If you’re struggling to know how best to spend your pennies on getting the best mountain bike, here’s everything you need to know and more to get you matched with your perfect MTB.
From what type of mountain bike to opt for, to the levels of components you should expect for your budget, Bex Hopkins has got it all covered.
How to buy the best mountain bike
Before you jump in with both feet and rush off to visit a shop, we recommend you have a good think about what type of riding you’ll be doing, and where you’d like to be in a year’s time.
It’s practically a given that once you get started, you’ll get hooked and a year down the line, you don’t want to regret buying a hardtail, when what you really needed was a full-suspension. Look at mountain bikes that are suitable for the level of riding you realistically think you’ll be at within a year, rather than your current skill level. It never hurt anyone riding a ‘better’ bike, if anything it helps you progress faster.
We highly recommend you book yourself onto a Demo Day - sign up, pay a small fee and you get to test ride a couple of bikes on some decent trails. It’s a fun day out and you get some personal attention from the staff to set the bike up for you and help you along the way. You can usually book the mountain bike and size in advance and most demo days offer some women specific mountain bikes so you can compare them alongside the ‘blokes’ bikes.
You can of course test ride a bike from a store, but it’s never quite the same riding around a car park. Having an hour on varied terrain will give you a better feel for the bike. Remember to take your credit card along to demo days – as a deposit against the bikes you test, it’s a standard procedure.
[part title="Types of mountain bikes"]
Most hardtail mountain bikes are equipped with front suspension forks and open up opportunities for general riding off-road - the forks provide a more comfortable and stable ride over rough terrain.
The more fork travel (suspensions movement) there is, the better the bike will be at coping with uneven trails. You can expect anything from 75mm to 100mm of travel, this amount of suspension enables a fast ride, minimises weight and makes sure every ounce of pedal power is used to propel the bike forward. Most hardtails are used for a mixture of terrain and can handle almost any trail except the seriously rocky, technical descents. This type of terrain is better suited to a full suspension bike and makes for a more comfortable ride.
Some hardtails are designed for urban use and come with rigid forks like you’d see on a city or road bike, these are usually referred to as ‘rigid’ bikes. There are no hard and fast rules that say you can’t ride a rigid bike off-road, but in all honesty they ride better on smooth terrain. Rigid bikes are built to last and can handle the odd bit of rough and often come with eyelets to fix mudguards and pannier racks too, great for commuting.
2. Full suspension
Full suspension bikes have some kind of rear suspension system as well as suspension forks. There are lots of categories or sub-divisions used to separate the broad and varied full suspension market. Those with less suspension travel are aimed towards XC and trail riders looking for a comfortable yet fast and lightweight bike, while at the other end of the spectrum are Freeriders and Downhillers who want loads of suspension travel to carry them over rocks, jumps and down steep trails but not necessarily ride back up.
There are various types of suspension design, based around the position of the shock, pivot points and linkage bars. It would be a rare occurrence these days to find a suspension design that doesn’t work well, except on really cheap suspension bikes – you’d be better spending your money on a quality hardtail.
We haven’t got room for an in-depth look into suspension settings here, another article will follow on this. However, in the mean time, air shocks offer women, who are often lighter and smaller riders, better adjustability when setting pressures and rebound rates. These are important to get right so you use the suspension in the correct way. Once you know the settings that work for you it’s easy to maintain and tweak, depending on the type of riding you want to do.
As with road bikes, in fact all bikes, the frame materials span the realms of price and space age materials. Most are constructed from aluminium tubing, a lightweight and strong material, common across all price points except the very highest. At the top end, we find titanium and carbon fibre frames, they are lighter weight and have better properties for vibration damping and ride performance. You’ll pay considerably more for the pleasure though. There aren’t loads of steel framed mountain bikes about these days, they are rather niche and in our opinion rather lovely, usually found on hardtails rather than full suspension bikes.
[part title="The components"]
Mountain bikes usually come with either Shimano or SRAM groupsets, we’re talking brakes, gears, derailleurs and other moving parts.
Shimano’s groupsets range from the budget Altus through, Acera, Alivio, Deore, Deore LX, SLX, Deore XT, the tough and Saint and right up to the top end XTR. SRAM have eight ranges, starting at X3, X4, X5, then on to the race worthy X7, X9, X0, X and XX1 ranges. Interestingly we see very less SRAM groupsets on women specific bikes, however they are equally as commendable as Shimano's offerings so don’t shy away from them.
There are number of manufacturers, including the main groupset manufacturers Shimano and SRAM, who make cranksets (that’s the chainring and crank combination), and as with all components the cheaper the bike the heavier the parts tend to be.
It used to be that all mountain bikes (except DH race bikes) had 3 front chain rings, but to save weight and increase efficiency when changing gears, double and even single chainrings are now popular. To accommodate the full range of gears required for off-road riding the rear gearing has been modified accordingly. Lots of bikes are still likely to have triple chainsets and they work perfectly fine so don’t be put off.
The choice is either rim or hub based; rim brakes tend to be affected by rain and mud, whereas hub or disc brakes offer more reliable, stronger and accurate braking, especially the hydraulic brakes which work with stunning efficiency. The budget oriented cable operated discs can be heavier so take care on this front, they also don’t work as effectively as hydraulic brakes. There is a good competitive market for hydraulic disc brakes, namely Hope, Avid, Hayes, Shimano, Tektro, and Magura to name but a few.
You're spoilt for choice, with three sizes to choose from on the wheel front.
Back when life was simple, there were only 26" wheels for mountain bikes. Now you get the choice of 29" wheeled bikes too. We dedicated a whole article to help you decide between 26" and 29" wheel mountain bikes, so we'd recommend checking out the Buyers' Guide first.
To add to the confusion, there's also a new size called 650b, that’s about 27.5" in old money, and is seen as a neat compromise especially for smaller riders who may feel unwieldy on the bigger 29er wheels.
So which should you choose? 2013 has seen an explosion in the number of female specific 29er bikes, with some manufacturers offering as many models as for the 26" bikes. The only way to work out what’s best for you, is to test ride a couple, ignore how they look and go purely on how you enjoy the ride. It may seem obvious, but you can’t switch wheel sizes between bikes, as the frame and fork need to be specific to the wheel size - so for now you’ll need to choose either 26 or 29 inch!
[part title="Budget: What should you expect for your money?"]
It is possible to get a good beginner’s mountain bike for £500-600. This is a proper mountain bike that will take you up-hill and down-dale with no worries. The frame will be an aluminium hardtail and surprisingly there will be a reasonable choice of both 26" and 29" options even in the women specific ranges.
Amazingly you can expect to have disc brakes, something like the Tektro Women’s Draco or HDC 300 hydraulic disc brakes, with adjustable reach levers ideal for smaller hands. You should expect groupsets like Shimano Altus and Shimano Acera, most likely a mixture of the two.
The fork is likely to be from the SR Suntour XCT or XCR ranges, with 80-100mm travel and although won’t be air sprung, should have spring weights designed for women or lighter riders. Look for a lock-out feature which allows you to turn off the suspension movement. The forks in this price range won’t be particularly lightweight and if you are wanting a more dynamic and tunable fork you should look to spend over £700-800.
Don’t even consider a full suspension bike in this price range, it will be heavy, clunky and the suspension won’t work properly.
Around the £800 mark, you’ll start to get lighter, enhanced frame quality that’s likely to be fully butted, have an integrated headset and performance geometry, allowing for a better ride. The fork will not only be light, but more tuneable for your specific weight and ride requirements, you should expect a lockout facility here.
We see the RockShox XC 28 fork cropping up on 29er bikes in this price bracket. In terms of groupset, there will be some Shimano Acera/Alivio, but you should expect more Deore to be included.
Broadly speaking, most bikes in this range are still hardtails, with the odd exception. The majority are aluminium and things start looking better on the scales too. The big step up is seen in the componentry and fork, look out for an influx of Shimano Deore/SLX and maybe some XT components. Forks are much lighter once you step over the £1000 price tag, the RockShox Reba RL fork has plenty of adjustment or look at the SR Suntour Raidon RL is air sprung, the choice gets quite extensive now.
Check out our 6 of the best women’s mountain bikes around £1000 feature for a wider range of bikes to pick from.
Over £1700 we start to see the start of the serious contenders in the full suspension market, there are some great 120mm travel bikes for serious trail riding, with RockShox Recon Gold fork and Monarch RL rear shock as good examples of suspension.
Shimano SLX and Deore components abound with Shimano M446 hydraulic disc brakes as a good example of what to expect. At £2000 you will be looking at a lightweight full susser, still aluminium framed but with mid-high level groupsets such as Shimano Deore and XT. Fox forks start to get a look in, such as the Fox 32 Float which is very tuneable, expect to move up the disc brake range too, like Shimano’s M505.
Budget: £2500 and upwards
It may seem odd, but we see an influx of hardtails again in this category, specifically aimed at performance riders who want a very lightweight bike. Most likely a full-on XC race bike with a featherweight carbon fibre frame. The race ready Shimano XT or similar groupset is to be expected with 2 x 10 gearing and Fox forks again. That’s not saying there aren’t any full suspension options of course.
Looking for a carbon fibre full suspension bike? You might be looking at £3500 or more for the pleasure, but you will get something pretty special with a full Shimano XT groupset, Avid Elixir 1 disc brakes and the lighter FOX 32 Float 29 Factory CTD Air fork. Rear suspension will be equally tunable and have a lock-out feature, usually on a remote lever. Look out for nice extras like the quality and lightweight Synchros components and wheels.
We have to say it again, go for a demo day and try as many bikes as you can. Buy the very best you can afford and focus on the frame, wheels and fork, the other components are easily and relatively affordable to upgrade later. Also with mountain biking components tend to need replacing every now and again due to crashes and rock damage, so it’s always a good excuse to upgrade at that time.
Have fun and hope to see you covered in mud soon.
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