Bike Buying 101 in 2021
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
Which bike should I buy??? This seems to be the question of the year. With a combined 20+ years in the bike industry, working closely with most of the major bike brands, our crew thought it was high time to help a sister out when making this big decision.
Bike demand is the highest it’s EVER been and new bikes are being backordered 6 months-1 year right now. This demand is creating a higher than normal cost for used bikes and hard-to-get new bikes. Be patient and hang on to your old bike until you get your hands on a new one.
Many bike parts are almost impossible to order right now. If you purchased a second hand bike, be SURE it doesn’t need major work done to it, as you may get stuck with a broken bike and a long/expensive wait to fix it.
Generally stay away from models made prior to 2015. Bike industry standards have changed drastically since this year, and it can be challenging to get parts.
"It's not what you ride, it's how much you enjoy riding it!"
Tubeless or bust! Just trust me. You want a bike that is either already tubeless, or can be setup that way. I’ll save my explanation for another post.
Do yourself a HUGE favor and invest in a dropper post. There really is no reason anymore to forgo this feature on mountain bikes. If your bike doesn't already have one, even an inexpensive seat dropper post will make lightyears of difference to your riding - just remember to use it! (Seated and pedaling? Post should be up. Standing and cruising or descending? Drop your seat down.)
1x (or "one-by") gearing is the way to go. A single chainring up front means less mechanicals (i.e. less $$$ spent on repairs), less weight, and easier decision making like, "What gear am I in?!" I won't go into the math, but most 1x drivetrains will have a similar range to a 2x or 3x drivetrain.
Weight isn't everything, but it is something. The heavier your bike is, the more energy it takes to move it, and extra weight can make a ride more challenging. While a super light bike might be easier to pedal, it doesn't always translate to a better experience...plus, not many of us have a few extra grand lying around to get a top-dollar ultra light bike. Don't sweat the social pressure to have a carbon frame and ultra-awesome everything. It's not what you ride, it's how much you enjoy riding it!
Support your local bike shop! I cannot stress enough how important this relationship is. Local bike shops are the beating heart of this sport and their professional staff probably know more and can be of better help than your husband/boyfriend.
Speaking of, when you get your new bike, occasionally find someone to ride with who isn’t your partner. You can thank me later.
Bike Jargon in this post:
Travel: The amount of suspension on a bike. Measured in millimeters. I will refer to bikes in front/rear suspension measurements (e.g. 150mm/140mm). 100mm is about 4 inches.
Front: Front suspension or the “fork”.
Rear: Rear suspension, or the “rear shock”.
Carbon/Alloy: The material bike frames/components are most frequently made of. Carbon = a bit lighter/deadens small frequency vibrations/more expensive. Alloy= more affordable/harsher ride/will dent before cracking (there is NOTHING wrong with an alloy frame, in fact, I'm a big fan!)
Drivetrain: The rear cassette (gears), chainring, chain, and mechanical parts that propel the bike forward when you pedal.
29er/27.5/26 Inch Wheels: Refers to wheel diameter
What size frame? Bike frames cannot be adjusted! It is incredibly important to get a frame that fits you...you can always make adjustments like handlebar width/stem length down the road to fine-tune your fit.
Read the recommended sizing for each specific bike (sizing can be very different across brands/models).
Compare bikes available to you and take note of reach/top tube/standover measurements when a bike feels like it fits...then look for models with similar specs.
Where do you find sizing information? If you have the exact model/year/size of the bike, just enter that info into Google...either the manufacturer's website or sites like Bicycle Blue Book will likely show up in results.
What size wheels, 27.5 or 29er? You can't go wrong with either, just don’t get anything with 26 inch wheels (finding parts could be very difficult, and it will likely ride like caca due to the bike’s age). Bicycle technology improves every year, just like computers, and you wouldn't want to buy a 10-year-old laptop.
Bikes with 29er wheels used to be ideal for a very specific type of bike and rider. Remember what I said about bike technology? 29ers are now capable of ALL riding styles and generally roll over obstacles easier than 27.5 inch wheels. They technically are “faster” over long distances because, maths.
27.5 wheels (sometimes referred to as 650b) rotate faster and are more nimble and playful feeling than 29ers. Due to less material in the rim and tire, they are also a bit lighter. A 27.5 setup is seen on downhill bikes more often than 29ers because they respond to rider input more readily. My 5’2 wife generally prefers 27.5 wheels unless she is XC racing. I prefer 29er always.
A note on plus tire and fat bikes: Great for casual riding (and snow) and very forgiving. Bigger tires = more weight. More weight = harder to pedal. I wouldn’t recommend buying a fat bike unless you plan to exclusively ride it in snow, but I think plus tires are really fun and confidence inspiring if you don’t care about additional weight.
What type of bike? Mountain bikes are as varied as car models. No joke. There is a difference between an ultra-XC oriented bike (think Ferrari) and a downhill-specific bike (think off-road Jeep). You wouldn’t take a Ferrari on a fire road just like you wouldn’t drive a Jeep in a the Indy 500.
Hardtail: Various front travel, no rear suspension. A great mtb for new & experienced riders - less suspension means less things to break, and less money!
Pros: More cost effective, easier to maintain, generally lighter than full suspension. A bonus is that no rear suspension means you'll be forced to improve your skills, which is a good thing!
Cons: A rougher ride. Many hardtail models are lower-end and often are built with less durable/heavier components.
Buy if: You are new to biking and don't want to commit the $ for a full-suspension bike.
Personal note: My first mountain bike was a hardtail and I LOVED it. I would start on a hardtail again in a heartbeat. I still own one and enjoy XC rides and bikepacking with my hardtail.
XC: 120mm of travel or less. Almost always 29er. Often made of carbon/light components.
Pros: Lightweight, great for climbing, fun & fast!
Cons: Not the best suited for technical terrain/downhill, a bit more fragile due to lighter components and thus more prone to mechanical failures/breakage.
Buy if: Weight is important to you, you prefer speed and fast climbing over technical riding & descending...oh, or if you plan to race XC.
Personal note: XC bikes tend to have steeper seat and head tube angles (see a future post from us for "what the hell a head tube angle is"), which isn't a problem until you start riding technical terrain going downhill. Not planning on much technical downhill riding? Great! XC bikes are totally appropriate for the vast majority of beginner and intermediate trails in the US.
Trail: 130mm-160mm of travel. The “do everything” bike...this is the biggest category that most models fall into. I could write a whole post just on the differences between various trail bikes, but here’s the quick & dirty:
Pros: Capable of handling most trail conditions. Less need for multiple bikes.
Cons: Good at everything, not great for any one thing.
Buy if: You ride for riding’s sake!
Personal note: My favorite bike is a trail bike (140mm front/130mm rear) and I ride it everywhere from strider-friendly XC trails to big descents with drops & extremely technical terrain. I'm a competent rider who doesn't care about being the fastest up or down, so a "jill-of-all-trades, master-of-none" approach to my steed works for me!
Enduro: 150mm-170mm of travel. Enduro bikes are technically part of the “trail” category but are geared toward long climbs/descents and tend to have more travel and a burlier build.
Pros: GREAT for big mountain riding (think Colorado/Pacific Northwest/Canada). Capable climbing, and built for fast/sendy descents.
Cons: Tend to be heavier. Can be a lot of bike if you aren’t riding big mountains.
Buy if: You like riding downhill (and I’m talking BIG downhill, not just down-the-hill) but want something that can climb decently.
Personal note: I've come across many riders who prefer the "plushness" of an enduro bike. The bigger travel and slacker geometry means more squish and a more forgiving trail experience. Just because you aren't planning to ride enduro style trails doesn't mean you can't enjoy the perks of an enduro style bike.
Downhill or DH: 160+mm of travel. Suited for bike parks/shuttles with big fast descents. Often made of alloy for durability and forgiveness when jumping.
Pros: Gobbles up rocks/terrain, geometry designed for descending/jumping, sooooo squishy!
Cons: Heavy and not recommended for rides requiring pedaling.
Buy if: You plan to ride at the bike park or race DH. I’ve talked to many pro-level riders and many of them prefer an “Enduro” style bike, even at the bike park and when racing. DH bikes are a LOT of bike for all but the most serious of DH riders.
What brand should I buy? There are so many incredible brands out there, it's hard to wrap my head around them all. Lucky for everyone, the industry is so competitive that crappy bikes simply do not survive. So rest assured that whatever label is on your frame, the bike is very likely a marvel of modern technology.
Worth re-stating that there aren't really any brands that are inherently "the best" in terms of product...but there sure as hell are differences in a company's commitment to women, LGBQT+ and BIPOC communities if you care about that kind of thing. Companies like Specialized have been supporting these communities for years.
Check out the website of the brand you are buying. Does it speak to you? Do you feel good about the athletes/programs/ambassadors that brand supports? Are there women represented in their social media and marketing?
I will often suggest folks purchase a bike based on fit, function, and (seriously) color. If you don't like the color how can we expect you to want to ride it?! Haha.
A few fun, women-specific facts about bike brands that I've learned over the years:
Ibis bikes are all designed by head designer Roxy Lo. Roxy is an all around awesome human and insanely talented.
Pivot Cycles was started by a husband/wife duo and their bikes have always been designed with a smaller rider in mind. Plus Cindy is such a boss babe and so nice!
Jamis bikes is run by Carine Joannou, a legendary female trail blazer in the industry.
Giant Bikes (parent company of Liv and manufacturer of more bikes than any company in the world) is run by Bonnie Tu, making her the most powerful person in cycling.
Do I need a women's-specific bike? Short answer? No. You need a bike that fits you properly and is capable of handling the trails you enjoy riding. But you know what? Why not support a brand that bases their entire business model on supporting women? Women's-specific brands mean more dedicated support for female athletes, female ambassadors, female-focused community programs, female employees, and female riders. If that doesn't stoke you on Liv & Juliana, just go ride one of their bikes. They are freaking awesome.
(PS- Yes, Liv is actually women's-specific. I used to work for them and personally helped develop their current line of bikes.)
Where should I buy a bike? There is no correct answer for this, as everyone's situation is different. There are however a few things to watch out for that I will address below!
Local Bike Shop (LBS): Check out your LBS and pay attention to how you feel during your visit. Do you feel good? No? Go shopping for another LBS until you find a place that gives you the warm fuzzies.
Pros: Professional staff - A good shop will set you up with a bike that fits, is suitable for your riding style/preferences, and usually has a bike maintenance program for bikes purchased from the shop. BONUS: New bikes purchased from an LBS will often have great manufacturer warranties that used bikes will not have.
Cons: New bikes are inherently more expensive. Sometimes it can be hard to find an LBS that really "gets you".
Buy from here if: You want a great bike warranty, maintenance program, and professional advice.
Personal note: I'll often suggest upgrading immediately if you can afford it and know you are committed to your new sport. One decent bike over a few years is less expensive than an entry level bike followed by wanting to purchase a new bike a season later.
Walmart/Box Stores: THOSE ARE NOT BIKES, THEY ARE DEATH TRAPS. While these bikes might be fine for getting around town, I don't recommend mountain biking on a department store bike.
Craigslist: JUST NO. Almost everything here is sketchy, stolen, or crap. There are a few exceptions, but I wouldn't bother.
Facebook Marketplace: Tread carefully. A small step above Craigslist, but full of the same pitfalls. Bonus is that the seller has a profile, so you can at least ascertain if they're a creep.
Facebook Groups: A better option, especially if sale is posted in a reputable group.
Pros: Group members & posts are often vetted. Bikes sold on groups tend to be of higher quality.
Cons: Hard to judge if a bike is mechanically sound just from a post. Check out the bike thoroughly in person with a knowledgable friend before you buy.
Buy from here if: You feel comfortable buying second-hand and the seller appears to be legit.
Personal note: I sell bikes on FB groups, and know a lot of rad folks who sell quality bikes here too. Just use sound judgement when purchasing.
Pinkbike: A massive online community with a nifty bike sale feature.
Pros: A lot of nice bikes from reputable folks are sold on Pinkbike. Buyers often have profiles that you can check out previous sales/comments.
Cons: Some stolen bikes end up here. You cannot look over or try the bike if you are purchasing from someone out of area. Many bikes require buyer to pay for shipping.
Buy from here if: You feel comfortable taking the risk of buying before you try or buying second hand.
Personal note: I sell/buy bikes on Pinkbike too. My wife is a professional mechanic and I work in the industry, so I make sure I feel extremely confident when making a purchase.
Online Direct-to-Consumer: Manufacturers who sell their new bikes directly to you.
Pros: Price points tend to be lower. A lot of high quality bikes are sold DTC.
Cons: Are you a professional mechanic? Are you willing to pay one to build and maintain your bike ($200-$1,000+ over the course of a bike's lifetime). If the answer is "no" to both of these, stick with a LBS when buying a new bike. Also, warranties might be sub-par or non-existent for these bikes.
Buy from here if: You are a professional mechanic or are happy to pay for one.
Personal note: I cannot stress enough how important it is to invest in a professional mechanic if you buy a new bike directly online. An improperly built/maintained bike can cause serious injury at worst, and at best, can be very expensive to fix/replace.
Everywhere else: I'm realizing I need a stand-alone post for this subject. TBA.
How much should I spend? However much you can afford.
For the sake of brevity, I'll talk about price in terms of brand new full-suspension trail bikes.
$1,500 - $2,500: Full suspension bikes less than this mean you are purchasing some pretty low quality/sketchy components. There are some perfectly capable and quality bikes in the $1,500+ price range.
$2,500+ - $3,500: A great first-time bike price point if you can afford it. A bike in this range is often capable enough of progressing with you as you develop skills and tackle more technical terrain. Components will be higher quality (less prone to break) and the overall feel of the bike will likely be better than something less expensive.
$3,500+ - $5,500: This is the "most bang for your buck" you are going to find in terms of quality components, great features, and capable ride. This is my most recommended price point (again, if you can afford it.)
Over $5,500: Generally speaking, there are diminishing gains in the benefits of a bike once over 5k big ones. Yes, the components will get better, the bike lighter, the squish squishier...it will be AWESOME, but you will be paying a premium for all that awesomeness. I ride a $12,000 bike (yes, I realize that is INSANE, but it is literally my job to ride and I spend all of my time and money on bikes because i'm obsessed.) I would never spend that much on a bike if it wasn't part of/paid for by my work and yes, I am incredibly spoiled to have carbon everything, sexy AF wheels, and electronic components...but you know what? I love riding and get as much joy from my ridiculously expensive bike as much as I did on my first $500 second-hand hardtail.
So you do you girl.
Comments? Questions? Stoke? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!