What I learned from upgrading my first bike
Sometimes I think about the mountain bikes I rode as a kid. What I remember most is how loud they were. Something always rattled. Growing up I never had a full suspension bike, just a front shock that was barely better than a hard fork. I think it was 8 speeds with grip shift. I also had those weird handlebar horns that came off the end.
Today's bikes are light years ahead of the 80s and 90s. With dozens of frame and component options, it can be hard to decide what direction to take when upgrading into a modern mountain bike. I'll break down the critical areas to think about when choosing your first upgrade.
1. What kind of terrain do you ride 90% of the time?
I live in Salt Lake City. This means 90% of my rides are not super technical. 10% of the time I'm in Moab or other red rock country. I wanted to optimize for the 90% rather than worry about the few times I had something technical to deal with. I realize "technical" is subjective. So for our purposes we'll just assume that technical means lots of obstacles, drops, and features. Knowing what kind of terrain you are dealing with will help guide you on frame geometry and suspension requirements.
For the average rider I recommend looking at somewhere between 120-150mm of rear travel. This usually puts you in the all mountain bike range rather than Enduro or pure X-country. Identify early on how much travel you need so you can filter out bike options that will just distract you.
Geometry is a bit more subjective. It depends on your preferred stance. The majority of bike frames around the world are produced in a small handful of factories. They differentiate based on geometry and some proprietary rear suspension options like Yeti's Switch Infinity. Once you understand your stance, you can again filter out a bunch of options.
2. Be honest about your budget
This sounds like common sense, but it's easy to allow budget creep when you start looking at options. Today's bikes are engineering marvels and as you go up the food chain in price you'll be amazed at what you can get. However, the majority of modern frames and components are so good that most riders aren't going to notice some of the finer things you get at higher price points. In my experience, the sweet spot is $2500-$4500. In this range you will find bikes with dropper posts, full suspension, 1x drivetrains and more. As you scale beyond that it's mostly about weight and certain component levels. You can also buy used bikes that are lightly ridden with all of those features for less. Just stick to what you can reasonably afford. There's going to be an option you like in your price range.
3. Identify your "must have" feature
This is another great filter. For me it's the dropper post. You can buy these separately but it's nice to have one installed, especially as modern frames hide the wires and make things harder to build. If the bike you are looking at doesn't have your favorite feature, move on.
4. Wheel size makes a difference
27.5" or 29"? For me I went up to 29" as I liked the added rollover and stability. Some might want to go 27.5" for the added agility. Your body size should also influence this.
5. Carbon vs. Alloy
Lighter bikes are a joy to ride when climbing. I notice less of a difference on the descent. It's tough to accept that saving 5lbs on a bike might cost you an extra $2-3k. Alloy bikes are fun to ride and super durable. Don't let carbon junkies convince you it's necessary. (Full disclosure I went with carbon 😀)
After making some of these decisions before looking at any bikes, you should have something like this:
"I want an all mountain bike with 130" of rear travel, an aggressive stance, seat dropper post, 29" wheels and carbon frame and my budget is $3k". This is going to make your search so much easier as you can filter out lots of options before you even get started. After doing your research online, try to narrow it down to 1-2 brands, find the local shop that reps it, and rent them for 1/2 days. Usually you can apply the fee to your purchase. In the end, modern bike brands are incredible. As long as it fits your criteria there's a super high chance you'll love it.
I ended up with a Yeti SB130 and I've loved every ride. Good luck with your search!