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Buyers Guide - MTB Components

Part 2 Back to Part 1

 

There is continuous innovation happening in mountain biking especially parts and components which leads to improvements and changes all the time. Understanding how this evolution is taking place helps to decide whether or not the technology is good for you at a particular time. Comparing components on different bikes like brakes, suspension and gears will identify which bike is suitable and best value for money.

Part 1 Part 2
How to buy mountain bikes

Hints and tips for buying a mountain bike

Mountain bike buyers guide links

Understanding mountain bike components 

Brief history of mountain biking technology

 


 

 

Understanding Mountain Bike Components

The bike brand essentially relates to the frame, because that is all that the manufacturer actually makes. So consider material and construction, weight and warranty, backup and availability. Most frames are equally strong and offer a breakage warranty, however how quickly and how prepared they are to honour the warranty will vary.

Components: This is everything except the frame. There is a fixed pool of components that all manufacturers make use of. So essentially they all use the same components in varying combinations. The low end components are only suitable for occasional use. The mid to high end components typically offer good value for money. The top of the range is usually far more expensive with only a slight improvement in durability and quality, the major benefit usually coming in terms of weight saving. 

What are the components?

Group set
This consists of  crank, bottom bracket, front derailleur, rear derailleur, cluster, brake/gear levers, cables, calipers and chain. Few complete bikes actually come with a full group set. Manufacturers mix and match for what ever reason but usually to save costs. You will need to know what group set it is and where it fits into the range, check the table below. Your best bet is to compare and focus on the major components (crank, front & rear derailleur) but don't loose sight of the other components.

Comparison of Shimano and SRAM:

Shimano SRAM Quality level
XTR X.0 Pro: Lightest strongest most efficient
XT X.9 Expert: Light, strong, durable, efficient
LX X.7 Sport: Strong, durable reliable
Deore X.5 Sport: Strong reliable
Alivio X.4 Recreational
Acera X.3
Altus Entry level

Fork
One of the most important parts of a mountain bike. The fork can make or break a bike spec. You will need to understand what type of fork it is and find out where it fits into the brand range to understand how good or bad it is. Know what features it has like air assisted, rebound adjustment, lockout, stable platform valve, travel adjustment etc. 

Wheels
These are made up of the rims, spokes, hubs and tyres. Tubed or tubeless rims will be your starting point for comparison and then strength, stiffness and weight are key factors in choosing wheels. A good set of wheels makes does make a difference to the performance, feel and handling of the bike.

Shock
This refers to the rear shock on a full suspension bike. Manufacturers have a variety of brands with different performance levels and with different features. Similar to the front shock there are things like lockout, air assisted and sensitivity settings.

Other Components 
These include the bar, stem, headset, seat, seat post and pedals. These can round a bike off or leaving you with future upgrade options. On lower end bikes try to get the best ones that you can afford and on higher end bikes they become a matter of individual preference.

Sizes and fit are critical and can end up choosing your bike for you.

Brief History of Mountain Biking Technology

Frame materials

These started off as steel frames and then moved onto Aluminium. Aluminium is still the most popular today but there are various improved grades giving improved strength and lightness. Titanium has also been around for a while but remains the domain of specific titanium brands. Carbon is becoming more popular with most manufacturers offering high end carbon versions of their hard tails as well as some full suspension bikes now. So the future seems to be in Carbon, but aluminium continues to be the most popular due to cost effectiveness and continued improvements to strength to weight ratios.

 

Brake Systems

They started out as cable controlled rim brakes and until a year or two ago these were still the most popular by far. They still remain popular because of low cost, low weight and simple design and maintenance. They do however fall short on performance and reliability. Now days cable controlled disc brakes are found on many mid and low end full suspension bikes and on some mid range hard tails. Hydraulic disc brakes are found on just about all full suspension bikes and even some of the mid to higher end hard tails. Disc brakes are definitely the future in braking, they have become light enough for racers, cost effective enough for mid range bikes and the offer more controlled and effective stopping power. They are also reliable and relatively maintenance free

 

Suspension Evolution

Mountain bikes started out as normal fat tired bikes known in SA as a “Dikwiel”. From there they essentially evolved in two directions the one was the cross country racer who looked to make the bike lighter, more efficient more controllable and slightly more comfortable. The other direction was the downhiller who looked to make the bike more robust, agile and capable in extreme off road situations. And so evolved the light and rigid hard tail versus the heavy and long travel full suspension downhill bike. What has followed since then is a joining of the forces to improve the two ends of the scale and the development of a few ranges of bikes in between these two end points.

Low end cross country bikes remain hard tails from a cost point of view as well as a fit for purpose point of view. Cross country race bikes are still hard tails with front suspension but seem to be keeping travel to under 100mm and typically 80 mm. This has given rise to endurance racing bikes that have become full suspension 80-100mm front and back, but have tried to keep weight to a minimum. These bikes offer improved handling and reduced rider fatigue for longer distance mid field riders. The suspensions used here have improved from first attempts where pedaling efficiency was poor. Now days designs include “intelligent”  shocks, stable platform valve and lockouts all in an attempt to improved pedaling efficiency.  A growing segment becoming more and more popular is the full suspension bike with 100-150mm of travel called trailbikes. These are very capable bikes with some downhill characteristics together with some cross country bike features. You could say that these bikes are becoming the everyday riders bike as they seem to offer a bit of everything for the recreational rider. Downhill bikes have become more specialized with more efficient suspension and they are really the test arena for all suspension systems on mountain bikes today. The trend is towards longer travel suspension in all bikes, as manufacturers improve pedaling efficiency, reduce weight and keep costs down, bike feature longer travel.

 

Drivetrain

The drivetrain is probably the least innovative area in mountain biking. Not much has changed since the first real mountain bikes. Essentially they all still use chain rings in front via a chain to cogs at the back. Ratios and speeds have varied from essentially 21 speed to 24 speed to 27 speed today. Most of the development has revolved around improving the quality of gear changes and reducing the weight of the components, but the mechanism has remained the same. Consequently this is the most time consuming and expensive part of the bike to maintain. However in the last two years some manufacturers have been experimenting with gearbox drive trains but it is still very early days so it will be a while before something major changes. , lighter stronger materials

Wheel Size 26 vs 29 inch

The 29er is seen by many as the ultimate solution to providing a smoother ride and getting over difficult obstacles more easily. The main difference between a 29inch and a 26inch is the wheel size with the 29er having a larger wheel diameter. On paper it all looks good, but how that translates on the trail is still quite debatable and there are pros and cons. So the best is to get some bikes and test ride them for yourself. That is what we did, checkout the Turner Sultan 29er review thanks to Dion. If you have ridden a 29er and have views then please share so that we can learn.  If you speak to the guys who ride them it may seem like they are evangelists but they are really just trying to tell you that it is a different ride. It is difficult to explain and quantify. I can equate it to the new bike feeling, that's the fast feeling that you get when you ride a new bike for the first few times. Somehow it just seems to go better than your old bike. It feels like the big wheels roll faster and easier over the rocks and the bike feels very stable. Don't be fooled though a 29er hardtail is no replacement for a 26" full sus, 0" travel just isn't the same as 4" travel no matter how big the wheels. But the big wheels sure are fun to ride, even if they are a bit heavier.

 

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