13 Sep THE MOUNTAIN BIKE
The mountain bike was one of those ideas that was bound to happen eventually. Riding bicycles off road is a very old idea – they came along before Tarmac roads, after all, and cyclocross racing has seen bikes competing in the mud for nearly a century. Over the years, various people have cobbled motorbike handlebars onto old road bikes to create ‘trackers’ for hacking round the woods, but it took a bunch of Californian cyclists looking for new bike-related entertainment in the 1970s to take the first step on the path to the modern mountain bike. They hit upon the notion of dragging pre-war beach cruisers up the mountains of Marin County in order to race them back down the steep, loose fire roads. With just the one gear, getting to the start line involved either a pickup truck or pushing .
The backpedal coaster brakes that were fine when pootling along on the flat proved incapable of sustained mountain descending, tending to overheat. The requirement to repack the hubs with grease gave the most famous early race – the Repack – its name.
Technology moved quickly in the early days. Grafting on cantilever brakes from touring bikes and pulling them with motorbike levers improved control immea- surably, especially when a source of aluminium rims was found. The big leap, though, was fitting derailleur gears, allowing the bikes to be pedalled up the moun- tains as well as down them. Those early ‘clunkers’ may have been cobbled to- gether, but it wasn’t long before purpose-built bikes appeared from local frame- builders. Within a few years, mountain bikes were being mass-produced overseas and the boom was on.
The pace of development has remained high ever since. Modern bikes feature up to 30 gears, hydraulic disc brakes and suspension at both wheels. Aluminium has taken over from steel as the dominant frame material, with carbon fibre common on high-end bikes. Mountain bikes are lighter and stronger then ever before. But mountain bikes do go wrong. No matter how tough they are, eventually the components may fail, wear out or break. This easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide to fixing your mountain bike will help to keep you riding. We’ll take you from the basic checkups through to advanced repairs and trailside fixes. However, prevention is always better than cure, so we’ll also show you how to keep your bike clean, well adjusted and free from trouble.
TYPES OF MOUNTAIN BIKE
In the early days of mountain biking, there was just one kind of mountain bike. As the sport has diversified, various sub-genres and niches have formed, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses. If you’re starting out, a trail or cross- country bike is the best choice – they’re the most versatile.
FULL-SUSPENSION TRAIL BIKE
The full-suspension trail bike is the closest thing to the original go anywhere, do anything mountain bike. Despite having 120-140mm of suspension travel at each end, trail bikes are still light enough to tackle long climbs easily – except budget models, most are under 13kg (29lb) and more expensive bikes with carbon fibre frames can be well below that. The suspension fork and rear shock are often highly adjustable, with different settings for climbing and descending – typically firmer for climbing and softer for descending. Some trail bikes have adjustable travel too, letting you optimise the bike for the terrain. Trail bikes typically have slightly relaxed steering geometry, giving confidence on descents. That makes them very at home at purpose-built trail centres, which tend to emphasise descending. Combined with control and comfort from the suspen- sion and the reasonable weight, trail bikes are a great choice for long off-road rides too.
If you’re not sure exactly what kind of trails you’ll be riding, the all-round trail bike is the best option – it’ll tackle pretty much anything, and while other kinds of bikes may be slightly faster over particular kinds of terrain, the trail bike is the most versatile.
If your riding is downhill-focused but you need to get to the top under your own steam, an all-mountain bike may be for you. While looking very similar to trail bikes, AM bikes typically have more travel (140-160mm is typical), more robust wheels, larger tyres and more powerful brakes. The steering geometry of an all-mountain bike is more downhill-oriented than that of a trail bike, with a shallower head angle and shorter stem, but not so much that it struggles on flat trails or climbs. An AM bike will be heavier, though. It’s a good choice for enduro racing, involving timed downhill sections linked by untimed climbs.
Downhill bikes are pure race machines, designed solely to descend as fast as pos- sible. To that end, they have long travel (around 180mm) and a very shallow head angle for stability at speed. Frames have to be extremely strong to handle the loads from twin-crown forks, so inevitably DH bikes are typically heavier than others. They’re not as heavy as you might think, though, with professional-level bikes often approaching 16kg (35lb) – pedalling can still make the difference between winning and losing, so racers don’t want to carry excess weight. Freeride bikes are similar in terms of travel but have a more robust build to handle huge drops and jumps.
While full suspension has developed to the point where it has huge performance advantages and few drawbacks, doing without still saves weight and reduces maintenance and cost. The hardtail mountain bike – with a suspension fork but no suspension for the rear wheel – sacrifices a little bit of speed and comfort for the sake of simplicity. For many riders that’s a more than worthwhile trade-off. Indeed, lots of hardtail fans express a preference for the ride of an unsuspended bike – you can’t rely on the suspension to do all the work, and having to work the bike through rough sections can be very rewarding. You’ll find 100-120mm travel suspension forks (or 80-100mm travel on hardtails with bigger 29in wheels) and similar geometry to full-suspension trail bikes. Trail hardtails are fun bikes to ride, especially on shorter routes. For rides of more than a couple of hours, you’ll feel the benefit of full suspension, although that’s not to say that hardtails are limiting – you can certainly do big, rough rides on them, it’s just that you’ll feel the aftermath more keenly the following day. That aside, trail hardtails are just as effective an all-rounder as their fully- suspended brethren.
Although looking superficially similar to a conventional hardtail MTB, dirt jump bikes are every bit as specialist as downhill race bikes. They’re designed solely for jumping, with steeper geometry for manoeuvrability and a low-slung frame. Some jump bikes are fully rigid, while others include a suspension fork that’s usually stiffly sprung to save bad landings. Entry-level models usually have a single chain- ring and multiple gears at the back, while real dirt jump purists make do with just one gear. Bikes for 4X racing are similar to jump bikes but usually with a lighter build for better acceleration.
While not technically a mountain bike, many of the bikes sold for riding on city streets are closely related and share many of the same components. Some of them are essentially mountain bikes fitted with narrower, smooth-treaded tyres for road use, although higher gears are a typical feature too. While some commuter bikes have suspension forks, they’re less useful on road – rigid forks are lighter and require less maintenance. Disc brakes are a common feature on more expensive models, giving strong, consistent braking in all weather conditions. You’ll also often find rack and mudguard mounts, which have become something of a rarity on mountain bikes.
For a long time, cross-country (XC) racing was the mainstay of mountain biking, with the ethos of covering mixed terrain as quickly as possible informing the de- sign of bikes for everyone, racers or not. Gradually, though, XC race bikes have be- come very specialist tools. With cross-country races mostly won on the climbs, XC bikes are almost the exact opposite of DH bikes. Low weight is everything, and steep geometry with low handlebars optimises uphill performance but can be a handful on descents. Professional racers will choose between hardtails (with 80-100mm forks) or full suspension bikes (80-100mm of travel at both ends) according to the nature of the course – if it’s smooth the lighter hardtail is likely to be faster, but rougher courses benefit from full suspension. Full suspension bikes are also a good choice for the longer variations on XC racing, like marathons and 24-hour endurance events. Big 29in wheels are popular for XC too, with the benefits of easy rolling over bumps outweighing the weight penalty for many riders. While pure XC race bikes are extremely single-minded, most can also make entirely capable all-rounders too. Often a change of handlebar and stem for a more upright riding position and some more robust tyres are all that’s needed.
The majority of children’s bikes are at least styled along mountain bike lines. You wouldn’t call most of them mountain bikes, although some high-end models for teenagers are essentially proper MTBs with smaller wheels for a good fit. While suspension forks are common on kids’ bikes, they’re usually something of a hindrance, adding weight for little appreciable benefit – it’s worth seeking out a model with a rigid fork. We include children’s bikes here because they share many components with adult mountain bikes – brakes and gear shifters, for example.
Also not a mountain bike is the cyclocross bike, but again there’s some parts com- monality – brakes (including, increasingly, discs) in particular – so it’s worth a mention. Cyclocross is a sport with a long history, involving short off-road circuits on bikes that look similar to road bikes but have shallower angles and room for big- ger, knobbly tyres. Cyclocross racing is quite a niche sport, but the bikes them- selves are great all-rounders – they’re much faster than mountain bikes on the road and still surprisingly capable off it, even without huge tyres or suspension.
BUYING A BIKE
Supermarkets and car accessory shops are packed with sub-£100 ‘mountain bikes’, but we know from experience that these are best avoided. Typically it takes a good mechanic about an hour to take a good-quality mountain bike from boxed to ready to ride. The same mechanic could easily spend three times that on a £79 bike and still not have something that was capable of being ridden off-road except extremely tentatively – it’s just not possible to sell a truly dirt-capable bike that cheaply. It’s also worth remembering that supermarkets don’t tend to have experienced mechanics to assemble bikes. You take it home in a box and you’re left to your own devices, generally with inadequate instructions. Even if you know what you’re doing, the end result will be at best disappointing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s likely to be unsafe. A ‘true’ mountain bike will come with full instructions for the consumer, details of any special parts (Shimano usually supplies instructions, and suspension forks normally have their own special instructions too), a PDI (Pre-Delivery Inspection) check list and, lastly, a warranty card. Any bike that can’t supply this information should be avoided. Mountain biking is very hard on your bike and, when your life can depend on the quality and function of the equipment, you need to know you have done everything possible to prevent failure. So, it’s far better to use a bike that is up to the job in the first place. This also means a bike that has been professionally assembled and checked from new, which is why your first port of call should be a good local bike shop. Historically speaking, the entry-level mountain bike has always cost around £350–500. Because this is a very competitive price point these bikes are often very good value, featuring quality parts and a well-made frame. However, entry-level bikes are not designed and built to be pushed to the limits, so as your riding im- proves you will probably want to upgrade what you ride. A particular weakness of sub-£500 bikes is the suspension fork. Nearly every entry-level bike has a suspension fork because they look good on the shop floor, but they’re usually very heavy, excessively flexible and with a poorly controlled ac- tion. Typically they contain steel coil springs and at best a very simple damper, often no damper at all. This makes them so bouncy that they’re worse than no sus- pension at all. Alas, entry-level bikes with rigid forks are thin on the ground. Remember that your main priorities are the frame, then the suspension forks, then the wheels, then the contact points (saddle, handlebars and pedals) and, last- ly, the brakes and transmission components. Components are last on the list be- cause they will wear out in time and, should you want to upgrade them, you can do it when they wear out. The frame, suspension forks and wheels are always the most expensive parts of a bike, so look for the manufacturers that put the most effort into these areas and don’t be fooled just because the bike has an XT rear derailleur or the added attraction of (poor-quality) disc brakes.
For many years women had to make do with bikes designed primarily for men, relying on juggling with seatposts and stems to improve the fit. The average woman is significantly shorter than the average man, and women need a shorter reach to the bars for a given height too. Today most manufac- turers have a big choice of women-specific bikes with geometry and sizing ad- justed to suit. Don’t automatically assume that a women’s bike is the right choice just because you’re a woman, though – different brands take different ap- proaches to frame geometry, and many women (especially taller ones) find that a man’s bike from a particular manufacturer offers the best fit.
Look for the details, as sometimes corners are cut to save money – usually where you can’t see it or may not notice it, for example the chain or the bottom bracket. Anonymous, unbranded hubs are another common money-saving choice. This isn’t such a big deal for front hubs, but the freehub mechanism in the rear hub is often a weak point and spares for no-name hubs can be hard to come by. Most current Shimano and SRAM mountain bike components are designed specifically for riding off-road. Those two manufacturers dominate the market. Al- ways beware of gear components that you haven’t heard of, as they may well just not be a match in quality for the job. Most manufacturers mix and match compo- nents from different brands – SRAM chains on Shimano cassettes are common, and chainsets often come from other companies – which is usually fine, although you’ll generally get the best performance and reliability by sticking to one brand throughout.
DIRECT SALES OR MAIL ORDER
Some manufacturers sell directly to the public without going via a bike shop at all. Typically this means cheaper bikes for an equivalent specification, but the trade-off is losing the shop’s experience and advice. Test rides are also tricky to arrange. You really need to know what you’re doing to get the best out of direct sales. Some assembly of the bike is usually required (although it’s often minimal, and clear in- structions and tools are usually included), and any warranty issues will mean re- boxing the bike and arranging for it to be collected. Many shops also sell bikes from mainstream brands via mail order, although some brands aren’t keen on their bikes being sold this way. The shop should still carry out assembly and pre-delivery inspection before repackaging the bike for delivery, although it’s not unheard of for bikes to arrive on a customer’s doorstep in the same state they left the factory in – some way from ready to ride.
The growth of the internet auction site ebay and classified ads on MTB websites has meant a boom in the used bike market. There’s potential to score a real bar- gain, but if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking at there are many possible pitfalls. Bikes are often badly (or even deliberately erroneously) described as to their condition or even manufacturer, and if a bike’s a long way away you may only have photos from which to gauge the condition. It’s a good idea to stick to bikes local to you that you can inspect in person. Take an experienced friend along even if you’re reasonably experienced yourself – two pairs of eyes are better than one when it comes to spotting crash damage or worn parts, and it’s easy to talk yourself into a purchase if you’re on your own with cash in your pocket. Always remember the maxim: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Most reputable bike dealers will be able to help you with picking the right size bike. As with most large purchases it’s worth getting a few opinions. For the standard cross-country riding position you are looking for comfort first and foremost, so feeling relaxed and being able to move freely are essential. The following is only a guide and, as everybody is different, please make sure you seek personal advice from an experienced cycle fitter. 1 Stand-over height – the distance between the top tube and the floor – needs to be lower than your inside leg measurement so, should you have to step off the bike in a hurry, you won’t have a nasty shock as your crutch smacks onto double-butted aluminium (ouch). You need about 2–3 inches minimum.
2 Reach – the distance between the handlebars and the saddle – is very important on a mountain bike. Your arms should be comfortably bent and the saddle-to-bar drop should allow you to sit with a relatively straight back. A shorter handlebar stem will quicken the steering and improve control, but being too cramped is uncomfortable on long rides and reduces climbing efficiency.
3 Correct saddle height is interpreted in a variety of ways. For optimum pedalling efficiency, the general consensus is that your leg should be slightly bent at the bot- tom of the pedal stroke, without your hips having to sway on the saddle to perform the stroke. Many riders choose to position the saddle slightly lower than this, com- promising pedalling for better control over rough ground. It’s an area that’s open to interpretation, so have an experienced fitter check your saddle height.
4 Much of the fine-tuning of bike fit can be done by exchanging components such as the saddle and stem. Test ride the bike after each change and make sure you are happy with the setup before you leave the shop.
THE TEST RIDE
You may have to leave your credit card as security in the shop before they will let you out on a test ride. When you leave the shop, relax and take the bike for a gentle spin. Stop somewhere quiet and have a good look over what you are about to buy. If you aren’t 100 per cent happy, don’t feel pressurised to buy – try something else instead.
In time you may want to have a go at assembling your own bike. Frame-only deals can offer excellent value, but be aware that used parts can create problems as you build. Things like front mechs and seat posts often vary in size and, unless you have all the right tools, you can easily make an expensive mistake. It’s very rewarding when you’re done, though.
BIKE BUYING TIPS
As with most things in life, there will be good and bad points about your new bike, but here are a few tips you should always consider before buying.
1- Research the brands you like the look of. Get hold of catalogues or visit man- ufacturers’ websites to compare specifications and features.
2- Buy a range of up-to-date magazines to consider your options. Find group tests of bikes in your price range, or even e-mail the magazine to ask their opinion. Many magazines archive their tests online too.
3- When you’re ready to visit a shop, take an experienced friend with you. They’ll be useful both for advice and for spotting unhelpful sales talk.
4- Ask these questions at each shop you visit:
• What size do I need and, if you haven’t got it, can you order it in?
• Can I have a test ride?
• Do you provide a free first service?
• Within reason, can I swap parts (saddle, stem, handlebars and so on) to get the exact fit I want? The answer to all of these questions should be ‘yes’.
5- Consider that you will need after-sales support, so you’ll need to build loyalty with the shop. Don’t just buy more cheaply elsewhere and then expect a local dealer to fix or deal with the warranty on your new bike for free. It’s always worth thinking about buying some extras (helmet, gloves, tools and so on) when you are at the shop buying your bike. This is probably the most you will spend in the shop at one time, so they may well offer you a few incentives even if it’s just a free bottle and an inner tube.
6- Don’t be lured by discounted bikes, special offers or ex-demonstration bikes unless you are absolutely sure it’s the bike for you and it’s the right size.
7- If the shop doesn’t have your size, wait until they can get one. It’s better to leave it a little longer and have the right bike.
8- Always ask local mountain bikers for recommendations and ask them about the local shops, for example which one is good for advice and which one specialises in particular brands, as it’s always better to go to a dealer who has a good repu- tation. Ask lots of questions in the shop and make sure they have a good me- chanic and a well-equipped (preferably tidy) workshop.