Mountain bike handlebars

A beginner's guide to choosing the right mountain bike

Gina Ricardo
May 7, 2024

So, you’ve decided to dive into the world of mountain biking? As someone who first started out on the road, I think that’s a great choice. Mountain Biking offers a respite from busy roads and traffic and the challenge of learning new skills. I find the rush of adrenaline as you soar through the air or navigate berms is like surfing (which for the record: I’m not very good at) in the ocean– and it’s incredibly fun and addictive! 

Muddy Fox Seeker made by Araya. 1984.

Learning to mountain bike, especially as an adult, can be challenging. After ten years I’m still honing my skills – perfecting step ups, drop downs and navigating corners without washing out. I have a very active amygdala that shouts ‘danger!’ every time I approach my comfort zone. But the satisfaction of progress and the joy of sharing riding with friends make it all worthwhile – keep pushing those boundaries.  

Choosing your first bike can be a confronting task, but really it just comes down to two main set ups: hard tail and full suspension bikes. 

What you choose ultimately depends on the type of riding you want to do, as it will significantly impact your riding experience. 

Hard Tail Bikes: Lightweight and Versatile

A version of my school bike, the Gemini — as seen on classifieds.

A hardtail mountain bike features suspension only in the front forks, leaving the rear frame solid. I remember my first bike vividly — a 26” Gemini hard tail that cost the grand sum of $285 and accompanied me to school when I was 13 years old. They’re popular because they’re a budget-friendly option. They are lighter and much more cost-effective. There’s less maintenance involved. If I had to choose a single bike that would do it all – ride on the road and easy trails – I’d choose a hard tail. They’re more versatile as they can handle urban commuting and you can even configure them into neat bike packing rigs. They do teach you better riding technique, too. You don’t have the rear suspension to fall back on, so you’ve got to be more conscious of your lines on the trails. The drawbacks are that without that rear suspension, you’ll be really feeling every single bump and rock on the trails. Six days of mountain biking at a race in East Timor on a hard tail in 2012 was almost enough to turn me off the sport entirely. I, along with a line of around 20 others, was a regular visitor at the medical tent each morning and afternoon getting my saddle sores treated. It was a steep learning curve! But if you’re looking for an all-rounder that can handle some riding on road, bike paths, fire trails and easy green trails – for the sake of simplicity – a hard tail is a great choice. 

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Insure it with Velosure.

Protection agains theft, damage and more.

Full Suspension Bikes: The Ultimate Ride

A full suspension bike combines both front and rear suspension, making the ultimate machine for tackling trails. I still remember the day I got my first full suspension bike; it completely changed my riding experience. Trail features that I struggled with previously were now rollable. Most of the bumps on the trails disappeared. I just couldn’t believe how smooth it was. The purists will go on about how you need to learn how to ride on a hard tail first: just ignore them! Life’s too short! You’ll get an automatic boost in stability and comfort due to the rear suspension. I went back to East Timor in 2016 and raced again, this time on a full suspension bike: I can confirm that I did not have to visit the medical tent (for my arse). The difference on the toll on my body was noticeable too. It was still incredibly hard but with the cushioned impact, my arms, lower back, wrists, legs, were much less sore.

With the bike doing a lot of the work, I’ve been able to ride different trails that wouldn’t be possible (or that I wouldn’t feel comfortable on), on a hard tail. Riding a hard tail opens a whole new world of riding for you, but a full suspension bike opens your world further. 

With full sus bikes comes more options and choices. I used to zone out and nod blankly when people started to throw out the words ‘120m’ or ‘140m’ of travel, but ‘travel’ is quite simple: it refers to the amount of movement you’ve got in your suspension. They tend to range from 90mm – 160mm depending on your type of rig. My dream bike, which I just upgraded to this year, runs a 120mm front suspension and 100mm rear. It’s a great set up for cross country trails and longer events like 100km Marathon MTB races. The complete build of my Cervelo ZF-S is just over 10kg, which is pretty darn light for a full sus build. 

Some other game-changers were adding a dropper post to my bike. A dropper allows you to get your weight back, so you don’t go over the bars, and allows better body positioning, as the saddle doesn’t get in the way when you’re moving your body around. A 1x groupset was also groundbreaking as it added more tension to the drivetrain; my chain stopped bouncing off, and the bigger range at the back of the cassette meant that steep walls that I’d previously have to walk up, were now rideable. Finally upgrading to 29” Wheels was another free speed upgrade. Bigger wheels = more speed and more stability. Initially for us shorties (I’m 163cm) they didn’t make small enough frames that could accommodate 29” wheels, but fast forward a few years and most brands now offer small frames that accommodate 29” wheels AND space for two bidon cages.  

Pyga Stage Max trails bike — with a dropper post. Converted to 650B.

I wish I had a whole fleet of bikes to choose from. N+1 is a rule that should be enforced here: hard tail for gravel/fire trail rides, XC for cross country style rides and a Trail/Enduro bike with 150mm+ front suspension for more technical riding. Plus, an E-MTB Bike for when the legs are too sore, or for just having fun. 

Yeti dual suspension mountain bike—with a temporary gravel tire setup.

The bottom line is the perfect mountain bike is the one that aligns with the type of riding you want to do. I’m still mostly a roadie at heart, so a XC rig the perfect set up. I’m not really going to ride trails or features where I’d need more suspension and I want it to be light so I can tackle 100km marathon MTB races with ease. But no matter what type of bike you choose – you’re in for a whole lot of fun! 

Getting a new Mountain bike?
Insure it with Velosure.

Protection agains theft, damage and more.

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