Mountain Bike Buying Guide: How to Choose the Right MTB

mountain bike buying guide

A mountain bike is a bicycle designed for off-road riding. Although this definition is adequately descriptive of what a mountain bike is, the world of modern mountain biking is wonderfully diverse and varied in terms of riding disciplines and the types of mountain bikes designed for various styles of riding and varieties of terrain.

A quick look at the history of cycling will remind us that when the bicycle was first invented, smoothly paved roads were the exception, not the rule. That being said, modern mountain biking as we know it traces its roots back to the 1970s in Marin County, California where the “klunker” movement emerged. Back then, off-road cycling enthusiasts used heavily modified road bikes to race down Mt. Tamalpais. From there, interest in the sport progressively increased within the United States and beyond.

Choosing the right mountain bike can often be a daunting task, especially for those who are new to the sport. JensonUSA offers a vast selection of mountain bikes so to help you decide which is best for you, we present a concise mountain bike buying guide covering essential topics including:

Types of Mountain Bikes

The modern categorization of mountain bikes is broadly done according to riding disciplines within the sport. Keep in mind that as mountain bike design and technologies evolve, some of the lines between some categories are blurred. We will talk about how you can go about picking the mountain bike that best suits your needs if your riding style combines elements of more than one type of mountain biking.

Cross Country Mountain Bikes

Cross country bikes (often known as XC bikes) are designed to prioritize efficient, fast pedaling and long-distance riding over a variety of terrain. If your riding is all about covering big distances that go over changing terrain, with your home tails going up, down and everything in between, you probably want the lightweight build and efficient pedaling character of a typical XC bike. The main downside of many (yet not all) XC mountain bikes is that they will not excel in technical and super steep descending.

Trail / All-Mountain

The best way to think of most trail bikes is that they are the perfect compromise of the mountain biking world. They won’t climb as efficiently as pure XC machines, and they won’t descend with the same prowess of purpose-built downhill sleds, but they will do everything with enough competence to make them, arguably, the funnest and the most versatile category of mountain bikes to ride.

A trail bike might be for you if you want to do the same kind of riding you would do on a cross country bike, but have built up the riding skills and confidence to start tackling bigger and more technical terrain when the trail points down. There is a reason they’re often called “all-mountain” bikes. It comes from the desire to ride all of the mountain, without having to dismount and walk the bike down the more gnarly sections.

Enduro Mountain Bikes

Enduro racing is a type of mountain bike racing that has exploded in popularity in recent years. Perhaps much of the popularity of enduro is owed to the fact that it embodies some of the best things about mountain biking, drawing on elements from disparate riding disciplines.

Enduro bikes come with even slacker geometry, even chunkier tires and even longer suspension than trail bikes. You can still climb on an enduro bike, but it is only a means to the end of enjoying the high-speed descent on rock-strewn trails with technical features on which trail bikes might be out of their depths.

Downhill Mountain Bikes

Downhill (DH) bikes are made for a single-purpose: descending at high speeds on aggressive and technical terrain. Everything on a downhill bike – from the super long suspension travel to the robust construction of the frame to the descending-optimized geometry – is designed for trails that point down only.

If your riding is all about for lift-assisted descending, there is a strong case for considering a DH bike as your next bike.

Electric Mountain Bikes

Electric mountain bikes are better described as pedal-assist bikes. There is no separate throttle. Rather the electric motor only kicks in to boost your own human-powered pedaling. The electric assist enables you to go further, longer and faster, which all make an already fun sport extra fun.

The motor assist allows you to do more climbs to earn the fun descents without having to completely drain your energy on the first couple of laps. Additionally, the added power helps you tackle technical features with more confidence than you would otherwise or be hesitant to do on a normal bike. Last but not least, electric mountain bikes are a great equalizer when it comes to allowing people of various fitness levels to enjoy group riding together.

How to measure yourself for sizing a mountain bike

Picking the right frame size is often not as straightforward as it initially seems. After all, all reputable bike manufacturers provide extensive geometry charts and even some size recommendations based on general body measurements.

There are two main challenges that make the process of picking a frame size puzzling for a beginner mountain biker: 1) there are no concrete sizing standards used between manufacturers (so what might be a medium in one brand may fit like a large in another, etc.). 2) Attempting to understand geometry tables and charts can be bewildering if you don’t know what all the numbers and terms mean.

Short of getting a bike fit session with a professional bicycle fitter, there are two things you can easily do to figure out what the size that fits you:

  1. Learn how to read bike frame geometry charts: Because there is no standard reference, you will have to consider the specific numbers provided for each bike you are interested in. The good news is that the fundamentals of understanding bicycle frame geometry are not difficult to learn.
  2. Measure yourself: There are a few key body measurements that you will need to take. Having a friend to help with taking the measurements makes the process easier. These measurements include:
  • Your height: Stand against a wall and place a pencil level with the top of your head. Make a small mark there, and measure from the mark down to the ground. Your height is a general indicator of an approximate frame size range. It is useful, but this measurement on its own is an imprecise frame size selection method.
  • Your inseam (inside leg): Another key point to note on mountain bike frame sizing is that reach (which is the horizontal distance from the center of the headtube to the center of the bottom bracket) is the basis for modern bike sizing. Reach has more of an impact on the riding position than any other frame geometry metric. The old method of determining your optimal size was based on seat tube length, which has lost its relevance in the age of sloping top tubes and dropper posts. This should also account for the type of bike you are planning to buy (e.g. XC bikes typically have a more outstretched riding position compared to trail and enduro bikes).

Another key point to note on mountain bike frame sizing is that reach (which is the horizontal distance from the center of the headtube to the center of the bottom bracket) is the basis for modern bike sizing. Reach has more of an impact on the riding position than any other frame geometry metric. The old method of determining your optimal size was based on seat tube length, which has lost its relevance in the age of sloping top tubes and dropper posts. This should also account for the type of bike you are planning to buy (e.g. XC bikes typically have a more outstretched riding position compared to trail and enduro bikes).

Another tip on bike fit and frame size: a great way to research mountain bike sizing is to use the known geometry of the bike you previously owned as a reference. If you were generally happy with the fit of a bike you have used before, you already have a range of geometry numbers to use as a guide.

Mountain Bike Suspension Options

The primary function of bike suspension is to maximize traction and therefore improve control and comfort on the bike over rough terrain. Hardtail mountain bikes come with front suspension only, while full-suspension bikes feature front and rear suspension.

Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Hardtails excel as lightweight, super-efficient XC racing bikes. They prioritize climbing and pedaling efficiency above any other aspect of riding. They have fewer moving parts, which means less maintenance needs than full-suspension bikes.

The main downside of a hardtail bike is that they quickly reach the limits of their capabilities on rough and technical trails.

If where you live has smooth, flowy trails and you enjoy the efficient power transfer the lack of rear suspension affords, you should strongly consider a hardtail.

Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes

The terrain-hugging boost in traction made possible by modern mountain bike suspension allows you to ride faster and with more confidence over rough ground. Current air and coil mountain bike suspension components are nothing short of amazing in terms of the tunability and reliability they offer.

The main disadvantage of full-suspension bikes is that they require more maintenance. There are linkages, pivot bearings and suspension parts that need to be periodically serviced for your bike to continue to perform optimally. That being said, it’s arguably a small price to pay for the overall enhancement of the riding experience a good full-suspension bike offers!

Mountain Bike Wheel Sizes

Nothing stirs up hot debate in mountain bike forums quite like wheel size. Broadly speaking, wheel size does matter but a good bike is a good bike, so picking a wheel size will depend on a few factors including and (perhaps most importantly) your riding style.

26” Mountain Bike Wheels

The original mountain bike wheel size was probably adopted as something that early mountain bikes inherited from their predecessors, cruiser bikes. Today, finding 26’ wheeled mountain bikes is increasingly rare, with nearly all large manufacturers fully adopting 29” and/or 27” wheels for their mountain bike offerings. 26” wheels still have hardcore adherents especially in the dirt jump world, with the smaller diameter lending itself better to building stronger wheels that can take the constant abuse of this riding discipline.

27.5” Mountain Bike Wheels

Also known as 650b, this in-between size is argued by some to be the “best of both worlds”. It has the fast acceleration, strength and agility of 26” wheels while offering some of the momentum-holding benefits of the next size up: 29”.

29” MOUNTAIN BIKE WHEELS

Perhaps the dominant wheel size with the widest adoption today is 29”, and for good reason. 29” wheels hold momentum better (once up to speed), make rolling over obstacles easier due to the shallower angle of attack and maximize the contact patch with the ground at a given tire width, which makes for better traction. All of these properties make it obvious why certain kinds of bikes, especially XC bikes, have come to be offered exclusively with 29” wheels.

Mountain Bike Frame Materials

Manufacturers use various materials in mountain bike frame construction. There is no be-all end-all material of choice. Rather, different materials have different properties and applications in the mountain bike world. Let’s have a brief look at what each of those frame materials has to offer when it comes to mountain bikes.

Carbon Mountain Bike Frames

Carbon fiber has gained much wider adoption in recent years. Carbon has an extraordinary stiffness-to-weight ratio, which allows manufacturers to make mountain bikes that are simultaneously very light and very strong.

Aluminium Mountain Bike Frames

Manufacturers are able to use tubes made from different aluminum alloys to optimize frame construction for various usage scenarios and specifications. Aluminum also has a very good strength-to-weight ratio. Alloy bikes are generally more affordable than comparable carbon fiber bikes.

Steel Mountain Bike Frames

Steel is abundant, affordable, very strong, and easy to shape and manufacture. Steel also has some excellent vibration dampening properties, making it very well-suited to making bikes designed for off-road use.

Titanium Mountain bike Frames

Titanium combines some of the best properties of steel and aluminum. It is stronger than steel yet lighter than aluminum with a high fatigue life.  Titanium also has an inherent springiness which makes for a ride quality seldom matched by other frame materials. The downside is that it is more expensive than most other materials.

Mountain Bike Drivetrain Options

In years gone by it seemed two or three chainrings coupled with 8 or 9 cassette cogs were all we needed to enjoy taking our mountain bikes on our favorite trails. As mountain biking evolved with an increasing desire to tackle steeper, more technical and more challenging terrain, so did mountain bike drivetrain technologies.

The main paradigm shift in mountain bike drivetrains is the switch from double or triple-chainring cranks to single chainring drivetrains (also known as one by or 1x). The switch to 1x drivetrains was coupled with increasing the number of cassette cogs to 11 or 12 gears to offer what is known as wide-range gearing.

The benefits of 1x drivetrains are many: better ground clearance, increased chain retention using chainrings with unramped variable-thickness teeth (aka narrow-wide chainrings), simplified shifting and a cleaner cockpit (you only have one shifter with 1x), less maintenance and less moving parts (there is no front derailleur).

Riders are able to choose a chainring size to suit their fitness level and the type of terrain they ride. Depending on your exact drivetrain setup and the largest cassette cog you have (which determines your lowest gear), beginners can typically choose to start with 28-30T chainrings, intermediate riders 32-34t, while elite riders and strong climbers can choose to fit 36t+ chainrings.

The two main manufacturers of mountain bike drivetrains are Shimano and SRAM. Both offer fantastic options for mountain bike groupsets, and the choice of one over the other will come down to price points suited to your own budget, availability on the bike you’re looking to buy and personal preference.

Mountain Bike Brakes

The overwhelming majority of modern mountain bikes come with disc brakes, and it’s not difficult to see why. Compared to rim or cantilever brakes, disc brakes offer greater power, modulation (which means how much control the rider has over the range of braking power available) and better heat dissipation. Disc brake systems also move the braking surface away from trail debris and contaminants, which protects against loss of braking power in wet or muddy conditions. Most mountain bikes come with hydraulic disc brakes, but some still come with mechanically-actuated disc brakes (which use a cable to actuate the brake caliper, not hydraulic fluid).

Best Mountain Bike Brands

Jenson USA offers some of the best mountain bikes available on the market today. The range of bikes we offer runs the gamut in terms of the type of mountain bike, frame materials, suspension and drivetrain options and other factors covered in this article. You can start by browsing our full selection of mountain bikes, and while you are now equipped with valuable knowledge on how to go about choosing your next bike, we would be glad to assist you further in making your decision!

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Mountain Bike FAQ's

What is the best brand of mountain bike?

With so many great brands offering many excellent bikes, it would be impossible to pick just one. Some of the best mountain bikes are made by Yeti, Santa Cruz, Specialized, Niner, Ibis, and Orbea (among others carried by Jenson USA). You can’t go wrong with the offerings from any of these brands, and your criteria should prioritize finding the bike that best fits your needs, including geometry, fit and build spec.

What is a good price for a mountain bike?

Bikes come in price points to suit various budgets. From basic and affordable sub- $1000 bikes to super bikes with price tags to reflect the technology and innovation that go into bringing them to market. A quick look at our range of mountain bikes and sorting by price (low to high or vise versa) can give you a good idea of the range of prices to expect in a given bike category.

What is head tube angle?

It is the angle of the bicycle’s fork measured in relation to horizontal. It determines some key handling characteristics including steering input and body positioning over steep terrain (whether the trail is pointing up or down). Slacker head angles (smaller numbers) indicate bike that are designed to inspire more confidence on steep descents. 

Can mountain bikes be used on the road?

You certainly can ride a mountain bike on the road, but being designed for off-road use it will not be as efficient or fast-rolling on smooth tarmac as a dedicated road bike.

How do I choose the right type of mountain bike?

Consider the terrain you most frequently ride. For example, if where you live doesn’t have big mountains and/or lift-access riding, there is little point in buying a downhill bike. XC and trail bikes offer the most versatility in terms of being suitable for a wide variety of trails.

What size bicycle is right for my height?

The quick answer is that 29ers might be better suited to taller riders, while riders of shorter stature might benefit more from the smaller diameter 27.5-inch wheels. Modern geometry and sizing ranges have adapted to allow riders of various body types to choose different wheel sizes at a given frame size. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. 29-inch wheels carry speed more efficiently and have better rollover capability, while 27.5-inch wheels are more agile.  

How much should my mountain bike weigh?

That depends on the frame material, component spec and type of mountain bike! Generally speaking, XC bikes are the lightest, ranging from 19-26lbs, trail bikes will be in the 24-30lbs range, enduro bikes will weigh in at around 30-35lbs while DH and electric bikes will be heavier due to the need for stronger frames and more durable components.

Get Your Wheels Turning

Hopefully this short guide on how to choose a mountain bike and the various different mountain biking's categories has given you insight into a riding style that is right for you. To learn more about other considerations when purchasing a mountain bike, or for help choosing a bike, gear, or components, contact a Gear Advisor for expert help on all things related to biking.

PHONE: (951) 234-7554

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