Choosing the Right Mountain Bike

The first time I purchased a mountain bike it was a spur-of-the-moment decision as my wife and I were looking to purchase a pair of bicycles that we could ride together. We never gave much thought to how we would use those bicycles and what type of surface we would be riding on. That was several years ago and since that time I’ve become a lot more serious about my riding, and I’ve learned that there’s a lot to consider in making the right mountain bike purchase.

If you’re thinking about purchasing a mountain bike for some serious trail riding, there are several things you need to consider. Depending upon the type of trails you’re going to be riding, you may or may not want a hard tail mountain bike or a full-suspension bike. You’ll also want to consider things such as the type of brakes on the bike you choose, the derailleur on the bike, and the type of material that makes up the frame. All of these things are important, but you’ll also want to consider your budget, as there is no point in considering some of the more expensive options if they’re not realistic for you.

Disc Brakes Versus Caliper Brakes

Traditionally, bikes have been fitted with either a coaster brake system or a caliper brake system. Coaster brakes are the type you typically find on a BMX and are activated by pushing backwards on the pedals. As a kid you probably used this type of braking system all the time; it’s okay, but it’s not ideal if you’re riding on mountain trails.

Chances are as you moved up into your teen years you probably traded in your basic BMX bike with coaster brakes for a road bike or an entry-level mountain bike with caliper brakes. This type of brake typically has a set of pads on both the front and rear rims that are activated by squeezing the brake handles on your handlebars, which in turn close the caliper and push the pads onto the rims to slow your bicycle down.

This type of braking system works much better than coaster brakes, as it allows you to control the amount of braking power you’re using; you can apply the brake to both the front and rear rims, or to one or the other as you see fit. The problem with this type of brake is that dirt or moisture can easily get up underneath the pads and reduce the effectiveness of your braking power – this can be a real problem on mountain bike trails where you’ll often be faced with adverse conditions.

Disc Brakes

Caliper Brakes

In recent years disc brakes have become very popular on mountain bikes. These are activated by applying pressure with brake handles on the handlebars in the same manner as you would activate caliper brakes, but instead of calipers there is a set of disks on both the front and rear wheels – when you apply braking pressure the discs close on either side of the rim to slow you down. This type of brake is much more reliable and remains effective even in wet and dirty conditions. When you’re riding the trails these brakes really are the best choice.

What Type of Rims Are Right for You?

In general, if you’re a serious mountain bike rider you’ll want a decent size set of rims. 26-inch rims may be okay on a starter bike, but you’ll have a hard time keeping up with your experienced rider friends on this type of rim. Ideally you’ll want to look for a bike that has 29-inch rims which allow for a much faster pace on the trails due to their larger wheelbase; these will help you keep up with other experienced riders. It’s also important to make sure that you choose a mountain bike with nice thick tread on the tires that will grip well in off-road conditions.

Hitting the Right Gear

One of the most important pieces of equipment on any mountain bike are the gear shifters and derailleurs. The best names in mountain bike derailleurs are manufacturers such as Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo – if the bike you’re looking at doesn’t include a derailleur made by one of these manufacturers you should probably reconsider your purchase. These manufacturers make gear shifters with quick reaction times, and that can be essential for making quick decisions on tough mountain trails. You’ll also want to look for a bike with a minimum of 18 gears, and preferably 21 gears.

Hardtail Versus Full Suspension

Basically the difference between a hardtail and full-suspension mountain bike is that a full-suspension mountain bike has suspension forks on both the front and rear wheels. The benefit of this type of construction is that it makes for a much smoother ride on a bumpy mountain trail. If you do a lot of riding on difficult trails this is definitely the type of bike you’ll want to consider, but if you only occasionally hit the difficult trails you may be better off with a hardtail bike.
A hardtail bike, as the name implies, features a hard tail – there is no suspension on the rear wheel, only on the front. This type of bike is usually more than adequate for the occasional trail ride and some long rides on paved pathways. Normally, full suspension bikes are more expensive, but if you plan to do a lot of hard-core riding it’s an investment that’s worthwhile.

Rear Suspension

Front Suspension

What’s in a Frame?

Traditionally all bike frames were made out of steel, but in recent years bicycle manufacturers have experimented with a lot of different types of materials to make the bikes lighter and faster. Steel has largely been replaced by aluminum on mid-level mountain bikes, and on more expensive models you’re likely to get into the carbon fiber frames that are even lighter. If you’re a serious rider and you can afford it, carbon fiber is absolutely your best option. It’s a very strong material and very lightweight.

Decisions, Decisions

There certainly are a lot of things to consider when purchasing a mountain bike and that’s why it pays to do your homework. I strongly suggest considering all of the aspects we’ve discussed above and really taking a long hard look at where you do most of your riding before making your purchase decision. A mountain bike is a great investment that can help improve your health and lead to great experiences with both friends and family.

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