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What Mountain Bike to Buy

If you are looking for what mountain bike to buy take a step back and consider what you need, what you’ll use it for, your budget, and the kit you’ll need to go with it.  The following post looks at each of these in turn and considers the alternatives.

A short bit of history

Mountain bikes took over from the BMX in terms of the ‘fun bike’, as much as the racing bike or drop handled road bike was superseded by the BMX.  Of course, the BMX is now a respected part of the Olympic scene so it’s not just a kids bike.  It has earned it’s place in Red Bull and other extreme sports as well, so we can’t be angry that years ago the poor racer was relegated to fanatics only, for a while at least until it has enjoyed the resurgence amongst  the new MAMIL fraternity.

But then people realised the fun you could have on a BMX on trails, but you were a bit limited…what it needed was a hybrid, not like the hybrids of today which are back to road bikes in effect with flat handlebars, but more like road bikes used on rough terrain.  But then they put a flat handlebar on it and a company in the states started rolling out what at first represented more of a hybrid, but soon got the thick tyres of the BMX, then increased tread.  I should say that since the 1800’s people have been modifying bikes, but really it was the 80’s that were the innovative times for the humble MTB.

Next came the suspension, springs at first towards the turn of the century, but rapidly variable compression which included air and fluid on the high-end bikes came on the scene.  Full suspension refers to two separate units, one that springs the rear wheel, and suspension in the forks.  A hardtail has only suspension in the forks (front).

And the final development was bikes built specially for down-hilling:  haring down through rough terrain at a break-neck pace, aiming to beat everyone else’s time.

So, lets drop back to the original question about buying mountain bikes.

What do you want it for?  Do you want something to go off trailing with the kids, or something a bit tougher which you can go off with some of your mates up in the hills and hitting the mountain trails.  Or do you want to join the down hill adrenaline junkies ?

Trailing with the kids

Look for a hard tail on cheap mountain bikes.    The suspension is designed for two purposes, though beginners will only think of the first, which is to absorb the bumps, pits and vibrations from the surface you are riding on.  The second is to keep you in contact with the ground for stability and traction when you are off-road.  Bike frames at this price aren’t necessarily the strongest.

Now obviously, if you are just going out with the kids you aren’t worried about speed, just a comfort factor.  So a simple spring system will do you.  Watch out for really cheap models because the brakes aren’t as good, even if they do boast disc brakes – it’s all for show really emulating the expensive models that really need it.  Though disc brakes do keep the mud away from the stopping surfaces, cheaper bikes don’t really come with a disc brake that is adjustable to the same extent of the pricier models,or as effective, and it makes for a rather disappointing purchase.    So really it’s about components as well as being able to go off-road.

Another point about cheaper mountain bikes, they aren’t built to take really rough surfaces.  My Apollo from Halfords has a sticker which says it’s not really for off-road – which asks the question why is it called a mountain bike?  Surely mountain bikes should be able to be used on mountains…However European ruling doesn’t seem to have enforced this point.


The final thing to consider is that with a cheap spring based system it takes a bit of a knack to make sure you aren’t putting energy into the bike that is being absorbed by the shocks.  It took me a while to develop a smooth cadence to get the best from my input.  On slightly more expensive machine you’ll not get fluid suspension, but you will get springs that you can adjust the lock out on.  If you are looking to start with the kids, but could possibly progress, then get adjustable springs and perhaps the next price bracket.

My personal opinion is that you should ‘t go for a dual suspension bike if you are looking at the cheaper end of the market.  Frames are usually ok, but the components suffer.  The more bits and pieces you have (gears, brakes, suspension) the more that budget is going to be spread.  And the cheaper the components, the more likely they are going to be ineffective or even go wrong. You don’t want something that looks like a mountain bike, and is called a mountain bike, fooling you into taking it into the mountains only for it to fail.  Injuries or failures in the middle of nowhere is insane.

Tougher mountain bikes

Over £500-600 you’ll start getting decent suspension.  You’ll now encounter mountain bikes which will need more maintenance but are essential if you are going to do something more than just the towpath. The same warning about cheap components applies though, so really still look for simpler set ups…in other words hardtails.  You can get some great hardtails in this price bracket, which have tougher frames, better brakes, and forks that are fluid based or air compression.  The maintenance is for the compression, but with the right tools it’s not too much extra hassle.  Do read the advice on lockout settings and pressures, and don’t skimp on checking your machine.  You’ll also want to save some money by learning about bicycle repair at home so that you can do a full strip and grease on the forks and drive chain. Hardtails still work well on the road, and with the ability to increase the suspension pressure you have much less of a problem of your efforts disappearing into floppy compression.

Over £1000 you can start thinking about full suspension.  It’s at this point you really have to read individual reviews – look for bikes that are responsive and hold to the track well.  At the bottom end of this price you will get acceptable components, so choose wisely and read up to date reviews both in mountain bike specific magazines, and reviews from users.  You can get hardtails at this price too, and they will some people prefer them for anything up to mountainous hills (as opposed to mountainous mountains).  Suspension in the forks is good, and brakes are generally of excellent quality because some of the budget isn’t being put into the hinging and rear shock.

Make sure you have enough money in the kitty for bike gloves, helmets and pads – about another £100-£200.

Don’t take these bikes down-hilling though as down hill bikes are built for the job.


Don’t skimp.  Period.  I don’t know much about down-hilling because it’s not something I really want to do, but you shouldn’t do this sport without body armour,a full face mountain bike helmet, and gloves. And that doesn’t come cheap.  So add another £500+ to the bottom line. And you are adding that to £2k. But for that you are getting great components, and you are going to need them especially in the brakes area.  If you are racing down hill then you don’t want ANY failures.  Otherwise you might as well book the hospital bed now…

In short, don’t think you can take anything less than a specifically built down-hill bike on a downhill trail.

The result

If you are headed out on nothing tougher than a toe path with the kids, and never intend to do anything more, something in the £200 range hardtail from Halfords will do you fine.  Tesco do Muddy Fox now, so that’s not a bad choice.  Stick to hardtails otherwise you will be skimping on important components like brakes.  You won’t get adjustable fork suspension at this price.  If you’re going to take it out on the road for your own fitness then either look at the next price up, or else expect to lose energy on the ride.  Personal opinion is I wouldn’t try more than an afternoon a week with the kids at this price mark, and it won’t do you any good as a commuter either.

A £600 hard tail is a good starting point to begin off-road adventures in foot-hills and forest tracks.  Look for better suspension using fluid and air which is adjustable.  Clue yourself up on how to do this properly, and if possible talk to a professional bike mechanic to learn, or go on a course.  Commuting is good at this price, and the chunky tyres will get you through the worse winters and cycling in the snow, with care.  In the summer if you choose a bike which has a smaller dimension on the width of the rim on the wheel you can swap in some narrow gauge road tyres, converting it to a smart hybrid for commuting.  A hardtail at this price will get you better components, and you may prefer it to  a full suspension – some people do.  Full suspension bikes at this price tend to be a bit gimmicky and you won’t get much extra benefit over buying a hardtail, and some of the cheaper components may let you down at an inopportune moment.

At £1000 you can enter the world of full suspension mountain bikes safely.  Get excited about running your bike into the mountains.  Buy elbow and knee pads, and a good quality helmet.  Get some powerful lamps too and you can go night riding in floodlight glory.  Stick a camera on your lid to record your exploits, get a GPS, and get a camelback to keep you hydrated.  Some solid protection on your knuckles won’t go amiss.  Yes, that lot is going to add another £500 to the budget, but you can add that in later if you want.  Take it anywhere.  The suspension will mean you are more assured of staying in contact with the track giving you more stability and greater traction when you put the pedal down.  Read dedicated commercial magazines for reviews and further advice, as well as getting advice from MTB specific forums.

And finally, look at £2500 for armour and bike if you want to play with the big boys.  Perhaps this isn’t an option if you aren’t sub thirty or haven’t been on a bike in 10 years, or at least since you wore short trousers.