Finding the Right Ride

I have, time and time again, heard horror stories of women going to a bike shop with intentions of buying a new shred-sled and who wind up feeling dissatisfied or like they pulled the trigger too fast, ultimately because they couldn’t fully communicate their top priorities in a bike.

I know, for me personally, when I’m looking for a new bike my number one concern is always how it feels on trail. When explaining this to a shop employee, they look at me like *ok crazy lady* and ask, “Yeah, but what do you WANT out of it?!”

This idea of “how it feels” is very clear to me but worthless to a shop employee, who should know way more about the bikes on their floor than I do, and who wants to help me but doesn’t know how. Ultimately, it’s their job to help you find a bike that perfectly suits your needs. If we as consumers can’t communicate what we want, both us and the shop employee miss out on an opportunity to talk technically about bikes, and that’s not only a real waste of resource, but also just a sad shame.

Feel can be totally subjective from person to person. So this article will be entirely dedicated to giving better lingo or jargon for the different feels of a bike. Take these words and run with them. My best suggestion is to make a list of the words that best describe what you like in a bike and save it, so that on the glorious day that you decide to buy a new bike, you can confidently walk into your local bike shop and tell your walking bicyclopedia (aka - shop employee) EXACTLY what you want.

May you have many, many new bike days.

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Perhaps the biggest decision when buying a bike is deciding whether you want a long travel or a short travel bicycle. Short travel bikes generally range from 80mm of front suspension to 130 mm and are considered cross country (XC) or trail bikes. These are constructed specifically for efficiency and speed while climbing.  Long travel bikes are generally always full suspension bicycles (meaning that they have both a front fort and a rear shock) and the travel ranges from 140 mm to 200 mm most commonly.

Many first time bike buyers will search for something like the “one bike to rule them all,” then months later, wish they had gotten something a little more specialized to a style of riding within which they’d like to race. This isn’t to say that the one bike quiver is impossible, but it’s certainly made more difficult if you want to race XC and Enduro in the same season.

For those that don’t intend to race, a trail bike is typically recommended. These bikes are fully capable climbers, while also being playful enough to absorb the chunder on the descents.

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Lightweight generally refers to a cross country (XC) bicycle that’s built to race, or built to crush the uphills. These bikes generally are more expensive, and usually have a carbon frame. Lightweight bikes are not usually considered burly enough to handle chunky terrain (take Moab, for example) but are ideal for competitive cyclists who will be fighting for a first place finish on trail. Generally speaking, lightweight or XC bikes are sub 30 pounds. An XC race bike will usually have about 100 mm of front suspension and it is not uncommon for racers to opt for a hardtail bike over a full suspension simply for the weight savings. $3,000 is a cushy budget for those looking to get onto a top of the line, race worthy hardtail, while it might take up to another $1500 to get onto a full suspension XC bike with a similar build.

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A trail bike usually has about 120 to 150 mm of travel. These bikes are playful and can handle most terrain you will put it up to. They are the perfect blend of climbing and descending capabilities for riders who don’t value one over the other. This is usually the bike that an avid rider will choose if they can only afford one bike.

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An enduro bike is usually a more slacked out, long travel bike, built to take sweet jumps & to shred the days at the park. These bikes are as close as you can get to a downhill bike without completely eliminating climbing capabilities. Generally speaking, these bikes have 160 mm or more of travel in the front and tend to be on the heavier side. The extra weight is usually due to the meatier components: heavier front fork to absorb bigger hits, burlier brakes for more stopping power, reinforced frames bearing extra metal so that riders can rest assured that their equipment won’t fail them before their legs do. All of this isn’t to say that you can’t rake out the big bucks and find a spec’d out (nicer components), sub-30 pound enduro bike. What I am saying is that at the $3,000 price point, don’t be surprised if your enduro bike comes out to 32 pounds or more. (Which really shouldn’t be too much of a disadvantage if you are riding with descents in mind. Thanks, Gravity!)

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Headtube angle, bicycle, mtb, shredworthy

Slack or rake are both terms that describe the headtube angle, or how far out in front the fork and front wheel protrude from your bike. Generally speaking, a bike that is more slack will have bigger suspension (150mm+) and will feel more reachy. The more slack a bike is, the more downhill oriented it is. This isn’t to say that only downhill bikes are slack, because larger travel trail bikes can definitely be built slack as well.

Again, degrees of slack and rake are determined by headtube angle. The lower the number, the more slack. Look for a bike that is slack if you are looking for a rig that will shred the downhills. A downhill oriented bike might have a headtube angle between 67 to 63 degrees while a hardtail race bike might be between 68 and 73. The lower the headtube angle, the more slack the bike is. Coversly, the steeper the headtube angle is (higher number = steeper), the tighter the handling will become.

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The wheelbase of a bike is the distance between the contact patch on the front wheel to the contact patch on the rear wheel. The longer a wheel base, realistically, the more loft you will be able to put on the front wheel - making a bike a better technical climber. However, larger wheel bases are trickier in tight switchbacks, because the bike has so much more body to maneuver. It can be tough to determine if a longer or shorter wheelbase works best for you. Most people don’t consider it when looking for bikes, but I would encourage you to start paying attention. I think body position in relation to the center of the bike is incredibly important in technical riding, and can determine how well you’re able to maneuver the bike through tricky terrain.

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shredworthy, stack, rake, mountain bikes

The stack of a bike is the vertical distance from the bike’s bottom bracket to the center of the headtube. The reach of a bike is the horizontal distance between the two. Together, the stack and reach of a bike determine the frame size and can be most effectively chosen once you have been fitted to a bike.

If you have a bike that is fitted to you (i.e. on the bike, you have a 25 degree reach angle and roughly 25 to 35 degree bend in the knee at the front of your pedal stroke), refer to the spec page for your bike online and take note of the stack and reach. It may prove helpful to write down that information and take the it with you while you shop for your new bike.

Shop employees don’t usually dive this deep into fitting folks onto a bike (since they could just as easily sell you a bike, as well as a fit, then sell you parts to make the bike fit properly), and thus someone at a shop isn’t likely to take these measurements for you. What they might be willing to do, however, is look up the stack and reach of a particular bike you might be interested in. Then you can begin to look for the bike geometry that works for you (i.e. has a similar stack and reach to a bike that you know you feel good on).

If you have not yet been fitted to a bike that you own, I highly encourage the process. A little extra attention now can save you years of aches and pains down the line. Especially for people who ride 3 or more times a week, please consider a bike fit preventative care.

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I hope this loose guideline aids in the process of finding your dream rig. It can be a long road to find each other, but I truly believe your perfect ride is out there, just waiting for you to find it and shred it!