The Frame Only
For riders who simply must have the bike
their way, this is the way to go. While you
can plan on spending more on the individual components, the customizability is best
with this option. It’s also a great way to
upgrade a dated frame with the upgraded
components you’re already riding, although
this can end up costing more in the long
run if your new frame uses updated standards that will cause component compatibility issues.
THE BEAUTY OF THE
Many bike companies used to use the
exact same frame for their affordable
mountain bikes as their more expensive
models (the price difference was the bike’s
components), but this practice is almost
obsolete. More expensive frames may use
different construction techniques that lower
their weight and increase rigidity. This is
why it is more important than ever to buy
the bike you want rather than buy a less
expensive model with the dream—and it is
a dream—of upgrading it over the coming
Beginner’s tip: Buy your bike completely
assembled. You can consider building a
bike from the frame up once you have
more knowledge and experience.
There are two major materials used for
THE SUSPENSION DILEMMA
frame construction: aluminum and carbon
fiber. The growing acceptance of carbon
fiber has forced designers of aluminum
frames to up their game. Today’s aluminum
frames are a far cry from the oversized
round tubing of old. Aluminum is shaped
and manipulated into designs that look,
well, like carbon fiber.
Two carbon fiber frames that look iden-
tical can be very different because of the
quality of the carbon fiber used and the
method of manufacturing. If you buy the
cheapest carbon fiber version of a model,
planning to upgrade components later,
you may never achieve the ride quality of
the more expensive versions. Carbon fiber
frames on lower-priced models deliver a
brutal ride quality. Go for carbon fiber only
if you are willing to invest over $3000 in
your new bike.
Beginner’s tip: Under $3000, go alumi-
num. Over $4000, go carbon fiber.
Most mountain bikes are either dual sus-
pension or hardtail (a suspension fork up
front with no suspension in the rear). If your
budget is under $2000, it’s probably best
to 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 adjustability.
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
$3000 or more, buy a dual-suspension
mountain bike. If you are going to spend
less than $2000, buy a hardtail.
THE WHEEL-SIZE DEBATE
There are three wheel sizes to choose
from, and things have sure changed in the
last six years. The traditional 26-inch wheel
size is essentially dead, and is now mostly
reserved for youth bikes. The once “
in-between” wheel size of 27. 5 (or 650b to bike
geeks) has taken the trail by storm on
bikes of all kinds, from XC to DH. The large
29-inch wheel is still going strong.
If you are choosing a hardtail with a budget over $1000, 29- and 27.5-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 dead set on a dual-suspension
bike, stick to 29- or 27.5-inch wheels
for bikes with 4 or fewer inches of travel.
If your riding terrain is rough, rocky and
technical and you are leaning towards more
than 4 inches of travel, limit your selection
Beginner’s tip: 29ers and 27.5ers are
the way to go.
There are two predominant drivetrains
available on current bikes: single ring, and
double ring. This means the crank has
either a single chainring upfront, or two
chainrings with a front derailleur. The triple
chainring setups that were commonplace
just a few years ago have nearly vanished.
Which drivetrain option you choose will
depend on what type of terrain you ride,
what type of bike you’re on, and how
much you’re willing to spend. Single-ring
drivetrains are more common than ever,
with 11 and 12-speed cassettes that can
nearly match the gearing range of a two-ring setup. They are simpler to use, as
they don’t require a front shifter, derailleur,
or an extra cable to operate them. Double
chainring drivetrains still have the advantage when it comes to gear range, but they
tend to be less reliable and more finicky.
It seems the trend this year is toward the
single-ring setup for obvious reasons.
We expect the single-ring drivetrain to be