XTERRA Couch to Trail – Buying Your First Mountain Bike


By Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance, 5x Age Group XTERRA World Champ

Looking to put a little excitement into your life? Want to venture off road to escape traffic and congestion? Attracted by friends’ tales of sweet singletrack and fantastic stories of XTERRA racing? You’ve got the mountain-bike bug. Good for you. Now’s a great time to buy that sweet fat-tire that’ll satisfy all your dirt dreams.  Delving into any new activity isn’t easy, and mountain bikes—with their newfangled suspension designs, high-tech parts, and myriad accessories—can be seriously intimidating. The myriad of prices, models and types of mountain bikes available makes the process not unlike buying a car. This guide will give you the info you need to be an informed buyer with realistic expectations about what you need and what you can afford.

One thing: It’s not going to be inexpensive. High-quality, intro-level bikes start around $2,000 to $2,500, depending on what features you want, and prices climb dramatically from there. You can get a good bike for less than that (if you buy it used), but you’ll need to spend money on pedals, riding shoes, helmet, and a pump, at the very least.

The good news: After the initial investment, mountain biking is pretty cheap. Bikes can last for years, and almost everywhere has dirt roads and trails you can ride for free. Once you’re set up and shredding on dirt, we pretty much guarantee you’re never going to want to go back to pavement!

Do A Little Homework First:

Before you rush in and kick some knobbies, though, think about how and where you’ll ride. You’ll find that there’s a fascinating range of off-road bikes and equipment; so much so, that shoppers are sometimes struck with analysis paralysis and have difficulty picking the right bike. What type of mountain biking suits you best?  For example, are you the type who has to have the best or would you be happier getting reasonable quality at a pleasing price point? Do you like simple designs or are you infatuated with cutting-edge technology? Will you keep this bike for ten years or more or are you thinking that you’ll upgrade as your skills and interests develop?

While you’re soul searching, give some thought to how much you’d like to spend on your new bike. Keep in mind that you often need accessories with new-bike purchases, such as a helmet, gloves, pedals and shoes. Because these will add to the bike’s purchase price, include some extra in your budget. Modern mountain bikes can cost as much as $10,000, and while these bikes are super cool, there is no need to spend that much to get a bike that will allow you to have a safe and fun ride on the trail.

What can I get for my money?

  • Budget-Minded: $500 – $1,000

In this range you can score a decent hardtail, perhaps even a 29er, or even start looking at entry level full suspension bikes. You can probably find a good, used bike in this range.

  • Mid-range: $1,000 – $1,500

Once you get over $1000, options open up in the clearance and model year close-out choices. There are a number of full suspension bikes and really nice hardtails in this range. These bikes will start to have the same frames as the pricier models, just with cheaper components. Choosing one of these sets you up to upgrade-as-needed with better parts.

  • Upper mid-range: $1,500 – $3,500

With a little shopping around, you can buy a bike in this category that will last you for years. Most local shops will have race-ready hardtails and decent cross-country or trail full suspension models in this price range. You will also start to see carbon fiber models.

  • Going for the Gold: $3500+

If you have this kind of money to drop on a bike, you don’t really need to worry about price per se. You will be more concerned with getting a bike that exactly matches your riding style with sweet components to boot.

Now…let’s talk about frame materials

Aluminum: The most common material for modern bike frames; aluminum is relatively light and durable, and has good ride qualities; it provides a reliable all-round performance.

Carbon fiber: This composite material is super light, super strong, and has vibration absorbing properties. Carbon fiber bike frames are a relatively modern introduction for mountain bikes, but they offer the highest level of performance of all frame materials.

Steel: Steel frames are renowned for their comfort, strength and durability. Steel is quite a heavy frame material though, and therefore despite its good ride qualities, it is used less commonly.

Titanium: Titanium is the metal used by a lot of aircraft manufacturers; it is expensive, but it has become a bespoke choice for bicycle frame manufacture. The unique look and outstanding strength are the main attractions.

What’s with all these tire sizes?

Historically, mountain bikes had wheels that were 26 inches in diameter; it was the standard wheel/tire size for all off-road bicycles. In the late 1990s though, people started to experiment with larger wheel sizes; namely 29 inch wheels (29ers), which is the same wheel size as a 700c wheel on a road bike. Larger wheels roll over obstacles more easily, and although they are slightly heavier and a bit less responsive, the new standard quickly grew in popularity; this was because of the tire’s ability to provide better traction and speed, particularly for cross country racing. Other advantages of a 29-inch wheel are that you can pedal at the same speed with less effort, you are more stable, and it gives a hardtail bike some of the advantages of suspension without the additional cost.

Although 29 inch wheels became popular with cross-country riders, downhill racers largely stuck with 26 inch wheels. This split was because of the nature of downhill riding, which demands ‘snappier’ handling; the smaller wheels and shorter wheelbase of the 26 inch wheeled bike still met these demands best. Then, in the mid-2000’s, bike manufacturers brought in a half-way-house option… the 27.5 inch (650b) wheeled bike. This new standard has become the most popular with Downhill, Enduro and Trail bikes, providing a good balance between straight-line speed and quick control, while 29 inch wheels remain the most popular for cross-country speed demons!

Some manufacturers however, have now started making small size frames for XC bikes only in a 27.5 inch wheel size.  They felt they had to compromise too much with the frame geometry to accommodate the larger wheels.  Trek is one example.  All their small size frames come with 27.5 inch wheels.

So what should you buy?  Obviously, it depends on your size.  If you are 5’2 you probably want a 27.5 inch wheel.  If you’re 6’2, a 29 inch wheel might suit you better.  But, with that said, plenty of tall riders prefer 27.5 inch wheels because of their handling capabilities.  Test ride both and see what feels best.  My guess is you won’t be able to tell that much difference!

Types of Bikes:

Mountain bikes can be broken down into a few broad categories: cross-country (XC) for racing and going fast, trail bikes for general use and all-around mountain riding, all-mountain or enduro for more technical trails, and downhill (DH) for flat-out descending. Don’t get caught up in the labels—everyone has their own definitions. What’s important to understand is that all bikes fit somewhere on this continuum, and choosing the right style means balancing a handful of considerations, including frame geometry, design and amount of suspension, and weight.

Most likely you will want to choose a cross-country (XC) mountain.  If you are going to be doing any racing at all, a cross-country mountain bike is what you want. Keep in mind cross-country mountain bikes are also versatile enough for most trails you come across.

Below are brief descriptions of each of the four categories:

XC bikes are typically the lightest, have the least amount of suspension, and are built with steeper geometries that favor pedaling. They’re often rigid (no suspension), hardtails (suspension up front only), or, if they have dual suspension, have around four inches (100 millimeters) of travel. This is what most XTERRA racers ride.

On the other end of the spectrum, DH bikes are always full suspension and built with extremely slack geometries that are great for tearing down hills but not great at pedaling. They’re also heavy so they can take a lot of abuse and tend to have around eight inches (200 millimeters) of travel.

Trail bikes are in the middle of the specturm and they do a lot of things well.  These can be hardtails, which keep the complication factor and cost down. (It is not recommended to go with a  fully rigid design for your first mountain bike—the lack of suspension will probably make you miserable.) More often, trail bikes have full suspension, with somewhere between 4.7 inches (120 millimeters) to 5.5 inches (140 millimeters) of travel. The general rule of thumb is the more travel your bike has, the easier and more comfortable it is to negotiate obstacles. The additional suspension also adds weight, however, which makes pedaling and climbing tougher.

Enduro bikes sit closer to the DH end of the spectrum with six or seven inches of travel. If you live around rocky trails or want to focus on big-hit riding, this is a good category to look at. But for the most part, a beginner rider will be best served by a XC or trail bike.

Bikes come in male and female specific and most range in size from XS-XL or are sized by seat tube height in inches.  The seat tube height is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket (where your crank arms connect to the frame) to the top of the seat tube (where the seat post enters the frame).  Work with the bike shop so they can tell you what size bikes you should demo and whether male or female sizing is best for you. (Ladies, I have been racing mountain bikes for over 10 years and have only ridden unisex bikes with no problem so look at your arm and leg length to see which is a better fit.  For reference, I am 5’2.) Women’s specific bikes often have a shorter top tube, narrower handlebars, shorter stems (what connects the handlebar to the bike), shorter cranks (the part connected to the pedals), wider saddles, smaller diameter grips, shorter reach on the brake levers, adjusted fork and shock for the lighter weight rider, and feminine color choices.

Hardtail or Full Suspension:

Hardtails offer a lightweight bike, with just front suspension. These bikes have a fully rigid rear end, and are ideal for a wide variety of trails. Hardtails offer a simplicity that full suspension bikes simply can’t compete with. Having only front suspension enables bike manufactures to make hardtail frames incredibly light, and in a sport where weight matters, the lighter the better.  With no moving parts like bushings, bearings and pivots, a hardtail is also far easier and cheaper to maintain. This is especially telling if you live in an area where mother nature takes her toll, as all that rain, mud, salt and sand can work its way into your moving parts, which can be expensive to replace.  It’s clear a hardtail will suffer on the descents compared to a fully sprung bike, but take an honest look at where and what type of riding you do. Many people don’t have the luxury of huge gnarly trails to ride everyday, so a hardtail could be a valid choice for someone on more subdued terrain. And if you like rides where the climbing is measured in the thousands rather than hundreds of meters, the feathery weight of a hardtail should have you flying up the trails.  Finally, there’s nothing like a hardtail to bring on your overall riding skills. Without rear suspension, the margin for making errors on technical terrain becomes much smaller. This causes you to think extra hard about line choice and body position, which will only help your overall riding in the long run.

Full suspension mountain bikes offer the rider increased comfort and control. The front and rear suspension cushions the rider from the impacts on the trail. The weight penalty is comparatively small compared to what it used to be, with most full suspension frames being around 2 lbs. heavier than a hardtail counterpart. Unless you’re an elite racer, this doesn’t make that big a difference when factoring in the fun and comfort of rear suspension.  Full suspension bikes used to suffer from poor pedaling performance, but those days are well and truly over. Manufacturers are now offering front and rear lockout at the flick of a switch, turning your full suspension bike into a mean pedaling machine. Even if you prefer not to use the lockout, the linkages and pivots are now so efficient, you’ll hardly be loosing any energy with the suspension fully open.  Cross country riding is only getting more technical and this is where full suspension bikes really shine.  There’s also the simple fun factor of riding a full suspension bike. That rock garden that had you terrified on a hardtail now becomes a fun feature to barrel over. Struggling on gnarly root section? Full suspension will give you the confidence and handling a hardtail never could. Cross country riding is only getting more technical and this is where full suspension bikes really shine.

Full suspension bikes aren’t cheap, so if your budget is tight, you may get more bang for your buck from a hardtail.  Furthermore, full suspension bikes aren’t without their issues. As mentioned earlier, they’re far more expensive to maintain due to all the extra moving parts, and that’s before you factor in the initial cost of purchase. Simply put, full suspension bikes aren’t cheap, so if your budget is tight, you may get more bang for your buck from a hardtail.

Despite what the marketing hype tells you, there’s no one size fits all when deciding between hardtail and full suspension. Hardtails may be seen as old school, but they’re a reliable, proven technology, whereas full suspension bikes are exciting, versatile machines, that may come back to bite you with cost and maintenance.

As mentioned above, there is also the fully rigid bike option for those with arms and backs of steel.  This type of bike is not recommended for your first mountain bike.

Ready to Take the Plunge – New or Used:

After test riding a couple bikes within your budget, you’ve decided what you want.  The hard part is over.  Now the fun begins!  But some people wonder if they should buy a new bike or a used one.  You will get more bang for your bike if you buy a bike that is one or two years old.  For the most part, bicycles don’t have a very good resale value, which means you can get a really good deal on a used bike.  Buying used gives you a better opportunity to negotiate a better price and stick within a reasonable budget. It’s quite common to find decent used bikes that have only been ridden for one season, and sometimes with less then ten rides on them. If weight is important to you, you can probably find a 1-2 year old carbon frame bike, for the same price as a new aluminum bike. Be cautious though, know how to spot a good AND a bad deal – if you’re unsure, ask your fellow riders for advice, or go speak with staff at the local bike shop to gain more insight. If possible, test ride the bike; you want to know how the bike feels, inspect the components yourself and look for wear and tear first hand. A good seller will have no problems setting up a meeting time and place to accommodate a test ride.  This is also gives you the opportunity to make sure the bike fits you properly.  Getting the bike inspected by a local bike shop or certified mechanic is a good idea as well.

In Summary:

There has never been a better time to buy a mountain bike!  Think hard about these things before heading off to your local bike store or looking for a used bike.  And remember to test out as many bikes as possible!

  • What kind of bike do I want?
  • What is my budget (don’t forget to factor in accessories)
  • What frame material?
  • Hardtail or Full Suspension?
  • What size wheels?
  • Women’s Specific Design (applies only to women)?
  • Used or New?

New or used… once you’ve made your final decision… Congratulations! Now, get out and ride and race! You’ve made a wonderful investment in your health and happiness!

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at prsfit@gmail.com

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.