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Soon after getting bitten by the mountain biking bug, you will be ready to purchase your first “real” mountain bike. The myriad of prices, models and types of mountain bikes available makes the process not unlike buying a car. This guide will give you the info you need to be an informed buyer with realistic expectations about what you need and what you can afford.

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Photo: Greg Heil

First, establish a budget.

Modern mountain bikes can cost as much as $12,000, and while these bikes are super cool, there is no need to spend that much to get a bike that will allow you to have a safe and fun ride on the trail.

Penny Pincher: $500 or Less

While you will have some pretty strict limitations in this price range, the good news is that you can find a decent bike for less than $500. In this class, you will want to look for an entry level hardtail from a name brand. You can also look for a mid-level hardtail that is used or a previous model year leftover.

Avoid full suspension bikes in this price range. If they are new they will be a low quality “store” brand, and if they are used they will likely be beat up and end up costing you more in repairs than if you had just bought a nicer new one. My first real mountain bike was a Specialized Rockhopper hardtail purchased off Craigslist for $150. One year later I had to replace the fork, but I am still riding it as my work commuter to this day, 12 years and thousands of miles later.

Budget-Minded: $500 – $1,000

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In this range you can score a pretty nice hardtail, perhaps even a 29er, or start looking at entry-level full suspension bikes. Watch for used rentals or Craigslist deals to get even more bike for your money.

See Also: How To Buy a Used Bike Online: A Practical Guide

Mid-Range: $1,000 – $1,500

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Once you get over $1000, options open up in the clearance and model year close-out choices. There are a number of full suspension bikes and really nice hardtails in this range. These bikes will start to have the same frames as the pricier models, just with cheaper components. Choosing one of these sets you up to upgrade as needed with better parts.

See Also: Buyer’s Guide: Budget Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Upper Mid-Range: $1,500 – $3,500

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With a little shopping around, you can buy a bike in this category that will last you for years. Most local shops will have race-ready hardtails and decent all mountain or trail full suspension models in this price range. You will also start to see carbon fiber models.

See Also: Buyer’s guide: Budget Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

Rides with Mark Zuckerberg: $3,500+

Photo: Sammy Stark/@rockpilgrim

Photo: Sammy Stark/@rockpilgrim

If you have this kind of money to drop on a bike, you don’t really need to worry about price per se. You will be more concerned with getting a bike that exactly matches your riding style, or perhaps even two bikes for different riding disciplines.

Next, decide what type of riding you want to do.

For simplicity, we’ll break mountain bikes down into two main categories:

  • Trail
  • Downhill

Be realistic about your needs here. If you spend most of your time riding local trails and make 1-3 trips to lift serviced trail areas per year, then buying a downhill bike might not be the best idea. A better approach would be to buy a decent trail bike and rent a downhill bike as needed. Again, don’t worry too much if your budget is thin. For most riding on marked trails, any good quality hardtail will get you out there and back safely. Just remember, many riders hit a lot of trails before full suspension was ever invented! On the flipside, if all your riding is shuttled or lift serviced, then a freeride or downhill bike makes perfect sense, assuming you have the budget for it.

A Note About Fat Bikes

Since this article was first published, fat bikes have blasted onto the mountain bike scene in a big way! These days, many budget-minded riders who can only afford to own and maintain one bike are choosing to ride a fat bike year-round, in all conditions.

Fat bikes are more than capable of riding dry, hardpacked singletrack, but they are also great for riding groomed snow trails in the dead of winter. Not only that, but fat tires can be more forgiving than a standard mountain bike tire, meaning that less finesse is often required to ride more difficult trails–a boon to the beginner mountain biker. If you live in an area where the ground stays covered in snow for long periods of time, a fat bike may well be the perfect choice for your first mountain bike.

Putting it Together

Once you have your budget established and your riding style defined, it’s time to try out some bikes!

For this purchase it is highly recommended buying local and avoiding online, direct-to-consumer companies. Whether you buy new, used, or dealer leftover stock, it is imperative that you throw a leg over your first bike before you drop your hard-earned coin. Spend time at local bike shops taking bikes out for short test rides in the parking lot. Once you have narrowed down your choices to a few serious contenders, see if you can do a paid demo on a real trail for a real ride. Also check with the local shop for “demo days,” where the vendors will set up at a local trail with different mountain bike models to test. If you are buying used, you may have to judge the best you can by riding the bike around a parking lot.

Ready to Purchase

So you have found the perfect bike! It fits you, it’s within your budget, and you can’t wait to bring it home. Before getting all giddy and handing over your money, do just one more bit of research.

If Buying New: Make sure to get the terms of any warranty that comes with the bike. If it’s a model year hold over, make sure the warranty starts when you buy it, rather than when the shop put it in inventory. Also ask about any follow-up tune-ups. Most shops offer free tune-ups for 30 to 90 days after the purchase date in order to help you with anything that may have shifted during the break-in process. Some shops may even offer lifetime tune ups.

If Buying Used: On any used bike, even from a friend, look the bike over very carefully. Inspect the frame for any cracks. Make sure the wheels are true. Look for weather cracks on the tires. Check for frayed or stretched cables. Make sure the suspension is smooth and doesn’t creak, squeak, or leak. Check all fittings, bearings, and suspension linkages for any play that shouldn’t be there. If possible, it’s not a bad idea to have a local shop look over a used bike for you. The important thing is to avoid spending all the money you have on a bike, only to find out it needs a several hundred dollar repair.

Photo: Michael Paul

Photo: Michael Paul

Hopefully this helps take some of the mystery out of shopping for your first mountain bike. Just remember to establish your budget, be realistic about your riding style, and ask lots of questions from the shop or private seller. And once you have that perfect first bike, get out and ride it!

Last updated by Greg Heil on June 21, 2016 at 8:39am MDT.

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# Comments

  • trek7k

    Great tips. I think most new riders will get the best bang for their buck with a hardtail but that’s just me. For the same price you’ll get better components on a hardtail than a full suspension bike meaning you’ll spend less time on maintenance and less $$ on upgrades later. A hardtail 29er in the $1,500 price range should be a great bike for many years.

    It’s also a great time to find deals on mountain bikes with 26″ wheels. For example, I know a guy who recently sold his 2010 Trek Top Fuel (a ~ $7,000 build) for $2,200 because he was
    “upgrading” to a 29er. He felt lucky to even get $2,200 because the market for 26ers has all but dried up. Even bike shops are unloading new 26ers at firesale prices. 29ers are great but that doesn’t make 26ers penny-farthings. Take advantage of the imbalance while it lasts!

  • mtbikerchick

    Another great place to look is at bike shops with rental fleets. Sometimes you can find good, 1-year old bikes that were rentals and are now being sold. I got my first one, a Rocky Mountain Element, full-suspension, for around $800 from a local bike shop. It had been in the rental fleet and was being sold. It last me for 3-4 years and was a great first bike for me.

  • fleetwood

    Nice write up. I remember buying my first bike for real trail riding. It nearly drove me nuts.

    I roll 26.

  • RoadWarrior

    I agree, don’t drop a big wad on your first bike. Like trek7k says there is always someone “upgrading” or in my case picked up a almost new 2004 Anniversary Edition Stumpjumper for 1/2 price, just because the guy who originally bought it decided it wasn’t really what he wanted.
    Ask around, a lot of people have bikes just sitting around that they bought, and don’t ride, and have pretty muchforge tonn about.
    Make sure you get the right size, a bike thadoesn’t’t fit will never be any fun.

    @trek7k would that guy happen to have a Rockhopper he wants to sell. need something to trash around in the back yard with, and don’t want to start crying if I break it.

  • maddslacker

    @mtbikerchick: that is an excellent source, and I mentioned it under the $500 – $1000 section.

  • Spartan

    excellent post Madd. I’m a veteran noob and have learned an amazing amount of stuff since I started about a year ago…..(wish I knew then what I know now..as the saying goes)… I saw this bike on one of mtbgregs posts a while back and based on my limited info…I think “on paper” this bike seems like best deal you can get for a NEW hard tail 29er…

    http://www.airbornebicycles.com/products/110-airborne-guardian-29er.aspx

    I don’t have one and don’t know what shipping costs are…But it looks really good based on the components and Hyd brakes etc..

    Only thing is you won’t have any support buying it off the internet. If it breaks and you have a warranty claim…you have to send it back via mail etc.. and could be sitting on the sidelines for a long time w/out a bike…I have a riding partner who bought a Gravity 29er bike really cheap like $450 or 500 on the internet about 4 months ago and its now starting to break down on him…spokes popping etc..Frame is good though…Now he has to start shelling out clams to the bike shop..

    If I could impart any wisdom from my experiences… one thing I would say to a Noob bike buyer is go to a LBS (local bike store) and talk to them and build a relationship and make them make a deal with you..because when stuff breaks in the beginning you won’t know how to fix it.. I got my LBS to give me free lifetime maintenance with the purchase of a very discounted new 29er …so if something breaks I only pay for the part and they provide the labor for free…believe me you will break parts in the beginning…

    Had I not received such a great deal from my LBS the only other thing I would have done was to buy a used one…However, I wanted a 29er and because of my size I needed a 21″ or larger frame. This made buying a used one virtually impossible due to the of the lack of 29ers up for sale in that 21″ size frame… SO, if you can buy a used one THAT FITS YOU go that route..you will learn a ton and that knowledge will be useful on your second bike when you really know what you want and need..

    Oh and one more thing…Keep coming to this website because the knowledge that gets dropped on here is amazing….I learn tons from other people questions and the responses they get from the huge brains and great people on this site…
    –“Check out the big Brain on Brad”

  • Bubblehead10MM

    My 2 cents and experience is that if you got the bug already, get all the bike you think you might want, and do it the first time, or your gonna be pining away for the next ride. I know I could live with HT, just don’t want to. 🙂 so I ended up trading a ruffed up 6 month old bike in on a dually. I LOVE this bike, but still kinda wonder if I couldn’t do better, but you kinda only get one shot at this, until you can save up some $$. Which was my point, even for private sale bikes don’t hold their value well so get enough the first time.
    I didn’t get to test ride on a trail but the steps out front were a good start.

  • Jared13

    Great article, Maddslacker.

    I think your advice also works well when buying your second bike. Those with larger quivers can comment on buying bikes 3+ 😀

    I found another way to test ride your next bike is by renting it while on vacation. I was able to ride a 29er FS for a week and I was able to see how it handled different terrain instead of getting just one or two rides on it like during a demo day. My only complaint was they were not my local trails so I couldn’t really compare how a 26 FS bike would have handled the same trails.

    • Salsaprime

      This is exactly what I did as well. I went to Tahoe last summer to ride the legendary Flume Trail, and I rented a Giant XTC 1 29″ from a shop up there. I’m a big guy so I prefer hardtails, and I just fell in love with the ride. It’s normally a $2000 bike, but I snagged it for half of that when they sold their fleet at the end of the summer. I was 1 of 3 people who rented that bike so I knew it didn’t get thrashed around a lot. It was a hell of a deal, haha. 😀

  • AK_Dan

    Nice article buddy.

    The number of options available to the new rider out there is pretty daunting to say the least.
    Unfortunately I see quite a few new riders getting a little bummed after a week of riding a new bike, here, accept this fact; Its your first (real) MTB = there will be a learning curve, guaranteed. We have all been there, a lot of us are still there, its part of the allure of this fantastic sport.
    Buying a bike that does not fit you cannot be fixed.
    As long as the bike you purchase is designed for the type of riding you want to do and the frame fits YOU properly – everything else is customizable. Hopefully its going to be a long and although sometimes frustrating, a very rewarding journey.
    Welcome in here.

  • mtbgreg1

    I wouldn’t say that you should necessarily rule out the direct-to-consumer model. As long as you know you’re getting the right size, a bike from a reputable company, and the right type of bike to fit your intended riding style, you can get a great deal buying online–sometimes getting a new bike with new components for what you might pay for a used one.

  • De_Bruin

    Hello. Can someone advise me, is Giant Revel 0 good for an entry level hardtrail xcountry bike? I live in Brussels, Belgium and i am new to mountain biking. I’m planning to get my first bike within this couple of weeks. Kindly advise. Thank you!

  • backhillbiker

    thank you, this was very helpful when looking for my first mtb, i could only afford a trek 3500 but they had trek 3700 last year model for the same price. sweet deal!

  • toxic_

    Bikesdirect.com (where Spartan’s friend bought his 29er)— is a reasonable choice, but it’s like a used car. You save money up front but you should stash half the savings for increased maintenance and repairs. Particularly if you don’t know much about bike repair I would be careful about ordering from them.

    That said, if the choice is between a bottom end major brand mtb and bikesdirect I don’t know which one I would choose. My first MTB was a $600 Cannondale, and I’m a big guy— apparently so big that broke the front wheel twice in the first month (and that’s with it being out of commission for a week and a half for repairs!). The entry level bike had single walled wheels, and when I switched to double walled I stopped killing wheels. The $300 bikesdirect MTB, for all its flaws, came with double walls.

    Also, I still see MTB with rim brakes at some bike stores— don’t buy those. Disc brakes are well worth the upgrade and you will almost certainly save yourself a lot of pain if you drop the extra cash.

    My two cents.

  • Ironked

    I got bitten when taking a hybrid on a fairly flat trail near here, then failing miserably on a little more challenging trail. I knew I needed a real mtb. Not knowing whether I would like or stick with it, I decided to troll Craigslist instead of settling for a cheapie. I ended up with a sweet 20 year old 26″ rigid for $60, put a little tuning and a few accessories into it and have had the time of my life on it learning old skool tree threading and rock & root hopping. Find out if you like it before dropping a month’s rent. The advice is probably better put to use for the second bike.

  • mongwolf

    First and foremost … … Fit. Fit. Fit. It so important. Learn about fit before buying and even take a prospective bike to a LBS before buying it to make sure it is a good fit for you. Get the advice of an expert. Second, the mountain bike market has gotten so complicated, that I would recommend, if possible, a new rider should have an older rider help him sift through the market. Ultimately, you the rider must make you own decision. But having an experienced rider as a friendly consultant could share you a lot of confusion and even grief over a purchase. Third, buying used really is a great way to get a lot more bike for the money. But again, it might be wise to have an experienced friend help you out.

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