Choosing a Mountain Bike

What sort of bike should I get? That’s a common question and the answer as in many things is “it depends”. We race as part of NICA in the NorCal league. The courses are deliberately chosen to not be super technical, to be inclusive to newcomers and don’t require the more expensive and heavier full suspension bikes.

The alternative to a full suspension bike is a hardtail. Hardtails, as the name suggests, do not have a rear suspension. That makes them lighter (about 3-4lbs), cheaper and simpler to maintain. Full suspensions are fun but with the extra pivots and moving parts there’s a lot more that can go wrong and need taking care of.


Full suspension

Full suspension bikes come in 4 varieties:

  1. XC which mean cross country. Typically 100mm of travel.
  2. Trail which is about 120-130mm of travel
  3. Enduro which is about 150mm of travel
  4. Downhill 180-210mm

As you go down this list the bikes get heavier as they are intended for progressively more rugged terrain with jumps and drops requiring the bikes to be stronger. Downhill bikes are only intended for riding downhill. They do not have gearing for riding uphill. They are heavy. You DO NOT want one of these.

Kids talk a lot about travel. Usually it is about more is better. While more travel makes for more fun on the downhills, we also ride up the hills we ride down. For the uphills less is more fun because there’s less to haul up the hill. Bikes with more travel are more forgiving; on the downhills you can just point and it’ll get you over the obstacles. With less travel you need to pick your line more and that will make you a better rider. For the riding we do, an XC bike is perfectly adequate and is what we recommend.

New bikes, like new cars, depreciate fast. If you are patient and look around you can get good deals on 1 year old bikes on Pinkbike, ebay or Craigslist, typically about half the manufacturer’s listed retail price. Older hardtails are a safe bet because the technology is more mature and there’s less to go wrong. Borrowing from what another high school team says, we suggest spending at least $1000 on a used bike or $1500 for a new one. That would be a 29-inch hard-tail.

It’s possible to spend a lot on a bike. My philosophy is that until you reach a certain level it’s the rider that makes the most difference and not the bike. What’s that certain level? In my book it’s being on the podium (top 5). To illustrate, here’s the bike the leader of the D1 division freshman was riding. If you are that good, and you can’t afford a really light bike for the big day, we’ll find one for you to borrow.

Some Examples

One rider rode a 2003 Specialized Stump Jumper Pro hardtail when in grades 7 and 8. It cost $400 on Craigslist, had 80mm travel, was light and he did the Junior Sea Otter on it. He also did G-line at Carlmont on it proving its more the rider than the bike. Moving into his Freshman year he bought a Scott Spark 700RC. Scott makes their bikes in 27.5-inch and 29-inch versions. The smaller wheel version have an extra 20mm of travel which was a compromise to have more fun on rougher trails and jumping, plus, it didn’t hurt that world champion Nino Schurter was winning races on it. This bike retailed at $7000, we found a year old one for $2900. I said that if there was in a chance to podium at the State Championships that we could beg steal or borrow a light hardtail, which we did.

Another rider started off on a relatively heavy trail bike. Mid-season he borrowed a coach’s old 2010 Specialized Epic S-Works. Old school 26-inch wheels but race proven. Over the winter he researched bikes, found a used 20lbs hardtail for $2000 and a trail bike for more fun for $2000.

Bicycle Upkeep

2-3 Chains ($30 each), and some key bearings ($100), depending on how much rain northern California gets during the season. Every other year, expect to replace the entire drivetrain ($250 to $500), and have the front fork serviced ($200). Mileage will vary according to your rider, weather, and bike, but these amounts get you in the ballpark.

To reduce maintenance, after every ride clean the bike. The stanchions, that’s the part of the forks that go in and out, should be wiped, especially clearing any dirt near the seals. If dirt gets in the seals it will start wearing the stanchions and then you’ll need a new fork which is expensive. If you’ve been out in the rain power wash the chain to get any dirt out. Dry with a cloth, oil and the wipe any excess oil off. Oil attracts dust which abrades the chain, wearing them out faster so resist the temptation to over oil. Fort Ord is the venue for the early season races; its very sandy, often wet, and thus very hard on the bike.


At a minimum, each rider must purchase his or her own Woodside Beasts mountain bike team jersey. Team jerseys are required for racing in the Norcal league.  Matching shorts are around $70. Shorts are worn next to the skin, no underwear as the point is to not have any seams chafing between the skin and the saddle. We do an order once a year though sometimes can do another later in the season depending on the vendor and numbers.

During the season, riders will likely need multiple sets of other cycling-specific clothing like jerseys, shorts, gloves, light wind and rain proof jacket, arm warmers, leg-warmers, socks, etc.  In general, it is usually a good idea to get a new pair of $30 gloves for your Rider every year, though in a pinch a $7.99 pair of construction gloves from the hardware store will work just fine if you are not too picky.

Winter clothes are important. Sometimes we end up on skyline so a minimal windproof jacket is vital to carry in the winter months. Sometimes it will rain so a rain jacket is even better. Also useful for wet cold winter days are water proof/resistant gloves; they make a big difference in keeping warm.

Avoid cotton as they don’t wick or dry when they get wet. Synthetics and layers are ideal.

A word on gloves. They are not there to provide padding when you hold the handlebars, though they do. They are not there to keep your fingers warm, though they can do that. They are there to protect your palm when you fall from the bike. Instinct means a falling rider will put their hand out and if there’s gravel there’s nothing worse than grit stuck in the palm of the hand. So we recommend gloves at all times. Some even say long fingered gloves for complete protection but I find that a bit warm for California except in the winter.


Even wily old cycling veterans replace their helmets every two years. Helmets degrade over time, and to maximize safety and take advantage of the latest technologies like MIPS, we recommend a new helmet at the beginning of the year, and a new one again two years later.


Clip in pedals are going to give the most efficient connection to your bike. It allows you to pull up on the pedal stroke as well as just pushing down. This engages more muscle groups for more speed or just to rest the quads. SPDs are the most common standard and are what’s available on the spin bikes we use.

Pictured above, three popular pedal brands; Crank Brothers, Shimano, Time.

There’s an argument to spend some time on flats to develop bike skills such a bunny jumps. This is because when clipped in riders pull up on the pedals to get the bike over obstacles rather than shifting weight. The down side of flats is that riders do not develop a smooth pedaling action, they have a tendency to only push down on the pedals rather than a full more efficient circular motion.


Any shoe that works with the pedals will do though racers tend to go with those with a stiffer sole rather than those that look like comfortable walking shoes. Every rider will fall over at least once when transitioning to clip in pedals. After a week or two clipping becomes a reflex action and then falling  rarely happens. Shoes cost anything from $100 to over $250. The good news is, unlike running shoes, they last several years.