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How to Choose the Perfect Mountain Bike

Joel Smith

Let’s face it: There are many different options for mountain bikes in the market today.

Considering travel, wheel size, and components alone, and there are thousands of different potential combinations. And with a lack of consistency in category naming (Enduro, Trail, Down Country, XC), it can leave even expert mountain bikers perplexed.

Here are some simple tips to help answer the question of which mountain bike is right for you.

Component Kits

Most riders think the more money you spend on components, the better the components.

When it comes to mountain biking, that’s not 100% true. The more accurate relationship is between money and weight: In general, the more you spend, the lighter the components will be.

For example, take SRAMs 3 different component levels: GX, X01, and XX1.

In my mind, all 3 of these component kits perform relatively equally and offer similar durability. They also use the same shifter technology, have wide-range gearing options, offer 12-speeds and fit around a DUB bottom bracket.

The difference comes down to weight and price:

  • An XX1 drive train (not AXS) costs around $1500 retail and weighs 1400 grams.
  • A GX Eagle drive train is around $550 and weighs 1800 grams.

So, for about $1000 you’re buying about 400 grams. Is it worth it?

It depends. 400 grams isn’t nothing, and if you are trying to build the lightest trail bike possible, it will certainly help.

Maybe the best option would be to pick something in the middle. X01 weighs about 1550 grams for the component, and costs around $1275 for the component ground.

Component Brands

So we’ve talked about the weights of the component kits. But what about the component brands?

There’s been a dogged battle between SRAM and Shimano for component supremacy for as long as I can remember. The good thing is, mountain bike riders like ourselves are the benefactors of this competition.

Today, SRAM and Shimano both make incredibly high-performing components that offer solid long-term durability and low-maintenance costs. This makes choosing one over the other even more difficult!

To try and illuminate the differences between the brand choices (and to try and keep the comparison simple), I’ll focus on Shimano XT and SRAM X01 kits.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Shimano XT stuff is heavier than X01 — about 250 grams with comparable parts. Based on weight alone, XT is actually closer to GX Eagle than X01 (the main culprit is the XT’s aluminum crank versus the X01 carbon crank).

But weight only tells part of the story. While you’re adding weight, you’re also adding features.

Shimano’s XT trigger shifters are more versatile than SRAM, allowing you to use either your forefinger or your thumb to shift. XT shifters also allow you to double-shift with one push, which makes going across the gear range faster (SRAM shifters only allow thumb activation and a single shift per push).

The other important differentiator is brakes. But here, the comparison isn’t clear.

SRAM has a reputation for providing the best overall braking performance, with excellent power and a great feel. Shimano has a reputation for braking consistency over time, with low maintenance and an easy braking system.

So, which is better?

In the end, I think the SRAM versus Shimano question comes down to personal preference. I’m a Shimano guy, but for no other reason than I’ve been riding Shimano for a very long time, am accustomed to the shifter functionality, and find their brakes work well and are simple to maintain.

The good thing is, regardless of which company you choose, you’re guaranteed to get a great performing product that will provide high durability and require relatively little service.

We can all thank the ongoing battle between Shimano and SRAM for this.

Wheel Size

The wheel-size question is not particularly easy to answer. I would start by saying that riding mountain bikes is the best no matter what, and whichever wheel you choose is right for you because it’s what’s getting you out on the trail.

To further illustrate the point, I have friends who are my size (6’2”) who swear by 27.5-inch wheel bikes. At the same time, there are 5’4” World Cup XC racers who wouldn’t consider anything but 29-inch wheels.

A big part of it is just preference. That said, you can certainly benefit from riding the wheel size bike that is “most appropriate” for your height and weight and the type of riding you’re doing.

I actually wrote an entire story on this subject using the different members of my family as examples about how we each came to our specific mountain bike choices. And in the end, I broke it down this way:

  1. If you’re under 5 foot 2 or riding slower, more technical terrain, it would be a huge benefit to demo a 27.5 bike — you might love it!
  2. If you’re 6 foot or above, you will likely prefer a 29er bike.
  3. If you’re either of those categories or anything in between, you have to try a mullet bike (29 front/27.5 rear).

But there are some caveats and further details that can help you make the right choice.

If you like a bike that’s super playful, consider a mixed-wheel bike. They really do offer the best of both worlds: quick acceleration and fast turning because of the 27.5 rear tire, and stability, and improved rollover as a result of the 29.

If you favor overall stability, the terrain you ride is open and fast, or you’re on the taller side, there’s no doubt a 29er is perfect for you.

Mountain Bike Size

One aspect of the modern trail bike that is hugely beneficial is low stand-over height. Dropping the top tube does a number of things:

  • It lowers the center of gravity to provide more stability at speed
  • It provides more crotch clearance when you bobble
  • It allows for use of long-travel dropper posts
  • It also means a wider range of riders can ride a particular size bike

For example, if you’re 5’7”, without a low, sloping top tube, the only bike you can really ride is a medium. The high top tube of a large would make you feel over the bike rather than in it, and your nethers would be risked if you jumped off the bike on uneven ground.

But with the lower top tubes, you can choose a size based on the ride quality you’re interested in.

For example, the same 5’7” rider above could pick a medium to benefit from the shorter reach and smaller wheelbase, which in turn improves maneuverability and provides for quicker handling.

On the other hand, the same rider could pick a larger size for more stability and a roomier ride.

Travel

This is likely the most common question we get, especially when the weights of the bikes at different travels are similar.

The simple answer is: Pick the bike with the appropriate travel for your type of riding.

Consider this scenario: On an average 2-hour ride, I spend about 1.5 of those hours climbing, and 30 minutes descending. In that 30 minutes of descending,20 minutes requires a mid-travel trail bike, while there are 10 minutes or more where a short-travel trail bike would work best.

Then there are a few quick instances where I think, “Wow, that would have been cool to be on the long-travel bike.”As a result, I predominantly ride a mid-travel bike because it works the best for the majority of my riding.

Apply this same scenario to yourself. If you’re riding really rough terrain where most of the time a long-travel bike would be the best, get the long travel bike!

On the other hand, if you’re riding mostly intermediate terrain with nothing too rough, opt for the shorter travel bike.

Think of it this way — if most of your driving was done within a 5-mile radius where speeds average less than 25 miles an hour, does it make sense to own a Bugatti Veyron?

In the end, the goal is to pick a mountain bike that is most suitable for who you are as a rider, and the type of riding you do.

The Alchemy Arktos: Perfect for Every Type of Rider

In 2021, Alchemy is offering many travel options on the new Arktos. As a massive benefit to riders, you can convert between travels with the same frame by only swapping the shock, extender, and travel adjusting the fork.

In other words, no matter which Arktos you buy, you’re guaranteed to have the right bike for you.

Shop the Alchemy Arktos >

 

Alchemy’s Joel Smith has been riding mountain bikes for over 35 years. Starting out in the dirt on a converted Laguna-brand cruiser in the mid-1980s, his immediate love of the sport turned into a lifelong career. Smith raced both XC and DH in the 1990s (in the now defunct NORBA National Series) and has worked on nearly every aspect of bike development over his nearly 30-year long career.

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