Mountain bikes are either dual-suspension or hardtail (a
suspension fork up front with no suspension in the rear).
If your budget is under $2000, limit your selection to hardtail mountain bikes (with aluminum frames). There are
similarly priced dual-suspension bikes, but they will be
heavier, and the suspension components will lack fine-tune
Dual-suspension mountain bikes are designed to use 3. 5
to 6 inches of rear-wheel travel (more for downhill-specific
bikes). If your budget is above $3000, you should be looking for a bike that offers 4 to 5 inches of travel front and
rear. A cross-country race bike usually has less travel than
this, and a bike designed for downhill usually has more. Be
open to a hardtail bike as an option.
Beginner’s tip: If you are willing to spend $2000 or
more, buy a dual-suspension mountain bike. If you are
going to spend less than $2000, buy a hardtail.
The vast majority of mountain bikes come with either
26-inch wheels (the traditional size) or 29-inch wheels (a
larger diameter size that has become very popular). To
make matters more confusing, a third wheel size is now
available from a growing number of bike companies. The
27-inch wheel (A.K.A. 27. 5 or 650b) falls somewhere
between the two popular wheel sizes.
Since the major brands (Specialized, Trek, Giant and
Cannondale) have taken a wait-and-see attitude to the new
wheel size, you will not find them in large quantities at
your local bike shop. That doesn’t mean you should cross
the in-betweener off your list. A rapidly growing number
of bike companies are offering 27ers, and we are very
impressed with the ride quality of the 27ers we have tested
to date (from Jamis, KHS and Scott). You owe it to yourself
to demo a 27er before buying a new bike.
If you are choosing a hardtail with a budget over $1000,
29- and 27-inch wheels add so much to the ride quality that it
is hard to imagine a situation where we could recommend 26-
inch wheels. If you are spending $500 (or below), 26ers make
sense because their weight (especially wheel weight) will be
lower than an inexpensive 29er’s (but not that big of a difference from the 27).
If you are headed down the dual-suspension path, stick to
29- or 27-inch wheels for bikes with 4 or less inches of travel.
If your riding terrain is rough, rocky and technical, and you
are leaning toward more than 4 inches of travel, limit your
selection to 26- and 27-inch-wheeled bikes.
Beginner’s tip: Twenty-seven or 29-inch wheels will make
you a better rider faster.
If you are confused about frame materials, suspension and
wheel size, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The modern-day
mountain bike drivetrain (the bike’s gears) is in a state of
flux, but you will find the right gearing from what is available today.
There are three predominant drivetrains available on most
2013 bikes: 2x10, 3x10 or 3x9. This means the crank has two
or three chainrings matched to 10 or nine cogs on the rear
wheel. When choosing drivetrains, you have to factor in the
wheel size, because that’s what your drivetrain will be pushing (along with you and your bike’s weight).
SRAM, one of the two major suppliers of complete drivetrains, has recently introduced a 1x11 drivetrain. We do not
have more than a few hours on the new drivetrain and cannot draw a conclusion at this time. Let the early adopters try
this out and wait for the second generation.
If you have chosen to buy a bike with 26-inch wheels, go
the 2x10 route. The smaller-diameter wheels and tightly
spaced drivetrain are well matched. If you are going for 29-
inch wheels, base your drivetrain decision on the bike’s
Rounding out your decision: A third wheel size is something every potential bike buyer has to consider. There
are a few questions to ask yourself to narrow your choice. In most cases, bigger is better.