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Look in any catalogue, or walk into any bike shop, and the range of different styles, prices and configurations that all seem to come under the heading of 'mountain bikes' can seem completely incomprehensible if you don't know what you're looking for. It's better to set the parameters you need from your bike, work out a budget and then try to find the model that best suits your criteria.

First, think about the price and the frame - if a bunch of bikes that seem to have more or less the same frame are all about the same price, but there's one that's amazingly cheaper, there's a reason for that - it's probably rubbish. One thing to look out for and avoid are steel-frame bikes, which are comparatively cheap, but far too heavy for proper off-road use and often badly made. The best frames, and therefore the most expensive, are made of titanium or lightweight aluminum, although today's 'Crom-oly' frames, made of a mixture of steel, chromium and molybdenum are a good, and reasonably affordable, alternative for beginners or occasional mountain bikers. The best of the bunch, but way up there in the price stakes, is carbon fiber, which is incredibly light and strong, although this type of frame is only for the serious enthusiast, as one good drop down a hillside can completely wreck the frame if you're not careful. Whatever you go for, try and find a bike with a long, or preferably lifetime, warranty on the frame, but don't expect the guarantee to apply to all the other bits and pieces, like brakes, chains, etc. as these are normally seen as 'consumables'.

Then look at the suspension - a cheap bike with no suspension at all is going to leave you bruised and battered on even the kindest off-road terrain, so leave it alone. There are two main types of mountain bike suspension - the first are 'hardtail' bikes, which only have front suspension, are simple to control and great for cross country, as they are mostly very light which make pedaling uphill easier. Full suspension bikes, as you might expect, have both front and rear suspension, for complete control on the most difficult terrain. If your riding plans include jumps, big rocks and the like, then you must go for this option, although it's going to cost you more.
You'd probably like to stop at some point, too. Particularly before you get to enjoy the unique perspective of going down a 30-foot cliff the quick way. So brakes are kind of important. Normal cable rim brakes are cheaper and simple to adjust, but can lose some of their stopping power in the rain and mud. Disk brakes are more complicated and expensive but will stop you safely in just about any conditions. If you're a beginner, it's worth bearing in mind that more or less all decent bikes will allow you to upgrade to disc brakes later on, so the cable rim type shouldn't put you off buying an otherwise great machine.

Mountain bikes tend to have a lot of gears, so the gear components should be of high quality - most are made by one company, called Shimano, but the quality of their products can vary considerably, so look for the ones with LX or XT written on the back mechanism, or derailleur. Also think about how you are going to shift gear - most bikes have twist-action gear changes on the handlebars, the very best have trigger shifters underneath the grips, but avoid trigger shifters located above the grip, as these tend to be cheaply-made and easily damaged in a fall.
It goes without saying that the tyres on the bike you choose should be up to the job you intend them for, but remember that there are now hundreds of different types for different terrains, so this may be something you want to change for yourself if your chosen machine doesn't come equipped with what you want.

And most important of all, buy the right bike for your body! Make sure that the adjustment on the handlebars and seat height is enough to find the optimum riding position for your style, weight and height. The right saddle and pedal set-up (some pedals have straps to keep your feet secure, some clips and some just grips) are also crucially important, although easy to change if you're not happy with the standard items.

Author R. Germain
date added Tue 04 08 2009

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