Choosing which bike to spend your hard-earned cash on can be a tricky process: reading through the options, reviews and opinions online, working out how much to spend – there's lots to think about, and it's not something you want to get wrong.
Unfortunately, sometimes it happens, as I can attest to. Luckily I've learned from my mistakes, and you can too.
I’m going to be honest – I have on occasion royally messed up my bike purchases. I’ve spent a lot of money on a bike that, frankly, wasn’t at all right for me, and I’ve suffered as a result.
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While we on BikeRadar are in the business of testing bikes (and many other bike-related products) and gauging how good they are, there’s an essential piece of the equation that we can’t help with, and that’s you, dear reader. While we can say that this bike is great at cornering, or is stable at speed, or brilliantly stable on descents, or perhaps is a great climber but not quite so stable at descents, and we can make recommendations as to what it's best suited to, the final decision on which bike is right for you and how you’re going to use it rests on... you.
And it’s all too easy to get carried away with what you think you need and want, and get something that doesn’t really work.
I’ve done this myself. My first brand new full suspension bike, after going through several second hand bikes, was a Lapierre Spicy. It is, by all accounts, a great bike. Ex-BikeRadar staffer James Huang loved his.
I don't even have any great pictures of me on on the Spicy, which is probably quite telling...
I didn’t get on with it at all. It made me feel like a terrible rider, and like my bike-handling skills were actually going backwards. And here’s why.
There are a few key things things you should probably take into account when you’re choosing your next mountain bike, over and above the bike reviews and buyer’s guides you’ll be reading. Those are: what your skill level is, and where you’re actually going to be riding the bike most. Last but not least, take the damn bike for a test ride, ideally on similar ground to your regular trails.
Mistake 1: Test your ride
I’d not been riding that long when I bought the Spicy – only a year or so – and living in central London (and not being able to drive) meant that I only rode sporadically. A weekend in the Lake District here, a few days in South Wales there. I had a trip to the Swiss Alps coming up that I was particularly excited about. But I did the vast majority of my riding in Berkshire, on the relatively flat but fun trails around Swinley Forest.
I bought the Spicy, a 160mm all-mountain bike, as I thought it would be ideal for my Alpine trip, and on paper it should have been. It’s scored consistently highly on magazine and online reviews, it’s got plenty of travel and a suspension system that’s noted for its stability, and is described as a ‘speed friendly bike’. Relaxed geometry, great spec... perfect, I thought.
So I ordered it in. First mistake: not test riding it properly.
Mistake 2: Too much bike
Second mistake: not taking into account my skill levels. I’d only been riding a 120mm-travel trail bike up until this point, and doing okay with it. But I wasn’t a confident rider, and frankly speed wasn’t something that came naturally.
The Spicy is a bike that was designed to flow through trails as the rider shifts his or her bodyweight. I was still at the stage where I rode slowly and steering by just turning the bars, and the Spicy was not happy with that method. As a result, I found corners and berms hard to impossible, and ended rides deeply frustrated with myself – though I have to concede that it felt great on rocky steep stuff.
It was also way too much bike for riding around Swinley Forest. The trails are mostly flat or undulating, with some tight sections through trees, and not much in the way of technical features. The relatively heavy Spicy was hard work on the flat compared to my old, lighter second-hand steeds, sucked all the fun out of the undulating terrain, and wasn’t challenged in any way by the technical features.
Mistake 3: Location, location, location
This was the third mistake – not taking into account where I’d be riding the bike the bulk of the time.
This is where you need to be honest with yourself. Yes, you may have grand visions of riding down vast, rock-strewn alpine descents, but if you actually do most of your riding around trail centres or short, tight and twisty woods with lots of pedalling, you may find that the bike you’ve been lusting after actually kills the trail dead. On that note, I wasn’t the only person seriously over-biked riding around those trails.
I learned my lesson, though. My next bike purchase after the Spicy was a Juliana Furtado. It comes with 130mm of travel but I bunged a 140mm RockShox fork on the front which slackened things off a little and gave me a little more travel to play with, and I bought it after an extensive test ride in the beautifully rocky Peak District, the kind of terrain I was riding lots of by that stage.
My beloved Juliana Furtado, riding through mountains in Scotland. When you get the right bike, the difference it makes is phenomenal. This was the right bike at the right time for me - though we've now parted ways and she's gone on to a new home
The difference it made was phenomenal. Riding local trails became fun again. My speed starting creeping up almost without my noticing it because I was enjoying myself. With increased confidence came the impetus to try more technical terrain, and I learned that though I didn’t have quite as much travel, with good body positioning and the right technique, both the bike and I could handle more than I’d expected possible on a trail bike.
So my advice now is to make sure you have a long, hard and realistic think about what you really want from a bike before parting from your hard-earned cash, and don’t discount short travel trail bikes if you’re looking to progress or take on bigger terrain. Advances in bike design and technology mean that these bikes can take on far more rugged terrain than their suspension travel alone would suggest.
Don’t just take my word for it; there’s a whole crop of short-travel trail bikes popping up at the moment, such as the updated Santa Cruz Tallboy or the new YT Jeffsy, designed expressly to make your local rides fun again.
Of course, this isn’t really an issue for riders who can afford whole stablefuls of bikes, but not everyone can take the N+1 approach to bicycle ownership.
It’s not an easy choice, I’ll give you that, but I reckon if you’ve only got the moolah for just one bike, get the bike that’s going to mean the most fun, most of the time. And that might not be that mouthwatering new 160mm travel all-mountain beast you’ve been eyeing up.