Hard Tails and Soft Saddles

An incomplete guide to buying your first mountain bike

If you read our recent article on trying out mountain biking you might be at the stage where you want to purchase your own set of wheels. I’ve owned five bikes over the years and this is what I would do if I was buying my first one again. It’s probably not what everyone would do, but hopefully it’ll help you in some way.


Firstly, if you’ve got oodles of cash to spend then this isn’t for you. It’s when the wallet is light that it really helps to know what things are important and what things aren’t. I’ve aimed this guide at an imaginary someone with a budget between $500 and $1000. That seems fairly typical for most people starting out.

New versus second-hand

This depends on how risk averse you are. Second-hand bikes are definitely in the buyer beware camp but you could get something better for your money. New bikes will come with a warranty, but then no warranty will cover you for riding into a tree so I’ve never put much stock in that. It probably comes down to whether you are a bargain hunter and a risk taker or you like shiny new things and to know exactly what you’re getting.

If you do go second-hand though, you should try for as close to new as you can get and definitely not much older than five years. And make sure you get someone to give it a once over before you part with cash. Most bike mechanics should do this for you.

And if you go new, do your best getting reliable information out of the sales assistant. Ask lots of questions and then ignore much of what they say. Brands don’t matter. Weight doesn’t matter. You want reliable, sturdy and versatile. The good news is that a few years ago $1000 wouldn’t you have bought you much at a shop, but now you can get something pretty solid.

To hard tail or not to hard tail?

Buy a hard tail. No question. And by ‘hard tail’ I mean, no rear suspension. You won’t be able to get a reliable full suspension bike in this price range, even second-hand, so don’t even try. You’ll end up spending more in the long run. Besides, hard tails are more fun, break down less, teach you how to ride better and are lighter and faster uphill. Ignore the marketing hype, they are the beginner’s (and often the purist’s) bread and butter.

Which parts? Or how to get confused quickly

I won’t go into all the different parts because it’s boring and you won’t get much choice at this price range. Generally though, I would say if you do have options focus on the more complicated mechanical parts. Which for a hard tail is basically the front suspension. You want suspension that is smooth and solid and won’t rust or seize after a year. Brakes are another part that you could choose to spend a bit more money on.

Aluminium, carbon fibre and steel

Don’t worry about the frame too much. This is the one thing that has barely changed in twenty years of mountain bike development. And whether it’s aluminum or steel or carbon fibre will hardly be noticeable to a beginner. Go for the one that fits you well and then concentrate on making sure the parts are reasonable quality.

Test drive it

Try it out in the carpark. It’s amazing how much you can tell just by doing a few quick turns, hopping the front wheel and slamming on the brakes. How a bike feels is immediately obvious and I’ve bought bikes worth several thousand dollars based on this kind of test drive.

What size?

Related to this, because it’s partly about feel and comfort, is to make sure you get one that is the right size. I won’t go into the technical ins and outs, there are plenty of guides on this already. My general rule is that you want comfort - not too cramped, which could lead to a sore back and not too stretched out, which will lock you into an awkward position and make you feel like you’re on a medieval torture rack.

Making a decision

Most importantly, and because I certainly suffer from buyer’s paralysis, once you’ve tried out a few, don’t dilly dally too long. Make a decision. Get a bike and hit the trails. I’ve never met a bike I couldn’t enjoy. The most important thing is to use it. You won’t regret it.

There is much more you can know and this article could be a lot longer, but that would waste valuable riding time. There’s a great outdoors to explore on two wheels.