage is the “reach.” Reach refers to the horizontal distance between the bottom bracket (where your feet will be placed) and the head tube (where your hands will be placed). If you ride a bike with a too short reach, you’ll feel cramped. If the reach is too long, you’ll feel spread out and you won’t be able to put weight through your hands.
After testing out a few bikes (whether just in a parking lot or out on trails), you may begin determine your optimal reach measurement. Most riders have an optimal reach range of about 20mm. For example, I am 5’2” with a proportionately longer torso than legs and I prefer bikes with a reach measurement of 395-415mm. There is no perfect reach number for a person’s height due to limb length variations and riding style, so advice from shops and getting on a few different bikes can go a long way.
3. How much travel?
I’ve been told more than once that since I’m a tiny 5’2” and 115 pounds, I probably need less suspension than a larger person. This is completely untrue. The most important factors in how much travel you need are 1) the types of trails you ride, and 2) your riding preferences.
First, you need to be honest about what types of trails you ride. Do you grind up steep climbs to ride back down even steeper descents? You may be looking at a bike that climbs well and has 140mm or more travel. Do you usually ride rolling trails? A hardtail or 100-130mm travel bike could be perfect. Do you live near technical trails? More travel may be your friend. Do you have mellow trails in your backyard, but want to travel with your bike? A mid-range 130-150mm travel bike sounds perfect.
Second, your riding style matters. Do you love pounding miles all weekend and find climbing to be fun? A hardtail or full-suspension cross-country bike sounds perfect for you. Do you live for the downhill and want to progress your skills? You should probably look for an enduro or all mountain bike with 140-160mm of travel. Do a bit of everything and want an all-around playful bike? A 120-140mm trail bike could be your new best friend.
4. Which wheel size? Short riders may want to be wary of 29ers.
29ers (bikes with 29-inch diameter wheels) have gained popularity in recent years due to decreased rolling resistance and the ability to “smooth out” the trail by getting less deflected by small compressions. These bikes can be great for many riders, but they aren’t necessarily the answer. Riders who are 5’4” or shorter often have a hard time on 29ers due to the large wheels being crammed into such a small frame. These bikes can feel too tall and hard to turn for short riders.
If you are on the vertically-challenged end of the spectrum, don’t worry. You can still ride a 29er if you like, there’s no rules about this. But, if you want to look for a smaller-wheeled whip, bikes with 27.5 inch wheels are alive and well. Whether you are looking for a cross-country race machine or a squishy enduro charger, there are plenty of options for you.
Both wheel sizes have advantages, but 27.5 bikes are often touted as more playful and fun. Yet, they can also be quick climbers or charging descenders depending on the bike’s geometry and amount of suspension.
5. Don’t get hung up on the small stuff.
While it is very nice to buy a bike that comes with every part you want, don’t walk away from your dream bike just because it has the wrong length stem or uncomfortable saddle. If you’re buying from your local bike shop, you can usually get comparable small components swapped out for free. If you are buying a bike used or online, small parts can be relatively inexpensive. Things like saddles, grips, handlebar, stem, and tires can be replaced at affordable prices (just don’t swap them all out at once and expect it to be cheap).
Components like suspension, brakes wheels, and the drivetrain, however, are very expensive to upgrade. If you plan on swapping these out immediately, make sure you factor in the costs before you buy the bike.
6. Demo if you can, but don’t stress if you can’t.
Demoing bikes is a great way to try out multiple options to get a feel for what will work for you. But it can get expensive if demo fleets don’t often come through your town. Events like Outerbike are a great way to get on lots of bikes, but they can have a hefty travel and ticket price. Demoing bikes from your local bike shop is also a great option because most shops will apply your demo fees toward a new bike. But, if you are not set on buying a bike through a specific shop the costs can add up quickly.
If you aren’t demoing bikes, still drop by your local bike shop and talk with the staff about which bikes will fit you and what type of riding you would like to do. Bike shops great at getting customers on the right size bike and recommending the right kind of bike to purchase. Many experienced riders
Even if you have the chance to demo bikes, make sure to notice a few key components before riding and try not to judge the entire bike by them. Tires, brakes and saddle can be a huge make or break for demo bikes. Demo bikes with fast-rolling tires will feel quicker and snappier on uphills and flats, making riders think the bike is faster. But, they will also make the bike feel less stable on the downhill. The opposite is true for heavy, aggressive tires. Brakes that are set up unevenly or need maintenance (which is not uncommon in a demo fleet) may ruin your ride, but after a quick service the bike would be a perfect fit. Last, an uncomfortable saddle can cause you to shift your weight awkwardly while pedaling, resulting in a less efficient ride and feeling like the bike is sluggish or unstable. I always try to bring my own saddle to bike demos so this never happens.
7. Have fun!
Buying a bike is exciting, so don’t forget to have some fun. Take your time, find a bike that fits, and buy the bike that makes you grin.