Anyone who spends time riding mountain bikes soon finds there’s plenty of people who want advice on how to buy ‘the right bike for them’. I’ve noticed in particular that with the government’s Cyclescheme (or Cycle2Work) there’s plenty of people who have noticed just how cheap it is for them to buy a proper bike via their employer without necessarily knowing what a proper bike would be.
It’s tempting to say local bike shops are the best place to start but that’s not always the case. Commercial pressures are such that many people can feel intimidated or obligated to buy the first bike they see, especially if they haven’t ridden a bike in years. The following is advice I gave to a female colleague recently that struck me as being useful to all, not just potential women riders.
The first thing to note is you really need to try as many different bikes as possible—some shops provide demo models for the weekend and it really is worth taking advantage of this. Not only do you get to see if you really like the idea of a bike but trying different bikes lets you understand what feels comfortable for you.
Even if you have the maths skills of an actuary, simply looking at a spec sheet will just send you crazy without telling you anything about how a bike really feels. For more experienced riders there may be useful information to gain but for beginners, just try as many bikes as possible. That’s how the experienced riders became experienced after all!
With mountain bikes in general, you have two options, a full suspension bike with suspension front and rear, or a hardtail with front suspension only (or sometimes none at all). A sensible budget of £300 can get you a serviceable hardtail starter bike from a well known brand but to take full advantage of the Cyclescheme (or Cycle2Work) savings I’d recommend you start looking at bikes in the £500 to £800 price range—remember that if you have 40% tax liability you can save around 50% of that price in any case. Reliable brands include Trek, Specialized, Kona, Marin and Scott to name a few.
With that kind of budget you could get a well specced hardtail that will see years of service or (at the upper end) a reasonably competent full suspension model. Full suspension bikes will provide more comfort but will need more in terms of maintenance and likely have a slight weight penalty. Different terrains also tend to favour different bikes, with full suspension being particularly useful in rocky areas.
I would look for 100mm (4″) of suspension travel at the front which would be ideal for most trails and allow rougher riding if you get that keen. Good quality fork brands include Rock Shox, Fox and Marzocchi. If you decide on a full suspension bike then I’d expect that to have 100mm at the back too although modern bikes are steadily increasing the amount of suspension travel they offer.
If you have a choice, go for a better fork and lower spec elsewhere on the bike as components will wear out eventually and can be improved once you know how much and what kind of use you will make of the bike.
For brakes I’d wouldn’t recommend anything other than hydraulic disc brakes. They stop you every time, require very little maintenance and give you much better modulation (control) than any other type. Look for Avid, Hayes, Formula or Hope brands and you won’t go far wrong.
Gears are unlikely to be anything other than 9 speed (27 in total) except at the lower end of the budget. There are many different models but they basically do the same thing, losing weight as you get more expensive. I’d expect these to wear out at some point anyway, so don’t get too hung up as you can upgrade individual components when they do. Brands are SRAM, which have very positive feeling gearchanges and are very reliable or Shimano, the de-facto standard with slick gearchanges.
Specific tips for women riders
Women (surprise surprise) have specific needs from their male counterparts. Stating the obvious, women tend to have longer legs in proportion to their bodies, have shorter upper bodies, narrower shoulders and smaller hands (sorry for the anatomy lesson!).
What this translates to is female specific bike geometry to put the handlebars nearer and slightly higher for a given frame size, narrower handlebars to suit narrower shoulders, thinner handlebar grips for smaller hands (some brakes have levers with adjustable reach for the same reason) and female specific saddles. It all adds up to feeling much more confident on a bike.
On the subject of saddles, don’t be mislead by the width of a saddle – it all depends on your sit bones (i.e. the bit you actually sit on). The saddle should support these but they are varying distances apart on different people which is not immediately apparent as the size of your backside is no indicator. Some men have small backsides but wider sit bones, so again try before you buy and make sure the shop is happy to swap saddles until you are happy.
OK, that’s all I have to say. Hopefully after reading this it will give people a bit more confidence to go out and buy a new bike. It’s a great sport and people are always willing to help but remember to press the jargon alarm if it all gets too much!