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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.