Mountain Bike 101

May 12, 2011
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Purchasing a new mountain bike may seem daunting with the variety of frame designs, components and bike jargon that sounds like another language. Here are some basic tips to help get you successfully from the sales floor to the woods.

Most good-quality entry-level mountain bikes range from $600 to $800. In general, the more money you spend, the better the performance. Or, you can spend less money for more headaches on the trail. The biggest difference between a $600 bike and an $800 bike will be the components (shifters, derailleurs, brakes, etc.).

Proper bike assembly out of the box is crucial to a properly functioning bike, so be sure to purchase one from a reputable bike dealer. You want a store that you’ll wish to visit for future repairs, upgrades and accessories. Find a knowledgeable salesperson who is willing to explain terms you don’t understand. Test them by asking a question you already know the answer to and see how they reply.

Also inquire about accessories or other products and services when purchasing to create a package deal. Many independent bike dealers offer a free 30-day tuneup to tighten brake and gear cables that typically loosen in that time period.

One crucial deciding factor is how you intend to use the bike. For those wanting to bike fire roads (car accessible) and double-tracks (ATV trails) and maybe start exploring some single-track (narrow multi-use paths), you have two options.

For those interested in riding dirt roads, double-tracks and gentle single-track, a hardtail mountain bike is a versatile option that features a front suspension to help absorb rocks, logs and ruts found on trails.

Full suspension mountain bikes are for cyclists interested in traveling over steep, rough and technical terrain. Ranging anywhere from $1,200 to $6,000, these bikes offer an intricate suspension in the front fork and rear triangle, much like a motorcycle.

Recreational, comfort and hybrid bikes, on the other hand, are made for riding on paved and gravel bike paths. Designed to have the rider sit more upright, these bikes are made for more comfortable, leisurely cycling.

The most common materials for entry-level bikes are chromoly (a mix of steel) and aluminum. Chromoly is stronger and often heavier, but gives a softer, more resilient ride, while aluminum is lighter, not quite as strong, and gives a stiffer, more efficient ride.

Frame sizes will vary from manufacturer so be sure to try out different sizes to see what fits you best. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 2 to 3 inches of clearance above the top tube while you are standing, straddling the bike. While sitting on the bike adjust it so your down leg has a slight bend of about 30 degrees at the knee.

The biggest difference in bike-frame geometry is the distance between the seat and handlebars. Some riders prefer to ride more upright, taking some of the stress off the neck and shoulders, and sacrificing some control. Others prefer to ride lower with more control and better streamlining. Find what’s most comfortable for you.

The seat height, tilt and position are easily adjusted and sometimes make all the difference in how the bike fits and feels, so spend some time with your dealer adjusting the seat to fit your stature.

Start with the forks and then look at the brakes and rear derailleur. Good bikes typically have from 21 to 30 speeds to choose from, the only difference being more gears equal more options (and sometimes more confusion). Shimano and SRAM are the most common components you’ll see on good entry-level bikes. Look for Shimano Alivio or SLX components or their equivalents from SRAM (X5, X7).

There is mainly one type of suspension fork on entry-level bikes: a coil and elastomer combination fork. Most of these forks will allow you to adjust the firmness of suspension on top of the fork, and may even offer a lock-out option that makes the front fork rigid for riding on smooth or paved surfaces. Higher-end bikes will offer air/oil forks and shocks for the rear, which require a special air pump to adjust the suspension’s stiffness.

The decision you have to make is whether to use mechanical (cable) or hydraulic disc brakes. Generally, mountain bikes under $1,000 will offer mechanical disc brakes, while those over $1,000 will offer hydraulic disc brakes, which offer better, smoother and stronger braking performance.

There are basically two types of shifters on mountain bikes: trigger shifters and twist shifters. The trigger shifters are located around the brake levers and change gears with pressure from the index finger and thumb.

Twist shifters, on the other hand, change gears by twisting the grip on the handlebars, so you can shift without releasing your hold. The problem with grip shifters is that inadvertent shifting can easily occur during rough riding.

A comfortable seat is crucial to enjoying mountain biking. Look for seats that support and cushion your sitz bones, while leaving very little between the legs. However, no seat can cushion you from rough terrain. Learn to stand up off of your saddle when the trail gets technical.

Most entry-level bikes come equipped with flat pedals that often have plastic toe cages. Cages help keep your feet on the pedals, and allow you to get more performance out of your pedal stroke. For higher performance pedaling efficiency, many single-track mountain bikers opt for clipless pedals, which often come on bikes costing more than $1,000. These pedals require a special shoe and some practice to get used to them.

If you are going to do a lot of off-road riding, look for tires with larger knobs for increased traction and control on uneven terrain. For mainly street use, use tires with smaller knobs for less resistance on flatter paved surfaces. For mountain biking off road and on road, look for a tire with a smooth surface in the middle and medium-sized knobs on the side of the tire.

Finally, test-ride a variety of bikes at the high and low ends of your price range to feel the differences. Make sure you feel how the bike handles rough terrain. You should know if the bike feels comfortable within 20 minutes, meaning that you’re not too stretched out or too bunched up.

Remember that after you make a purchase, you can always customize your bike to make your riding experience even better.

Raleigh Talus 8 ($710)
Featuring Shimano Alivio components and the Suntour XCR 100mm fork with a lockout, the lightweight and durable Raleigh Talus 8 is made with the Atomic 13 SL custom butted aluminum frame. Available in sizes ranging from 14 to 22 inches, this 27-speed mountain bike also features Shimano M416 mechanical disc brakes, Avenir platform pedals, rack and fender mounts and a cateye reflector set.

Specialized Myka HT Sport Disc ($590)
This entry-level mountain bike is made with lightweight A1 premium aluminum and designed specifically for women with its smaller tubes bent to increase the standover. Also featuring an adjustable 80mm SR Suntour fork with a lockout option, Avid BB5 mechanical disc brakes, SRAM X.4 and Shimano components, this versatile mountain bike comes complete with Specialized Fast Trak LK Sport tires featuring a reduced knob height for lower rolling resistance, while leaving plenty of grip for the trail.

Diamondback Response Comp ($770)
Made with 6061 T6 aluminum, the rugged Diamondback Response Comp frame features a SR Suntour XCR-RL 120mm fork with a remote speed lock. Built up with Shimano Alivio components including 9-speed Rapidfire trigger shifters, this performance entry-level bike comes complete with Shimano M445 hydraulic disc brakes.

Trek Wahoo ($660)
A new addition to the new Gary Fisher Collection of bikes, the 6061 T6 aluminum Trek Wahoo is offered in sizes ranging from 13 to 21 inches, as well as in a women’s-specific model. Featuring an SR Suntour 100mm fork with a lockout, this hardtail mountain bike comes with Shimano Altus and SRAM x.4 components, Promax 907 hydraulic disc brakes and beefy Bontrager Jones XR tires.

Kona Blast ($850)
For 2011, the strong and lightweight Kona Blast comes with a beefy RockShox Tora 100mm fork with a lockout, Shimano cranks and hydraulic disc brakes, a WTB Valcon saddle, and a nine-speed cassette for maximum terrain adaptability. Made with 700 aluminum, this race-ready bike also features Shimano Alivio and Deore components, Shimano M445 hydraulic disc brakes and dirt-worthy Maxxis Aspen tires.

GT Avalanche 2.0 ($769)
This lightweight aluminum mountain bike features GT’s unique triple-triangle design that increases the strength and stiffness of the frame, making it a great choice for the most adventurous newbie. Complete with 27 gears operated with Shimano Alivio Rapidfire shifters, this rugged bike also features an SR Suntour XCR 100mm travel fork with hydraulic damping and lockout functions, burly Maxxis Mobster tires, Shimano Alivio and Shimano Deore components, and Tektro Novela front and rear mechanical disc brakes.

Cannondale Trail 5 ($649)
For the more speed-oriented mountain biker, Cannondale’s Trail 5 incorporates more aerodynamic race geometry in this light and fast aluminum design that has you sitting less upright and more over the handlebars. Featuring Shimano Alivio and M311 components as well as a RST Gila Pro TNL 100mm coil/elastomer front fork with a lockout, this competitive ride is also equipped with Promax Orange mechanical disc brakes and Kenda Small Block tires.

Cannondale: cannondale.com.

Diamondback: 800/222-5527; diamondback.com.

GT Bicycles: gtbicycles.com.

Kona Bicycle Company: konaworld.com.

Raleigh Bikes: 253/395-1100; raleighusa.com.

Specialized Bicycle Components: 877/808-8154; specialized.com.

Trek Bikes: trekbikes.com.


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