Choosing a new mid-range hardtail mountain bike for single-track trails

Last week I went mountain biking with some of the guys in the running club that I belong to (quite a few of the runners are duo- or tri-athletes… not me though!). I had a fantastic evening blasting around the woods and even managed to get both wheels off the ground on one of the jumps – not bad considering I was on my fourteen year old Trek 830 and very out of practice.

My bike has served me well but it has no suspension and is fitted with road tyres – these days it’s better suited to a quick trip to the shops, or towing my son around a country park on a connector bar so I decided to buy something with a little more… va va voom… for summer evenings on cross country trails.

The trouble is, I don’t know a huge amount about mountain bikes, so I needed to learn – and learn fast. This post is sharing some of what I discovered.

  1. First up, was to determine my budget – it’s no good comparing bikes that are completely different.  I also decided that I wanted a 26″ bike – I’m told 29ers are great for going fast – and if you’re tall – but I’m not! Also, hardtail (front suspension only) seemed appropriate for my type of riding – full suss (full suspension) bikes are really for more hardcore guys taking on board some serious downhill runs.
  2. Nothing beats testing bikes before committing and I found that most of the shops near me were really helpful and happy for me to have a short ride – either in the car park/up and down the street or even further, leaving behind my driving license and car keys as security.  I’m not sure they would have been so happy if I took the bike up to the woods for a real test, but it’s enough to get some idea.
  3. With one exception (Evans Cycles in Milton Keynes), where the sales guy spoke so quickly I struggled to keep up (and talked at me, rather than listening), I was able to pick up some good tips – Trek’s Milton Keynes store were particularly helpful, as were Roy Pink in Newport Pagnell and Leisure Lakes in Daventry – and I got some good advice to help me through the minefield of component names.
  4. For Shimano (I’m told that) Deore is the starting point for mid-range gear, with SLX, XT, and XTR rising up the spec sheet. Similarly, for components with a number, higher is better (e.g. a Shimano M525 hub is better than an M475). I was also told that there’s a argument to get higher-spec shifters because dérailleurs get smashed and replaced… shifters tend not to. None of the bikes I seriously considered had SRAM components (although I did have a quick look at bikes from Boardman, Whyte and Cube that do) so I’m not sure how they compare, but I did have to weigh up the Avid Elixir brakes against the Shimanos – all I could do there was take advice – and any of them will stop me a lot more quickly than the calliper brakes on my current bike!
  5. As for gears, 30-speed seems to be the norm these days, with most of the bikes I considered running a Shimano HG62-10 11-36 cassette (11 is the number of teeth on the smallest cog, 36 on the largest) with a 42/32/24 crank seeming to be fairly standard up front).
  6. I’m sure I should have learned about handlebars, stems, headsets and grips – but I didn’t. I stuck with the essentials – and what was comfortable/looked good (although I’ll probably look to replace the pedals pretty quickly).

After a few days of Internet trawling and shop visits, my shortlist was:

All of these are good 26″ mountain bikes and all weigh about the same, although the Talon and the Spesh are, arguably, a level down from the other four. My heart fancied the Cannondale, but my head said Trek so I decided to score the bikes against one another using a simple system whereby I assigned points for each component – for example, Rock Shox Recon Silver TK forks got 1 point, Silver with Remote Lockout got 2, and Rock Shox Reba Gold RL got 3. Similarly, Shimano SLX shifters scored more than Deores, etc. Then, add up the totals and see how the bikes compare.

After that assessment the decision was clear – the Trek 6500 is head and shoulders above the rest (especially the Cannondale) when it comes to spec. and I read that the frame/fork combination is the most important selection – other components can be upgraded later. On that front Trek offers a limited lifetime warranty on its frames, so they obviously believe in the quality (and I’ve been really happy with my 830).

I’ve now ordered my Trek 6500 and, hopefully, it should be with me in a few days time.

Now I can’t wait pick up the new bike and get out onto some decent single track…