How to Buy Your Mountain Bike OnlinePublished on 05/11/2023 · 15 min readAward-winning journalist Morgan Tilton interviews founders and leaders of ten top mountain bike companies for advice on what to consider when buying a mountain bike online.
Photo by Ian Collins courtesy of Ibis Cycles
From frames to wheels and brakes, ten of the country’s top mountain bike manufacturers narrow down which mountain bike traits should be high-priority for e-shoppers.
I’ve tested phenomenal mountain bikes in far-flung locations as an outdoor industry journalist and adventure travel writer. Yet, one of my favorite mountain bikes I’ve ever owned was far from new. It was my Granny’s 15-year-old hybrid Cannondale from the ‘80s with straight handlebars, fat tires, a hardtail, and an aluminum frame. I had grown up riding in Telluride, CO, where I was raised, and my mountain bike was stolen when I moved to the state capitol for college. I needed a two-wheeler that could handle the uneven city pavement and occasional trail outings but wasn’t too heavy. So, Granny told me to adopt her bike, which was durable, preserved, and needed a fresh rider. I loved pedaling that yellow bicycle around urban neighborhoods, dirt roads and singletrack including trails around Estes Park, CO, where I first worked as a travel writer, in 2011.
Riding a multigenerational bike taught me that these human-powered machines were and are extremely well-made. I realized that a full-suspension mountain bike, which could better handle rocky terrain, would be a worthwhile investment for me. I also learned that a bike inherits the love and energy from its rider and the places it’s taken to explore—at least, that’s what I came to believe as I pedaled my Granny’s bike. So, ultimately, no matter what bike you buy, it’s going to make you and the next person who steers it extremely happy.
Lucky for us, the process of buying a new mountain bike has evolved over the past decade. In many ways, it’s easier. Canyon pioneered direct-to-consumer sales, in 2003. Then many major brands followed suit including YT Industries, Trek, and Giant. And many brands have honed their virtual sales tools, like Trek’s curbside pick-up or at-home delivery service, Guerrilla Gravity’s frame size calculator, or free shipping and hassle-free returns.
Regardless, today’s enormous pool of bike options and technical lingo can be stressful, especially for new and intermediate riders. To help, I spoke with ten top-tier mountain bike manufacturers to narrow down the chief steps for buying a mountain bike online.
Before you start shopping, let’s run through the most crucial bike parts, in order of importance:
How to Buy Your Next Mountain Bike Online: The Frame
Manufacturers unanimously agree, the most imperative factor is the frame. To decide, narrow down what the goal of your bike is: what type of terrain do you want to ride the majority of the time? “Unequivocally, you need to have an honest talk with yourself about what you want to do with this bike and why you are getting it, so that we can get the best bike for you,” says Specialized General Manager and USA Market Leader Sam Benedict. Specialized, as well as many other companies, make a broad range of bikes for a variety of riders. Frame geometry is altered based on the bike’s primary purpose. Generally, a lower head-tube angle means a bike provides solid stability for speedy descents but isn’t as comfortable for climbs.
My Granny’s old bike didn’t have the most comfortable frame for off-road travel. But, one of the biggest reasons I could ride it for so many years was because the size was a perfect match. The size range of frames differs from company to company. Be sure to research the sizing charts closely, especially if you don’t have a chance to demo the bike. “Buy a bike based on fit: that’s number one. If you're not comfortable, it's gonna suck,” says Revel Bikes Founder Adam Miller. Many manufacturers provide online charts to help riders find the correct size based on height, arm and leg length.
“We've reduced the complexity of buying our bikes online. Now, as you purchase a bike on our website, you simply enter your height and riding style—whether you're an all-around rider or someone who likes to go as fast as possible all the time—and our website tells you your size,” explains Guerrilla Gravity Founder Will Montague. He encourages riders to reach out to the bike company via phone or email to ask questions about the bikes.
You can also consider what the brand’s ambassadors ride for sizing reference. For instance, Liv Cycling’s Bike Fit and Size Guide includes well-developed size charts followed by a list of the brand’s athletes, their bike size, and preferred bikes.
Admittedly, frame color influences sales, too, says Miller: “People buy bikes based on color—a lot. If you don't like how your bike looks, you're not gonna want to ride it. I always encourage people to focus on the technology behind the brand.”
Suspension is the second key piece to consider when buying a mountain bike, manufacturers say. Put simply, suspension is when the bike is designed to absorb shock in front of the bike, below the handlebars, and the back of the bike, below the seat. The amount of space that’s available for compression is called travel, and is often referred to in millimeters. In general, aggressive terrain, rider style, and riders need larger suspension travel. A full-suspension bike includes travel in the front and back, while a hardtail bike does not provide travel beneath the seat. Suspension helps the bike absorb rocky or gnarly terrain, for greater rider comfort. My Granny’s bike was a hardtail, which was a primary reason I needed to graduate to a different setup. I needed to explore the mountainous trails where I live with greater ease. However, mountain bikes with more travel, “pay a penalty of more weight, because the bike is built burlier,” explains Ibis Cycles Founder Scot Nicol.
It’s worth noting what type of suspension is included on the bike model you are checking out. You can research that specific suspension on the manufacturer’s website and compare it to other suspension options. There also might be an option to upgrade the suspension on the bike that you buy. “The suspension is the front fork and rear shock. That’s where a lot of brands will cheap out and say, ‘Here's our $5,000 build,’ but buried in the [product specifics], the bike has the RockShox Pike Select—not the RockShox Pike Ultimate, and there’s a big difference in how those parts ride,” says Miller. “A very common bike setup that we sell has a...RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate upgrade. It's an extra $400 and worth every penny—you get just a way better suspension setup on your bike,” he says.
Mountain Bike Categories
Now that we’ve gone over the frame and suspension, you’re ready to pick out your type of mountain bike. The following categories are differentiated based on the suspension and frame design:
- Cross-country: Designed for smooth singletrack (read: single rider-wide trails) with moderate technical moves; 80-120mm suspension (this refers to the distance that the suspension will move while absorbing impact, before the suspension is fully compressed) ; 69-degree or steeper head-tube angle (the head-tube rests beneath the handlebars and is angled toward the ground. Specialized has a helpful bike part chart on their website that lights up to indicate the correct segment.)
- Trail Bike: Designed for uphill and downhill singletrack with rugged roots and drops; 120-150mm suspension; 66-68 degree head-tube angle
- All-Mountain, or Enduro Bike: Designed for singletrack with an emphasis on downhill terrain and airtime; 140-180mm suspension; 65-67 degree head-tube angle
- Downhill, also called Gravity or Freeride: Designed for descending steep trails, big drops, and jumps including bike parks; 170-250mm suspension; less than 65-degree head-tube angle
- Hybrid: Blends a road and mountain bike. Generally includes a flat handlebar and no suspension
*These are general guidelines. Some bike designs feature unique combinations of suspension and head-tube angles that are not within this listed range.
Again, consider where you’ll most ride the bike. “Are you going to ride in your neighborhood or on the bike path? Rather than buying an aggressive bike, a hybrid bike might be more comfortable for getting in training miles,” says GT Bicycles Senior Brand Manager Mike Marro.
One of the most common bike setups that Revel sells has a “GX [Eagle Kit] build,” says Miller. So, what’s a GX Eagle Kit build? Miller is talking about the third characteristic to pay attention to on a mountain bike: the drivetrain, also known as a groupset, which is a collection of pieces that work together to propel a bike. The drivetrain includes the shifters, front and rear derailleurs, cassette, chain, chainrings, crankset, and bottom bracket. Bike brands partner with component manufacturers for these parts. They can also mix a smorgasbord of components from various groupsets in a single bike, to create a specialty design for a particular usage and a targeted price, explains Bike Radar. Ergo, learning a bike’s components can feel like an information overload. Let’s break this down:
SRAM is a bicycle component manufacturer that offers a large menu of kits. One SRAM kit is called the GX Eagle, which Miller referred to. So, if you buy the Revel Rascal with a “GX Eagle Kit,” the bike will feature the GX Eagle shifter, rear derailleur, chain, cassette, and crankset. Miller also mentioned the RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate upgrade: RockShox is a suspension manufacturer, which was acquired by SRAM, in 2002. The Super Deluxe Ultimate is one of the countless suspension designs made by RockShox. Typically, the more expensive the components, the lighterweight they are, says Miller.
Not everyone needs to upgrade their suspension. “The lowest-end bikes won’t offer the same tension performance as a bike or build that is $500 more; which is fine, if mountain biking is going to be a pretty low-key recreational activity for you, or if you are riding somewhere that is pancake flat. But, if you ride trails where you need suspension travel and see yourself wanting to progress, bumping up to the next price range and materials—like the $1500 range—will give you a much better setup,” says Montague.
Tires and Wheels
After you’ve chosen your frame, suspension, and drivetrain, mountain bike manufacturers have scattered opinions on the next-most important bike parts that shoppers should consider. Some leaders highlight the tires and wheels.
Tires, the rubber covering that is placed around each wheel, play a huge role in performance. Tires alter how the bike “interfaces with the ground, which shouldn’t be overlooked,” says Nicol. They vary by width and tread pattern. Nicol provides an outline: “If you’re riding fairly smooth cross-country trails you probably need a 2.2- or 2.3-inch wide tire. Then, tire options get gradually wider for faster riding or burlier terrain. As they get wider, they get taller with increased volume, which brings a decreased need for air pressure and increased traction. My personal favorite is 2.6-inch wide tires with a lower pressure. From there, you can go to a 2.8-inch wide tire, called plus tires. They are very forgiving at a really low pressure—they are like adult training wheels. Then 4- and 5-inch wide tires are the fat bike category.”
Brown adds, “Tires are the easiest thing to change on a bike. The more aggressive the tire, the more travel you're going to get. So, if you're living in the Midwest and you want a comfortable, longer-travel bike that’s faster, exchange the tires.” Benedict agrees, “You want to make sure that you get a good quality tire with the right grip and reliability.”
The second tire trait to address is diameter, explains Nicol,“The two main ones are 27.5- and 29-inch. The former are easier to turn, because they have less rotating inertia and tend to be more playful and fun. The 29-inch tires are more cumbersome and turn a bit more slowly but they roll over really rough terrain a lot better, so they can be faster from point A to point B.
Don’t forget, the tire diameter needs to match the wheel diameter. The wheel consists of four main parts including the rim, hub, spokes, and nipples. So, a 27.5-inch tire won’t fit on 29-inch wheels or vice versa. Also, a bike’s frame geometry may be partial to a particular tire and wheel size, so pay attention when you buy your bike.
Miller adds, “Wheels make a big difference...you really notice the weight.” Revel Bikes manufactures their own wheel, which is called the RW30. The wheel is made with Fusion-Fiber, a new environmentally-friendly carbon technology that is lightweight, dampening, and durable.
Brakes and Seat
Brakes are also an important variable on bikes. “It's hard to slow down, so get good brakes that are powerful enough for your experience and size, that can be serviced if you have an issue,” says Benedict. Most companies, like Specialized, offer mechanical disc brakes or hydraulic disc brakes.
Additional rider adjustability might be worth the extra cost, too: “I’d rather have a dropper seatpost than upper-tier suspension or than clipless pedals. Everyone should have a dropper seatpost—everyone. We try to put those on our bikes at as low of a price-point as we can,” says Cannondale Vice President of Product Peter Vallance.
Jen Audia, Senior Product Marketing Specialist of Liv Cycling, agrees. “A dropper seatpost is such an awesome feature that helps the rider put her bodyweight where it needs to go. It helps if you need to set both your feet down on the ground. It helps as you transition, too, from a descending or flat trail to a climb. You can move your seat to the correct height for uphill sections,” she says.
Another feature that I loved about Granny’s bike was the upgraded plush, female-specific seat. But, the bike didn’t have a dropper seatpost, which is a helpful tool for rides that mix downhill and uphill terrain.
Brand Choice and Price
Countless manufacturers build bikes across the categories listed above. So, which company should you go with? “Narrow down your search from the start: choose a couple of brands that you think you’d want to ride and just go with them,” says Alchemy Bicycles VP of Sales, Marketing and Product Development Joel Smith. In other words, a brand’s identity and history hold clout. However, read bike reviews and forums with a grain of salt, because that design may or may not be best for your needs and style, explains Smith.
Of course, price is a colossal factor when choosing a bike as well as potential or immediate upgrades of the components, wheels, or tires. Some brands solely develop higher-end rides. Only a handful of brands create lower-price options for entry riders and typically those options are limited.
The “most decent mountain bikes with full-suspension start at around $1,800 to $2,000. But, if you are on a budget, Diamondback does a pretty fair job of covering a broad spectrum of entry-level options with the Atroz 1, Atroz 2, and Atroz 3: three models that go from $800 to $1,500. They're based on a simple but durable single-pivot full-suspension system,” explains Diamondback Vice President of Product Development Michael Brown. In contrast, linkage-driven single-pivot suspension systems—like the Level Link suspension on the Release 5C Carbon ($4,249.99)—cost more but offer greater tuning capability.
Also on the lower-end of the price scale, Specialized offers the Pitch 27.5 ($520), GT Bicycles has the Aggressor Sport ($475), and Trek provides the Marlin 5 ($549.99), to name a few. By comparison, the lowest price tag from Revel is $4,999 while Alchemy’s is $2,999.
Don’t forget to budget for your accessories and gear, too, like bike shorts and chamois (pull-on padding that helps to protect the groin), a helmet, gloves, and footwear, notes Audia.
The best news? We’re in a golden era of mountain bike design. If you buy from a recognized brand, you can’t go wrong. “It’s really tough to buy a terrible bike from any well-known brand right now. We’re all making really good bikes. When you click and buy a Diamondback or another brand’s bike, you're going to get a really nice bike,” says Brown.
Recap: How to Buy a Mountain Bike Online
To sum it all up, as you online shop for a mountain bike start by narrowing down a frame that supports your riding needs. Next up, choose the correct amount of suspension. Conjunctively, consider your budget for the bike and any safety equipment or accessories that you need including a helmet. Then, select a dependable drivetrain. Lastly, you can reflect on additional upgrades including the tires, wheels, a dropper seatpost, and brakes.
Also, “If you can't ride or demo the bike before you buy it, make sure there's a no-questions-asked return policy. We offer a fit guarantee and a 30 days no-questions-asked return policy. If you buy a bike from us, and it's the wrong size, we'll swap out the frame at no charge,” says Miller.
Ultimately, as you shop for your mountain bike online, says Smith, “try to buy a mountain bike that’s right for the neck of the woods where you ride. Don’t buy too much bike and don’t buy too little bike.”
I loved riding my Granny’s bike, but after a few years, I needed ‘more bike.’ Meaning, I specifically needed a mountain bike (not a hybrid) with features that supported my rides on rugged, rocky singletrack and steep slopes, as well as desert and valley floor trails. The mountain bike I bought has many of the characteristics recommended by experts in this article, including a dropper seatpost and hydraulic disc brakes. But most importantly, my bike frame is the correct size, and I opted for full-suspension that travels 150mm, which provides adequate compression for the type of trails that I explore and my riding style.
Full transparency, it took several years for me to save up for a new mountain bike--but it was worth the immediate and long-term investment. As memories stack up with my bike and on trips with friends, I never regret a dime that I spent. And, I don’t plan on retiring my bike any time soon. One day, I hope it will be multigenerational, too.