What’s a good beginner mountain bike?
This is a question I get every day, so today I’m going to give you the tools you need
to find one, new or used, regardless of brand.
But first we need to define what a beginner bike is.
If you’re a beginner and you have unlimited money then this discussion is over.
Just go out and spend a bunch of money on a nice bike and you’re done.
But I suspect that most beginners are looking for the smallest financial commitment they
can make, while still getting a decent mountain bike.
This bike is decent enough to get you into big trouble, again and again.
Better yet, it’s on clearance for $329.
Yes, it’s a diamondback Overdrive and I ride for diamondback, but I want you to forget
about that today because Diamondback may not be available where you live, or you might
be looking at a used bike.
So today I want you to pretend this bike is colorless with no logos on it.
How do we objectively determine that it’s trailworthy just by examining it?
Let’s start with the most important indicator of a good mountain bike: the derailleur hanger.
If a mountain bike is equipped with a rear derailleur, it should be hung from the frame
by this little piece of metal, the hanger.
During a crash, the hanger is designed to break away to prevent damage to the frame.
It can then be realigned or replaced inexpensively.
That’s a lot better than throwing the whole bike in the garbage which is what you’ll
need to do if you break part of your frame.
So when examining a bike, be wary of band-aid solutions like this, or worse yet a derailleur
mounted directly to the frame.
Bikes like these could be one crash away from total destruction, and mountain biking is
all about crashing.
So a derailleur hanger is the very first thing you should look for to determine if a bike
Even the most entry level bikes will have a precision cut, purposeful looking derailleur
hanger right here.
So your examination should start, and possibly end with that.
The next important part to look for is a threadless stem, which you can identify by these pinch
bolts here, and these 4 bolts holding the handlebars on.
If instead you see this, it’s usually bad news.
To service or replace anything up front including the fork, you’ll be limited to unreliable
parts or vintage mountain bike parts which are hard to find.
Good luck tracking down a brand new mid 90’s suspension fork to replace your old one.
A threadless stem is not only easier and less costly to service, but it’s also more rigid.
This is not something you want to compromise on.
Moving on to the wheels, you need to make sure they have quick release levers.
These are common on entry level bikes, and they make it so you can remove or replace
the wheels by hand without any tools.
More importantly, they’re an indicator of the bike’s intended use.
When mountain biking flat tires are inevitable, so always carrying a 15mm wrench to remove
these nuts is problematic.
Worse yet, mountain bikes with nuts on the axles are nearly impossible to upgrade the
wheels on, and wheels are one of the things you’ll outgrow as you gain experience.
So on an entry level mountain bike you should look for quick release levers and if you see
nuts, stay away.
Next up is the crank and chainring assembly.
It should be modular and bolted together, not riveted together as one big piece.
I’m sure you can see the problem with that.
Break anything here, and you’re probably out the cost of your entire bike.
Sure you could drill out the rivets and fabricate something, so if that’s your thing then
good on you.
Otherwise, look for something you can actually wrench on.
The next thing you should look for are disc brakes on the front and rear.
Even cheap disc brakes are replaceable with better ones, which is important to note because
your bike needs to have the mountings points for them from the start.
More importantly disc brakes are dramatically more reliable than rim brakes, which is why
the mountain bike industry switched to them quickly and decisively decades ago.
Because a good mountain bike should be low maintenance and upgradeable, you should be
very suspicious of one that does not include disc brakes.
Finally, you need to ensure that the bike is available in different sizes, and that
the manufacturer actually offers some guidance as to what size you need.
This is as easy as using Google, a lost art.
Anyway if the manufacturer isn’t offering this information they probably don’t put
much thought into their bikes, and therefore you shouldn’t trust it to take you deep
into the woods.
I realize this indicator is less objective than the others, but at the very least, you
should get a bike that fits you.
Although there are many other indicators of a trailworthy bike, they’re largely irrelevant
if the bike in question doesn’t satisfy the requirements we just discussed.
So we’ll focus our attention now on what you can expect from an entry level bike like
this, and some of the things you can do to upgrade it.
First of all it’s important to note that almost all entry level mountain bikes will
be hardtails, or bikes without rear suspension.
The linkage required for rear suspension is costly and heavy, so it’s generally not
worth investing in until you start to breach the thousand dollar point.
For the sake of simplicity we’ll limit this discussion to hardtails.
Hardtails are fun and fast, so they’re great to start out on anyway.
But sub $500 hardtails are almost always XC, or cross country bikes.
XC bikes are optimized for pedaling and laying down power.
They’re fast, and easy to go long distances on.
But those advantages can hold you back when you start to dabble in freeride.
This is not to say that you can’t do a little jumping on an XC bike.
It’s just that jumps, drops, rock rolls, or any kind of prolonged descent is best done
on a trail bike.
This black hardtail next to Overdrive is a good example of a trail bike.
The raked out fork, aggressive angles, wide bars, longer travel, and shorter stem, make
it better for the kind of riding I do.
Since you can’t convert an XC bike to a trail bike or the other way around, you need
to be honest about what you intend on doing on your mountain bike before you buy one.
But if your budget is below $500, you’re getting an XC bike whether you like it or
So if you eventually take to jumping and throwing the bike around a bit more, you could feel
So here’s what I did to enhance the capabilities of my budget XC bike.
The biggest thing you can do, hands down, is change the tires.
When I threw these wider, knobbier tires on my Overdrive, it felt like a completely different
I was able to run these tires at a lower pressure, making them grippier and more forgiving.
But that’s not all I did.
You hear all that rattling?
That’s my chain slapping everywhere, and in fact it came off entirely on several drops
To remedy this I installed a chain guide, which virtually eliminated the problem.
This will cost you a lot less than upgrading your drivetrain, which could easily run you
as much as this bike.
If I were a beginner trying to progress as far as possible on this bike, I might upgrade
the pedals as well, and maybe the fork to something like this.
Venturing beyond that would not necessarily be economical, and considering a decent trailworthy
bike can hold its value well, you’d be better off selling it and upgrading the whole thing.
Finally, if you already have a bike and find that it fails some of these tests you can
still gain from this video.
If it’s currently working for you and you’re having fun on it, then keep shredding.
If you feel like it’s holding you back, you now have the tools to find something a
Still, we haven’t spoken about assembly, maintenance, or all the other upgrades you
So I’m sure you have questions.
With the help of my viewers, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments.
So find yourself a good beginner bike and enjoy it.
Because you’re only a year away from selling all your belongings and financing an irresponsibly
It happens to the best of us.
Thanks for riding with me today, and I’ll see you next time.