Choosing a Bike

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How to Choose Your First Mountain Bike Elements of a Mountain Bike

Advice for Beginning Riders Joining Our Cross-Country Team

If your student is new to mountain biking, selecting and buying a bike can feel overwhelming. Of course, the easiest way to do it is to find someone who knows enough to help you. Sometimes, that’s just a sales person at the local bike shop. And that’s okay. You can trust them. But even if you’re getting some help, here are some basics to get you started. 

IMPORTANT: The following information is NOT an official recommendation from NICA, the Utah Cycling League, or the Jordan MTB Race Team. It is merely some friendly advice offered by one of the coaches.

1. Make a Checklist

It’s easier to shop for a bike when you know what you’re looking for. Go through this list and write down what you’d prefer for your bike, and maybe a couple of options you’d be willing to consider. Refer to it often when shopping. 

2. Size the Bike

Determine Your Frame Size

This will be the most important step—for both the rider and the parent. First, determine what size of bike frame would fit right now. (Consult a general sizing table below.) But before buying a specific bike, especially online, check the manufacturer to determine the exact dimensions for the bike’s model and year. Understand that each bike brand—and the models within that brand—may be slightly different in sizing. In other words, a medium Trek may not be exactly the same size as a medium Specialized.

Mountain Bike Sizing Chart

This is a general guide. Check the bike manufacturer’s web page to get accurate sizing for the bike you're selecting. 

Rider height

Leg Inseam

Suggested Frame Size

Feet/Inches

Centimeters

Inches

Centimeters

Inches

Size

4`10”-5`1”

148-158 cm

24-29”

61-73 cm

14”

XS

5`1″-5`5″ 

158-168 cm

25-30”

63-76 cm

15”

S

5`5″-5`9″ 

168-178 cm

26-31”

66-78 cm

16”

M

5`9″-6`0″ 

178-185 cm 

27-32”

68-81 cm

17″

6`0″-6`3″ 

185-193 cm

28-33”

71-83 cm

18″

XL

6`1″-6`6″ 

193-198 cm

29-34”

73-86 cm

19″

XXL

Consider Growth Spurts

Next, consider how much your student-rider may grow over the next year. This is when it gets tricky. (Fair warning: all Jr. Devo and most Freshman and Sophomores WILL outgrow their bike, usually after a year.) If you buy a bike that’s slightly too small now, they may outgrow it before the end of the season. Too big, and it could be a bit dangerous, especially for beginning riders. My advice: buy a bike that is just slightly bigger if they are still growing. 

Fitting Your Bike to the Rider

Once you figure out the right frame size, you’ll still need to fit (i.e. properly adjust) the bike to the rider. If at all possible, have the rider get on the bike. In some instances, the wheel size might make the bike too tall (see more on “Wheel Size” below). Can the seat be adjusted to the right height? Are the handlebars too far forward? Or too low? There’s lots of advice online about fitting. Your local bike shop can also help, as can some of the coaches and more experienced riders. You don’t have to get the bike dialed in from day one, but just be aware that small adjustments will make a big difference. 

Our Recommendation: Ride the bike to test the fit before buying. Have someone with greater expertise confirm the fit is correct, then have an expert or your bike shop properly adjust it for the season. 

3. Set a Budget

Most of our team’s riders spent between $700—$2,500 for their bikes. If you’re looking to spend below $400, you’ll be hard pressed to find a used bike that’s good enough quality. And a NEW bike under $400? Don’t waste your money. It won’t last the season. Having said that, if you can’t afford a decent bike, please talk to the coaches. We can help. 

Whatever price you budget, try to stick with it. It gets very easy to spend more, especially in the heat of the moment. And you’ll still need money for things like a helmet, gloves, etc. Don’t go broke just buying the bike. 

Our Recommendation: If you’re unsure whether you’ll really like the sport, shoot for the $500-$800 range, if you can. If you’re committed and have the money, spend more with the intent of selling the bike when outgrown. 

4. New or Used?

Should you buy a new or used bike? The answer: it depends. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages.  

New: Advantages

    • Shiny: New and oh-so-exciting! 
    • Discounts: You can get discounts with NICA verification. (After paying NICA fees online, save/print your NICA certificate at the end). Some local bike shops, such as Salt Cycles and Scheels in Sandy, also give discounts. (See “Where to Buy” below.) 
    • Worry-free: No worn or broken components, or worry if the previous owner took care of it, etc.
    • Convenient: It’s much, much easier to shop for new bike
    • Warranty & Support: Most have one and, depending on where you buy, may also have limited support and service from the bike shop
    • Helpful Sales Associates: Local bike shops will help you choose the right bike and get you set up

New: Disadvantages

    • Expensive: Obviously, shiny things cost more money
    • Less Bang for Your Buck: If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll get less for your dollar than you would from a used bike
    • Outgrow: Of course, your student will outgrow a used bike as well. The question is, do you want to spend more money on a new bike they’ll outgrow? Or less?

Used: Advantages

    • Affordable: You can always find something that meets your budget  
    • More Bang for Your Buck: You can often get much better components than you would on a new bike for the same price 
    • Environmentally Friendly: It’s the circle of life, where one less bike goes to waste
    • Helping Fellow Riders: They needed the money, just like you will when you sell your bike

Used: Disadvantages

    • Complicated to Purchase: It takes a lot more time and effort to purchase a used bike, especially if you don’t know much about bikes. If possible, get help from someone more knowledgeable.
    • Slightly Riskier: It can be easy to overlook damage or critical wear and tear. To minimize risk, always ask the seller if you can take the bike to a local bike shop to be inspected. 
    • Can’t Always Try It: If you’re buying online—but not locally—you won’t be able to inspect the bike and try it. Be sure to ask lots of questions and review lots of photos so you know what you’re getting. 

Our Recommendation: It’s your call.  

5. Where to Buy? 

A New Bike

    1. Local Bike Shops: Plenty of good ones to choose from. Salt Cycles in Sandy is a team sponsor and offers us discounts on bikes and gear, up to 20% off (except labor). Ask them for details.
    2. Local Retailer: (For example, Scheels, REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods.) Avoid low-end bikes, like found in Walmart. This year, Scheels has agreed to take 25% off of their Trek bikes and select gear if you show NICA ID. 
    3. Online Retailer: (For example, Amazon.com, ChainReactionCycles.com, Performancebike.com, Nashbar.com, etc.) Double-check before purchasing that you won’t have to pay customs fees or additional tariffs if the bike is shipped from out of the country. 
    4. Manufacturer: (For example, Trek.com, Specialized.com, PivotCycles.com, or Canyon.com.) Most will direct you to a dealer for purchasing. A few will ship direct. 
    5. Online (Local) Shops: You can also find plenty of local bike shops that are out of state and willing to ship. 
Articles

A Used Bike

    1. Classifieds.KSL.com: The local favorite. Hundreds of mountain bikes to choose from, and since it’s local, you can meet and try the bike first. 
    2. Craigslist.com: Not as many bikes here, since most Utahns opt for KSL, but worth a look. 
    3. Online Specialty Sites: Pinkbike.com, Bikeexchange.com, and others often have great used bikes you won’t find on eBay. Some of these sites are places that bike aficionados like to buy and sell on. 
    4. eBay.com: If you’re looking for an exact brand and model of used bike, you can usually find it here. 
    5. Bike Swaps: Locals and league teams sometimes hold bike swaps before the season. Check with your bike shop or the coach for info. 
Articles

Our Recommendation: If new, try a local bike shop first. If used, go with KSL.com, actually try the bike, and have it inspected by a local bike shop like Salt Cycles.

6. Hardtail or Full Suspension?

A “hardtail” mountain bike has a shock for the front wheel, but not the back. A “full suspension” bike has shocks in front and back. A bike without suspension is sometimes called a “rigid frame bike,” which is not allowed in our mountain bike program.  

Which bike you want—hardtail or full suspension—depends on your goals. Are you focused on being competitive in cross-country races? Or do you really want to hit the downhill in Moab? In general, we recommend a hardtail for cross-country mountain biking, especially younger or beginner bikers. They’re usually cheaper. If you want to focus more on downhill and difficult, technical riding, get a full-suspension bike. There are also other nuances to consider when selecting.  

NICA Approved Categories of Bikes

There are several sub-categories of mountain bikes. For our team, you want one of the following: 

    1. Cross-country bike 
    2. Trail bike
    3. All-mountain / Enduro bike

Option 1 is a hard tail. Options 2 and 3 are usually full suspension. Although you’ll find all four types of bikes on our team, those who are serious about competing will ride a cross-country mountain bike, since that’s the type of racing we do. Trail bikes work well, but are heavier because of suspension. All-mountain/enduro bikes are designed more for downhill racing. You can read more here.  

Avoid These Bikes

DO NOT buy any of the following categories of mountain bikes. They’re either banned by the League, aren’t good for cross-country riding, or both: 

    1. Rigid-frame bike (i.e. bike doesn't have any shocks)
    2. Fat bike (features oversized tires on a rigid frame)
    3. Downhill/Gravity/Park bike
    4. BMX bike

Our Recommendation: If your heart is set on riding in Moab or doing some downhill, get a full-suspension. Otherwise, start with an affordable, hardtail cross-country bike. You can always upgrade or change later, if you want.  

7. One, Two, or Three Chainrings?

If you’re buying a new bike, this may not even be a question, since most new mountain bikes now offer only one chainring (the front sprocket where the pedals connect). If you’re buying used, you will see bikes with two or even three front chainrings. Any option you choose will be fine. However, if you have a choice, a single chainring is better for beginning riders, since they never have to shift a front derailleur.  

Our Recommendation: Go with the single front chainring, although any option will work fine. 

8. Choosing Components & Groupsets

“Components” refers to parts used for shifting, braking, or pedaling the bike (e.g. index shifters on the handlebars, brakes and brake levers, rear and front derailleur, etc.). When it comes to components, you get what you pay for. So, when buying a bike, always check both the brand and the level of the components. Most mountain bikes use either Shimano or SRAM component sets. Stay with these and you'll be safe. It's important to choose proven components that will last the season and adjust easily, so we recommend selecting a bike with components that are at a minimum mid-range "Enthusiast" or higher (see chart).

Our Recommendation: Either Shimano or SRAM components (shifters, derailleur, brakes) that are mid-range "Enthusiast" or higher. 

9. Wheel Size, Tires, and Tube vs. Tubeless

Wheel Size

Mountain bikes wheels come in three sizes: 26”, 27.5”, 27.5+” and 29”. Most newer bikes are either 27.5” for 29”, but all sizes work just fine. However, for smaller, younger riders, it’s usually better to get a smaller size like 26” or 27.5”, since the 29” wheels tend to lift the bike higher. 27.5+”, also known as “plus bikes,” are wider wheels and require bigger tires. 

Mountain Bike Wheel Size Comparison

 

Tires 

If you’re buying a new mountain bike, the tires will likely be good enough to get started. Generally, you want wide tires with strong, knobby traction. A cross-country bike will have tires in the 1.9" to 2.25" width range. Trail and all-mountain bikes will have tires in the 2.25" to 2.4" width range.

If you’re buying used, double-check that the tires aren’t made for road riding (narrow, with a continuous center ridge and/or small or non-existing knobs), worn down, cracked, or have the sidewalls ripped. If they are, negotiate with the seller or plan on purchasing new tires.

 

Tube Tires or Tubeless Tires?

Bike tires either require tubes or can be tubeless. Like the term suggests, tubeless tires have no inner tube. Instead, you put a special sealant inside the tire, place it on a sealed rim, and quickly pump it with air to seal the tire to the rim. 

Our team recommends using tubeless tires. Although they tend to cost more upfront, they save you money—and hassle—over the season because they rarely go flat and you don’t have to constantly buy new tubes, which can add up. If you want to convert your bike to tubeless, talk with your local bike mechanic, one of the coaches, or even some of the riders. We can help you get set up.

However, even with tubeless tires, you still need to carry a tube for emergencies. If the tire gets heavily punctured when riding and can’t reseal, a tube is your only way to ride off the mountain. 

If you go with tubed tire, make sure the stem is removable so you can put sealant (e.g. Slime, Stan’s Tire Sealant, etc.) inside. Otherwise, you’ll be fixing flats as much as you’ll be riding. Also, be prepared to buy an additional four or more tubes for the season. 

Our Recommendation: Go with 27.5” wheels with 2.25” tubeless tires featuring a good tread, plus two additional tubes for emergencies. 

Valves: Presta or Shrader?

There are two kinds of valves for mountain bikes: Presta and Shrader. A Shrader valve looks like the one on your car tire. A Presta valve is thinner and pointy. The advantage of a Shrader valve is you can fill up your tire easily at any gas station with a pump. The advantage of a Presta valve is that it has a small ring that allows you to lock it to your wheel's rim so when your tire goes flat, you don't push the valve into the tire when pumping it up. This is extremely helpful if you have to pump up a tire during a race. Also, you can buy an adaptor for Presta valve so that it works like a Shrader. But whichever one you choose, you're committed. You can't use the tube of one for the other. 

Our Recommendation: Either are fine, but given a choice, go with a Presta valve to make it easier when using a hand pump. 

10. Chromoly, Aluminum, or Carbon Frame?

Bike frames can come in a variety of materials or alloys. Occasionally, frames may even use different materials for different parts, such as an aluminum frame with a carbon seat stay. Any of these three materials—chromoly (chrome molybdenum steel), aluminum, or carbon fiber, will work well for your mountain bike. Carbon is the most expensive and lightest, chromoly is the cheapest and heaviest. Carbon fiber is also somewhat brittle. Where aluminum might bend or dent, carbon might crack. If heavily damaged, carbon fiber cannot be repaired. 

Our Recommendation: Aluminum. It's lighter than chromoly and cheaper than carbon fiber. 

11. Flat or Clipless Pedals?Flat or Clipless Pedals?

Most bikes, especially new ones, are sold without pedals and you have to buy them separately. Getting the right pedal is very important for beginning riders. 

Flat pedals are just like they say: flat. They don’t require special shoes or cleats, and they can be plastic, nylon composite, or a metal alloy. Some new bikes come with temporary, black plastic pedals. These need to be replaced before riding on the trails, since they aren’t durable and can fail. Metal petals are nice, but nylon composite pedals may be better for beginners since they tend to absorb rock strikes better than alloy pedals without getting as damaged.

The current trend for flat pedals are adjustable metal “pins” that help the pedal grip your shoe. Although these work very well, you might consider removing them (or buying pedals without pins) for a beginning rider because they often gouge riders’ shins when dismounting. 

Clipless pedals are metal alloy platforms that require special cleats that attach to the bottom of biking shoes. Some of our advance riders use these, as they do help increase power when climbing. However, beginning riders should never use them as they are difficult to use and increase the risk of injury.  

Our Recommendation: Nylon composite flat pedals, possibly without metal pins. 

Stuff to Avoid!

Brakes that Don't Work

Nothing is more important than your brakes! If you’re riding a used bike, double check that the brakes work really well—both in front and back. If you’re uncertain or need them adjusted, get them checked at your local bike shop. NEVER come to a ride with a non-functioning break.  

Cracked Frame

If the bike frame is cracked or has a hairline fracture, NEVER ride it. It is dangerous. Have your local bike shop take a look at it. If it can’t be repaired, you may need to replace it.  

Bar Ends

Some older bikes may still have “bar ends.” These sort of look like horns on the end of your handlebars. If your bike has them, please remove them. They are banned by the League because they easily catch on branches or other bikers and cause injuries. 

Dead Suspension (shock)

If your front or rear shock doesn’t spring back—or springs back very slowly—get it checked. It may just need more air, or it may be damaged. Some shocks can be repaired, others may be replaced if under warranty. NEVER ride on a trail, especially downhill, with dead suspension.

Kickstand

If your bike came with a kickstand, you’re riding the wrong bike for cross-country competition. It’s a sure sign of a low-end, low-quality mountain bike. Review the advice offered above, talk to your coach, or consult your local bike shop about what type of bike you need.

A Note about Helmets

Whatever helmet you choose, make sure it fits snugly and meets the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) minimum safety standard. Other certifying organizations, such as Snell, ASTM, or CE are also good, but are either voluntary stamps of approval or only apply to specific applications. Look for a sticker or stamp for these certifications inside the helmet. 

When buying a new helmet, avoid “full-faced” helmets that look like motorcycle helmets. Although they look cool, these are used for downhill and enduro races and are unnecessary for cross-country competitions. 

If your using a used or older helmet, beware! If the helmet has been in a wreck or has any crack, it could be dangerous. Also, helmets 10 years or older may be problematic. Read more about helmet options and safety here, and about used or older helmets here