Suspension is only worth getting if you're going to be doing a lot of off-road riding
Want to buy a mountain bike? Before you do, read our essential advice on how to make sure you make the right purchase. Whether you're looking to commute to work or get going on entry-level downhill declines, these tips will help you reach a purchase decision.
1. Three main types of mountain bike are available – rigid (with no suspension), hardtail (with a suspension fork at the front) and full-suspension (with both front and rear shock absorbers). There's some more guidance in our Best Mountain Bikes under £500 Buyer's Guide. Pick what makes sense for the terrain you intend to ride.
2. The first step should be deciding on the budget you have available – and remember that you’ll probably need some extra kit to make riding your new bike a practical and enjoyable experience, such as a helmet, gloves and apparel. These days you can find decent lightweight sub-£500 mountain bikes with aluminium frames, though the more you spend the lighter the bike is likely to be and therefore easier it is to climb and accelerate on.
3. You will also need to factor in a bare bones maintenance budget of about £100 a year (this breaks down to a couple of cheap tyres, a new chain, a couple of sets of brake blocks and some workshop labour) – and even more if you plan to do plenty of off-road riding. You could save yourself some of this by doing the work yourself, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and you feel confident enough to give it a try.
4. In the UK, the Cycle to Work initiative has encouraged employer-purchasing schemes combined with government tax breaks. This makes it possible to treat yourself to some serious equipment, worth up to £1,000, and feel that you’re getting something back from the taxman at the same time – always a bonus. If your company isn’t in the Cycle to Work scheme or you’re self-employed, creative financing is well established in the bike trade. Many bigger shops and online retailers offer good – and often zero per cent – credit deals that have helped countless cyclists access good equipment with relative ease by spreading the cost.
5. Your local IBD (that’s ‘independent bicycle dealer’ in trade jargon) is a good place to buy, especially if you take a long-term view on warranty and after-sales service. Person-to-person contact should ensure that you don’t get lost in the bike-purchasing woods.
6. Before you step over the threshold of your IBD, make sure you have a firm idea of the extent of your budget. Keep in mind that most local shops will have deals on offer depending on the time of the year, and that they’re always keen to move last year’s stock.
7. There’s no doubt that a lot of the best deals are to be found on the internet. Now that buying online is done with barely a flicker of concern, you should be able to find plenty of good deals. But remember to set aside at least £30-£50 to get things sorted mechanically during the first month because, unlike purchases made at your IBD, you won’t be able to send an internet-bought bike back for its required first service.
8. Ebay and other auction sites are another obvious online option (read our essential tips to buying on eBay if you're doing this). However, we would only recommend purchasing here if you’re an experienced mechanic.
9. Alloy, steel, aluminium or carbon? The frame material will largely be dictated by the price, but expect either steel or aluminium to cost up to about £300. From this point onwards, oversized aluminium tubing is pretty much dominant. As you head towards the £1,000 mark, you might start seeing the appearance of carbon in the fork, and possibly portions of the frame. Steel is the most forgiving of the trio, and will tolerate the most neglect, as long as you don’t let it rust. Aluminium takes hard knocks in its stride but has to be watched more closely after about three years or more of use as it has a limited fatigue life. Carbon is the most temperamental as any cracks or frame damage from careless use usually mean the bike is toast. It should only be considered if you’ve got a long commute on good roads or are planning more serious riding beyond your everyday jaunt to work.
10. 26-inch wheel urban bikes are basically an offshoot of mountain bikes, combining the stouter characteristics of an MTB frame with slightly smaller and more resistant wheels. Fitted with faster and narrower tyres than their knobbly counterparts, they almost match hybrid bikes for speed, while offering better kerb- and pothole-hopping capability. If you don’t want to worry about the consequences of abusive urban riding conditions or you’ve always been tough on machinery, this type of bike is the way to go.
11. Such is the state of refinement and advanced technology in bikes today that virtually any widget or feature you could think of has been designed, tried, tested and put on the market, offering what amounts to an overflowing buffet of choice. Consequently, another way to fine-tune your bike is to think of some of the features you want and ask the helpful salesperson if that combination is already available off the peg.
12. Suspension forks are worth considering if you have to deal with really rough stuff. Of course, if you’re using your bike for leisure-time off-roading, suspension becomes more of a consideration, but otherwise it tends to add extra weight and make life generally more difficult if you live in a hilly area. Steer clear if the main aim is commuting.
13. Internally geared hubs are bulletproof and require little maintenance. They’re available in various models with between 3 and 14 gears, but will add weight and cost to the bike. Derailleur gear systems are more widespread, offer up to 30 gears and are generally lighter – but because they’re more exposed to the elements, they require more frequent maintenance. With regular checks, though, derailleurs are the way to go for ease of riding.
14. You might want to make sure that the bike you’re getting is equipped with sufficient and correctly placed eyelets (attachment points that are built into the frame) to install a rack of some sort, along with permanent mudguards, which are a must-have in this country. Unless you want to get dirty and you're not thinking of doing any commuting, that is.
15. We’d strongly recommend you don’t buy any bike until you’ve checked it for size. Like with clothes and shoes, sizing tends to vary between manufacturers, so while you might need a bike with a 54cm frame from one brand, you might require a slightly smaller or bigger size from another. You should stand over the bike with both feet flat on the ground, legs close together. Lift the bike up or look at the amount of clearance: you should be able to lift the front and back wheels evenly off the ground by about 7-8cm, which should give the equivalent clearance between your crotch and top-tube. Mountain bikes tend to have designs with a sloping top-tube, meaning the frames are now smaller in size than they would have been in the past when about 2-3cm of clearance was the norm.
16. Equally important is the reach, or distance from the saddle to the bars; a test ride will help you to determine if the position on the bike of your choice is going to be comfortable or not, and experienced shop staff are trained to help you achieve this correctly.