How To Choose Your First Mountain Bike

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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