Mountain Bike Buyers Guide For Beginners: Ultimate Guide For 2023

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Congratulations on having decided to pursue mountain biking!

I’ve made this mountain bike buyers guide for beginners because I have been there myself once and know how difficult it is to find your way through this multifaceted sport as a beginner.

Mountain Bikes For Every Discipline

Though not as vast as an ocean, there is no debate over the fact that mountain biking is quite extensive. It has multiple disciplines, evolved over the years.

Some mountain bike riders are jack-of-all-trades, knowing knowing some advanced skills up their sleeves to excel.

However, most riders prefer to specialize in specific disciplines and train and equip themselves with everything that is necessary to excel in those.

It is entirely a personal choice to decide what you want to do and where to get with the sport.

As a beginner, you would be investing in a mountain bike that would be used for around two years before you make your first upgrade.

Some key factors to consider before upgrading your mountain bike are 1) the trails that you want to ride on and 2) the discipline that you want to specialize in.

Determine what you want to do in the first two years as a mountain biker.

To do this, you must have a basic idea about the various mountain biking disciplines, trails, and the different types of mountain bikes.

Different Mountain Biking Disciplines

Since this is a mountain bike buyers guide for beginners, I will provide you with a basic idea about various mountain biking disciplines.

Mountain biking can be broken down in to five different sub-types. They are listed below

1. Trail Riding

If all you are looking for is some fun and excitement and are not really interested in mastering the advanced mountain biking techniques, then this would be perfect for you.

Trail riding does not limit riding to any specific type of trail or style.

Essentially, trail bikes are made to explore all kinds of terrains and are made to efficiently tackle all basic terrains without hassle.

2. Cross Country Riding

Cross-country or XC riding involves faster riding and calls for climbing prowess.

Riders with a competitive spirit on local trails typically prefer cross-country bikes for their lightweight nature and efficiency.

3. Enduro/All-Mountain Riding

The characteristic features of enduro riding are steep climbs, longer descents, and technical trails.

Enduro riders bike their way through natural and technical trails, tackling several challenges. Enduro rides usually have climbs which can be leg-burning and the descents equally demanding.

Enduro rides typically have timed descents and untimed climbs.

Therefore, enduro bikes mainly focus on getting the riders uphill and helping them perform faster on descents.

Enduro bikes usually have heavier duty components, more suspension travel, slacker head tube, longer wheelbase, and higher bottom brackets to achieve their purpose.

Even though the terms enduro and all-mountain are used interchangeably to denote the same discipline, some brands use the term all-mountain for bikes that fall in between the category of trail and enduro bikes.

4. Downhill Riding

Downhill bikes focus on giving the best performance downhill, wherein the uphill bikes are normally lift-serviced.

That is, the rider along will the bike are carried in a lift, to the top of a hill, for a steep descent which requires great skill and endurance.

The riders take total safety measures before going down the mountain, as they have to ride through rock gardens, ladders, and berms, and it involves jumps of varying degrees.

Even though this style does not focus on extensive pedaling, it is still a great workout due to the rapidity with which different kinds of hurdles are tackled.

Downhill bikes are tough, big bikes with slacker head tubes intended to provide comfort and control while riding downhill at high speeds.

5. Fat-Tired Riding

This type of bike riding is most beginners’ favorite due to the comfort and easiness it offers on rough terrains.

Fat-tire bikes are typically 3.7 to 5″ wide and can be rode beautifully through sand and snow.

In addition, knobby-tired bike riding is gaining popularity as an all-season trail riding discipline.

Mountain Bike Buyers Guide: 4 Key Factors For Beginners

Choosing a beginner mountain bike depends on what you expect from the bike.

Your confidence level and self-awareness with regards to where you stand in mountain biking are crucial in making a decision.

Factors such as the type of suspension, amount of suspension travel, wheel size, type of pedal, and frame materials can all be taken into consideration while choosing a beginner mountain bike.

Lets discuss all the factors mentioned above much more in depth.

1: Understanding Suspension

Difference Between Enduro and Downhill MTB
Suspension Fork

How do you identify the bike for one discipline from the other? One major factor in the suspension of the mountain bike.

Most mountain biking disciplines require different suspension travels to do their job well.

So, let us get familiar with specific terms related to a suspension that will not only help you buy the perfect mountain bike but would also be added to your mountain biking knowledge base.

What is a mountain bike suspension?

Mountain bike suspension aims at reducing the impact caused by rough terrains, thereby providing a controlled, more comfortable, and smoother ride.

These days, most mountain bikes come with suspension.

But there is a difference in the amount of suspension and the type of suspension offered, depending on their use and style of riding.

Front suspension (Hardtail):

A bike with hardtail suspension has a suspension fork in the front.

Hardtail bikes are typically used for cross-country or dirt-trail rides. Hence these are great to ride on trails with no constant roots or rocks.

Since there are lesser moving parts, unlike full-suspension bike, the maintenance is much easier and economical.

Full suspension (Dual Suspension):

A full-suspension or dual-suspension bike has suspension at both front and rear.

Full-suspension bikes are great if you are riding local trails, technical trails, steep descents, and if your trails involve a lot of jumps and berms.

In a nutshell, riders buying full-suspension bikes want to have more fun on the trails with much lesser impact.

Stroke suspension (Dual Suspension):

Stroke suspension refers to the extent to which a rear shock can compress.

The amount of compression is comparatively lesser than the front fork, which is 1.5″ to 3″.

However, the actual wheel travel is typically much higher than the stroke travel since the shock is placed at the end of the frame lever, and the long end of the lever holds the rear wheel.

What type of bike suspension is the best for beginners:

Since this is a mountain bike buyer guide for beginners, you must be interested in learning which would be a worthy investment for you.

Hardtail and Full-suspension bikes complement different styles of riding.

However, the rider’s personal preference also plays a vital role in deciding whether to go for a hardtail or a full-suspension MTB.

A full suspension is preferred by those who want to focus on enjoying the ride and getting used to mountain biking without being bothered about the competitive aspects of the sport.

On the other hand, a hardtail bike is typically preferred by those who have a limited budget or are willing to learn mountain biking the hard way.

Personally, I would suggest a full-suspension bike for beginners.

A full suspension mountain bike gives the beginners a good opportunity to get acquainted with the sport without getting demotivated by impactful experiences and constant crashes.

However, if you think you have a high endurance quotient, you can definitely opt for a hardtail mountain bike, even as a beginner.

What is suspension travel?

The length of the suspension fork may vary in every mountain bike.

The suspension fork, along with the stanchion sizes, determines the amount of impact absorption.

Since its debut in 1990, the front suspension fork has made biking a more comfortable affair.

The early downhill and cross-country bikes incorporated suspension fork of 30-50mm of travel.

Today, it has gone up to 180mm suspension travel and maybe even more.

If you are wondering how much fork travel or suspension travel you should be using, well, it depends on the terrain and the style of riding that you intend to pursue.

Is 120mm travel enough for mountain bike?

120mm travel is sufficient for trail rides. Any suspension that is less than 120 mm is referred to as short-travel suspension.

120 mm suspension travel would be enough to ride on smooth trails and climbing hills.

On the other hand, a suspension of more than 120mm is referred to as long-travel suspension.

A long-travel suspension is beneficial while the terrains are rough, involve descents, and require high-speed riding.

Front suspension benefits

If your bike has a longer front suspension, it indicates a prominence for descending.

Some mountain bikes also offer adjustable travel features, which improves the versatility of the bike.

The flexible travel can be shortened or lengthened based on the demands of the terrain or riding style. The adjustment also has an effect on the steering and control.

A mountain bike with short travel responds better to steering input, which could cause jumpiness while going downhill.

On the contrary, a long-travel bike responds slower to the steering, which leads to more stability while going downhill.

How to choose mountain bikes looking at the suspension travel

Suspension travel is not the only criteria to consider while buying your new mountain bike.

It is an essential factor that would determine your performance on the bike as a beginner.

Therefore, this mountain bike buyers guide for beginners would make more sense to you if you can gain insight into different types of suspension travel and their subsequent type of bikes.

Below is the list:

  • 30-50 mm suspension travel is usually found in kids’ bikes (20″ and 24″ wheel size).
  • 60-80 mm suspension travel is usually found in kids’ bikes with 24″ wheel size.
  • 100-120 mm suspension travel is accommodated by trail and cross-country mountain bikes.
  • 120-160 mm travel is typically found in enduro or all-mountain bikes.
  • 180-200 mm travel is preferred for freeride or downhill bikes.

2: Understanding Mountain Bike Pedals

Clipless Vs Flat Pedal Efficiency Header Image
Mountain Bike Pedals

Pedals are overlooked mainly by beginners, leading to an inefficient riding, which eventually leads to lessened interest in the sport.

Though they may seem insignificant, choosing the right pedals can help you enjoy the ride without worrying much about your feet.

So what are the types of pedals available today? Find out below:

  • Flat pedals
  • Clipless pedals
  • Combo pedals

Flat pedals

Flat pedals are those pedals with a grip that is suitable to hold your mountain biking shoes in place.

A flat pedal can be used on both sides. Below listed are some advantages of flat pedals.

  • Most flat pedals do not require special shoes. However, the shoes that you use must be sturdy and should have a flat bottom.
  • Flat pedals do not hold your feet back, which means bailing off is easy.
  • Typically they less expensive than clipless pedals.
  • Flat pedals are capable of providing improved grip on the trails.

Clipless pedals

Clipless pedals, unlike the name indicated, are actually clipped onto the shoes with the help of cleats that are fixed at the bottom of the shoes.

Riders favor clipless pedals due to the following advantages that they offer:

  • Clipless pedals provide excellent pedal efficiency since the transfer of energy through pedal strokes is consistent.
  • Techniques like jumping bikes, bunny-hopping and climbing descents become accessible since the feet are attached to the pedals.
  • Clipless pedals are usually lighter and smaller than their flat counterparts. Expert riders find the size more suitable for clearing rocks.

Combo pedals

As the name suggests, Combo pedals offer the best of both worlds.

One side of the pedal has flat-pedal features, while the other can be used to attach cleats.

While this is great for those who prefer to have both in one pedal, it is usually heavier than both clipless and flat pedals.

How do I choose the right pedals as a beginner?

Beginners commonly prefer flat pedals due to factors like lesser price and the ability to bail off from the pedal when a need arises.

However, it would be worth it if you could somehow try riding with clipless pedals on or gain some experience before you invest in your own mountain bike.

Ultimately, it depends on your level of confidence, and if you feel clipless pedals would be more appropriate for you on the trails, you can go for it.

But make sure that you have gained enough experience in clipping in and out of the pedals before hitting technical trails, going downhill, or performing techniques like bunny-hopping.

3: Understanding Mountain Bike Wheels

mountain bike wheels
Different Mountain Bike Wheels

What difference does wheel size make on a mountain bike?

Wheel size is an essential aspect of a mountain bike.

The rolling resistance of the wheel depends mainly on its size, and hence riders pay attention to it while buying or upgrading a mountain bike.

If you look at descriptions of mountain bikes, you will see two sizes– the diameter of the wheel and the width of the wheel.

The diameter of an MTB wheel typically ranges from 26 to 29 inches.

The width of the mountain biking wheels range from 2 to 2.8″.

Normally, it is expressed as the diameter x the width of the tire. (For eg: 27.5x 2.4).

In recent times, plus-sized tires, which are 2.8″ to 3″ wide, have also become popular among mountain bikers.

What specs should I look for in a mountain bike wheel?

Like with most things in mountain biking, the wheel size is also chosen based on the rule of thumb.

It all depends on the performance that you expect from your mountain bike, based on the terrains you are planning to ride and the style of riding that you want to adopt.

I will give you an idea about the pros and cons of each of the wheel sizes.

26″ wheels for mountain bikes

26″ wheels have existed since the emergence of mountain bikes during the 1970s.

Even though 26″ wheels are still standard since 27.5″ and 29″ wheels came into existence, they face significant competition.

26-ers are now preferred by those who don’t bother much about swag or hype and do not mind staying traditional.

Below listed are some pros of 26″ wheels:

  • Typically they are less expensive than bigger wheel sizes.
  • They offers awesome agility.
  • Maintenance and spare parts are readily available.
  • They are great for those who love to stay traditional.
  • They are structurally strong than the bigger wheels.

Below listed are some cons of 26″ wheels:

  • No swag (P.S: rebels don’t bother).
  • More rolling resistance, leading to lesser speed on rough terrains.

27.5″ wheels for mountain bikes

Also referred to as 650B wheel, 27.5-ers, though it took some time to gain the hearts of mountain bikers since their emergence in 2012, is now a popular choice.

Being the middle ground between the 26 and 29-inches, the 27.5″ mountain bikes are preferred by those who want the best of both worlds.

Below listed are some pros of 27.5″ wheels:

  • They offer better roll-over than the 26″ bikes.
  • They offer quick acceleration like 26-ers and unlike 29-ers.
  • They are easily maneuverable.

These days, 27. 5 Plus is also available in the market.

The plus version is more comprehensive and offers increased traction. However, they are heavier than the original and less agile.

29″ wheels for mountain bike

Pro riders are amateurs who unanimously favor 29″ wheels and are being used extensively for downhill and cross-country rides.

Interestingly, there has been an increase in the number of racers using 29-ers and eventually winning the races.

Below listed are some pros of 29″ wheels:

  • Rolling resistance is the least.
  • Easier to roll over obstacles, increasing the speed of the ride.
  • Better at carrying momentum once a speed is achieved.
  • Great for climbing hills.
  • Provides more stability in riding, all thanks to the additional rotational mass.
  • The rider can keep their weight more balanced in the middle.

Below listed are some cons of 29″ wheels:

  • Less rapid acceleration.
  • Less agile.
  • Difficult to achieve speed.

Who should use a 26-er mountain bike?

The advantages of 26″ mountain bikes make them suitable for riding downhills and bike parks.

Most riders can use 26-ers without worrying about whether it would fit them.

Apart from those mentioned above, this can be used for any other style of riding, too, if you are a recreational rider and do not expect your mountain bike to be an all-rounder.

This is indeed a beginner-friendly option, as 26-ers are typically less expensive and can be used on all kinds of terrains, though the performance may not be the best.

In addition, easy maneuverability is a plus that would be more in favor of a beginner’s needs.

Who should use a 29-er mountain bike?

The stability, climbing efficiency, and speed makes it suitable for those interested in trail and cross-country riding.

However, taller people fit well on 29″ bikes that are also available in multiple frame sizes.

Who should use a 27.5-er mountain bike?

Those are looking for the best of both worlds.

4: Understanding Mountain Bike Frames

Mountain Bike Frames
Mountain Bike Frame

Do bike frame materials make a difference?

The multiple options available in frame materials may make your bike hunt be very cumbersome.

Here is the basic information on the different types of frame materials i.e. aluminum, carbon fiber and steel.

Aluminum Frame

Below listed are some pros of the aluminum mountain bike frame.

  • Aluminum frames are corrosion-resistant and lightweight.
  • Their strength-to-weight ratio is on the higher side.
  • Being less expensive, riders who are on a budget most often prefer mountain bikes with aluminum frames.

Below listed are some cons of the aluminum mountain bike frame.

  • The stiffness of the frame may give a harsher riding experience.
  • They are not great for those looking for maximum comfort while on the trails.

Carbon-Fiber Frame

Below listed are some pros of the carbon-fiber mountain bike frame.

  • It is the most lightweight mountain bike frame material available today.
  • They are great at soaking up vibrations while riding.
  • They offer more comfortable biking experience.
  • Since carbon fiber frames are not made of metal, they are corrosion resistant too.

Below listed are some cons of the carbon-fiber mountain bike frame.

  • Carbon frames are very expensive.

Steel Frame

Below listed are some pros of the steel mountain bike frame.

  • Highly durable steel frames are amazingly resistant to fatigue.
  • Steel frames can be repaired without any hassle.
  • Steel frames when used on a mountain bike make long rides a bliss.

Below listed are some cons of the steel mountain bike frame.

  • Steel frame is more prone to rust.
  • Steel frame is also very expensive than aluminum.

How Do I Know If My Mountain Bike Is The Right Size?

Sizing For Mountain Bike Buyers Guide
Mountain Bike Sizing

Here’s how you can choose the right size of a mountain bike based on your height:

  • If you are 4’10” – 5’2″ tall, typically, mountain bikes with 13 to 14″ frame size (33-37 cm) or Extra Small size would be most suitable for a comfortable ride.
  • If you are 5’2″ – 5’6″ of height, 15″ – 16″ (38-42 cm) frame size would be apt. This frame size typically offers Small size bikes.
  • If you are 5’6″ – 5′ 10″ tall, 17″ – 18″ (43-47cm) frame size would be ideal. The bike size would fall in the Medium category.
  • If you are 5’10” – 6’1″ tall, 19″ – 20″ (48-52 cm) frame size would be appropriate. These bikes would come under the Large category.
  • If you are 6’1″ – 6’4″ tall, 21″ – 22″ (53-57 cm) frame size would be ideal. This frame size would be seen in Extra Large bikes.
  • If you are 6’4″ – 6’6″ of height, 23″ – 24″(58-61cm) frame size would be ideal. This frame would fall under the Double Extra large category.

Is It Worth Buying An Expensive Mountain Bike As A Beginner?

The price alone should not be your determining factor while buying a mountain bike.

Like with most other things in life, comfort comes with a price tag in mountain bikes too.

The most crucial part of deciding whether you want an expensive mountain bike is introspecting your passion for the sport.

Understanding whether you would be happy with cheap bikes, which would help in improving your skills, or expensive bikes that offer a more comfortable experience on the trails.

Final Thoughts

I hope this mountain bike buyers guide for beginners will help you buy a bike that will be significant in improving your skills, give you blissful riding experiences, and aid in making your biking aspirations come true.

All the best.

P.S. If you found this guide helpful, do check out our deep dive on how to start mountain biking, how to test, upgrade and keep your mountain bike long-lasting.

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Rohan runs Biking KnowHow along with his team. Rohan has been a mountain biker since 2005. His mission is to simplify mountain biking for everyone. All Biking KnowHow content piece is thoroughly fact-checked. Our content is backed up with leading research and inputs from expert cyclists.