Buying your first Mountain bike? A guide of what to avoid

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Why are all these bikes so expensive? I can get a full suspension mountain bike at Argos for £200

This is how most beginner riders react when walking into a proper bike shop for the first time. The price difference between a bike shop bike and a retail store bike can be shocking to many but there are reasons this gap exists: The quality and reliability of materials, the know-how and servicing, how it was assembled. These things are very important in buying your first mountain bike, a total beginner with no idea can easily get bewildered and confused.

That’s why I’ve decided to put together an extensive guide on what to look for, where to look and what to pay. It might be easy to see this guide as being prejudice to cheaper bikes but that is not the case. Instead see it as a way to avoid a bike that was not assembled by mechanic and not equipped with reliable parts. I want to prove that doing your research will leave you not wasting money and most importantly not riding an unsafe bike. For this I’ve chosen to focus on a typical mountain bike that you would find at a large retailer.

The Barracuda Draco: why this is NOT a good mountain bikeScreenshot_1

The Barracuda Draco is a £200 full suspension bike from the UK mega-retailer Argos. The knobbly tyres and dual suspension make it look like it can handle the trails. But there is more to it than that.

First off no matter what type of trails you ride, a lot of stress is placed on the components of the bike. Bumpy terrain can cause a bike like this to rattle itself apart and the reason is quite obvious, it uses cheap parts and was built by someone who doesn’t care.

Suspension: Go for front-only and plush

Suspension on a mountain bike is key to riding correctly, but being comfortable and safe. If the suspension doesn’t cushion the bumps enough it can cause the bike to bounce around and difficult to control. It’s very common for cheap retail bikes to come with very poor suspension with stiff springs and low amounts of travel.

Travel is how far the bike can be “squished” before you’ve hit the limit of the suspension. The travel for this bike is not included in the spec sheet (which is a red flag on its own) but normally these style of bikes will have around 25mm of travel on the front fork. When you compare that to a real mountain bike, which tends to have between 150-170mm of travel, you can see just how little cushioning this bike has and how uncomfortable it will be when going over the rough stuff. Suspension also needs to be adjusted according to your weight, almost all bikes you get from a bike shop will have front forks that allow adjustment. These don’t.

Screenshot_2The fact that this bike has rear suspension at all is a major red flag. It’s unfortunate but any proper mountain bike under £1000 will be front suspension only, known as a Hardtail. This is because the linkage required to make rear suspension work reliably is extremely complicated and extremely expensive. With just a spring and a hinge this Barracuda bike looks like it could snap in half at any time. While proper rear suspension looks purposeful and almost indestructible.

Screenshot_3
The 2019 Jamis Dakar AI: A £1,375 full suspension MTB

Brakes: Go for disc over rim

If you’re going through the woods and over rocks on a bike, you want it to stop every time you pull the brake lever. The brakes thankfully are something that is very easy to get right. In short this bike has rim breaks, which means the break pads clamp down on either side of the wheel. This is fine and the industry standard for road bikes and commuter bikes but not for mountain bikes. As mentioned the parts need to be reliable and as soon as any mud gets on the wheel or they get wet, they stop working and produce that horrible squeal. This is why the mountain biking industry changed over to disc brakes a long time ago. Disc brakes are self-explanatory, instead of the pads clamping on the rim, they clamp on a small metal disc in the center of the wheel. These work when wet or muddy and also require much less maintenance than rim brakes.

Screenshot_4
Rim brakes on Barracuda
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MTB disc brakes

Drive-train – Derailleur hanger and bolted Chainset

Screenshot_6First a bit of terminology is needed.

  • The section in red is the chainset: it is essentially the front gears and has a front Derailleur.
  • The blue is the cassette: the rear gears
  • The green is the Derailleur: this part moves the chain from one cog to the other, changing gears.
Screenshot_7
1-by drive-train of Trek Roscoe 6

The amount of gears on a mountain bike varies depending on the riding style. The most common set up for lower-end bikes is 3 gears up front and 7/8 gears at the back. This is the most economical combination to produce and while there is nothing wrong with it, beginners could be confused by the all the different gears. This is not essential but for the best reliability a 1-by drive-train is recommended. The Barracuda from Argos is a 3-by system, meaning that there are 3 gears up the front. Having 1 less Derailleur and one less lever means less confusion and a more simplistic and easy to maintain bike.

 

This Barracuda does not have a rear Derailleur hangar, meaning that it is bolted directly to the frame of the bike. This is bad news, if you crash and damage the back of the bike the whole thing may as well be thrown away. The Derailleur hanger is purposely built to be weaker than the the frame meaning it breaks before the frame does. This small hangar will save you lots of stress and expense if your bike takes a tumble. ALWAYS get a bike with a derailleur hanger. ANY bike shop bike will have one as standard.

Other Issues

Screenshot_8

This is a list of other issues the Barracuda has that make it a bad choice for mountain biking:

  • The wheels are attached with a locking nut instead of a quick release lever. Punctures are inevitable in mountain biking and having to carry a wrench around with you to take the wheel of isn’t ideal.
  • This bike comes with grip shifters meaning you twist the grips to change gear up and down. While this is fine it’s not ideal as these can become very slippery and difficult to change with. The vast majority of bike shop bikes will come with trigger shifters as standard, meaning you change gear with the push of a lever.
  • One thing the Barracuda does have is a thread-less stem. This can be identified by the bolts on the side of the stem. Threadless is the industry standard for all mountain bikes and threaded stems are less reliable and not easy to fix nowadays. for reference this is a threadless stem and this is a threaded one. 

After breaking down this £199 bike you can see how the components do not stack up. If you are still unsure on what makes a good mountain bike good, go into a real bike shop. Staff at these shops sell and repair bikes for a living and are the best for advice on what you want. Any bike you buy from them will leave in perfect working order and will often come with a free service after a few weeks. If you buy a bike from Argos no one can really help you if it breaks.

PRICING

Price is the biggest part of the equation. There is a bike for every budget but if you have a certain budget you may need to be prepared for compromises. For casual woods riding a bike around £300 from a bike shop will do the trick nicely. For going down actual trails or for longer rides I’d recommend something around £500. If you’re going above £600 make sure you know what style of riding you want to do as bikes start to get more and more specialised the more expensive they are.

Overall: Key points to remember

  • Derailleur hanger
  • Disc brakes over rim brakes
  • Front suspension only for bikes under £1000
  • Threadless stem not a threaded one
  • Quick release wheels

For more information and a bit of entertainment too, check out IFHT Film’s video on how to buy a mountain bike.

 

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