Whether you consider yourself an expert, a beginner or somewhere in between the must fun and safe bike will have some the same important characteristics. Even if you are a serious cross country racer wouldn’t a bike that made steep and technical descents feel less steep and technical (without any sacrifices, i.e. extra weight, poor climbing, slower rolling) be a huge advantage?!
For some reason many bike shops tend to send riders (especially those new to the sport) out on bikes that are very unforgiving and confidence crushers, as well as bordering on dangerous. They feel the fun and confidence inspiring bikes are only for aggressive riders, not beginners or less aggressive riders. This is odd because if a really skilled rider needs a confidence inspiring bike to feel as comfortable as possible it MUST be more important for a beginner! For the last 17 years I have been scared and sadden by students who have been sold the wrong Kool Aid, the show up on hardtails and short travel bikes with mid-90′s geometry that scares the heck out of me! And I spent 18 years racing downhill in the pro class! If those bikes scare me, they must really scare less skilled riders but how would they know?
Less skilled riders don’t know how much easier, safer and MORE FUN these bikes are because they often haven’t ridden them. They think of the bike shop employees who recommend the 90′s XC geometry bike as experts, which they are, on knowing the geometry, components, prices, etc on about 15 bikes from 2-4 bike companies, that is an amazing amount of info they have to keep track of! My expertise, what I spent the last 22 years of my life doing, studying, learning and teaching is how to ride at your best and what will help you ride at your best, a completely different set of skills from a bike shop employee. Some bike shops and employees do understand, a great example is the crew at All Mountain Cyclery in Boulder City, NV, many Moab bike shop employees and I hope hundreds more!
My view is this, when someone is learning a new sport they want the equipment that will make them the safest and give them the most confidence. For mountain biking this is a 27.5 plus, full suspension bike with a slack head angle (67.5 or less), long reach measurement, dropper post, short stem (35-60mm) and wide bars bars (750mm-820mm). This bike will inspire confidence and be much more fun to ride than a hardtail as well as being safer. Great examples of this are the Pivot Switchblade, Trek Fuel 9.8 27.5 plus and Santa Cruz Hightower.
Hardtails are great for challenging yourself but tough to learn on as pretty much everything is harder on a hardtail and mistakes are punished harshly. A full suspension bike is much more forgiving and will often save you from a crashing after making a mistake (it won’t keep from realizing you made the mistake, you will still learn from the mistake you simply won’t be harmed by your mistake.
Why is the bike I mentioned above safer and more confidence inspiring? I will break it down piece by piece.
Plus size tires give you much more control as their tall sidewalls allow for lower tire pressures which conforms to the ground better (on a small root or rock much of the tire will be contacting the ground instead of being on top of the root or rock) this also dampens your ride, smoothing out the trail a bit and it creates a much larger contact patch putting more rubber on the ground giving you much better traction.
A slack head angle (67,5 degrees or less) puts your front wheel out in front of you more than a steep head angle bike, giving you more stability and acting as a lever making it much harder for the rear to lift unexpectedly and therefore making it harder to endo than on a steeper head angle bike. Hills just feel less steep with a slacker head angle. You will need better body position for climbing with a slack head angle but I teach that and it is somewhat intuitive. Most downhill race bikes have 61-63 degree head angles for these reasons.
A long reach measurement (compare your reach to the Pivot Switch Blade or Trek Fuel 9.8, they have excellent reach measurements) gives you a bigger sweet spot to be in balance and allows you to run a short stem without feeling cramped. In other words, the shorter your reach measurement the harder it is stay centered and neutral on the bike, hit the slightest bump and your weight can get too far forward. There is a great article on Pinkbike about designing the XXL Santa Cruz V 10 (same size as a Pivot or Canfield Brothers XL, Santa Cruz bikes are notoriously short which is why they made an xxl for a rider who is 6’3″) for Greg Minnaar that covers this in detail.
Short stems make it easier to get and stay in proper body position (centered on the bike with all your weight on the pedals and in a neutral position), corner with much more precision (as it is a short lever) and manual easier (by keeping your arms bent instead of stretched out). Contrary to popular belief they climb better too, way less twitchy!
Wide bars give you much more control, stability, open your chest for breathing and help “put” you in correct body position. More control and stability comes from more leverage to resist the bars twisting (right or left) when hitting a root or rock. As an experiment do a push up with the outside of your hands about 24″ apart and think about trying resist someone from knocking you over to the side. Then do a push up with your hands 32″ apart and think about the same thing. Your are much more stable with a wide platform than a narrow platform!
Dropper posts are the best device ever invented for mountain biking! On a descent you can not achieve a centered, neutral, in balance and in control position with your seat at climbing height, you must lower your seat to get in this position. However, you do need the seat at proper height for climbing or you will use a huge amount of power and damage your knees. Dropper posts allow the best of both words, nice high seat for climbing and power and a low seat so you can stay centered and neutral while descending! All without stopping, getting off your bike and making that adjustment before and after every descent.
Not only are 27.5 plus bikes with the “aggressive” geometry I’ve mentioned great for learning they are great for riders like me (really aggressive former downhill racers) I love mine! They also climb fine!
Now many shops will say a bike like I described is for “aggressive riders” and they are right, that is who the bike was designed for. The interesting thing is, if a really good, confident aggressive ride NEEDS that geometry to feel comfortable and ride their best, then a beginner must REALLY need that geometry as they aren’t as good or confident. These bikes (and similar ones) are the most confidence inspiring mountain bikes on the market, for ALL riders. They are not necessarily the fastest or lightest but, boy, they sure are fun to ride!