Selecting the right mountain bike for Lake Tahoe: It’s a complicated task | SierraSun.com

Selecting the right mountain bike for Lake Tahoe: It’s a complicated task

Sebastian Foltz
Special to the Sun

LAKE TAHOE — For those new to the sport — or even for experienced riders — the mountain bike world can be a complicated one.

Chain rings, tire sizes, hardtails, full-suspension, 29'ers, derailleurs, forks, travel and the terminology alone could make your head spin. Not to mention the few-thousand-dollar price range.

Here are some things to consider if you are looking at getting into mountain biking or thinking about an upgrade.

WHAT'S IN A FRAME?

The first question any bike salesperson is going to ask you is what kind of riding you plan on doing. More downhill intensive, gentle trail riding, steep climbing, beginner, advanced — well, there's a bike for that.

"If somebody wants to go downhill really fast, that's going to be a totally different setup than a bike for riding through a meadow," Sam Hyslop, owner of Over the Edge Sports in South Lake Tahoe, said, describing bike styles.

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The first consideration is whether to go for a hardtail or dual-suspension. After that, it's all about wheel size — 29'er versus 27.5-inch, or the nearly phased out 26-inch bike.

The biggest advantage to a hardtail (or front-suspension bike) is the price point, making it a option for a budget-conscious beginner rider.

"You'll get more bang for your buck in a hardtail," Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association president Ben Fish said, with the caveat that at Tahoe, "You might not have as much fun."

On the more technical or bumpy trails, a dual-suspension bike will increase the rider's control and soften any move.

"A lot of people look at a full suspension and think, 'I don't need that,'" Hyslop said.

While in places with less aggressive, more flowing trails, that may be the case. At Tahoe, Hyslop and Fish suggest dual suspension will go a long way.

"A little bit more bike will give you more control," Hyslop said.

DUAL SUSPENSION FOR SERIOUS RIDING

For an entry-level rider or someone not planning on riding aggressive downhill trails with drops and big rocks, a hardtail may still be a good option.

But if cost isn't as much of a concern, or if you plan on getting more serious, dual suspension is virtually a must in the Sierra Nevada.

"If people want the full access to trials in the Tahoe area, a full suspension opens more doors," Hyslop said.

Hardtails used to provide an advantage over dual suspension bikes when it comes to climbing, but technological advances and newer frame designs have significantly closed that gap.

"The suspension design is really good now with most bike companies," Fish said.

Like buying a car, price can vary a great deal for mountain bikes. While it is certainly possible to get a bike at Walmart for under $200, when it comes to serious mountain biking, that would be the equivalent of driving a 1972 Ford Pinto.

The general rule is lighter costs more. Entry-level hardtails typically start at around $500, whereas a dual-suspension bike will cost closer to $1,700 or more.

From there, better components and lighter frames drastically affect cost. Steel frames, for example, are much heavier and cheaper than aluminum, carbon fiber or titanium. Avid bikers can easily spend upwards of $3,000 or over $5,000 on a bike.

DOES WHEEL SIZE MATTER?

The other bike consideration is the wheel size.

"Wheel size has dominated the market," Fish said.

Where 26-inch wheels used to be the norm, now it comes down to 29'ers — bikes with 29-inch tires — or 27.5-inch wheel setups. The 26-inch bike tire has been almost completely phased out in recent years and is now typically only available in older-model bikes.

"It really is a subjective thing," Hyslop said of making the choice in wheel size. "There is no wheel size that is better than another."

He said it also really depends on the frame design.

As a general rule, larger wheels make the bikes more efficient to pedal and also make rolling over rocks easier. Smaller wheels are better for sharp turns and more aggressive movements.

Most hardtails sold now generally only come as 29'ers, and new designs are starting to make that wheel size increasingly common in dual-suspension bikes.

The larger wheel does make sharp turning a little more difficult; so more downhill-focused bikes tend toward 27.5 inch wheels.

"29'ers are a little more cross-country," Fish said. "27.5 are a little more downhill, but it depends on what model bike you're looking at."

If price is an issue, consider getting a bike with lower-end or base-model components and upgrading later.

TAKE A TEST RIDE

A quality wheel set is one of the most important upgrades to consider. Rims are one of the first places a manufacturer will cut cost on a less expensive bike. Better rims and bearings can make riding more efficient and substantially lighten a bike.

Upgrading the chain derailleur and shifters are also good ideas. They can make gears shift more smoothly.

Brakes used to be more of a cost factor. Traditional V-brakes were a more common option. But now, most bikes come with either mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes, much like a car, and the price variation is less significant.

When buying a bike it's important to know that bike dealers have agreements with certain manufactures. So one shop will sell a brand like Specialized almost exclusively, where as another will primarily sell Trek.

In the end, the best thing to do is to have an idea of what you are looking for and shop around and test bikes.

"You can't really get the feel off a mountain bike in a parking lot," Hyslop said. "I tell people they need to ride it. It's totally a preference thing."

Retailers often offer a fleet of demo bikes, so you can try before you buy. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask an expert. They probably know what's best for you more than you do.

Don’t forget to bring a…

When out on the trail this summer, it’s important to have the right gear along for the ride. No one wants to be caught far from anywhere with mechanical trouble or without the proper gear. It can ruin your riding day. But you also don’t want your pack so bogged down that it encumbers your riding. Here’s our list of things not to leave home without:

Bike-specific pack: It starts with what’s carrying your gear. A pack not suited for cycling is going to be a pain. Before you buy, try jumping around in the store with the pack on. You’re going to want something that doesn’t bounce around. You also don’t want something too bulky.

Water water every where: Here in the Sierra Nevada, it’s a good idea to bring more water than you think you may need. Summers can get hot and rides can often end up longer than you might expect. Riding at elevation can make you thirsty.

Don’t be tool-less: Basic tools are a must. It starts with a bike multi-tool. A lot of mechanical trouble can be solved with a quick adjustment. A bike pump is always a good idea, too, even if you don’t have a patch kit.

Snack attack: It’s a good idea to bring a few snacks along no matter the ride length. If you over exert yourself it’s easy enough to get light-headed to a point where it’s hard to ride. A Cliff Bar or some energy gels will go a long way.

Fix-a-flat: A compact patch kit is a must. A flat is one of the most common troubles and easiest to fix. There are a lot of good kits out there with patches with the glue already on. Pull and stick — it’s just that fast. Carrying an extra inner tube also couldn’t hurt. It skips the process of searching for that leak.

Layer up: Weather can change fast up here. At the very least it’s good to have a really lightweight packable shell. There’s a chance you could run in to snow or hail in July and a shell will go a long way when it comes to staying warm and dry.

Duct tape: It fixes all, enough said.

Cash Money: Packing $5 or $10 bucks couldn’t hurt. If you find your self with a flat and no way to fix it, there’s a good chance that the next passerby may have what your looking for. Say thank you and offer up the dough.

Trail map: A good trail map is important. It can get confusing out there and there are some nice maps of the Tahoe Basin that can help.