How To Test Ride A Mountain Bike Before You Buy

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Maybe find a buddy and take out TWO bikes. Ryan Dunfee photo.

This isn't an article on which bike you should buy or how to get the best price. For that, check out: Finding which type of bike might be right for you and How to shop for the best value.

This is about how to pay attention when your butt is on the saddle of a demo bike--deciding whether to spend a few mortgage payments on a new sled in a short hour or two. Figuring out if a bike is right for you is hard. It would be great to ride them for a month before you buy, but usually you get very little in-the-wild ride time pre-sale.

It's work, but it's not like it's bad work. Dave Peters photo

At TGR we spend a lot of time reviewing different bikes. We ride them, figure out what we like, what we don't, what we might be missing, what the bike might be good at, what to adjust to bring out the capabilities of each bike, and how to adapt ourselves to their strengths. To be honest, I've been on some bikes for weeks, even months, before I figured out how to set them up properly or what they were best at. So, by this point we have a roadmap to help us get to point B quickly.

Not to say you shouldn't try to spend as much time on a bike as you can before buying. You should. Try it for a weekend or a couple rides whenever possible.

Before you pedal, set yourself up for success

Properly setting up the bike gives it the best chance to succeed. Ryan Dunfee photo.

Set the sag and properly inflate the tires. If you are demoing from a shop or a demo truck, have them do this for you. Also, bring a multi-tool to adjust the brakes, saddle and so forth to how you like them.

Get the reach and width right so you feel comfortable. GW photo.

Use your own pedals. Ask the demo or shop rep if there's a factory or recommended tune or if there's any tricks to setting up the bike. When Harry Shoeninger of Ibis bikes was handing me a Mojo3 off his demo truck, he told me folks were finding that riding the fork a little softer than they'd think (because the bike was spec'd with two bottomless tokens in the fork) and the shock a little firmer than they'd think, made the bike come alive. It was phenomenal advice and made for a fantastic first experience on the bike.

What To Do When you ride It

Make sure to get a little rad on it. Commencal photo.

Step #1: Ride it like you own it. What feels right and what feels wrong? If something feels wrong, adjust it as if it were your bike. Have a multi-tool with you and tilt the brakes and shifters up or down until they feel natural. Move them inboard or outboard so the width feels comfortable for your shoulders and arms. Loosen the saddle and slide it forward or back to make the reach and top tube feel natural for your torso. Raise or lower the saddle a bit. This is 15 minutes well spent. If you already have the handlebars you love, swap them out (but for god's sake, make sure you know how to properly tighten stem bolts). Don't let something small distract you.

Step #2: Now, Ride it like you stole it. It's a demo bike, it's there to be pushed, so push it! Test it. Don't be shy. BELIEVE ME, the demo guys or the shop want you to come off the bike knowing it can handle the upper end of your skills and allow you to grow. They don't care if it gets a ding in the paint. They don't sell demo fleets at retail once they get done with them. If the bike boosts your confidence, you're more likely to buy it. And a bike should do that for you. I tore a derailleur off a BMC demo ride and the rep was okay with it. I didn't mean to do it, of course; I was mortified to bring it back and I would much rather NOT have walked a mile out of the trail. But I was testing it.

I'd probably still do this if I owned the bike. Dave Peters photo.

Step #3: Ride it on easy terrain. Get used to the bike by ramping it up to speed on easy, flowy terrain. Thrashing into a nasty technical problem before you're used to it, and before it's perfectly adjusted to you, won't do you or the bike any favors. Get comfortable, figure out any eccentricities or needs for adjustment. Lean it into a berm-y corner. Hop it over a small log. Try a short wheelie or lifting the front wheel up on some flat easy section. Score a few small riding wins on it.

Step #4: Ride it on hard terrain. Once you've got everything pretty much in the ballpark, progress to harder stuff. preferably on terrain you're already familiar with. Get the bike into stuff which presents more of a challenge. Because, hey! That's what it's supposed to make you better on.

Step #5: Pay attention. Do you feel it's plush? Do you feel it's bouncy? Do you feel it's got great power transfer? Do you feel it's light? Do you feel it's burly? If there's something nagging at you, attempt to adjust it first before disliking the bike. Add a click or two of rebound damping if you feel the bike is bucking you. Play with a click of compression damping if you feel it's too stiff (remove damping) or soft (add damping). I swear some bikes just take a bit of time to set up and, after they are, really come alive.

Make sure you go wheeeeee! at least once on a test bike. Commencal photo.

Step #6: Don't pay attention. Once you feel you've tuned the bike to you, see if the bike will just disappear beneath you. Try to just have fun and ride it for enjoyment. If something still sticks out, make a note or try to adjust, but really the whole point of mountain biking is to have fun—and you want a bike that lets you do that.

Sometimes, as you progress from easier trails to harder, you'll realize that another click of rebound will help or something. But does the bike make you smile?

After You Ride

Write down what you liked. For me, because writing impressions of bikes is kinda what I get paid for, this comes pretty easily. But write a brief review for yourself. Make notes on anything you'd try to change or parts you'd like the shop to swap before you buy (if any, as this is kinda rare). When you ride the bike again the next day or the next week, compare your first impressions with new impressions.

At our Big Sky Bike Test, we all tried to get a couple rides, spread out over a couple days, on each bike. Once you've got a few different tests on a few different bikes under your belt, those notes will really help you keep your impressions straight and finalize your choice.

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