« I’m a road triathlete that is looking to race some Xterras, but don’t have a mountain bike. With so many options, what kind of bike should I get? »
I get this question quite a bit. All the options in frames, wheels, tires, etc, can be daunting for someone not intimately familiar with racing a bicycle off road. Just like for regular XC racing, the ideal bike for each person is highly variable. Basically, I use the same guidelines to for Xterra bikes as I do for an open XC race, and if some one is on the border between to bikes, I generally go to the softer one.
First off, understand that I don’t really ever recommend one brand over another. Almost every big company is making very high quality race bikes nowadays, and there really isn’t any reason to confine your search to one favorite brand. If you have a favorite LBS that you work with and they only carry one or two brands, consider those first, but only because the shop will have your back after the purchase.
Compared to choosing a Tri bike, Fit is not as high on the list of requirements when searching for a new mountain bike. While it’s important that the bike be close to fitting you, it doesn’t have to be spot on to the millimeter. This thought can be disconcerting to triathletes who are used to agonizing over fit coordinates, but consider the time you spend locked into your aero position, versus moving all over the place on your mountain bike. Since you aren’t confined to a few manufacturers that produce bikes within your stack and reach, you don’t have to narrow your search to one or two brands.
Before choosing a specific bike, decide what suspension setup and wheel size you’ll be looking for. Full suspension or just front suspension (hardtail)? 26″ or 29″ wheel? Also factor in how much money you plan on spending. While a full-sus 29 may be the perfect bike for you, getting it light enough to be race worthy is often prohibitively expensive.
There are two main options in bike platform for XC race / Xterra bikes: Suspension/Hardtail and wheel size. Here’s a list of where each option is better:
Easier set up
No pedal bob / greater efficiency
Generally better on smooth courses and/or courses with more climbing
Smoother ride = less fatigue when transitioning to run
More forgiving to the novice bike handler
Lower rolling resistance at the tire
Faster for smooth courses
Easier to turn quickly around tight obstacles
Faster on rough ground
More cornering traction (even on smooth ground)
More forgiving if tires slip/lose traction
Much more forgiving in drop-off and set-up situations
I think of the four options of bikes in a spectrum of hardest to softest, where the 26″ hardtail is all about speed on very smooth courses and is very snappy, and a 29″ full sus is very smooth rolling and forgiving on extremely rough courses. From hardest to softest:
1. 26″ Hardtail
2. 29″ Hardtail
3. 26″ Full-sus
4. 29″ Full-sus
To decide which bike is best for you, consider you skill level, riding style, goal race course(s), and budget. Hardtails will always be cheaper to get to a competitive weight. In my opinion, a full-sus should be within 1.5 kilos of the hardtail you would otherwise race to be of any advantage.
Now that rear suspension is getting very refined, it is a great option for Xterra athletes who want a fast bike that leaves them fresh to run. No matter what bike you race Xterra on, you will get tossed around more compared to the bike leg of a typical road tri. Rear suspension moderates that beating some, and the difference is especially noticeable on rough course followed by smooth hard runs, where fatigue quickly becomes apparent.
For most athletes, I tend to recommend bikes in the middle of the soft/hard range – either a 29 hardtail or 26 full sus. In most situations, a 26 HT simply can’t be justified when there are so many viable options for 29 hardtails that are almost as light and far smoother. Likewise, I feel that 29 full sus is overkill for most racing situations. Unless the course is incredibly rocky, or you have $10,000US to spend getting the bike down to 22lb, the 29 full sus platform is just too sluggish for racing. If you consider yourself a ‘normal’ mountain bike rider, I would narrow the search to 29 hardtail or 26 full sus.
Hopefully this helped clear some things up, or at least helped organize your choices when you tackle the bike market. Good luck and race hard.