Self-quarantine, working from home and avoiding indoor spaces – like gyms – has driven many more people to seek outdoor exercise and recreation, especially as we move into summertime. To help readers out, I’m presenting a series of guides with tips for women interested in expanding their horizons and trying something new. Yesterday I covered a 2020 Buyer’s Guide to Road Bikes. Today we head to the mountains.
Mountain biking is more escapist than road riding in the sense that it allows you to leave the crowds, pavement – and cars – far behind, and disappear into the wilderness. In terms of technology, mountain biking has also changed far more dramatically in recent years, with improvements that have made riding off road, especially on more challenging technical trails and the growing number of purpose-built mountain bike parks and lift-served ski resort trail systems options, easier.
In general, you probably won’t spend as many hours in a relatively static position on a mountain bike as a road version, so perfect fit isn’t quite as important, but it still matters. As I mentioned yesterday, the cycling industry has generally moved away from women specific design, but it remains an argument whether this is a smart move or a profit-based decision. In either case, women are more affected by off-road trends, because while road bike sizing has remained standard for a long time, mountain bike wheels keep getting bigger, with more models aimed more at taller riders.
As with road bikes, if you do want a brand focused on women, Liv is the biggest and most widely available choice, well known for both quality and value proposition, from entry level to professional race quality. I described Liv’s woman-first ethos more in detail yesterday, but in a nutshell, Liv bikes are designed for women by women from the ground up, with a mostly female staff of full-time engineers and employees that designs and markets its products, offering a focus on solely what women want, including bikes, saddles, clothing and accessories. Yet it is owned by the world’s largest bicycle company, Giant, and as such, is sold at hundreds of Giant dealers nationwide. Right now, due to COVID-19, they are offering an online ordering and home delivery service in conjunction with brick and mortar retailers across the country: choose your bike online and at checkout you’ll see a list of retailers offering assembly by certified mechanics and free home delivery in your area.
However, there are many more mid-sized but still widely available brands in mountain biking than road, which is dominated by a few big players and a lot of niche ones. While the same big companies, Specialized, Trek, and Giant, all make quality mountain bikes, so do lots of companies that don’t do road bikes at all, such as Santa Cruz, Rocky Mountain, Marin (also gravel grinder style road bikes), while Juliana is a very well-regarded performance mountain bike brand aimed entirely at women, and has been doing women specific design since 1999.
Unlike road bikes (excepting gravel grinders), mountain bikes are segmented into several distinct categories based on intended use, terrain or riding style. Almost all feature suspension of some sort, which means a shock absorption system that allows the fork and often frame to absorb impact in a spring-like way, just like shock absorbers on a car. This is usually described/compared in terms of “travel,” or the distance the shock can compress. For instance, three inches of travel means that when you hit a rock or tree root, the fork compresses by up to three inches to absorb the impact. The more travel, the more reduction of shock and the easier it is to ride over big obstacles, but the more the bike weighs and the less efficient it is in terms of energy expended pedaling.
Bikes with only front fork suspension are known as hardtails, while most mountain bikes today are “full-suspension” or “dual suspension” models, meaning they have shocks in both the fork and the rear of the frame, somewhere under your center of body mass. In general, hardtails are the most efficient in terms of transferring energy from your legs to the tires, and are the best choice for less technical surfaces like dirt roads, rail trails and fire roads, and they climb more easily, though many full-suspension bikes today allow you to lock the rear suspension when climbing, which narrows the efficiency divide. Hardtails absolutely can be suited to very technical riding but require more skill when faced with lots of obstacles. Most people who regularly ride single track and technical trails in the woods, rather than paths, opt for full suspension and you definitely want it if you are going mainly downhill, such as riding at lift-served ski resort trails. From a practical perspective, hardtails are less expensive, lighter and lower maintenance. Entry level hardtails are generally 50-75% the cost of similar quality full suspension rides.
The main categories of mountain bikes are:
Cross Country or XC: Built for going fast, and as the name suggests, on rolling terrain that goes up, down and flat. These tend to be hardtails, and most have front shocks but less travel.
Trail Bikes: A more middle of the road take on XC and generally the best all-around choice for people who are riding in different places. These come in hardtails, but if you are new to mountain biking, you will likely want full-suspension, and these typically feature 4-6 inches of travel.
Enduro or All-Mountain: A downhill style full-suspension bike that has a lot of travel (6-7 inches) but is easier to pedal. If you are not racing this is the best choice only if you live in a hilly region with technical trails full of big obstacles and drop offs.
Downhill: For absorbing big hits and letting gravity move the wheels, the hardest/least efficient to pedal, the hardest to climb with, and ideally for those who only go downhill, like regulars at ski resort trails. Full suspension with around 8-inches of travel.
For most newcomers who expect to ride in a variety of places and increase challenges as they get experience, I’d recommend a full-suspension trail bike. This covers the biggest range of conditions and can handle just about every kind of riding with enough shock absorption while still being efficient enough to ride on dirt roads and such. But if you plan on mostly non-trail use, like a lot of dirt roads, bike paths, and a mix of urban, beach, fitness and commuting around town, get a hardtail trail or XC bike. Chances are if you do not already mountain bike you don’t want an enduro or downhill machine.
Unlike road bikes, a big choice is wheel size. For most of the history of mountain biking, 26-inch dimeter was standard. But then a much bigger 29-inch wheel was introduced, quickly became popular, and “29ers” seemed poised to take over the industry. The bigger wheels are more efficient in terms of taking you further down the trail with every pedal rotation, and get more momentum stability at speed, especially downhill, and can more easily go over bigger logs and obstacle. But the bikes are noticeably taller and were not popular with shorter riders. So along came a middle ground of 27.5, but as that gained popularity, the 26-inch “standard” all but vanished, so now 27.5 is the small and 29 the big option. There are definite performance pros and cons, though the gap has narrowed as designers got used to the newer wheel sizes, but the biggest determination is fit, driven by your height, and this is a much more important consideration for women. Shorter riders generally prefer 27.5” and taller riders 29” and most experts agree the cutoff is around 5’5”- 5’6”. Additionally, the bigger tires are heavier and accelerate more slowly but have better traction and handle obstacles more easily. The 27.5 accelerates faster, is lighter, and is nimbler or more maneuverable. Most women I know are going 27.5.
There are a couple of options popular on mountain bikes that are important. One is tubeless tires. These are also growing in popularity on road bikes but are a bigger thing off road, allowing you to run a lower tire pressure and get even more shock absorption without losing rolling efficiency. You get a better ride and fewer flats, but they are more expensive, hard to put on yourself (meaning more expensive trips to the shop) and you still need to carry a tube just in case. Generally, this isn’t really a choice – they either come on the bike (usually higher-end) or not, and while they can be a retrofit upgrade later, this is the most expensive way to go tubeless. I wouldn’t get worked up over the choice: if you are buying a higher-end bike and it has them already mounted, good for you, enjoy the better ride. If not, don’t sweat it, tubed tires have worked fine forever.
A more important option that may come on the bike, but if not, is worth an aftermarket upgrade, is a dropper seat post. Many avid riders consider this the biggest innovation since shocks. It is essentially a remote-control switch (on the handlebar) that let you drop the seat so it is out of the way when you ride technical terrain, obstacle and downhills. You typically do this out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, with your butt in the air, moving your body with the bike to vary your center of gravity. When you want to get low and back, the (undropped) seat is often in the way, which can be dangerous. With a dropper post it disappears, and when you are ready, the seat pops back up to its original height. It’ s safer and worth having and has become about the most popular aftermarket upgrade in trail riding, but now comes standard on better bikes.
Another option is a women specific saddle, which you will want, but likely will only come standard if you are buying a woman focused model like Liv or Juliana. Otherwise expect to spend another $80-$180.
Finally, as in road bikes, a big choice is the frame material, with carbon fiber being more expensive but offering the benefit of additional shock absorption dampening and a less jarring ride, while aluminum is rigid and harsher but can save you a substantial amount. In general, mountain bikes of similar quality are already more expensive than road bikes, and entry level for a quality aluminum hardtail is around a thousand bucks, while for both carbon frame and full suspension, it’s hard to find much quality under $2000. This spring Bicycle Magazine ran an article titled “The Best Mountain Bikes You Can Buy Right Now,” and most of the picks were over seven and eight grand, while the “Best Value Trail Bike” winner was a full suspension aluminum framed Marin Hawk Hill 1 at $1,600. I think the carbon upgrade is more important on a road bike, where you do not have shocks, and the beginner rider would be better off trading down to aluminum and up in components and shock quality. But it’s even better if you can have them all.
For a good example of this discrepancy, consider the 2020 Liv Intrigue 3, an excellent “starter” high-quality mountain bike with almost all the bells and whistles except carbon fiber. You get a no-compromise full suspension high-travel trail bike with a very well-made aluminum frame, with pre-mounted tubeless 27.5 tires, a dropper seat post, women’s saddle, and quality Rock Shox dual suspension and SRAM drivetrain. At just $2,100 it is hard to beat all those features and top shelf componentry with nothing left to add (expect pedals, which is the case with every bike). But if your budget allows, the Liv Intrigue Advanced 2 upgrades to an advanced composite (high-end carbon fiber) frame for about a thousand bucks more ($3,150). Either way, you get a lot of performance bang for the buck.