Having recently purchased a new Mountain Bike and another four or five in the garage I thought it was worth passing on my knowledge and experience to help any one looking to buy their first bike. I also rate magazines such as What Mountain Bike for honest and unbiased advice and recomendations. They have a great bike buying guide which rates all tyes of entry level right up to full on bikes in the multiple thousands of pounds.
Types of bike and how much to spend?
There are many types and styles of mountain bike but the basics are Rigid (no suspension) Hardtail (front suspension) and Full suspension ( suspension front and rear). Budget wise you should be looking to pay £500 plus for a Hardtail and £800 plus for a Full suspension bike if buying new. For this price range you will be getting a reasonable quality bike that will stand the test of time and be a worth while investment.
Mountain bikes come with three main different types of brakes which are Cable operated Rim brakes, Cable operated (mechanical) Disc Brakes and Hyraulic disc brakes. Cheaper bikes come with the old fashioned rim brakes which have several dissadvantages but are fine for cycling on road paths but will suffer when its wet and easily clog with mud when riding off road. They also rub on wheels that have even a slight buckle in the rim. Disc brakes are more expensive but work much better in the wet with hydraulic brakes being found on more expensive bikes.
Decent Hardtail bikes with front suspension start at £400 with typical branded forks by Suntour or similar, anything less probably isnt worth considering as horrible bouncy forks are no use if riding off road, a half decent set of front forks are going to cost at least £200 plus on their own. As with most things you get what you pay for and the new bike I purchased for £500 came with 80mm travel Suntour front forks which are nice on the road and on light trails but suffer on tree roots and dont really offer that much damping so you get to feelmuch of the bumps through your hands. In comparison my other bike which cost over £1000 has Marzocci Bomber 160mm forks and these work so well you dont even feel roots, steps and even big drops as they absorb everything so well.
It is important to find a bike that fits you correctly and mountain bike sizing guides can be found on the internet but even better is to try the bike before you buy. Sizing is usually measeured in the seat tube height from the centre of the crank to the top of the seat tube, this then is refected in the dimensions of the other main tubes in the frame. As a rough guide for 26 inch wheeled adult bikes a frame of 14 to 15 inches would be quite small and suit some one about 5 'to 5'3 a 17 or 18 inch would be a medium and like me suit a 5'8 or 5'9 nicely and a 20 inch would be a large for a 6 footer.
What about cheap budget bikes?
I have seen so many rubbish budget bikes end up discarded due to small mechanical failures which are not worth fixing or cannot be fixed that I would advise any one to think a bit before buying a cheap new mountain bike for around £100 or less. What are you actually getting? If you take out the VAT at 20% and the dealers profit the actual bike probably cost £20 from a factory in China so be warned.
Think about it like this - if you are buying a bike with the intention of riding it quite a bit and you buy one for £100 what if it breaks after a year? You may end up leaving it in the shed or throwing it away (if it lasts that long) or you may just get sick of it. If you buy a decent one and can afford say £400 or £500 you will most probably enjoy riding it more as its nicer to ride and feels better, has a much cooler image and if it needs fettling it is worth spending some money on. When you come to sell it it will still have a value of say half what you paid after a few years. Also a well known branded bike can be fixed by your local cycle shop where a Ling Long bike is going to much harder to repair because of parts availabilily or it may be impossible to repair economically.
Buying second hand.
Decent used mountain bikes are a plenty on Ebay so you can choose from loads in your local area, I have sold many bikes for £40 - £100 that have been really good bikes for the money but try and avoid anything that had been abused or neglected. I would look for a well known make and a bike that has been looked after or had little.
Like buying a car it is worth taking some one with you knows a bit about bikes if you dont. A good start is to look at what brands are being sold in your local shops, for example Carrera (Halfords) Specilazed and Trek are three of the most popular brands in the UK and you are never going to be too far away from a shop that sells these bikes, I have owned all three and they are all very good for a first bike. I would recommend buying local and trying the bike before buying.
Things to look for when buying second hand.
Wheels and tyres. Are the wheels buckled and do the tyres need replacing? They may have loads of tread but be old and perished however wheels with minor wobbles can be trued and tyres are cheap to replace.
Frame. Does the frame have any cracks or damage, alloy frames are lighter but are more prone to damage than steel frames.
Brakes. Do the front and rear barkes work and do they release smoothly, cables need to be lubricated now and then and caliper brakes can sieze up with neglect. Disc brakes may need new brake pads so have a look inside the caliper and see if you can see any materiealon the brake pads, they only have a few mm new so don't expect to see a huge amount.
Pedals and Gears.The pedals rotate on a crank with bearings and these need servicing and adjusting, spin the pedals and feel if there is any grinding as they should be silky smooth and there should not be any play ir slack in the crank when you rock it up and down. The gaers should be easy to select and swap cogs smoothly.
Headset. Same goes for the headset (steering) this should be smooth and free of play.
Servicing and repair.
Local bike shops usually offer a range of servicing from a basic level or Bronze, middle or Silver and full service or Gold level. A gold service may well cost over £100 but the bike will be stripped and rebuilt like new with any parts charged extra. If I were buying a second hand bike that was four or five years old I would certainly consider the full service as this would ensure the bike was safe and return the bike like new again ensuring I would get the most out of it.