Buying a bike can be confusing for pretty much everyone. But the bike selection process gets a tad challenging if you’re an absolute beginner in mountain biking. So, what are the best mountain bikes for beginners?
If you’re an absolute beginner and haven’t learned to speak like a real mountain biker, read this post: Mountain Bike Slang
Here’s another resource that should make things a little easier for anyone wanting to join the amazing world of mountain biking: Mountain Biking for Beginners
To answer that question, you’ll have to understand quite a few things about bike specs and bike frame geometry.
You’ll also have to decide what amount of travel you need. What kind of riding will you do and on what kinds of surfaces? What about wheel size? Will you buy a 29er or a 27.5″?
Will you go for a hardtail beginner MTB or a full-suspension bike? What chainring setup would be good for someone just getting into trail riding?
What about cost? What’s considered a good price point for a starter mountain bike? You’ll need to be able to answer all these questions and many more before you can choose your first ever MTB.
No one likes a bike that falls apart 30 minutes into their very first outdoor adventure. You need a fully functional bike that initiates you into the exciting world of trail biking without costing an arm and a leg. And this guide will point you in the right direction.
In this beginner mountain bike buying guide, you’ll learn the step-by-step process for picking a starter bike that won’t disappoint you on day #1 of trail-testing it.
- 5 Best Beginner Mountain Bikes That Don’t Cost Too Much
- 1.Diamondback Overdrive Hardtail 29er (Top Pick, for the Tallest, Heaviest Riders)
- 2. Mongoose Dolomite Men’s 26″ 7-speed Fatbike (A Basic Budget Fattie)
- 3. Mongoose Impasse Men’s Beginner 29″ MTB (for Tall Riders)
- 4. 27.5″Huffy Hardtail Beginner Mountain Bike (Best frame)
- 5. Schwinn S29 Men’s Beginner Trail Mountain Bike (Affordable FS Beginner MTB)
- How to Choose a Beginner Mountain Bike
- 12 Tips to Consider When Choosing a Beginner Mountain Bike
- 1. Frame Size: How Do You Size a Mountain Bike?
- How Important is Correctly Sizing a Bike Frame?
- What If I’m in Between Bike Frame Sizes?
- Why is Bike Fitting So Confusing?
- The Three Most Important Measurements When Sizing a Bike Frame
- How a Well Fitted MTB Feels
- How to Fit Your New Beginner MTB
- 2. Pay Attention to the MTB’s Frame Geometry
- How Do Fork Offset, Head Angle, and Trail Affect Ride Quality?
- 3. Full-Suspension Bike or Hardtail for Beginner Mountain Bikers?
- 4. What Kind of Mountain Biking Style Will You Choose?
- 1. Trail Mountain Biking (110mm-150mm Suspension Travel)
- 2. Cross-country Mountain Biking
- 3. Enduro Mountain Biking
- 4. Downhill Mountain Biking
- 5. Decide on the Wheel Size: 26″, 27.5″/650B, or 29″ Wheels?
- How Do You Size a Mountain Bike for a Kid?
- 6. Look at the Frame Material
- 7. Pay Attention to the Bike’s Components: Brakes, Drivetrain, Wheels
- Single Cranksets (Works Best for DH and Enduro MTB Bikes)
- Double Cranksets (2X Drivetrains Work Well for Trail Bikes)
- Triple Cranksets or 3X Drivetrains (Usually Used on XC Bikes)
- How Many Gears Do You Need on a Beginner Mountain Bike?
- Ideal Gearings for Different Mountain Biking Styles
- 8. Buy Your First MTB Online or from a LBS?
- 9. But Are There Good Beginner MTBs on Amazon?
- 10. Maybe You Should Buy a Used Starter MTB?
- 11. What Are the Best Bike Brands Out There?
- 12. How Much Money Should a Good First MTB Cost?
- Beginner MTB FAQs
5 Best Beginner Mountain Bikes That Don’t Cost Too Much
First off, there’s only so much you can get with the cheapest starter MTBs. The majority of the options in these mini-reviews cost around the $400-$1000-ish range. Generally, the nearer $400, the more basic the bike and the less capable. And vice versa, the nearer the price tag to $1000, the better the components and the more capable the bike.
With some like the Mongoose bike below, you might be able to do quite a few trail-focused stuff including jumps, drops, climbs, and descents.
But with the cheaper options such as those in the $400-$700 range, don’t expect too much. Light mountain bike rides (whatever that means) and commuting capability are pretty much all you can get out of these budget beginner trail bikes. Grab any of these and you’re off to a good start over any windy, flowy trails.
I own two of these bikes while my husband owns the rest. If we recommend anything here, it’s mostly because we’ve experienced it and identified what makes it a worthy buy. But there’s really nothing spectacular about any of the bike models recommended in this buying guide.
So, if you’re seeking out bicycles that’ll let you ease into the exciting world of MTB without selling a kidney to afford them, stay with me.
*Affiliate Links Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.
1.Diamondback Overdrive Hardtail 29er (Top Pick, for the Tallest, Heaviest Riders)
Why is this the best beginner MTB? Because its 2.1″ 29″ knobby tires stabilize your ride, and the bike’s geometry makes for pretty solid handling. Because the 80mm travel on the suspension isn’t crappy by beginner rider standards.
Because the gear range is wider (24 gear shifter), and climbs are much better and easier. Because the shifting works super smoothly. And because the frame is strong, light, and can support even the tallest, heaviest riders. The icing on the cake? It’s affordable and made by a brand most cyclists trust.
Like all bikes with presence, the Diamond Complete Ready Ride Overdrive features a clean, light design. It’s a hardtail that packs tons of cycling technology without trying too much to catch everyone’s attention.
Compared to the pricing for Diamond Response, Diamond Current, Diamond Union 1, and Diamond Union 2, the Overdrive seems like the company’s attempt to encourage MTBing.
This bike came in a noticeably big box, no missing parts, and no dings on the frame. It was almost fully assembled — all we did was install the flat pedals, seat, and front wheel. Assembly took us no more than 45 minutes.
After about 150 miles on this bike, the bike was still holding up quite well. But after riding this bike for an hour or so, my hubby’s butt hurt like hell. A new seat solved the sore butt issue, though. But a couple of hundred miles later, we noticed bottom bracket wobbles. Nothing my hubby couldn’t fix though.
The frame amounts to a nice, aggressive stance that announces to the world it means business. No matter how tall and heavy you are, you won’t break this lightweight aluminum frame.
Compared to the options below, the Overdrive Complete Ready Ride features much better brakes even though they’re still mechanical disc brakes.
Also, the 8-speed Shimano drivetrain works well. And the KMZ Z82 chain doesn’t keep coming off. With a 24-speed gearing system, the Overdrive niner offers the widest gear range. Even though the drivetrain hasn’t misbehaved, we’ll probably have to upgrade it down the road.
Overall, a good all-rounder beginner MTB. But if you’re looking for an entry-level cross-country bike, consider putting in thicker, grippier tires. Big problem: there isn’t enough clearance to fit in wider tires. If you want fatter tires, you’re stuck with 27.5″ wheels.
2. Mongoose Dolomite Men’s 26″ 7-speed Fatbike (A Basic Budget Fattie)
I didn’t want a $1000 first bike from a local shop, so I bought the Mongoose Dolomite. It didn’t offer much, not surprising at that price point.
Assembling this budget fattie wasn’t confusing or hard. The frame seemed solid, but the fork, cable-operated Mongoose disc brakes, and other stock components could be better. Not surprising at that price point, though.
I measured from the center of the BB to the top of the seat tube, and it was 17″ — a medium frame. The ultra-wide tires and rims and the red high-tensile steel frame get strangers talking.
It’s a 7-speed, flat-pedaled budget MTB with a pretty clean design. But the chain did come off sometimes. And the twist shifter didn’t work like a dream.
This bike was quite clunky at about 49lbs (tons of workouts!). The freewheel (not a cassette) came with 14-28 teeth. Not bad, but I strained a bit while climbing a steep fire road on the lowest gear.
Even though this bike lacks suspension (obviously, no jumps and drops on this bike), the tires rolled nicely over rocks. I rode this fatty through fresh snow, and it almost killed me. But when I tested it on hard-packed snow, it rode really smoothly.
*I added fenders over the rear wheel because it kept shooting my butt with debris!
3. Mongoose Impasse Men’s Beginner 29″ MTB (for Tall Riders)
This cheap Mongoose bike looks tall and big. But its 17.5″ 47lbs-ish aluminum frame is actually lighter than the Mongoose fattie even though it’s a full-suspension option.
The brakes and SRAM shifters are aluminum plus plastic. Also, the thread-less stem, handlebars, crank arm, seat post, calipers are all aluminum. But the chainstay is steel.
Assembling the Mongoose Impasse was pretty easy. But the steel/aluminum Shimano Tourney (RD-TX35) derailleur needed a little tweaking before it could shift noiselessly.
This bike’s geometry favors tall riders whose inseam length is no less than 32″. My husband’s inseam is 32″, and the bike fits him perfectly. He gets a standover clearance of 2″ between his crotch and top tube, but he had to raise the seat a little for comfort. There’s no, seatpost dropper, of course.
The Chinese-made Mongoose Impasse offers no-name brand tires whose tread vanished after a month of light gravel riding. And its basic front suspension offered no pneumatic bump dampening. We swapped out the front fork for the RockShox XC 28 Fork (with oil dampening).
The rear shock is essentially a spring that provides preload. But you can adjust this shock to make your ride stiffer or less so. We upgraded the 150mm stock rear shock to the 160mm DMN MTB Air Rear Shock.
This upgrade included a lockout feature that converts this bike into a hardtail for less bouncy uphill rides. Finally, we threw in the Shimano 21-speed/3x 7 speed EF-51 Shifter/Brake Lever combo at $30. These upgrades cost us roughly $225, making it a $500 bike.
We had a 180mm crank from some beater, and we swapped out the 175mm ProWheel crank. And the square taper bottom bracket should allow the removal of the three riveted steel chainrings for better ones.
With 3×7 gears and 29″ wheels plus a few upgrades, the Mongoose Impasse makes for an OK-ish beginner trail bike. The tires take on debris, roots, and rocks well, but my 26er performs better.
Don’t expect to do spectacular airborne stunts with this bike, though. But very light drops and jumps, gravel rides, moderate downhill, and climbs should be possible.
4. 27.5″Huffy Hardtail Beginner Mountain Bike (Best frame)
So, are Huffy bikes good? Yes, if you’re looking for a cheap hardtrail designed for light off-road riding. But if you’re looking for a bike that’ll take bumpy, rocky trails right out of the box, buy something else.
With this Huffy Hardtail, you’ll get a decent aluminum frame but little else. Also, it’s not too heavy. And like the Schwinn S29 below, this bike’s handlebar offers a little rise so you won’t strain your back.
As for the parts, they’re cheap in every sense. The brake levers, the pedals, crank, the front forks, the brakes— you’ll have to upgrade these components for any kind of serious riding.
Considering this bike costs around $100 more than the Mongoose Impasse, you’ll end up spending more to get this bike trail-ready.
Honestly, the front forks and suspension are a joke. No, you won’t clean rock gardens like a beast on this thing.
The leather saddle is good, but it isn’t soft enough for beginner butts. Find something wider and softer for long, rough rides. Remember, no demanding rides on this bike without upgrades.
As a $400 bike, this is pretty much a BSO. But as a $700 bike (after upgrades), it lets you confidently explore the trails as you learn the basics.
Compared to either the Mongoose fatbike or Impasse, you’re getting less value with this 21-gear deal. But the frame rocks, and the all-Shimano drivetrain shifts smoothly after a little elbow grease.
And being a 27.5″ makes for good handling and agility. Plus, the bike is available in a slew of really nice colors.
5. Schwinn S29 Men’s Beginner Trail Mountain Bike (Affordable FS Beginner MTB)
Many cheap beginner bikes that offer dual-suspension are rarely great, and the Schwinn S29 is no exception.
Its aluminum frame comes with frame reinforcements that are typical of dual-suspension bikes. But this bike felt lighter than the Mongoose Impasse which features slightly more tubes on the frame.
As expected, the bike offers garbage shocks. My hubby had to swap out the existing 155mm shock for a 165mm air shock that set us back $90.
You can use a 150mm air shock if that won’t lower ground clearance too much for you. Upgrading to a 165mm shock made the side stand somewhat shorter, though.
This 29er fits cyclists standing 5’10” or taller pretty well. With an 18″ frame, it’s in the medium size territory.
Like the 27.5″ Huffy bike, the Schwinn S29 features handlebars with a slight rise, saving your back from agony.
Its 2.1″ 29″ knobby tires offer good grip and reduced rollover resistance so you can shred rooty, rocky terrain easier. But you must upgrade to better shocks and other components before you can start conquering rough terrain.
The bike offers mechanical disc brakes as expected at that price point. They work, but everyone needs hydraulic brakes for serious MTBing. As for the 21-speed/3 chainring gearing, it’s nothing special.
On the whole, the Schwinn S29 can be a good beginner bike, but the design looks too complex. But without spending more on upgrades, you’ll have to ride it exclusively on paved surfaces.
How to Choose a Beginner Mountain Bike
What do you look at when out in the market shopping for a brand spanking new beginner mountain bike? Below is a list of things to keep in mind before you fork over your hard-earned money.
I hope that by the time you’re reading the final sentence of this beginner MTB guide, you’ll have evolved into a knowledgeable shopper who won’t get ripped off.
12 Tips to Consider When Choosing a Beginner Mountain Bike
In this guide, you’ll learn pretty much everything you really should when choosing a starting MTB. You’ll even learn how to size your kid’s mountain bike if buying for them.
1. Frame Size: How Do You Size a Mountain Bike?
People often lump frame size and frame geometry together as though they’re one and the same thing. But while they’re similar aspects, they’re also different. That’s why I decided to discuss each aspect under a separate subheading.
Generally, the right frame size for you is more or less determined by your height. But that doesn’t mean just know your height in cm or inches and that’s it — it’s not that simple.
Here’s a sad truth relating to bike frame size: there’s no consistency when it comes to bike frame size. Different cycling shoe brands are known to have different shoe sizes even when you’re talking of the exact same size. And the same goes for bike brands.
A certain bike brand may have a particular model in Medium size (17″-18″). But another brand may describe the exact same frame size as Large size (19″-20″). In other words, what a certain size means for one brand may not always be what it means for a different brand.
And that complicates bike shopping for starting mountain bikers even further. So, make sure to learn how each bike brand you’re considering sizes frames for its different models.
How Important is Correctly Sizing a Bike Frame?
So, how important is bike frame sizing? It’s extremely important. If you forget everything you’re learning in this beginner mountain bike buying guide, make sure to remember the next statement.
It’s better to choose a bike without great specs and features if it’s the right size than to choose a bike with a poor fit but with great components.
That’s a profound statement, one that every cyclist learns sooner than later.
You never want to buy a bike that’s too big for you or one that’s too small for your frame.
Below is a simple bike frame size guide to help simplify things for you a little bit.
|Rider Height||Rider Height||Frame Size (“)||Corresponding Frame Size||Recommended Reach|
|In Inches||In Centimeters|
|Under 5ft 2″||<157||13″-14″||XS|
|5ft 2″-5ft 6″||157-167||15″-16″||Small||410mm-450mm|
|5ft 6″ -5ft 10″||167-178||17″-18″||Medium||430mm-470mm|
|5ft. 10″-6ft. 2″||178-188||19″-20″||Large||450mm-490mm|
|6ft. 2″ or taller||182 or more||21″-23″||XL/XXL||470mm-510mm|
What If I’m in Between Bike Frame Sizes?
If you’re between bike frame sizes, it’s advisable to choose the larger of the two options. Why do I give this advice? It’s because you can make a larger bike fit without worsening its handling. For example, you can slide the seat/saddle a little forward or shorten the pipe the seat attaches onto and actually improve your larger bike’s overall handling.
But the same can’t be said of a mountain bike or any other bike that’s too small. I’ve seen new MTBers trying to improve the fit of a bike that’s too small, and all they get is problems.
One way people try to make a small bike fit better is by removing the existing short stem and putting in a longer stem. They might also slide the seat a little backward.
But that quite often isn’t an effective bike fitting strategy for a small bike. When you do that to a small bike, it usually expresses its displeasure by giving you worse handling and steering.
If your saddle sits too far back, you won’t see nearly efficient pedal power. Plus, your bike’s front end tends to lift up when you’re trying to stand up for whatever reason.
So, size up But don’t forget to look at your standover when doing that. If the standover isn’t right for you, you’d be better off looking for a different bike model.
But if the standover feels comfortable enough for you, grab that starter MTB, hop on it, and ride into the endless bliss that awaits you.
Why is Bike Fitting So Confusing?
It’s because traditionally, bike makers have sized bikes by the length of the seat tubes. And that’s caused tons of problems for lots of people.
Yes, the length of the seat tube means something, but it shouldn’t be the most critical consideration when sizing a bike. If you’ve been looking, bike frame makers have been shifting away from listing bike frame sizes in numbers.
Bike makers have been gravitating toward describing bike frame sizes in somewhat more loose terms such as Small, Medium, Large, and so on. Not that describing a bike as Small, Medium, or Large really means much.
You’ll still need to carefully read and understand the geometry charts of all the bikes you’re eying to get a clear idea of fit. And that brings us to a very important part of this guide: reach and standover.
The Three Most Important Measurements When Sizing a Bike Frame
Here’s the thing: pay attention to your first mountain bike’s reach, standover clearance, and stack height.
Reach is the horizontal distance measured from an imaginary perpendicular line running through the bottom bracket to the top center of the bike’s head tube. Reach is basically the length of the frame.
But why is reach so critical when sizing a mountain bike or any other bike? It’s because reach is the most reliable way to determine whether a bike is too stretched out for you or whether it’s too cramped.
If a bike’s reach is too short, that bike is definitely too small for you. And there’s pretty much nothing you can do about that.
While you can make adjustments to the length of your bike’s seat tube (shortening it or pulling it up to lengthen it), you can’t do much about the reach. That’s why reach is a less shifty way to determine if a specific bike will work for you or not.
The rider height vs. reach guide above should be helpful for you. I suggest that you use this guide instead of the frame size guide I presented above for the reasons I’ve explained above.
This isn’t the traditional advice you’ll come across when sizing a bike, but it’s been known to work better than the usual frame sizing method.
But some cyclists might say that the reach numbers in the chart above are a little too conservative. Such people might even suggest going with a longer reach for the stated rider heights. And that’s OK — as long as you get the amount of standover height right.
Get Your Standover Clearance Right
Now that you’ve got the reach right, it’s time to pay attention to the standover clearance. Standover clearance is the distance between your crotch and the ground when you’re standing over your bike with each leg on each side.
You want to choose a bike whose top tube slopes into the seat tube rather than one that stays more or less parallel to the ground.
So, here’s the thing: you need to get the reach right, but you can’t afford to sacrifice the standover clearance. Both elements have to be right.
In the end, the most reliable way to choose a fitting bike frame is to choose the right reach and pair that up with enough standover clearance (typically 2 inches for MTBing) and stack height. More on stack height later and how it works with reach and seat angle to help you compare different bike models.
A rule of thumb: Go with the longest frame size you can find as long as you have your standover clearance at a good place.
One bike fitting expert I talked to when researching for this post thinks that most people need to getter bigger bikes. This cycologist believes that most of us have been riding bikes that are way smaller than they should be.
In the final analysis, you might find that a bike size Large would work a little better for you than a Medium size bike.
When Upsizing a Frame, Think about Fitting a Dropper Post
If you need to upsize your frame, ask yourself whether you’ll have to fit in a dropper post. A dropper post makes raising or lowering your saddle extremely easy. You don’t need to dismount to lower or raise the saddle.
So, before you size up, be sure you can fit in a dropper post and that this component will have a good amount of drop travel. In some cases, sizing up can have you adjusting the height of your saddle to an uncomfortable height to fit in a dropper post.
How a Well Fitted MTB Feels
Fit is the most critical thing when it comes to choosing a starter trail MTB. A well-fitted bike doesn’t feel uncomfortable. You shouldn’t feel like you’re seated too high and stretched, nor should you feel like you’re sitting too low and cramped.
When standing astride your bike, you should be able to stand with your feet flat on the ground. And when seated with one of the pedals down, your leg shouldn’t extend all the way. Rather, your leg should be able to move forward roughly 10˚-15˚ before locking straight to get in line with the seat tube.
How to Fit Your New Beginner MTB
First off, get the right frame size. At this point, the question of standover height arises. But sometimes, figuring out the standover height can be tricky because many MTBs today have steeply sloping top tubes.
Singletracks.com recommends figuring out your top tube length instead of standover height to determine the right frame size.
Here’s a quick tip for determining your top tube length for sizing the frame. Simply multiply your inseam length by 0.67 then less 4. Assume your inseam measures 32″, so (32 x 0.67)-4. The result is 17.44. In this case, you’d be OK choosing a 17.5″ frame.
(Inseam Length X 0.67)-4 = Top tube length in inches.
How High Should Your Saddle Sit?
Here’s a quick and dirty trick for figuring out a comfortable saddle height. Multiply your inseam by 0.883. In our example, that is 32″*.883= 28.25″= ballpark measurement or how high your saddle should sit above the bottom bracket.
If you position your saddle at the calculated height, all you have to do is move it upward or downward a quarter inch to achieve a comfortable position. In our example, the correct saddle height would be 28.5″ or 28″.
You may have to adjust your seat position to get a nice comfortable position. As for the saddle, if it feels comfy, it’s probably the right fit for you. If you’ll be doing long rides, you’ll want to replace the existing seat with a softer, wider, comfier one.
Finally, your feet should contact the pedal, whether flat or clipless pedals, at the ball of the foot. If you’ll use clipless pedals, be sure make sure to set up the cleats so that an imaginary line running from the center of the pedal’s axle will go through the widest part of your foot.
Handlebar Height and Width
The handlebars are another major connection point to your bike. A wider handlebar offers greater steering torque and makes for more stable but slower steering. If you’ll be riding on tough terrains (will your beginner bike handle that?), go for wider handlebars.
Another reason a wider bar is preferable is that it promotes better breathing by opening your chest more. When going up hills, you need more air in your lungs, and a wider handlebar makes that possible. If you buy your MTB from a LBS, ask them to replace the existing handlebar with a wider one.
Your handlebars should be the right height, too. If your handlebar height is right, you should be able to focus on the trail in front of you without needing to crane your neck. Also, your back should feel comfortable when pedaling.
You can always play around with the shim stack position to raise or reduce the handlebar height. One way to increase the height is to move the shims below your bike’s stem (if your bike has a flat bar). In the absence of shims, the alternative is getting riser bars or spacers.
Mid-rise handlebars let you grow the height up to 20mm while full-rise MTB handlebars give you 35mm-45mm height adjustability.
MTB Stem Length
If your leg and torso length are a little out of proportion, you may need to tinker with stem length a bit to find a comfortable riding posture.
A shorter stem vs. a longer stem, which is better? A shorter stem has you sitting nearer the center of your bike and results in an upright riding position. A longer stem shifts your body forward, reducing curvature from your back, adding grip to the front wheel, and slowing steering.
If you’ll mostly be trail MTBing, go for a stem length of between 25mm to 55mm or longer. That’s also the recommended stem length for downhill MTB. As for XC bikes, the sweet spot as far as stem length hovers between 70mm and 130mm.
So, keep an eye out for these specs when shopping.
MTB Crank Arm Length
Usually, your height and inseam length determine the right crank arm length. Below is a simple guide to help you match your height with a suitable crank arm length.
Now, if think you have shorter lengths in proportion to your height, definitely go for shorter crank arms. Also, if you prefer pedaling really fast, consider choosing a slightly shorter crank arm length than recommended here.
2. Pay Attention to the MTB’s Frame Geometry
Bike geometry refers to all of the angles that come together neatly to give you a certain ride quality or experience. It’s not a specific quality; it’s a combination of a whole bunch of stats and can be pretty hard to get right.
What works for one person or riding style may not work for another.
Bike geometry is a really wide topic, one that needs an entire post to explain. But I’ll give you quick and dirty tips for choosing a starter MTB that’ll do the job for you.
When looking at mountain-bike geometry, there are at least 10 angles and numbers to keep in mind. Let’s list down these numbers and angles and then briefly look at each.
- Seat angle
- Chainstay length
- Bottom bracket height
- Reach and stack height
- Effective top tube
- Front center
- Head angle
- Down tube
You need to pay attention to all of these things when choosing your first mountain bike.
Simply put, a bike’s seat angle describes the angle that the seat tube makes with the ground. Imagine of a line running from the center of your saddle through the center of the bottom bracket and reaching the ground. If you placed a protractor on the ground and measured that angle, that’d be your bike’s seat angle.
A Slacker Angle or Steeper Angle on Your starter MTB?
Now, you can have a slack seat tube angle or a steep seat tube angle.
Slack seat tube angles tend to increase your comfort as you ride by reducing the shocks transmitted from the ground to you. Most road bikes and comfort bikes traditionally favor slack seat angles.
But you don’t need a slack seat angle on your first or fifth mountain bike. What you need is a steeper seat angle. Why do you want a steeper seat angle on your starter MTB? It’s because you’ll be going up steep terrain some of the time.
More weight over the front wheel means a better and safer hill-climbing position. What’s more, you get to put your legs to some really good use in that position. In fact, the saddles on most modern MTBs tend to be positioned almost directly above the bottom bracket.
A steeper seat angle naturally shifts your center of gravity a little forward, and that converts into better weight distribution over the front wheel.
When you’re in that position, you can climb hills better. That’s because a steeper angle translates into easier and more efficient pedaling. What’s more, the front wheel is less likely to lift up when you’re cycling up hills off-road.
Any seat angle between 70 degrees and 75 degrees should be OK.
Head Tube Angle
The head angle is simply your bike’s steering axis. The head angle is calculated by measuring the angle between the front wheel axles and the head tube or fork.
So, do you need a slack head angle on your first MTB or a steeper head angle? It all depends on the kind of terrain you’ll ride. If you’ll do lots of downhill riding, you want a slack head tube angle. In fact, the most stable downhill MTBs have extremely slack angles.
The front fork for a good DH bike stays nearly parallel to the ground and moves the front wheel further out. At the same time, a slacker angle lengthens the wheelbase, increasing stability. And that makes descents to feel much safer and stable because the front wheel stays firmly on the ground.
If you have a head angle sitting at like 60˚, you’re less likely to go over the bar when riding descents. But the slacker the head angle, the less the bike’s steering response, and vice versa. Downhill bikes have head angles in the 62˚-64˚range.
Steeper head tube angles seem to make mountain bikes feel faster on flat surfaces. Also, steeper angles offer more agility and steering responsiveness. Perhaps that’s why road bikes have steeper angles than MTBs.
Generally, road bikes have steeper angles in the 70˚-74˚range compared to mountain bikes (with front suspension) with headtube angles in the 62˚-73˚range.
Now, different kinds of mountain bikes have different head tube angles.
Of the four main MTB types, downhill mountain bikes typically have the slackest head tube angles followed by enduro mountain bikes. Compared to cross-country bikes, trail bikes have slacker head angles. Cross-country MTBs have the steepest head angles among these four bike types.
With a very steep head angle, even the least threatening of tree roots will have you flying over the bar when riding down descents. A very steep head angle also makes a mountain bike quite a bit twitchy when riding downhill at speed.
This refers to the length running from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the rear wheel. So, should you go for a shorter chainstay or a longer one?
How a Shorter Chainstay Feels
Some cyclists feel that shorter chainstays make cornering somewhat easier, but not everyone agrees. If a bike has a relatively short chainstay, you won’t struggle to lift the front end up when you need to, like when jumping over logs. A shorter chainstay also translates into increased rear wheel traction. But if the chainstay gets extremely short, your bike will feel unbalanced.
How a Longer Chainstay Feels
On the other hand, if you have a longer chainstay, your rear axle sits further out, and you have more weight over the front wheel. That means there’s more grip or traction on the front wheel.
But if you’ll be going down descents a lot, you want longer chainstays. That’s because longer chainstays keep your front end where you want it — down.
Your front wheel maintains stable contact with the ground at all times. You’ll love the safe and secure feeling you’ll get when rolling downhill. And when ascending, your front end will stay down.
However, a longer chainstay makes it a bit harder to lift the front wheel. Why? It’s because a longer chainstay usually correlates with a higher handlebar.
Bottom Height and Bottom Bracket Drop
What’s bottom bracket drop?
Imagine a straight line that runs parallel to the ground from the axle of the rear wheel ending at the axle of the front wheel. If you measure the distance between that line and the bottom bracket axle, you get the bottom bracket drop.
What’s bottom bracket height?
This is the distance measured from the bottom bracket axle to the ground. Most spec sheets on websites and manuals focus on the bottom bracket height.
Generally, the lower the bottom bracket height, the lower the center of gravity and the more stable a ride feels. Conversely, the larger the bottom bracket height, the less stable your bike and the more agile it’ll feel.
A higher bottom bracket height = Less stability + More Bike Agility.
A lower bottom bracket = More bike stability + Less agility
A bike’s wheelbase is the distance running between the rear wheel axle to the front wheel axle. It’s also calculated by adding the length of the front center to that of the chainstay. By the way, the front center is the distance between the front wheel axle to the bottom bracket.
A longer wheelbase tends to more stable, but it also makes the bike feel a bit sluggish. A shorter wheelbase makes your bike feel more agile, but you can expect the bike to also feel a little unstable.
Longer wheelbase = More stability + a Lazier bike
Shorter wheelbase = More agility + more nimble
Reach and Stack Height
Please see the explanation of this measurement above. No need to repeat the concept here.
What About Stack Height?
Stack refers to the vertical distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the central point of the head tube. If you draw a horizontal line (one that’s parallel to the ground) from the bottom bracket and then drop a vertical line from the center of the head tube to meet the horizontal line, the vertical measurement you get is the bike’s stack.
When comparing two bike models, you’re going to need to compare the bikes’ stack and reach. Even though these two numbers (stack and reach) don’t tell you everything you should know when sizing your first MTB, they’re very useful.
Comparing Two Hypothetical Beginner MTBs in Terms of Stack and Reach
Let’s assume you’re looking at two mountain bikes for beginners. Bike A has a reach of 390mm and a stack height of 560mm. Bike B has a similar bike frame size and costs more or less the same but offers a reach of 385mm and a stack height of 604mm.
Bike A vs. Bike B: 390mm reach vs. 385mm reach
Bike A vs. Bike B: 560mm stack height vs. 604mm
So, what do these numbers mean when taken together? Since the stack height is larger in B, it means that ignoring every other bike fit parameter or consideration, bike B has a taller headtube than bike A.
And because B’s head tube is taller, it’s somewhat closer to the bike’s seat/saddle. That’ll translate into a riding position that’s slightly more upright than in the case of bike A. And in that position, you’ll experience less back and neck strain (more comfort), but you’ll have slightly more drag in that ride position. Well, these hypothetical bikes are actually real road bikes, but the concept is the same in all types of bikes.
But you also need to consider other critical considerations such as seat angle. Bike X and bike Y may have the exact same numbers as far as stack and reach but still have a different fit and feel if they have different seat angles.
Assume two beginner MTBs X and Y have similar stack height and reach numbers but X has a steeper seat angle. That means that all other considerations being equal, X will give you a slightly smaller handle-saddle distance than Y, and that can affect how each bike handles.
How Do Fork Offset, Head Angle, and Trail Affect Ride Quality?
Just when you thought you’d learned all the confusing jargon around MTB, fork offset and trail show up. So, what’s trail and what’s fork offset and how do these two elements affect the quality of your ride/bike handling/steering stability?
What’s a Mountain Bike’s Trail?
Imagine a diagonal line running from the center of the head tube down to the floor. The angle that line makes with the ground is the head angle (already explained).
Now, imagine that there’s another line that drops from the front wheel axle vertically to your bike’s contact patch on the ground.
If you measure the distance between the contact patch and the point where the head angle line meets the ground, that is trail.
What’s a Mountain Bike’s Fork Offset?
Normally, the steering axis (the imaginary line running through the center of the head tube to the floor) and the front wheel axle aren’t in line. The front-wheel axle is usually a little distance in front of the steering axis.
If you draw a line from the axle running parallel to the steering axis and measure the distance between these two lines, you’ll get the fork offset.
Relationship Between Fork Offset, Head Angle, and Trail
The larger the fork offset (the further the axle is offset from the steering axis), the smaller the trail. And, the less offset the front axle from the steering axis, the greater the trail. Also, the slacker the head angle, the longer the trail, and vice versa.
Wheel diameter /wheel size also affects trail. The bigger the wheel, the greater the trail, and vice versa. That’s why 29-inch wheels have a bigger trail than 27.5″ wheels and 26″ wheels.
Most 29″ MTB wheels come with a 51mm offset while 27.5″ wheels typically offer an offset that sits between 44mm and 46mm.
Still, some bike brands such as Orbea and Specialized couple their 29ers with forks offset 46mm. Actually, mountain bikes have been growing longer, the head angles slackers, and trail shorter.
Enduro and DH bikes tend to have slacker angles, larger wheels (usually niners), smaller offset, and greater trails. Because they need to be stable when navigating speedy, twisty trails.
In comparison, XC bikes have steeper head angles, less trail, and greater offset because for these guys, steering responsiveness at slower speeds and tighter spaces is more valuable than stability. Makes sense, right?
Generally, larger trail numbers translate into sluggish steering. The upside of having a larger trail number is that it results in more stable steering. And smaller trail translates into faster steering and increased agility.
Bringing it All Together
When you’re navigating twisty, steep terrain, a bike with a larger trail is more likely to give you calmer, more secure steering and turning. And, you’ll have better hold of your line. But when traversing straighter, tighter trails at slower speed (think XC racing), a steeper angler combined with less trail give you greater agility and quicker steering. That’s why a cross-country bike handles differently than an enduro mountain bike.
Head angle works with fork offset to determine trail. But which of these factors is more important as regards bike handling? It’s both, but head angle seems to be a stronger factor. In fact, there’s absolutely no substitute for slacker head tube angles, which is head angles have been getting slacker.
3. Full-Suspension Bike or Hardtail for Beginner Mountain Bikers?
As a beginner, it’s best to start your journey with an affordable hardtail MTB. Generally, hardtail MTBs are simpler, lighter, and more affordable than comparable full-suspension mountain bikes. These bikes come with a single suspension fork, and it’s typically found at the front.
Well, you can choose a FS beginner bike over a hardtail if you so prefer. But if two bikes cost the same price and one is a hardtail while the other is a FS MTB, definitely go with the hardtail. Why?
Because if the price point is the same, you’ll most certainly get better components with the hardtail option. Plus, the hardtail will almost always be lighter. And that’s a good thing for beginner MTBers.
Not surprisingly, pretty much all entry-level mountain bikes are single-suspension bikes (hardtails). A full-suspension bike offers both front suspension and rear suspension and handles bumpy trails and rooty, rocky terrain better.
But good FS MTBs tend to cost a pretty penny. And do you really want to spend that much on your first bike?
4. What Kind of Mountain Biking Style Will You Choose?
What type of mountain biking will you mostly do? Will you mostly devour steep hills and very and zero climbing? Go for a downhill beginner MTB, but understand that DH riding isn’t exactly a beginner-level thing.
Four main mountain biking disciplines exist, and the riding style you choose will determine what kind of bike you’ll need. The 4 main MTB disciplines to consider include:
- Trail mountain biking
- Cross-country mountain biking
- Enduro mountain biking
- Downhill Mountain biking
Let’s now look at each of these four MTB riding styles so you can understand what will work best for you.
1. Trail Mountain Biking (110mm-150mm Suspension Travel)
Summary: Trail bikes typically have between 110mm and 150mm of suspension travel, steep seat angles, relatively wide handlebars, and short stems.
For beginner mountain bikers, a trail bike is almost always the best bet. In fact, trail bikes are the most common bike type you see on most local trails and bike parks. Some trail bikes are hardtails (go with these ones) while others are FS bikes.
In terms of travel, trail bikes typically have between 110mm and 150mm of suspension travel. That makes these lightweight and efficient bikes fast and fun on the typical modern MTB flowy singletracks and good at descents. Also, climbs with trail bikes aren’t too difficult because they’re relatively light and nimble.
Trail bikes are all-rounder options that don’t suck much at anything. If your budget allows, choose a FS trail bike. But I recommend going with a cheaper hardtail trail bike as that’s almost always the best choice for learning mountain biking basics.
Another reason trail bikes are a good bet for beginners is that they have a pretty low head angle. The slack angle for trail bikes may not be as low it is in DH bikes and enduro bikes, but trail bikes have slacker head angles than cross-country bikes.
Go for a hardtail trail bike with a dropper post, wide handlebars, and relatively short stems. That’s because those aspects translate into increased bike control when riding on challenging terrain.
As for the seat tube angle, it’s quite steep so you can have maximum pedaling efficiency and stability when riding uphill.
2. Cross-country Mountain Biking
Summary: XC mountain bikes typically offer 100mm of suspension travel and multiple gears that give you the nimbleness of a mountain goat on climbs, narrower handlebars, a longer stem, and hydraulic brakes. The seat angle is pretty steep as in trail bikes, making climbs easier.
In cross-country MTB, you ride all sorts of surfaces from smooth terrain and gravel tracks to bike paths, hills, and singletrack trails.
In cross-country MTB, you’ll mainly find recreational hardtail mountain bikes plus lightweight FS XC race bikes as well as hardtail XC race bikes.
In terms of travel, you typically get 100mm of suspension travel with XC mountain bikes. The entire design of XC bikes is optimized to support relatively confident rides on considerably smooth off-road descents. These bikes are also pretty efficient at climbs and are pretty quick on less bumpy terrain.
When riding downhill, you can count on the hydraulic brakes on most XC bikes to keep you safe. With XC bikes, the riding position is more traditional compared to what it is in other MTB bikes.
The handlebars aren’t as wide as in trail bikes and other MTBs, but the stems are longer. Small wonder XC bikes do better on smoother surfaces. But the ride can feel all sketchy if you throw too much challenge at a XC bike.
One more thing: XC bikes have multiple gears so that you can conquer steep slopes like a mountain goat.
3. Enduro Mountain Biking
Summary: Enduro mountain bikes are in a sense like trail bikes, the kinds of bikes you’d enjoy riding all day long. But enduro mountain bikes trump trail bikes at devouring descents. With travel suspension in the 160mm-180mm range, enduro bikes are masters of really challenging descents.
When you throw super steep and rough descents at enduro MTBs, they smile. But when you make things easier for them by riding them over soft, flat-ish trails, enduro bikes often get a tad sluggish.
In terms of geometry, enduro bikes usually have a more relaxed geometry compared to trail bikes. Also, enduro bikes offer greater travel, and the forks generally have wider tubes. One more thing, the shocks of most enduro bikes usually use coil springs forks, pretty much like DH bikes.
You don’t see coil spring forks a lot outside of enduro bikes, DH bikes, freeride MTB bikes, and other long-travel mountain bikes. But coil spring forks are a winner when it comes to overall ride smoothness and feel.
Enduro bikes have this kind of suspension fork because it absorbs hits and impacts really well.
And because you tackle steeper descents in enduro MTB than in trail MTB, the brakes on enduro bikes tend to be tougher. Unlike DH bikes, enduro bicycles handle climbs well, but trail bikes are nimbler than both on climbs. Actually, DH bikes don’t know a thing about going uphill.
As for head tube angles, enduro bikes have slacker angles than either XC or trail bikes. But the winner in this department will always be DH bikes.
On the whole, an enduro bike enables you to really push your limits rolling down steep and rough descents and climbing hills. But it may not necessarily be the best bike for riding at a bike park.
4. Downhill Mountain Biking
Summary: A downhill bike lives to roll down the gnarliest descents on the planet. But DH bikes are 100% useless when it comes to scaling steep slopes. You’ll have to push a DH bike up the hill or car your way up the steep slope. DH MTBs offer tons of travel (200mm+) coupled with extreme geometry, and these design features convert these bikes into real monsters that scoff at the roughest descents.
One component that represents a DH bike’s extreme geometry is the mighty triple clamp fork. This component is what gives these bikes the amazing stability they have when going down the most challenging descents.
DH racing bikes really stand out thanks to their massive motorcycle-like front forks. The front suspension is built to offer tons of travel, and there’s virtually no obstacle that stops this monstrous bike.
About the only thing a DH bike lacks is the big hill-climbing cogs usually found on most MTB bikes. This bike exists to race down hills and hates going up slopes to the extent of totally refusing to climb hills.
This bike will rocket you down steep hills, but you’ll have to uplift or walk it up every steep hill. Another place you’ll enjoy riding a downhill bike is a bike park.
5. Decide on the Wheel Size: 26″, 27.5″/650B, or 29″ Wheels?
You can choose either 26″, 650B/27.5″, or 29″ mountain bike wheels. Let’s look at each wheel size so you can easily decide what to choose.
26-in MTB Wheels (Also Called 26ers)
26″ wheels have existed since the very beginning of mountain biking. Pretty much anyone can ride a 26er, both taller and shorter riders as well.
These wheels are slower than either 650B or 29-inch wheels, but they react quicker and accelerate faster.
The downside of 26ers is that they don’t have as much traction as 27.5″ and 29″ wheels because there’s less tire in contact with the ground. Also, 26ers struggle more when rolling over roots, rocks, debris, and other obstacles compared to either 650B or 29ers.
One more thing: you generally need more suspension with a 26er. And if the bike design isn’t executed well to accommodate this increased suspension, that can lead to reduced efficiency. But a 26er would be lighter than either a 650B or 29″ bike all other things being equal.
So, what do 26″ MTB wheels do really well, better than all the others? These wheels are no doubt the most agile and the nimblest. When doing quick short uphill rides, jumps, and shredding the tightest of corners, 26″ wheels are what you need.
Why is Everyone Gravitating Toward 29ers and 27.5″ Bikes?
So, why are all manufacturers making 27.5″ and 29″ bikes? Because they’re after your hard-earned money. Look, the vast majority of people in the world still ride 26ers. I own bikes in all wheel size categories, but I love my 26ers most.
While taller wheels roll faster, the difference isn’t like night and day. Besides, you don’t become better at MTBing just because you bought a new shiny 29er! I keep smoking 29ers owners out on the trails, and the look on their faces…
In the end, though, it’s all about riding what gives the most fun and works best for your MTB needs. As for me, if a 26er works really well for me, why fix it?
By the way, a bike with 26-inch wheels is also fondly described as a 26er.
29″ MTB Wheels/29ers/Niners (for Fast, Smooth Rides)
That’s why bike designers invented 29″ wheels. These wheels roll much faster than either 650B or 26-inch wheels. What’s more, these tall wheels subdue tree roots and rocks better than smaller ones.
Plus, you need less suspension with a 29er for the same ride quality as a 26er. If you need 140m of travel with a 26er, you might only need 100mm with a 29er.
Also, 29-inch wheels offer more grip than either 27.5″ or 26″ options because there’s more tire in contact with the ground.
The downside is that these tall wheels react slower than either 27.5″ or 26ers. Plus, a 29er might feel too uncomfortable for a small person.
Good news: Bike manufacturers have devised ways of making 29ers more maneuverable. They might tinker around with the bottom bracket drop, fork offset, trail, and other geometry numbers to convert 29ers into agile monster trucks that devour obstacles extremely well.
Even though a 29er is taller than a 26er, it gives a feeling of stability and confidence due to the increased traction and optimized tall wheel/bike geometry combination. What’s more, larger wheels allow a greater margin of error if you find yourself on the wrong line.
By the way, a bike with 29-inch wheels is also fondly described as a 29er or simply a niner.
27.5″ MTB Wheels, Also Called 650B Wheels (Most Versatile)
These wheels help smaller riders access larger wheels without having to endure the reduced reaction of 29ers or the reduced roll speed of 26ers. Also, 650B wheels are grippier than 26ers but less grippy than 29ers. They’re a kind of hybrid wheels that offer the best of both worlds so to speak.
27.5″ wheels are the most versatile of all three categories, and they work for pretty much all disciplines except cross country MTB. For cross-country MTB, you want a bike that offers tons of traction and ground-covering efficiency, which is where 29ers really shine.
Small wonder these wheels have replaced 26-inch wheels as the MTB wheel size standard. They’re very versatile and work well for all rider sizes.
These wheels work best for riders who want agile bikes with responsive and quick handling. They are also for MTBers who enjoy being airborne and those who are always looking for play–packed lines on all kinds of trails. And for shredding super tight trails, go for these wheels.
Mixed MTB Wheel Setup
Some mountain bikers prefer a mixed-wheel setup, though. They might have a 29″ wheel at the front and a 650B wheel at the rear.
The taller wheel reduces rollover resistance and boosts traction because of its greater contact patch. As for the smaller rear wheel, it gives shorter-limbed riders slightly more butt clearance. Having this wheel setup also converts the bike into one that offers nippier handling.
Don’t Obsess Over Wheel Size, Though
But you don’t want to obsess too much over wheels because they’re not the most important beginner MTB selection factor.
Pay attention to the most important things first before you think about the wheels.
Think about things like frame size, head angle, seat angle, stack, reach, wheelbase, fork rake, trail, and chainstay length before thinking about wheel size.
It’d be better to have a fitting bike in every other respect but wheels than to have a bike with wheels you like but fails to check enough of all the other boxes.
That said, most riders live in the 27.5”-29″ wheel diameter range. But…
Here are three simple rules of thumb to follow when choosing wheel size:
Rule #1: Go with a 29er if you’re taller than 6 feet in height.
Rule #2: Go with 27.5″ wheels if you stand around 5.5 feet or thereabout.
Rule #3: Choose a 26er if you’re shorter than 5.5 feet.
How Do You Size a Mountain Bike for a Kid?
Mountain bikes and indeed all kinds of kids’ bikes are sized differently than adults’ bikes. While adults’ bikes are sized and fit using aspects such as frame size and geometry, kids’ bikes are sized using wheel size.
First off, find a bike your child will love riding. Then, decide what wheel size will work for your kiddo. To determine wheel size correctly, measure your kid’s height and inseam length in inches. Please convert the measurements into inches so you can get the most out of this brief kids MTB guide.
Next, calculate the right wheel size for your size using the general kids bike size chart below.
|Age||Kid’s Height||Inseam Length||Recommended Wheel Size|
|2 to 3 years||2 ft.10″-3ft.4″||35cm-42cm (14″-17″)||12″|
|3 to 4 years||3ft. 1″-3ft. 7″||40cm-50cm (16″-20″)||14″|
|4 to 5 years||3ft.7″-4.0ft.||45cm-55cm (18″-22″)||16″|
|5 to 6 years||3ft.9″-4ft.3″||50cm-60cm (20″-24″)||18″|
|5 to 8 years||4ft.-4ft. 5″||55cm-63cm (22″-25″)||20″|
|7 to 11 years||4ft.5″-4ft. 9″||60cm-72cm(24″-28″)||24″|
Note: some kids are taller than their age while others are tinier than their age. If your child is bigger than their age, definitely size up wheel size.
Consider These 2 Specs: Seatpost Height and Standover Clearance
A particular bike may seem like the right fit for your child given their height and inseam length. But if the standover clearance of the bike and the minimum seatpost height are way off, that bike will either be too big or too small for your little tyke.
If the bike company you want to order from lists down the standover height, compare that number to your kid’s inseam measurement. Naturally, your kid’s inside seam length should be slightly less than their standover clearance. That clearance above the top tube will allow your baby to maneuver their bike easier.
If the manufacturer didn’t provide standover information for the bike, don’t worry. Instead — focus on seatpost height. But seatpost height is a trickier way to size a bike for a kid. Why? Because the bike type you’re buying for your kid determines how the seatpost height will compare to your baby’s inseam length.
The inseam length/seatpost height comparisons will be different depending on whether you’re buying a pedal bike or a balance bike.
But since you’re buying a kid’s MTB, I assume you’re buying a pedal bike for an older child who can handle the challenges of off-road cycling.
Follow this simple rule: make sure the minimum seatpost height stays between 1″-3″ higher than your child’s inseam length. If the seatpost height is longer than that, your boy or girl will struggle to reach the pedals. Even worse, their balance will suffer, and they might even fall and get hurt.
What if the manufacturer’s site doesn’t list seatpost height? Look elsewhere since no kids MTB bike brand worth your money and time would ignore to list down such an important sizing spec.
At this point, start looking at other aspects such as geometry, brakes, gears, and the rest of the components. When buying a MTB for a kid, you don’t want to spend too much money. Typically, kids’ mountain bikes offer basic components. As long as the parts don’t seem too crappy, you’re good.
6. Look at the Frame Material
There are three main materials used to build mountain bike frames namely aluminum, steel, and carbon.
As a beginner MTBer, you want to choose a beginner bike that has a lightweight frame, and aluminum fits the bill perfectly. Also, aluminum is quite strong and affordable. Steel frames are also OK, but while they’re more durable than aluminum and even carbon frames, they can be too heavy for a new MTBer.
As for carbon frames, those aren’t a great option for beginners because they tend to cost boatloads of money. Carbon MTB bike frames are super light, tough, and will make you look like a very serious cyclist. But most carbon bikes are often too much bike for starting mountain bikers.
While a lighter frame could be better for you, do you really want to pay over $1k just to shave off 600g? That might make sense if you’re an aspiring roadie. But that would not be necessary for a beginning MTBer riding a 30-pound bike.
7. Pay Attention to the Bike’s Components: Brakes, Drivetrain, Wheels
After you’ve taken care of the most important considerations including frame size, frame geometry, and wheel size, it’s time to look at the components.
So, take a closer look at the cassette on the rear wheel. How many sprockets does the cog have? Generally, the more sprockets or gears (those toothed metal wheels), the better.
You also should examine the chain, front derailleur, rear derailleur, crankset, and bottom bracket. Collectively, all these components are referred to as groupset.
There are single, double, and triple mountain bike cranksets.
Single Cranksets (Works Best for DH and Enduro MTB Bikes)
Also called one-by or simply 1X) have traditionally been the go-to groupset for downhill mountain bikes.
That said, mid-level and top-end mountain bikes are increasingly favoring one-by drivetrains as well as some entry-level bikes. But why is this drivetrain becoming pretty much the norm in MTBing? It’s because 1X drivetrains eliminate the need to have the front derailleur as well as a chain guide.
With this groupset, the chain stays in place and you’ll rarely experience the dreaded chain drop. That’s because there’s only one chainring featuring long unramped teeth. You don’t need to shift between chainrings. Also, there’s alternating tooth widths designed to match up with the chain’s inner and outer links.
In the end, you have a cleaner, lighter crankset because there’s no front derailleur and its matching shifter— a desirable thing. What’s more, many beginners find that a 1X drivetrain makes for easier pedaling. Most 1X drivetrain mountain bikes have a 30 or 32 tooth chainring.
The drawback of a single chainring setup is that you get a somewhat limited gear range. Fortunately, most cassettes these days are up to 36T. Plus, you can always make things even better using an appropriate conversion kit. As a beginner, a 36T gear range should be adequate.
Double Cranksets (2X Drivetrains Work Well for Trail Bikes)
Compared to a triple crankset, a double crankset (offers a narrower gear range. And there’s less overlap than with triple cranksets.
This crankset design features two chainrings. The inner, smaller chainring typically provides 22-28 teeth while the larger outer chainring comes with 34-36 teeth. All bikes from entry-level options to top-level performers may have a double drivetrain.
However, the double drivetrain seems to be losing its popularity to the lighter, cleaner, and less finicky 1X drivetrain. Still, the double chainring set is what most mountain bike riders seem to prefer.
The smaller chainring is for when climbing really steep hills. And the larger chairing is for every other kind of terrain: downhill, flat terrain, and moderately steep slopes.
Double chainring setups offer a pretty decent gearing range and are typically seen on trail bikes. But they can be slappy and noisy. Also, you won’t get as much chain security as with a single chainring setup.
But you can always invest in high-quality chain retention components even though adding these devices results in a clunky chainset.
Triple Cranksets or 3X Drivetrains (Usually Used on XC Bikes)
Finally, we have triple cranksets where the front cog offers three chainrings. The 3X (three-by) drivetrain isn’t very common on mountain bikes, but you might find it on cross-country bikes. But the 3X drivetrain is becoming less and less common even in XC bikes.
Since a three-chain ring set uses the longest chain of all three drivetrains, it tends to be the noisiest and slappiest. A 22-32-42T chainrings ratio would be good for most XC MTBers.
When should you use a 3X drivetrain? If the surfaces you’ll mostly ride consist of a mix of fireroads, asphalt, and other fast-rolling terrains, you can definitely use this kind of a groupset.
So, why do lots of XC riders still prefer multiple chainring setups? It’s because this drivetrain offers enough gearing range and cadence options. And XC racers do need a lot of gearing and cadence range if they’re to conquer every kind of slope and surface the competition throws at them.
How Many Gears Do You Need on a Beginner Mountain Bike?
before I answer that question, let me explain something lots of new cyclists find a little confusing.
Some gears are described as 21 speed, 18 speed, 24 speed, 27 speed, and so on. Other times you hear cyclists describing their MTB as a 7 speed, 10 speed, 11 speed, or even 12-speed bike. And you’re like what the heck is going on here?
When someone says their MTB has a 27-speed gear drive system, what do they mean? They mean that the front sprocket has 3 chainrings and the cassette (rear sprocket) has 7 cogs (those little toothed wheels). And because you can theoretically have 3 x 7 gear combinations on that gearing system, the bike is now described as a 21-speed bike.
That means that……
A 21-speed bike is the same as a 7-speed bike. Got it?
The gear range a bike offers determines its overall usability. The number of gears you need on your starter trail bike depends on how and where you’ll ride.
A rule of thumb on MTB gear range: Generally, the more varied the terrain in terms of gradient, the wider gear range you should have on your new bike, and vice versa.
Ideal Gearings for Different Mountain Biking Styles
For example, a downhill racer doesn’t need to climb hills and needs pretty high gear ratios. Such a cyclist needs to get a bike with 7-10 (12T-25T or 11T-36T) rear cogs combined with one 32T-36T chainring (1 x 7 to 1 x 10 gearing). Such gearing would be more reliable mechanically and even safer because ….no chain drops. By the way, T stands for teeth.
In comparison, a cross-country racer needs to climb some really steep hills some of the time while doing flats and descents on asphalt, fireroads, and dirt trails the rest of the time. For that reason, their MTB needs a wider gear range to handle the varied gradients.
Something like a 8-9 speed cassette (12T-32T or 11T-34T) paired up with 2 or 3 chainrings would be more like it for a XC bike. A common triple-chainring arrangement on XC bikes is 42T-32T-22T.
Most trail riders, which most mountain bikers are, seem to prefer 2 x 10 gearing options. That’s an ideal gear combination for maintaining optimal performance when doing long climbs at high altitudes and descents.
That said, 1 x 11 gearing is becoming pretty much the standard in mountain biking. Newer mountain bikes are now coming with a 10-speed or 11-speed cassette paired up with a one-by (1X) drivetrain. The chainring for these bikes typically features 30T-34T while the cassette is a 10T-42T affair.
Wheels, Tires, Brakes, and Saddle
As for the seat, understand bike seats aren’t frequently comfortable. They’re usually hard and uncomfortable on many bikes. But you can always buy softer, comfier saddles for your first MTB.
When it comes to the brakes, the hydraulic disc brakes are usually the best, but you’ll typically not find hydraulic disc brakes on cheap beginner MTBs. You’ll most get mechanical disc brakes, and that’s OK.
Wheels and tires? You need wheels with pretty wide tires for stability. The tires need to have considerably deep tread for maximum traction. Generally, the wider the better.
Actually, consider buying a fat bike/fatty. A fatty comes with really wide tires, as wide as 3 inches in some cases. This bike features wide grippy tires designed to take on pretty much anything sandy, muddy, and snowy trails throw at them.
Generally, pricier bikes come with better components. But you can always invest in upgrades and improve your first bicycle whenever it makes sense to do so.
8. Buy Your First MTB Online or from a LBS?
First off, a fact that every cyclist knows — buying a bike online is almost always cheaper than getting it from a local bike shop. But while buying online can seem to save you money, it’s not always as simple as it looks.
There’s always a chance you may end up with a poorly fitting mountain bike if you buy from an online store. Plus, odds are you’ll receive at best a halfway-assembled bike. Well, some online shops deliver bikes that need very little work to assemble, and you’ll usually get the tools required for the job.
With other bikes, you may have to go to a LBS to get fitted or to have the guys there assemble the bike for you. And that does cost money. If buying online you’ll want to factor the bike assembly cost and fitting cost into the final figure.
One trick that works well is to go to a local bike shop, find a bike you like, get fitted, and then order online for cheaper. That usually works, but you do want to support your local bike shops at least some of the time, huh?
One advantage of buying from a LBS is that they can and will typically help with bike setup and fit. You’ll also get useful advice on what tools and components you’ll need to maintain your bike. And in most cases, you’ll get after-sale tune-ups and suggestions for addressing little issues like odd noises and more.
9. But Are There Good Beginner MTBs on Amazon?
Amazon offers tons of high-quality outdoor products, but the best bikes in the cycling world weren’t bought from Amazon.
Admittedly, if you want the finest rigs ever designed, you’ll just have to buy directly from the manufacturer or order from an authorized distributor. Lots of LBS’s out there carry great bikes of all types. And as further explained below, it’s not a bad idea to buy in-store.
That said, Amazon still carries some decent beginner MTBs including Diamondback Overdrive and some really nice but not-so-cheap Mongoose bikes.
10. Maybe You Should Buy a Used Starter MTB?
Buying a used first-MTB is also a good idea. Actually, the vastness of the worldwide web is awash with all kinds of irresistible used-bike deals.
A person I know bought their first mountain bike, a Specialized bike, on E-bay. It cost them $500, and it’s a damn good rig. Still, they had to pay $250 to a LBS to have the bike checked for issues. The derailleur was a little wobbly, and there were a few other issues that needed attention.
In the end, though, they got an affordable very high-quality first bike from a trusted bike brand that fit and handled like a dream.
If you opt to go the used-bike route, be sure you know a thing or two about bikes. Would you know if the front derailleur wasn’t working well? What if the bearings need to be replaced and both wheels are out of true? Knowing how to inspect a used bike for issues can be a truly handy skill, but you can also have a friend or LBS mechanic help with this.
11. What Are the Best Bike Brands Out There?
Focus less on brand and more on bike fit. Because it’s better to ride a properly fitting bike with average components from a smaller, less-known brand than a poorly fitting bike from a big, well-known brand.
That said, you’re less likely to make mistakes component-wise if you buy from brands most cyclists like and trust. The big three bike brands to look at if you’re unsure where to start are Giant, Trek, and Specialized. But Diamondback, Mongoose, and a few others might also be worth your time …and money.
But you can always buy from Schwinn, Huffy, and other bike brands and see how it goes for you. My first-ever MTB came from Amazon, a Mongoose, and the second was a Diamondback bike. And while I can’t say these are the best beginner bikes on Earth, I learned my MTB fundamentals on those budget mountain bikes.
12. How Much Money Should a Good First MTB Cost?
Be willing to spend anywhere around $400-$700, but if you can spend around $1000 that’d be better. But there’s no reason you can’t spend $500 on your first mountain bike as long as you understand what you can and can’t get from a starter bike.
With a $400-$700, you get a bike with pretty basic components — pretty much no bells and whistles. And if you get bells and whistles on such a bike, just know they’re likely to be garbage. With a bike that cheap/affordable, you get a bicycle that gets around, one that supports light trail mountain biking rather than jumps and drops and other demanding stuff like that.
But with a bike costing $1000+, you get more and much better components and overall bike performance. You’ll likely get a one-by drivetrain at that price range, tubless-compatible wheels &tires, through axles, dropper post, hydraulic disc brakes, air suspension, a tapered headtube, and more.
When it comes to mountain bikes, the higher the price, the lighter and better components and vice versa — up to a point. Once you reach the $3k mark, things start getting marginally rather than massively better the more you spend.
Avoid buying those Walmart BSOs and similar junk sold in most big box department stores. Don’t skimp when it comes to buying your first ever MTB. But the sweetest spot price-wise for a starter rig tends to hover around the $1k mark. Your budget rules in the end, though.
Whoa, that’s quite a lengthy read. I hope you found this beginner MTB buying guide detailed and helpful enough.
Should I buy a cheap beginner bike and maybe upgrade to better, performance-oriented components down the road? For the most part, spending money on expensive upgrades trying to soup up a $500 MTB is a bad idea. You usually end up spending more money than you would have had you saved up more for a better bike from the get-go.
Whoa, that’s quite a lengthy read. I hope you found this beginner MTB buying guide detailed and helpful enough.
Beginner MTB FAQs
1. How Do You Choose a Good Beginner Mountain Bike?
Choose a light frame that fits you properly and is strong enough. A good starter mountain bike tends to be a hard-tail with a single suspension in the front, usually features an aluminum frame, comes with 29″ or 27.5″ wheels, and offers disk brakes. Usually, an aluminum frame is your best bet as a beginner because it’s quite light and relatively strong while not costing a small fortune.
2. What’s the Best Beginner Mountain Bike?
The best beginner mountain bike is one that fits you and features decent components that won’t break after a few rides. Some brands are known for great entry-level bikes while others not so much, so find bike brands with a good reputation among the cycling community and choose a beginner option in your budget’s range. You could also pick up any of the beginner options reviewed above.
3. How Much Should I Spend on My First Beginner Mountain Bike?
Spend what your budget allows, but avoid buying the next BSO (Bike Shaped Object) you find at your local big box store. You can spend as little as $500 on your first MTB, but you’d be better off with a starter bike priced at around $1000 in most cases. Usually, the pricier the mountain bike, the better quality components you’ll get and the more durable the bike.
4. Is a Mountain Bike the Best All-rounder Bike?
No, gravel bikes are. Mountain bikes tend to be heavier than road and gravel bikes, and their often fatter tires don’t roll very fast on the road. But while road bikes have much lighter frames and wheels, their super-narrow wheels suck at traction and are pretty lame on loose-packed trails. A gravel bike is your best bet because it’s lighter than a mountain bike and its tires aren’t as narrow as a road bike’s. What’s more, its tires have a bit of traction, making them a good option for riding dusty trails and singletracks.
5. How Do I Get into Mountain Biking?
Buy the right bike for your needs and, well, hop on it and start pedaling. It’s that simple. That said, you’ll need other essentials such as a cycling jersey, chamois, a certified MTB helmet, good cycling shoes, and MTB knee pads to really enjoy this sport. Get a good backpack or other bike bag to carry all those things on your trip. And don’t forget to bring basic tools and a repair kit. As time goes, you’ll decide what specific MTB riding style to choose.
6. Is Mountain Biking Difficult?
If you’re eying competitive mountain biking disciplines such as downhill MTB, Enduro, or Pump Tracking, then mountain biking can be extremely difficult. But if you’re just a beginner just looking to enjoy the local trails while losing a pound or two in the process, pretty much anyone can do it. You don’t need to a born superstar to complete most standard MTN training programs. But no, MTB isn’t very easy.
7. Is Mountain Biking Better Than Road Cycling for Weight Loss?
If you are able to ride your road bike uphill for periods of time or insanely fast — the Tour de France-fast — then road cycling can be an amazing way to lose extra fat. But if you’re a beginner rider looking to trim your body fast, mountain biking could be the better bet. Mountain biking, even recreational MTB, tends to be quite demanding. That’s why MTBers feel exhausted after every ride.