If you're new to the world of off-road thrills and hills, find out more about the riding in the DC area (see the Off-Road Trails link to the left). Our people can tell you about the area's offerings and give you advice on bike types and equipment. If you haven't already, ask to borrow a bike from a friend so you can try off-road cycling to get a feel for where and how you'll ride because this will help you pick the perfect ride.
Suspension technology has never been this good or this affordable before. Plenty of mountain bikers in fact, discover that they can easily ride trails they used to fear simply because they have a good suspension system. Traditionally, front-suspension mountain bikes have been lighter and a tad more efficient than full suspension, which is why hardtails had pretty much dominated the cross-country racing scene. As weights have dropped and efficiency has improved, even World Cup pros are pulling out dualies for rough courses.
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There are suspension types based on the length of travel the shocks provide. Short-travel models offer an inch or two of suspension to take the bite off the rough stuff while retaining efficiency. Longer-travel models boast the ability to withstand huge hits. They don't climb as well but they're built more for the descents and fun rides including challenging terrain.
Keep in mind that within each bike type, there are various designs with significant differences. For example, if you're shopping for a dualie, you'll decide whether you want one with long-travel suspension or a model with less pronounced action. We can point out the differences and explain why you might prefer one over the other.
For example, are you the type who has to have the best or would you be happier getting reasonable quality at a pleasing price point? Do you like simple designs or are you infatuated with cutting-edge technology? Will you keep this bike for ten years or more or are you thinking that you'll upgrade as your skills and interests develop?
While you're soul searching, give some thought to how much you'd like to spend on your new bike. Shop our on-line catalog to view some models and see how prices vary. And, think about what you'd be comfortable spending. Keep in mind that you often need accessories with new-bike purchases such as a helmet, gloves, shoes and cycling shorts. Because these will add to the bike's purchase price, include some extra in your budget.
Magic metals Mountain-bike frames today are built of several materials. And, you'll find people who insist that theirs is the only way to go. But, don't put too much stock in one person's opinion. We have bikes at all price points and while their frame materials vary, we're confident you'll find a ride you love. That's what's most important, not what the frame is made of. Keep that in mind and don't decide until you've had a chance test ride some bikes.
Most of our mountain bicycles are built of aluminum, which is a great material for the job. It produces good-looking, affordable, responsive, lightweight and strong frames that won't rust. There are different grades of aluminum with different feels, too.
There are also frames built of steel, carbon fiber and titanium. Of the three, steel is the most traditional and least expensive material. A few manufacturers still produce steel frames because it keeps the price down while offering excellent ride characteristics.
Carbon fiber and titanium are costly materials and more difficult to build frames with, so they're found on more expensive bicycle models. Carbon-fiber frames are sometimes called "composites" because they're usually comprised of carbon-fiber tubing and aluminum fittings. Carbon fiber is a fabric that's saturated in glue and formed into tubes to produce a frame. This allows the designer to extensively fine-tune the frame to dial in the ride.
Unlike carbon, titanium is a metal like aluminum and steel. It creates an expensive frame however, because titanium is costly and difficult to work with. This strong, lightweight tubing makes an extremely lively and comfortable frame. Also, because titanium frames are impervious to corrosion and rust and scratch resistant, they're often brushed or polished instead of painted, which means there's no paint job to worry about.
Dualies excel in rough terrain (Bob Allen photo) Most new mountain-bike buyers purchase a model equipped with suspension. Ironically, even if you buy a rigid bike (one without front or rear shocks), you actually get a certain level of suspension thanks to the cushioning effect of the fat tires, which float over bumps (if you don't pump them up too hard).
It's likely, however, that you'll prefer the additional bump-busting ability of a bike with a suspension fork or one with front and rear shocks. These machines offer many advantages for trail riding. Because the wheels are sprung and can travel up and down, they remain in contact with the ground on even the most technical terrain. This results in more speed, traction and control and safer rides. Plenty of mountain bikers in fact, discover that they can easily ride trails they used to fear simply because they have a good suspension system.
Another wonderful thing about suspension is that it greatly reduces the amount of beating your body takes. If you're suffering from a stiff neck or sore lower back on rides, you'll be amazed at the difference a suspension makes. Jolts from big hits are absorbed by the shocks and never have a chance to slam your body so you finish rides relaxed and comfortable (think of the money you'll save on chiropractor bills).
Front or Dual?
There are two main types of suspension mountain bikes, those with front suspension (called Hardtails) and those with front and rear suspension (called Dualies or Fullies). Deciding which to get is the bicycle world's equivalent of whether to buy a PC or Macintosh computer.
Traditionally, front-suspension mountain bikes have been lighter and a tad more efficient, which is why hardtails had pretty much dominated the cross-country racing scene. As weights have dropped and efficiency has improved, even World Cup pros are pulling out dualies for rough courses.
Because front-suspension bikes have only one shock, the frames are simpler than dual-suspension models, which means they're lighter and a little easier to clean and maintain.
Dualies are becoming more popular, however. They offer awesome speed, comfort and control, which is so much fun that most people don't mind the slight weight penalty. Plus, any pedaling efficiency lost in the rear suspension system is more than made up in faster downhill and flat-terrain speeds. You'll also find your rear wheel sticking to technical climbs better than on a hardtail. And, you'll have more energy on long rides because you're taking less of a beating.
Short Or Long Travel?
There are different types of dual-suspension bikes defined by the amount of travel the shocks provide. Short-travel models offer an inch or two of suspension to take the bite off the rough stuff while retaining impressive efficiency. Longer-travel models boast the ability to withstand huge hits. These don't climb as well but they're built more for the descents and fun rides including challenging terrain.
We can show you some of the different types and demonstrate how the suspension systems work. The important thing is to think about how and where you'll be riding the bike to have an idea, which type of suspension and how much suspension you want/need.
Today's components will amaze you Today, the majority of off-road bikes come equipped with components from Shimano. Our chart shows Shimano's parts groups and describes how they differ:
24-speed, great braking and shifting
impressive function, great price Alivio
24-speed, great braking and shifting, stylish looks
improved shifters, sleeker shapes, less weight Deore
27-speed, great braking and shifting, light
sweet parts and price Deore LX
27-speed, sweet braking and shifting, lighter, fine finish, durable
nearly XT shifting and braking Deore XT
27-speed, lighter, great braking and shifting, beautiful, more durable
works nearly as well as XTR XTR
27-speed, superlight, phenomenal braking and shifting and ultra durable
world's lightest and highest tech off-road parts group
Shimano by no means dominates the equipment scene. Manufacturers commonly substitute brakes, derailleurs and cranksets from makers other than Shimano such as Sachs, Magura, Avid and others.
And, the larger bike manufacturers, like to "brand" their bikes by installing components made in house. So you'll often find pedals and cranks bearing the bike-makers' names.
Rim Or Disc Brakes
In the past few years there have been impressive advances in brake designs and today you'll find amazing stoppers on every bike you buy. There are two types, rim and disc. The former is the traditional bicycle brake that rubs on the rim to slow and stop the bike. These work great, usually weigh less than alternatives and are simple to service and repair.
The rim brake has some weaknesses, however. Because it rubs on the rim, it gradually wears the rim, which may damage it in time. Also, muddy and wet conditions rapidly wear rim-type brake pads and also reduce gripping power.
For these reasons, many off-road bikes today come with disc brakes, which grip a disc attached to the center of the wheel and work similar to car brakes. These aren't as affected by wet and muddy conditions (so you don't lose braking power) and they don't wear the rims.
Dream hoops Mountain bikes come with impressively reliable wheels and tires that are designed to withstand the rigors of off-road riding. The rims are wide and shaped for optimum strength. And they're protected by fat tires containing a good cushion of air that prevents impacts from damaging the rims/wheels. Rider weight, terrain and technique are also factors in how long off-road wheels last. With just a little care, they'll run true for years.
Off-road tires provide awesome traction and control and they're soft enough to lessen the jolts you feel riding over ruts, roots and rocks. They're tough and reliable to cut down on punctures, too. But, if you're riding in super-rough or thorny areas, talk to us about additional tube protection for preventing flat tires.
All our mountain bikes comes with sturdy wheels you can depend on. As you spend more money the wheels get lighter because reductions here are most noticeable on the trail due to the fact that wheels are rotating weight. Strip a few ounces from the wheels and the bike will pedal much easier.
So, as you pay more, you see wheels with fewer spokes and lighter hubs and rims. At the highest price points, you get wheelsets, which have been custom designed and built to be super reliable and ultralight using such gee-whiz features as fewer spokes, trick spoke lacing (see photo), and hidden nipples.
Our MTBs sport tires spec'd by the manufacturer to handle the way they believe you'll ride that bike. So, a rigid mountain bike, which they think will see road and off-road use, might come with a dual-purpose tread that rolls smoothly on pavement but also delivers a decent dirt grip.
Our hardtails and dualies sport tires geared toward trail use with tread patterns that provide excellent traction, control and handling. Interestingly, these vary from heavy tread patterns to semi-slicks, which appear almost bald.
Tire choice is a function of where you ride. While highly skilled off roaders might ride semi-slicks because they appreciate reduced rolling resistance and higher speeds, more riders prefer deeper tread for better grip on slippery surfaces.
If you're wondering how different tires work on the trails around here, just ask. We've ridden all the different rubber and can offer advice on how various tires handle.
Look Ma, No Tubes!
A fascinating innovation you'll find on higher-end MTBs this year, is the tubeless tire. The technology is new and is found currently only on high-end and mid-level models. It offers two significant advantages over conventional knobbies:
By eliminating the tube, pinch flats (a common puncture that's caused by a hard impact that pinches the tube against the rim) are eliminated. Even better, because pinch flats aren't possible, you can run lower tire pressures, which provide better speed, traction, cornering, control and a more comfortable ride. We expect to see these tires on more bikes in the future.
You won't ride much if your bike doesn't feel right, which is why we spend time checking you to make sure you're on the perfect frame size before we start recommending bicycles. Three other important considerations are your contact points with the bike, the handlebars, seat and pedals.
You'll find two common handlebar types on mountain bikes, flat and riser bars. Flat bars sit lower (depending on the frame design and stem) and are slightly lighter. They're usually favored by cross-country and long-distance riders.
Riser bars come in different shapes, but they're all higher than flat bars and swept back a bit making them easier to reach. Riser bars let you sit a little more upright, which many people prefer on technical terrain and for downhill riding because it provides more control.
Here, it's mainly a matter of personal preference. The saddles on our bicycles are excellent but it's crucial that the one you get fits properly. The best thing is to give it a try to see how it feels. Keep in mind that it takes several rides to get your body used to riding. It's also an excellent idea to ride in cycling shorts, which include a layer of padding in the crotch area and wick moisture away for optimum comfort (regular shorts have seams in them that you sit on when biking causing numbness and pain).
On basic mountain bikes you'll find basic pedals, sometimes equipped with toe clips and straps. These are perfectly adequate and comfortable for most all-around riding.
As you ride further or more athletically, clipless pedals will allow you to spin the pedals faster and put more energy into your cycling. Which is why better mountain bikes have clipless pedals. These require cycling shoes with cleats on the bottoms that lock your feet to the pedals when you step on them offering the ultimate in pedaling efficiency.
Don't worry, though. It's as easy to get your feet out of clipless pedals as it is to get in. Just swing your heels to the side to "click" out of the pedals and get your feet down. It takes a little practice to get the hang of entering and exiting the pedals (we recommend practicing a lot standing next to the bike before doing any serious riding). But, once you've mastered the foot action, we think you'll love the additional control and efficiency of clipless pedals.