High Gear: the ABCs of mountain bike buying | TahoeDailyTribune.com

High Gear: the ABCs of mountain bike buying

Sebastian Foltz
Special to the Tribune
A biker navigates a trail above South Lake Tahoe and Stateline. With spring thaw underway, officials caution trail users against traveling on wet trails to avoid trail damage.
Courtesy / Tahoe South |

For those new to the sport or even experienced riders, the mountain bike world can be a complicated one. Chain rings, tire sizes, hardtails, full-suspension, 29’ers, derailleurs, forks, travel and the terminology alone could make your head spin. Not to mention the few thousand dollar price range.

Here are some things to consider if you are looking at getting into mountain biking or thinking about an upgrade.


The first question any bike sales person is going to ask you is what kind of riding you plan on doing. More downhill intensive, gentle trail riding, steep climbing, beginner, advanced — there’s a bike for that.

“If somebody wants to go downhill really fast that’s going to be a totally different setup than a bike for riding through a meadow,” Sam Hyslop owner of Over the Edge Sports in South Lake Tahoe said, describing bike styles.

The first consideration is whether to go for a hardtail or dual-suspension. After that it’s all about wheel size, 29’er versus 27.5-inch or the nearly phased out 26-inch bike.

The biggest advantage to a hardtail — or front-suspension bike — is the price point, making it an option for a budget-conscious beginner rider.

“You’ll get more bang for your buck in a hardtail,” Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association president Ben Fish said, with the caveat that in Tahoe, “You might not have as much fun.”

On the more technical or bumpy trails a dual-suspension bike will increase the rider’s control and soften any move.

“A lot of people look at a full suspension and think, ‘I don’t need that,’” Hyslop said. While in places with less aggressive, more flowing trails that may be the case; in Tahoe Hyslop and Fish suggest dual suspension will go a long way.

“A little bit more bike will give you more control,” Hyslop said.

For an entry-level rider or someone not planning on riding aggressive downhill trails with drops and big rocks, a hardtail may still be a good option. But if cost isn’t as much of a concern, or if you plan on getting more serious, dual suspension is virtually a must in the Sierra Nevada.

“If people want the full access to trials in the Tahoe area, a full suspension opens more doors,” Hyslop said.

Hardtails used to provide an advantage over dual suspension bikes when it comes to climbing, but technological advances and newer frame designs have significantly closed that gap.

“The suspension design is really good now with most bike companies,” Fish said.

Like buying a car, price can vary a great deal for mountain bikes. While it is certainly possible to get a bike at Walmart for under $200, when it comes to serious mountain biking, that would be the equivalent of driving a 1972 Ford Pinto.

The general rule is lighter costs more. Entry-level hardtails typically start at around $500, retail, where as a dual-suspension bike will cost closer to $1,700 or more.

From there, better components and lighter frames drastically affect cost. Steel frames, for example, are much heavier and cheaper than aluminum, carbon fiber or titanium. Avid bikers can easily spend upwards of $3,000 or over $5,000 on a bike.


The other bike consideration is the wheel size.

“Wheel size has dominated the market,” Fish said.

Where 26-inch wheels used to be the norm, now it comes down to 29’ers — bikes with 29-inch tires — or 27.5-inch wheel setups. The 26-inch bike tire has been almost completely phased out in recent years and is now typically only available in older-model bikes.

“It really is a subjective thing,” Hyslop said of making the choice in wheel size. “There is no wheel size that is better than another.”

He said it also really depends on the frame design.

As a general rule, larger wheels make the bikes more efficient to pedal and also make rolling over rocks easier. Smaller wheels are better for sharp turns and more aggressive movements. Most hardtails sold now generally only come as 29’ers, and new designs are starting to make that wheel size increasingly common in dual-suspension bikes. The larger wheel does make sharp turning a little more difficult; so more downhill-focused bikes tend toward 27.5 inch wheels.

“29ers are a little more crosscountry,” Fish said, adding, “27.5 are a little more downhill, but it depends on what model bike you’re looking at.”

If price is an issue, consider getting a bike with lower-end or base-model components and upgrading later.

A quality wheel set is one of the most important upgrades to consider. Rims are one of the first places a manufacturer will cut cost on a less expensive bike. Better rims and bearings can make riding more efficient and substantially lighten a bike. Upgrading the chain derailleur and shifters are also good ideas. They can make gears shift more smoothly.

Brakes used to be more of a cost factor. Traditional V-brakes were a more common option. But now, most bikes come with either mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes, much like a car, and the price variation is less significant.

When buying a bike it’s important to know that bike dealers have agreements with certain manufactures. So one shop will sell a brand like Specialized almost exclusively, where as another will primarily sell Trek.


The best thing to do is to have an idea of what you are looking for and shop around and test bikes.

“You can’t really get the feel of a mountain bike in a parking lot,” Hyslop said. “I tell people they need to ride it. It’s totally a preference thing.”

Retailers often offer a fleet of demo bikes, so you can try before you buy. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask an expert. They probably know what’s best for you more than you do.

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