Yes, you’ve done it, you’ve finally saved enough money to buy your first proper mountain bike, or a better bike, or just a bike for a different discipline within the sport. You’re excited, and so you should be. Buying a bike is great, it’s what you’ve aimed for, and it means that you are about to move forward in the sport. However, it also has a few problems.
Ladies, size does matter!
All too often I see people who have been sold the wrong size of bike, usually too big for them. This can be a result of many factors:
- The bike was bought mail order without having been tried,
- Bought second hand,
- Bought in the hope that they would grow into it,
- Bought because it was a “bargain”,
- Bought because they liked the colour or, in the worst cases,
- Bought because that was what the shop recommended.
I’ll cover each of these reasons in more detail later. The vast majority of bike shops will give you the correct advice on sizing and I would unreservedly recommend that your local bike shop (LBS) be an early port of call on your journey to buying your dream machine. However, occasionally people are sold what a shop has in stock, rather than what the customer really needed. This is rare and is easily avoided by ensuring you visit several shops and try several bikes.
Sizing is a slightly subjective issue, not helped by the amazing difference in the way different manufacturers measure and label bikes. Some show a frame size in inches others by the small, medium, large etc. These guides may get you to a ball park size from which to start testing, or at least rule out those sizes that will be obviously too big or too small. However, increasingly, this is only a small part of the bigger picture.
What is important is that the bike fits you well and allows you to ride the most technical trail you are likely to be on in the next three years with confidence. I know that is a contentious statement and some people will disagree with it, but unless you are going down the “a bike for each type of riding” route, which most people can’t afford to do, then as a rule of thumb it works well. It does require a bit of guesswork, particularly if you are new to the sport, as your skills will – hopefully – be improving at an exponential rate.
I pick three years as a bit of an arbitrary figure. I’d say that in most cases people change their mountain bike around every 3-to-5 years, either because they have progressed beyond the comfortable limits of that bike, because they have worn it out, or like many of us, they just fancied a change.
Fits You Madam
So what does “fits you well” actually mean in practice? Again, it’s a personal thing. Two people of equal height can have radically different inside leg measurements and will therefore possibly require different size frames. I use the word “possibly” deliberately as seat posts can often accommodate a lot of adjustment. This is something to bear in mind when buying a bike, particularly if you are “between sizes”. In cases such as that, it is better to go down a size than to ride a bike that is too large for you.
There are lots of things you can do to make a bike fit you better if the bike is slightly small, but there is nothing you can do for one that is too big. Bikes that are too big tend to be at best uncomfortable and at worst dangerous. It is best not to buy a mail order direct supply bike that you have never tried for size, despite the apparent cost saving. I’m certainly not saying don’t go down the route of mail order at all, merely that you should try to ride the model and size before you buy it. Also be aware that you may not get the same excellent personal service you will get from your LBS. Likewise, don’t buy a bike that doesn’t fit you well just because it is selling for half the price of new on some forum, or from the friend of a friend. Second hand bikes can be great value, but only if they fit and have been well maintained.
Growing into a bike is a concept that makes sense on paper, but in practice doesn’t always work. For kids and teenagers it is a good idea to a limited extent, but my comments about riding bikes that are too big still hold true. Better to have gone the second hand route, spent less and accept that you may have to change the bike every year or so until they stop growing. If you’ve looked after the bike (naïve, I know, when we are considering teenagers) then you probably won’t lose much money when you come to sell it on again yourself. If you are over 21 it is extremely unlikely you are still growing, so a bike that is too big for you now will probably always be too big for you.
No Angle Angel
I’m deliberately not going to go into geometry in any detail. You will see the bike magazines waxing lyrical about this, that, or the next thing and the shiny brochures from the manufactures will tell you about how their take on geometry is the next big thing. They are right! Until next year/month/week (delete as appropriate) when the next generation of geometry hits the market and we are told what was spot on is now obsolete! Don’t get me wrong, there have been some tremendous improvements in geometry over the years, but increasingly we are into the area of diminishing returns in improvement, there are very few truly bad designs out there now and that is good for you as a buyer.
Are we there yet?
So what now? Well assuming you’ve taken my advice, you’ll have visited lots of shops and seen lots of shiny new bikes in lots of great colours and your coffee table and work desk will be festooned with catalogues and brochures. So you are almost there, then? Probably not, you are probably more confused than ever! At least three choices of wheel size will have been pitched at you, 26-inch, 27.5-inch (650b) and 29-inch. On top of this you’ll have other choices, hardtail or full suspension. This will then have been broken down further to how much travel, 80mm, 100mm 120mm, 140mm, 150mm, 160mm, 170mm full on downhill rig. Then we’ve got the single chain 10×1 or 11×1 debate, the single, double or triple chainset debate and lets not even get into the handlebar/stem length argument (except we will have to later).
Tea & Prosecco
Step back from the hype, take a deep breath and find a sheet of blank paper and a pen. Make yourself a cuppa and put the Prosecco or beer in the fridge. Sit yourself down and ask yourself these questions and write down your answers.
- What is my absolute budget? Now take $100 off this (I’ll tell you why in a moment).
- What type of riding do I enjoy most?
- Where will I do most of my riding?
- What is the hardest trail I’m realistically going to be able to ride if I keep improving within three years?
- What height am I?
- What dealers are there locally?
From these answers we can start to whittle down the options.
Discard any bike that is more than a few hundred dollars over your budget. Why not the $100 less than the budget you wrote down? Easy: sales and discount. The retail price of bikes, dependant on make and demand, is a little fluid. Many shops have sales several times a year; particularly as new model years are about to be launched (which is often mid-summer, weirdly). Likewise, many cycling clubs and coaching groups have negotiated discounts with the LBS. Consider this, but be realistic. If your budget is $1,500 it’s unlikely you are going to be able to get this year’s $3,500 enduro beast in budget. Remember, despite the fact it may be the bargain of the millennium, it is only a bargain if it actually fits you. Don’t be tempted to buy it just because it is cheap, you will regret it in the long term, even if the only person that you will admit that to is yourself.
After finding bikes in your price range, you can thin the field again based on the type of riding you enjoy doing. If you enjoy enduro then you can probably rule out the carbon hardtail and the 20kg downhill rig.
Now it’s time for a reality check… If you seldom travel to ride, no matter what your dreams are, it is probably not a good idea to have your only bike as a 160mm enduro racer. Fun as it will be, you will only scratch the surface of its abilities and the rest of the time you will be hauling round a bike that weights more than it needs to for the riding you’ll be doing.
Back to the Future
It’s crystal ball time, gaze into your future… There is no point buying a bike that you are going to progress beyond in no time at all. I’ve seen this happen so many times and is a real shame, as often the people loose quite a bit of money in the process. This said, there is no point in buying a bike that is way more capable than you will realistically need in the coming years. Even if you can afford to splash the cash, by the time you are getting close to exploiting its potential the chances are design, technology and fashion will once more have marched on, and you will be hankering after that shiny new bike you saw in this month’s bike magazine. Better to have spent wisely at the start and to have used the money for other pieces of equipment or clothing, or even to have started a savings fund for the new bike to come. As hard as this is, you may want to discount the top of the line bikes from each of your short lists, this is especially true if it is to be your first bike.
Size Matters: Part II
This isn’t a direct tie-in to the discussion on sizing, this is in regards to wheel size. If you are 1.50m tall (5 feet in old money) then you really need to consider discounting 29-inch wheel bikes, particularly if they are full suspension. Again, some people will disagree with this statement, which is fine. The fact remains, however, that at this height there are a lot factors acting against the 29” wheel design. I’ll not go into these in detail as that could fill even more pages, suffice it to say all other things being equal, a 26-inch or 27.5-inch bike is likely to be a better fit and more easily ridden if you are petite. Conversely, if you are 2.00m tall (6 feet 6 inches) then whilst you could happily ride a 26-inch wheel bike (and many people of this height still do) you may well be better suited to a 29-inch wheel bike or a 27.5-inch bike. Once more, this is about getting the best fit for you.
For the majority of bikes, any decent LBS should be able to work on them. However, if you are going for some exotic suspension system, or a bike that needs specific tools, for whatever reason, then you really want to consider whether you want a 200-mile round trip to have it serviced. More importantly, if you are having little issues with the bike, or want advice on set up tuning, etc., popping into the shop where you bought it will probably result in it all being done as part of the service. This is unlikely to be true if you were to buy it mail order and turn up at your LBS looking for some free help and advice.
The astute amongst you will have noticed that none of the questions involved “Is it available in my favourite colour?” Whilst I admit it is great to have a bike that looks fantastic, that is way down the list of factors you should be considering when you buy it.
Okay, we are making progress. For the sake of argument, let’s say you now have a short list of six bikes from four manufactures, what now? Easy, the fun part! Have some demos set up. By this I don’t mean getting to ride it round the car park next to the bike shop for three minutes, whilst dressed in your jeans and a t-shirt. I mean really demo it! Most shops will have some demo bikes; don’t be put off if these are not the right size or model for you. Ask the shop to get a demo bike in for you in the size you want to try. Most will be able to contact the distributer and arrange for the correct sized demo bike to be delivered or at least which other shop you could go to demo it. Some shops treat the demo bikes as rental bikes and may charge you to ride them. Don’t be put off by this, in most cases they will discount the cost of the rental from the purchase price of the bike if you buy it from them. Even if they don’t discount the charge, it is better to have paid a few dollars to ride the bike rather than purchasing a bike that you find isn’t to your liking. If your local shop isn’t helpful in this regard then you may wish to consider going elsewhere.
Also keep an eye out for demo days. There are loads of these around and the advantage is you may well get to test several of the bikes on your short list back-to-back, which will give you a real idea of which you like best. Be aware many of these demo days are immensely popular, so you may have to book in advance rather than just turn up and hope you get a shot on the bikes you want to try.
The other way of trying bikes out is to see what your friends are riding. Most will be quite happy to give you a shot of their beloved bike as long as you don’t break it. Those with less ego will also be candid about what they like and more importantly, don’t like about them.
My final piece of advice in this section would be to ride as many different bikes for as long as you can before making your mind up. Make sure you include climbs, descents and as many technical features as you can in your test rides.
Change for the Better
When getting down to your final choices, don’t judge a bike on the following features: tires, saddle, pedals, grips, stem length or handlebars. In the grand scheme of things, these are disposables. I accept if you end up having to pay to swap all of these out it can add up to a reasonable amount of cash, and in that case, on balance possibly a different bike would be better. But many shops will swap some of these items out at point of sale. In fact these days, very few bikes are sold with pedals. This takes me back to the $100 I suggested you take off your budget at the start. This will make a considerable contribution towards swapping out any item you have to pay for.
Saddles are a personal choice and particularly so for women. Modern saddles are increasingly tailored to be sex specific. That’s not to say that if you find a gents saddle really comfortable you shouldn’t use it, just that the spacing of the “sit” bones is different for men and women and the saddles have support and padding to accommodate this. Hopefully, you found a saddle that was particularly comfortable during your test rides; this may be the saddle to buy or to swap to.
Get a grip!
Upgrading your tires can make an enormous difference to the ride and the confidence you get. Many tire manufacturers supply OEM tires to the bike manufacturers. Some of these tires look exactly like after-market versions but are made with cheaper materials and less grippy rubber. You will often find that bikes are fitted with tires that are not really suited to their intended use for your riding conditions. These will often be lightweight tires with little tread and it is done to bring the overall weight of the bike down for comparison purposes.
Grips are an easy and cheap replacement to make, but can make a dramatic difference to the feel of the bike. Most women have smaller hands than men so a smaller diameter grip will fit better. Buy a grip that feels good to you.
A good set of pedals is essential, be it flat or clipless. If you are going the clipless route for the first time, be careful. Start with them at their slackest setting and prepare for some comedy falls. Flat pedals are excellent if ridden with a good set of cycling specific shoes designed for use with flats. Get some with pins that thread in from underneath and that have a concave shape to really grip your shoes.
Mind the Gap
Recently, we have all been hit with a choice of wider handlebars. Hey, it’s the fashion and they must make our riding better, right? Well, not necessarily. If you are 1.75m (5 feet 10 inches) tall or more and ride nice wide-open trails most of the time, they may well be for you. If you ride really tight trails in amongst trees most of the time they are less of an advantage. Take it from me, as I’ve still got bruised little fingers from the last gap I was sure I’d fit through but didn’t! Furthermore, if you are of shorter stature then the wider bars designed generally for guys of medium build and medium height will push your arms out in to a disproportionally wide stance. All other things being equal, this will bring more of your weight forward on the bike, possibly compromising comfort and handling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing going back to retro narrow bars, but consider that you may be better cutting your bars down, or getting slightly narrower bars, to keep proportions in balance.
Stem Cell Treatment
Stems and handlebars should normally be considered together. Too many bikes are still being supplied with stems that are too long! Again, it is a personal choice as to what length of stem you run but your LBS should be able to advise you about this when you are testing the bike. It will also depend on what type of riding you will be doing. If you are going to be racing cross country (XC) then you will probably want a longer stem than if you are going to be riding steep enduro lines. The stem is also a good way of fine-tuning the fit of the bike. Many female riders have proportionally shorter torsos and arms than equivalently sized males. Therefore, it follows that you will want your handlebars a bit closer to you then the guy sitting on the same bike next to you.
A New Model Army
Several of the issues discussed above are now being rolled into the manufacturer’s female specific models (or brands). These bikes may be a good starting point, particularly if you are petite, however, be aware some manufactures merely dress up the standard bike in a different colour of paint, pink grips and a woman’s saddle. The better manufacturers will have tweaked the geometry to suit female anatomy, will have a shock possibly tuned to the lighter weight of many of the riders, have fitted slightly shorter cranks, narrower diameter grips and will have ensured that the brake levers adjust to fit women’s hand sizes. They may also have put on shorter stems and/or narrower bars. As manufacturers increasingly become aware that the female side or the sport is expanding rapidly, I’m sure there will be more and more female specific models.
And they all lived happily ever after…
So assuming you are still reading this, you’ve cut your initial list of possible bikes down to just a few. You’ll have ridden them all and will be happy with the majority of the components but should be uncompromising in choosing the one that fits both you and your future needs best. So how do you get down to just one bike assuming you still have a few on your short list? Well, that’s easy, pick the one that looks best of course!
Jim Barron is a Level 2 Coach, Instructor and Guide and one of the most experienced coaches of female mountain bikers in the UK. He holds Mountain Bike Leader Association qualifications at the Trail Cycle Leader (TCL) level and at the highest level of guiding certification – Mountain Bike Leader (MBL). Jim volunteers his time to help youth development of mountain biking in conjunction with the Moray Council Active Schools Team, coaching skills to young riders of secondary school age. Jim is based in Elgin, Moray, Scotland and is the owner of Dirt Vixens.