- Bike Checks
Welcome to the Vital MTB Buyer’s Guide. If you’re here, you’re likely looking to buy a new mountain bike, find information about specific models, or maybe you just need some help choosing a ride. The information below can help you make an informed buying decision.
Mountain bikes vary substantially depending on the type of riding they are intended for and our product guide is divided into the most popular categories. Pick the category that suits your riding style best.
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes - Cross-country bikes (also known as "XC bikes") are intended for use on cross-country trails, whether recreational or competitive. They come in two varieties - full-suspension or hardtail, which have front suspension only. In either case, suspension travel will very rarely exceed 4.5-inches. Both 26” and 29” wheel sizes are available. They climb hills very well, but don't offer as much comfort on the way back down as a longer travel bike will.
Trail Mountain Bikes - Trail bikes (commonly referred to as "all-mountain bikes") work well for many applications. To be classified as a trail bike, frames and forks have anywhere between 4.5 and 6-inches of suspension travel. If you're looking for a bike that can "do it all," this is the right type of bike to consider. While it won’t be perfect for everything, it can likely get the job done.
Freeride Mountain Bikes - Freeride bikes are full-suspension bikes intended for use on aggressive trails and at gravity-oriented bike parks. Suspension travel is typically in the 5.5 to 7-inch range.
Downhill Mountain Bikes - Downhill bikes are made to go down hills, fast. These bikes are always full-suspension with 7 to 10-inches of suspension travel in the rear and 7 to 8-inches up front to absorb big impacts when landing drops or smashing through rock gardens.
Dirt Jumping Bikes - Dirt jumping bikes are first and foremost made for dirt jumping, but they also work very well at the skatepark and for most slopestyle applications. Hardtails are the most common, but full-suspension options also exist. Suspension travel is typically less than 4-inches.
The overall feel of a bike is largely dependent on what material(s) the frame is made of, so this is an important consideration.
Aluminum - Aluminum is light, stiff, and affordable, making it the most commonly used frame material. Because it is so stiff, aluminum bikes are characterized by a slightly rougher ride than those made from chromoly or titanium.
Carbon Fiber - Carbon fiber is basically very thin strands of carbon that can be twisted and woven together, like cloth. To make carbon fiber take on a permanent shape, it can be layered over a mold, then coated with a stiff resin or plastic. It is among the lightest materials and is commonly used for high-end cross-country and all-mountain bikes. More recently it has found its way into some downhill and freeride frames. Because carbon technology is advancing very quickly, costs are being lowered and durability is increasing.
Chromoly Steel - Chromoly (a steel alloy) is lighter than high-tensile steel, strong, responsive, and offers a relatively supple ride. However, it is heaver than aluminum, carbon, and titanium.
Titanium - Titanium (also referred to as “ti”) is very light and stronger than steel. It is also very expensive, and for this reason is only seen in very high-end or custom frames. Titanium also offers a smooth ride because it flexes well.
Material Combinations - If a frame is made of more than one material, it is usually carbon fiber and a metal - either steel, aluminum, or titanium. Material blends are not common, but constructing various parts of a frame from different materials is (ie – a carbon fiber front triangle with an aluminum swingarm). A frame made out of more than one material can help provide better stiffness, compliance, or damping in specific areas.
The most common way to size a mountain bike is “standover” height, also known as inseam clearance. You want plenty of room between you and the top tube when you come to a stop, especially on uneven surfaces. As a rule of thumb, there should be at least four inches of clearance from the top of your inseam to the top of the top tube. Note that for some categories and styles of bikes, the distance measured may be much larger than four inches. This is okay, provided the length and cockpit area of the bike fit you well.
Frame sizes are typically measured from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the top tube. Most manufacturers provide suggested sizing charts, and because models vary so much between categories, we recommend searching for the chart specific to the bike you’re interested in. It’s important to note that everyone has different riding preferences, so it’s best to test out a variety of sizes before making a final decision.
|Bike Size||Small||Medium||Large||Extra Large|
|Bike Size||Extra Small||Small||Medium||Large|
The diagram below breaks down the various components on a typical mountain bike. Note that some components are specific to certain categories of bikes (like chainguides on downhill bikes) and may not be shown in this diagram.
Look carefully at the components on the bike. Generally, more expensive components last longer and are easier to maintain than budget-conscious parts. Buying a bike with a good frame should be your priority, but the quality of components can help you choose between bikes that have similar frames.
It’s very rare to see anything other than 26-inch wheels on downhill, freeride, and dirt jump bikes. However, if you’re considering a cross-country or all-mountain bike, you’ll need to decided between 26 and 29-inch wheels. For many years, 26-inch wheels were the standard on these types of bikes, but recently 29-inch wheels (commonly known as “29ers”) have become increasingly popular. The larger diameter wheels roll over obstacles more easily and the tires can be run with less air pressure, providing better traction. On the other hand, larger wheels are heavier, more flexible, and there are fewer component and tire choices available. If you’re on the fence about wheel size, we highly suggest testing both sizes before making a purchase.
Deciding how much to spend is a tough decision. As a general rule, the more you spend the better bike you get. There will be major difference between a $900 bike and a $3500 bike. In general, the more expensive a bike is, the more durable it will be (at least until you start getting into the high-end where lightweight construction may reduce durability) and the better components will perform. If you’ll be riding regularly, we recommend spending at least $900. Anything less and you’ll be constantly repairing the bike and replacing components. If you’re a first-time buyer, you may be tempted to purchase a low-end bike and later upgrade the components as necessary. Know that it is often much cheaper to buy the components on the bike in the first place than it is to buy components later and upgrade.
For comparison, the three bikes below are priced at $3000, $4400, and $7500, respectively.
Be sure to do your research and read product reviews. Reviews are a great way to find out specifics about a particular model of mountain bike, user impressions, and things to watch out for or to upgrade right off the bat. After you’ve purchased a bike and had enough time to thoroughly test it, we encourage you to leave a review for other people to see when they are researching bikes on the web.
We hope you’ve found this information to be helpful. If you have a question that isn’t answered in this guide, our mountain bike forums are a great place to get advice from knowledgeable riders. Your local bike shop is also a great resource and the best place to test ride bikes before making a final decision.
We’ll see you on the trails and at the races!