The Ideal Confidence Inspiring Mountain Bike!

I just received a great question from a newsletter subscriber: “Hi Gene, I’ve been following your blog posts and emails. After recently moving and having to sell my old hardtail, I am now in the market for a new mountain bike. I would like to get one that would be ideal for improving my skills. I don’t care much about performance at this point. I know from you that wider tires, shorter stem, wider bars and an adjustable seat post, all improve confidence and control, and I’ll make sure I get all of these. But since I am not dealing with an existing bike that I’m riding — since I’m in the situation where I can pick any kind of mountain bike — which characteristics would you recommend? E.g. large vs short wheelbase; what kind of suspension and how much travel; type of breaks; size of frame (go smaller, go bigger), etc. Thanks! Alon

A lot of this really depends on the goal/s of the rider and Alon gave me his goal/s: “…ideal for improving my skills. I don’t care much about performance at this point.”.  So we will go from there.

Unless you are a cross country racer and/or really care about being as absolutely fast as you can on climbs I feel most riders would greatly benefit from a 5 or 6″ travel “all-mountain bike”.  They tend weigh a little more than a 3-4″ travel bike but have a lot of features that make them more fun and confidence inspiring.  The number thing they have is a slacker head angle (which means the front wheel is further in front of you).  There is a tired out standard of 70 and 69.5 degree head angles on “cross country” bikes. These angles make descending terrifying compared to the slacker (68.5 to 67 degree) head angles on “all-mountain” bikes. The steeper head angles do help on really steep climbs though so you must weigh how often you do really steep climbs and if you want to have a bike that climbs those climbs a little better but descends scarier (steep head angle bike) or a bike that causes you to worry about body position a little more on a steep climb but is confidence inspiring on the descents.  Yeti is one of the few companies that make 4-5″ travel bikes with 68.5 or slacker head angles.

As far frame size my head coach Andy (who is 5’6″ a great technical climber and pro downhill racer) likes to ride bikes on the big side.  He likes the longer wheel base of medium because it makes the bike a little more stable and predictable.  He also likes the longer top tube allowing him to run a 40mm stem for greatly control. He feels this worth giving up the ideal amount of stand over height for. His weapon of choice, a medium Yeti 575.  I too like longer top tube bikes and being 6’3″ that means I ride a large or XL depending on the company (some XL’s are just a little too long for me, more fitting for 6’4″ and up).  The bike I ride most is my Specialized Enduro SL set in the low bottom bracket/slack head angle position. The low bottom bracket keeps my center of mass lower (making the bike corner better) and I love the 67 degree head angle (with an adjustable fork I can slacker the head angle and drop the bars two inches for steep climbs).

As for suspension design, most companies make great full suspension bikes now and there is definitely not one way to go.  As long as you do your research in general the more you spend (within each company) the more you will get (the shocks themselves will be better). Spend enough to get at least rebound adjustment on both front and rear suspension.  As for brakes you definitely want hydraulic disc brakes.

I hate to but a price on this because nearly all bike store bought bike are pretty darn good these days but if look at $2,000 msrp bikes and up you will get a lot of nice features such as good components and quality shocks and forks

Well that sums up what I am looking for in a 26″ mountain bike.  The two main things are a slack head angle (67-68.5 degrees) and a longer top tube (over 24 inches for a large).

Another option is definitely a 29er. I love 29ers and feel that they are a great bike for many riders.  Since this is about confidence inspiring bikes first I will mention where 29ers really shine, going over obstacles! Their taller tires just plain roll over things easier. The only real down fall (confidence inspiring wise) is many 29ers have steep head angles to keep their wheel base short (this is slowly changing at some companies) which has made many of my students say that they were intimidated on steep descents.

The pro’s of 29ers: They get over obstacles easier, they hold their momentum well, they have better traction do to a larger contact patch, they plain ride smoother and with less effort

The con’s of 29ers: Their big gyroscopes (wheels) make going from tight left to right turn slower and more difficult, their longer wheel base makes tight switchbacks more difficult, they are a bit more cumbersome, especially in the air, they don’t fit shorter riders well (they make them to fit short riders but the handle bars end up way to high for good body position), they are bit slower to accelerate.

In short for riders who really enjoy cornering and jumping 29ers are not the best choice (yet). For most other riders, especially riders that really enjoy long rides and want to make getting over “step up” type obstacles easier, 29ers are great.

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10 replies
  1. jane andraka says:

    can a bike shop retrofit bikes to meet these criteria? i have a gary fisher hipro that i enjoyed until a rented an sworks safire…what a difference in handling…cant afford another bike.can i get fit adjusted or do i just need to save up??

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Unfortunately not really. The best you can do is put a longer travel fork on which will slacken the head angle but will also raise the bottom bracket a bit and slacken the seat tube angle. On some bikes this really helps on some it messes things up.

      Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hey Nate,

      That is a great question. I have never ridden a 69er but the concept seems odd to me as one of the main things I like about a 29er is how they smooth out the trail. I can lift my front wheel using almost no energy over anything, a 29″ rear makes it feel like you have 2-4″ more rear wheel travel. That being said, I haven’t ridden one so I am not an authority on them. My certified coach in Bend, Jeff just built up a 69′er hopefully he will chime in.

      Reply
  2. Jeff says:

    Nate:

    Getting a 69er frame I think is key to the format;
    Trek Fuel 69er (you’ll have to find a used one)mine is a Ventana El Chucho. I don’t know if there are any other mfg’s making full suspension 69ers. When people convert a 26″ bike to a 69er it can mess with things like Gene stated above and you won’t get the best experience IMO. The other issue is you have to take a leap of faith; it’s hard to impossible to find a demo.

    I love mine, I think most of the positive aspects to a 29er are attributed to the front wheel, and the negative aspects to the rear. I think a 69er is a great trail to AM format. My bike has 5.5″ rear and 5″ front travel, 68.5 HT angle. I’m running a 50mm stem with 31″ wide bars, the bike goes downhill and corners like a dream and climbs as well as my previous Giant Trance. I’ve had no issues in tight switchbacks and turns. The 69er format would wheelie and manual easier than a 29er (I’m assuming).

    Probably the final deciding factor for me was talking with Sherwood Gibson owner of Ventana, “I design, build, and can ride any of my bikes and my favorite is the El Chucho”.

    I think any format will work well as long as the bike has geometry and set up that BetterRide recommends. If I was buying any other bike I would get the All Mountain version from that mfg.

    For a picture you can go here:http://forums.mtbr.com/showthread.php?t=238492

    Good Luck!

    Jeff Ferrell
    BetterRide Coach Bend, OR

    Reply
  3. Jeff says:

    Gene,
    You have lots of experience on the big front wheel and smaller rear wheel concept; it has a motor on it instead of pedals.
    Jeff

    Reply
  4. Alexis says:

    Hi Gene,
    Just came across BetterRide, and found this article. I’m a newbie, been riding for a little over a year now. I’ve already been applying things I’ve gleaned from your articles, and seem to be improving. And when I mentioned your camps to a friend, she was all for it, so we may be seeing you soon in person.

    I wanted to tell a little story I thought relevant to this article, and if you have any thoughts, that would be great too. Almost all who advised me when I was buying my first bike said to get a 29er, because it would be more stable, roll over obstacles better, and be more well-suited to a beginner. Where I live, I couldn’t find anywhere to test one on actual trails, so I just took the plunge and bought a Specialized Jett. It’s a nice bike.

    Recently we have been adding to our group of riders, and some of the gals don’t have bikes, so we were running short on rides for everyone. I dropped into my local shop and ended up buying a used K2 Evo Unlimited 26er, full suspension. I figured I’d now have options, plus one for someone else to borrow. Wow, are those two bikes different. And now I come to my reason for commenting: I’m finding I prefer the K2. Immediately, in the very first ride on the K2, I felt more secure, if that makes sense. Which seems weird and backwards, because now I crash regularly, lol.

    After reading your articles, I looked at the two bikes and noted some differences. The Jett has a steeper fork angle, but not by much. It has a longer top tube distance, and wider handle bars than the K2. They are both supposed to be 19” frames (I’m 5’8”)? The K2 looks shorter from riser to seatpost. My hands would get tingly on the 29er quite frequently, where-as I have not had that happen on the 26er so far. I am curious as to why I appear to be opposite of what everyone is telling me, by finding the 26er to increase my confidence level, as opposed to the 29er, despite the fact that I crash more on it (which I assume is because I feel more confident and try more things)?

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Alexis,

      Without seeing you ride both bikes that is tough to judge. 29ers can feel slow and cumbersome compared to a 26 and steep head angles make descending really scary so those two issues might be the problem. There so many subtle (handlebar sweep, handlebar height, etc.) and not so subtle differences (tire pressure, tire type, head angle, etc.) than can affect bike handling and control as well as rider input that there is no way for me to know without thoroughly examining both bikes and then watching you ride them.The fact that you are crashing scares me, crashing is not a normal part of mountain biking (if you understand and can do the core skills). In general crashing means you were out of balance and out of control (nobody has ever crashed while in balance and and in control) which isn’t good. Mountain biking does not have to be and shouldn’t be dangerous.

      I really hope you can make a camp soon, it will be the best investment you will ever make in your riding.

      Reply
  5. Alexis says:

    Hi Gene, I’m sorry, I was thinking too much about word count because I was long winded that I didn’t think what ‘crashes’ would come off as. I’ve really only technically crash crashed once, when I took a log with the wrong approach angle. Just some pretty bruising and sore muscles. The rest of my ‘crashing’ has really been more like very, sometimes absurdly, awkward ‘dismounts’. And you’re spot on, they are totally because of loss if balance. I guess I look at anytime my body touches the ground unintentionally during a ride, as a ‘crash’, so that’s why I worded my previous post the way I did. But I see it is somewhat misleading.

    I do need help with my balance, for sure. I have already improved some by perusing your site and reading all the advise and seeing the great videos. I hope to be able to find a camp to attend soon, because constantly losing balance and thus control is frustrating and makes me feel ‘stupid’. Thank you for replying, so glad I found you here at BetterRide.

    Reply

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