First up, big thanks to Bryan from Alaska who messaged me off the back of a couple of test videos, asking for advice on which mountain bike to pick. Because while I sliced up a banana and waited for the toast to pop I realized that recently I've been answering questions like this in more and more esoteric ways. That’s because the performance of most bikes I test right now is so fundamentally sorted that it creates two issues. One is that most testers are now getting ridiculously ‘princess and the pea’ about what we’ll complain about to the point where Santa Cruz perhaps rightly called us out for it in its last ‘Roller Door’ podcast. The second is that, when we’re actually asked by real buyers rather than writing polished prose/turds for publication, what might seem like incidental details are the make or break on the deal.
So what should you think about beyond the usual travel/angles/material aspects when it comes to getting your perfect trail toy?
Back to Mr Alaska… He was kind enough to brighten up my toaster vigil with a selection of pictures. Some were incredible clips of a particularly minty northern lights display. The color was an almost exact match to one of the bikes he was considering buying so I suggested that was maybe as good a reason as any.
And I’m not being glib here, because what a bike looks like is, and always will be, perhaps the most important aspect of choosing a bike you’ll fall in love with. That was as true in the early 1990s when I was selling bright red GT Outposts faster than I could unbox them at a bike shop, to being disappointed yesterday that the fork with the worst decal mismatch I’ve seen in years ‘won’ the head to head testing I was doing.
Bryan also included a picture of a massive bear paw print which suggested big tire clearance might be an advantage if he was trying to ride away from being a grizzly snack rather than getting stuck in a rut. And tire/mud space, wheel size switcheroo or increased/decreased travel, UDH rear end or easy geometry adjust potential are definitely worth thinking about if you’re of an experimental nature. If you’re on a restricted budget you have to pay a lot of attention to brands sneaking in things like non-tapered head tubes, 142mm rear spacing or QR axles on frames/forks/wheels which put a hard ceiling on cost-effective upgrading. Even sneaking an NX or SX cassette onto a SRAM Eagle bike means you’ll have an old-school splined freehub on your wheel, not a more upgradeable XD driver.
However, what ended up making the likely difference in which bike will be riding round Alaska soon was that one of the bikes he picked benefits from outstanding ‘no questions asked’ warranty cover on bikes and wheels. When they introduced it they pretty much changed the game in terms of standing behind the customer, but the good news is that lots of other brands have followed them into the ‘lifetime warranty’ gang. And if you’re a rider who regularly breaks stuff, likes to have peace of mind when things get sketchy or will be keeping the bike for years, then that’s a massive deal potentially worth paying significantly more for.
If you’re a high mileage or foul weather rider, having a bike you can work on easily yourself is a serious advantage. High quality and/or serviceable bearings in suspension or wheels, screw-in not press-fit bottom brackets, cable/hose routing you can rethread without problems, easily removable e-MTB batteries, and so on might not be the sexiest or even prettiest design elements, but they’re massively important as the miles add up. After thinking it was a bit of an unnecessary weight-adding gimmick to start with, I’m now firmly on ‘team internal storage’. Well, as long as it’s done well enough to actually be useful in terms of easy spares/sausage roll stowing, not an awkward, undersized afterthought.
Regardless of official warranty or individual bike features, having a shop/brand that will stand behind you in the event of an issue is very important. That’s even more important with something like an e-MTB where having some sort of glitch with motor/battery/wiring is a when not an if, which is why I made sure to mention it when I updated our best e-MTB motor buyer's guide.
Super brands might be seen as ‘The Man’ compared to supporting a self-taught welder in a shed, but they can be very different to deal with. For example, a big company will have the resources to sort you out immediately with an issue but a small company might not have personal liability insurance or even CEN standard certification for their frame. That’s a big deal if it fails on you catastrophically and you get seriously injured or just want a bike to ride on ASAP. Alternatively, some small brands are brilliant at creating a super-supportive community that you’ll never find with a corporate.
Talking about community, don’t forget that the dealer you buy from can make a massive difference in how much you’ll get out of your bike and riding over the years compared to a degree either way of head angle or getting a GX rather than NX rear mech for the same money.
Another aspect that’s becoming more and more talked about throughout the rapidly overheating world is sustainability. Thankfully, that means increasing amounts of companies looking very hard at their raw material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging and shipping to reduce ecological impact. That means it’s easier to do your homework and find out who the responsible brands are and also which ones are investing in trail building, advocacy, education, overseas bike aid projects etc. Even things like serviceable rather than disposable bearings, steel frames versus carbon fiber, jackets with repair services or even plugging split tires and repairing punctured tubes all add up on a micro impact level.
And given that one of the most wonderful things about mountain biking is the natural playground we enjoy, we’re reflecting good ethics in our testing and reporting of new gear too, so we hope you agree it really matters. Because I want to keep getting random messages about bike choice with swirling skies and snowy bear prints in, not ones where the skies are burning and the snow has all melted.