They’ll add a power boost to your training and keep you racing through the winter and beyond. But what should triathletes look for when buying a mountain bike? Nik Cook and the world’s best off-road triers explain…
If you don’t ride and race off road, you’re missing out on a whole lotta fun, a chance to keep racing through the winter, plus one of the best ways to develop bike-handling skills and fitness. Whether you tackle a full off-road triathlon such as an Xterra, race a winter off-road duathlon or just hit the trails regularly in training, it’ll break the tarmac monotony, put a muddy smile on your face and make you a faster all-round racer.
Scotland’s double Xterra world champion and mountain bike racer Lesley Paterson explains why she loves off-road thrills, and why it’ll make you a better triathlete. “For me, it’s about freedom; freedom from the busy roads, the noise and the stress of urban life. When you’re off road, things are happening that you need to focus on every second. It’s not like trudging up an A-road on the aerobars for two hours before hitting a roundabout and then coming back. I find that stuff emotionally soul-destroying. Flora and fauna all the way!”
If you thought buying a road or tri bike was confusing, though, dipping your toe in the mountain bike market can seem like a totally bamboozling experience. With three wheel sizes (29”, 650b and 26”), full suspension or hardtail, and bike categories such as trail, all-mountain, cross-country and downhill, where, as a triathlete wanting to hit the dirt for the first time, do you start? Let’s find out…
The essential components of off-road bikes and what a triathlete should look for…
Disc brakes revolutionised mountain biking, taking braking away from mud and gloop and delivering far more controllable, predictable stopping power. On all but bargain basement models, they’re likely to be hydraulic and, although initial set-up and servicing can be tricky, aside from pad changes, they’re almost maintenance-free. Downhill-focused bikes will tend to have larger rotors for increased braking power, but on a cross-country bike where weight is at a premium, 160mm is standard.
Wheels and tyres
The original mountain bike standard wheel size was 26”, but then along came first 29” and, more recently, the in-between 650b. Sit any group of mountain bikers down, ask the wheel size question and you’re lighting the blue touchpaper on a heated debate. It’s probably fair to say that 26” is heading the way of the dinosaurs, 29” is favoured for cross-country riding, and 650b is the go-to size for shorter riders and more extreme gravity-aided riding. No matter what the wheel size, tyre choice and pressure can make or break how any mountain bike performs on the trails. Tubeless, which allows lower pressure to be run as there’s no risk of pinch flats, is a genuine game-changer.
As on the road, there are pros and cons to the main frame building materials, but it’s arguable that off road these characteristics are even more pronounced. Alloy is relatively cheap and light, but can give a harsh ride. Top-quality steel has real life, a certain cool and a wonderful compliance, but it can be heavy and not stiff enough for race-minded riders. Titanium is light, durable and very forgiving, yet it’s expensive and can just be too flexible. Carbon is light, stiff and increasingly affordable but, when the rocks start flying and if you take a few tumbles, how well will it last?
Soak up the lumps and bumps of the trail. A typical cross-country fork will offer 80-120mm of travel, and that range of movement is controlled by either air springs (essentially pressurised air chambers) or simpler metal coil springs. This is adjusted depending on the rider’s weight, as well as personal preferences. More money will buy you less weight, more adjustability of how the fork behaves and a plusher feel.
The Vitus Nucleus 290
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What you’ll get
You can definitely get a taste of off-road fun on a sub-£500 bike but, if the muddy bug bites, you’ll soon be trading it in. It’ll be a serviceable, if heavy, alloy hardtail, with bottom-of-the-pile components, probably cable rather than hydraulic brakes, heavy wheels and a poor-quality fork. It’ll be fine for some winter fun, but you’ll soon be replacing those cheap parts and, if you’ve got any competitive ambitions, wishing you’d just spent a bit more.
What to upgrade
To get the most from your budget beast, upgrading the tyres would again be worthwhile, so throw any additional budget you have in that direction. Aside from the tyres, above and beyond replacing any parts when they wear out, you’re going to be better off saving up for a whole bike upgrade.
Vitus Nucleus 290
What you’ll get
For £750 you can still get a decent alloy front-suspension-only hardtail that will easily get you round an off-road event and out having fun on your local trails. Don’t even look at full-suspension bikes if you’re buying for less than £750 as they’ll be heavy pogo sticks with pedals. Wheels and forks will be heavy but functional and, although the components might be lower tier, they’ll still do a job.
What to upgrade
There’s no point going mad; it makes sense to just upgrade the components as and when they wear out to something better. However, investing in some decent tyres can make a big difference to both performance and handling. You could look at upgrading the wheels but, for the quality of the frame at this price point, whether it’d be worthwhile is debatable.
Trek Caliber 8
What you’ll get
You can get a full-suspension bike for under a grand, but you’ll pay in terms of weight and the quality of other components, so stick to hardtails. You’re probably looking at alloy, but some carbon deals may come in under your budget. Expect mid-range components that’ll perform well, not be excessively heavy and not cost the earth to replace. The wheels will possibly be on the agricultural side and the forks a bit basic, but it’ll be a solid bike that won’t let you down and allow you to be competitive at races.
What to upgrade
Both the wheels and fork will be worth throwing some cash at. Quality lightweight and tubeless-compatible wheels can really transform a mountain bike and should be your priority. When the stock forks die or you have some spare cash, these are probably next on your shopping list.
Boardman Pro Hardtail 29er