With so many options how do you know what to buy?
By Clint Latham - Get FREE updates on new posts here
You've dusted off your old mountain bike, you've been Riding to 75. You're starting to see results and now you're looking to upgrade. If you've been out of the mountain biking scene for the last couple of years you might be asking "What the heck? How are there so many different options!". Well I'm here to help. In this article we are going to take away the mystery and help you find the right bike for you. We are going to use Santa Cruz Bikes as the example to keep things simple but these rules will also apply to most other major brands. Lets start with the basics.
Styles of Mountain bikes
Cross country bikes typically will have 29 inch wheels and very minimal travel. You can get them in full suspension or hard tail versions. The tires will be narrower and have smaller tread patterns meant for speed. Rear travel on a cross country bike will be in the range of 100-120mm. These bikes are made to be fast on trails that are less technical and made for long days in the saddle.
The geometry is where you will see the biggest difference in mountain bikes. There are a a lot of different approaches to understanding bike geometry, especially when it comes to mountain bikes. But we are going to focus on just two numbers in frame geometry that will help you better understand what the bike was built for.
The 1st: Heat tube angle. The slacker the head tube angle the more stable the bike will be at high speeds and through rough terrain. However, the steeper the head tube angle the better the bike will climb, steer and corner. Thus in the Cross country category you will see steeper head tube angles in the range of 67 to 69 degrees. To keep the bike fast and nimble over long courses.
The 2nd: Wheel Base. The longer the wheel base the more stable the bike will be at speed and through rough terrain. However, the bike will be slower to turn, corner and less responsive to rider feedback. In the cross country category we are concerned with maintaining speeds over race courses and long distances. Cross country races courses will generally not contain a lot of 'gnar' that would require a slack head angle and long wheel base to maintain stability. Thus we will see see wheel bases on medium sized frames around 45 inches.
Example: Santa Cruz's Tallboy 29er
Travel: 110 mm
Head tube angle: 68 degrees
Wheelbase (for Med): 45.08"
The trail version of mountain bikes are built for shorter rides than a cross country bike but will still be comfortable for a couple hour ride.It will also be a bike that can handle more trail features and rougher terrain. The travel of trail bikes will range from 125-150mm. We will also start to see slacker head angles and longer wheelbases to create more stability over rougher terrain at higher speeds.
Santa Cruz's 5010 (27.5" wheels)
The 5010 cross's the lines a little bit between a 27" cross country bike and a med travel trail bike.
Head tube angle: 67 degrees
Wheelbase (for Med): 44.92"
Santa Cruz's Bronson (27.5" Wheels)
The Bronson starts to blur the lines between a Trail and Enduro bike
Head tube angle: 66 degrees
Wheelbase (for Med): 45.87"
Enduro is the new king of mountain bike categories. Enduro really gets to the heart of mountain biking. What do I mean? Well for most people I know, they like to climb up the hill so they can ride as fast as possible down it.
Enduro racing is what started driving this category forward. Enduro takes a downhill race course and makes the rider climb to the top. Where in downhill racing the rider would be carried to the top by a ski lift or truck. In Enduro, the rider can take as long as he\she wants to get to get to the top; as the clock doesn't start until the rider starts his\her descent back down the mountain. So Enduro racers still have to ride to the top of the mountain but are only timed on how fast they can get down. Thus manufactures started making bikes that can climb up the steepest hills and then tackle world class downhill courses on the way back down. Now we will start to see bikes with travel in excess of 150mm, really slack head angles and longer wheelbases. These bikes are built to handle the toughest terrain but still nimble and light enough to be ridden up. Really the best of both worlds. But they are not the most comfortable or fastest bikes for long smooth days in the saddle. Like a cross country or trail bike would be.
Santa Cruz's Nomad
Head tube angle: 65 degrees
Wheelbase (for Med): 46.06"
2 simple rules to help you decide which bike is right for you
- Buy the bike you've always dreamed of owning! Thats right buy the bike you've always dreamed of owning. If owning a bike makes you feel good, feel like a bad a$$ and will get you out on it. Then you should buy it. Tim Ferris is famous for saying that some of the things he buys, like his speed bike (motorcycle), he's bought because it makes him feel 'cool'. Don't worry about not being good or skilled enough to own a bike of a certain caliber. Because if you love your bike, then you'll ride it. The more you ride it, the more skilled you'll become.
- Buy the bike that compensates your weaknesses. Lets say your good at climbing but your a little shaky on the descents. Then you shouldn't buy a cross country bike but instead should consider something from the Trail or Enduro category. If you are really good on the descents but terrible on the climbs then you should consider something from the cross country or trail category. The truth is any category bike will be able to handle the trails you have access too. Cross country courses over the last couple years have become very technical. Pushing the limits of what a short travel bike can do. And the Enduro bikes can hold their own on the climbs as well. The question just becomes what specific features will the bike shine on.
There are a lot of different options when it comes to choosing a new mountain bike. But hopefully this guide helped to clear up some of the confusion around the different types of bikes and guide you in the right direction. One thing to keep in mind; bike shops are just like car dealerships. Just like when you walk into a Ford dealership the salesman is going to tell you thats Ford's are better the Dodge, GMC etc. Thus don't be afraid to shop around. If you like the look and color scheme of the Rocky Mountain Altitude over the Yeti SB5c, then buy the Altitude. When it comes to the higher end bikes the performances between the brands will be pretty negligible. For example World Champion downhill racer Aaron Gwin won a world title on a Specialized and then did the same thing the following year on a YT. Thus its the rider and not the bike that makes the biggest difference. So buy the bike you've always dreamed of owning and get out an ride!
Do you have any questions about a specific bike or want to tell us what your dream bike is? Leave a comment below.