Types of Bikes
There's several types of bikes. To look at the taxonomy of all the bikes out there, it's helpful to put into categories.
Road (road, gravel, etc)
Other (e-bikes, dirt jump / bmx, commute/foldable, beach cruisers, fixies, fat bikes)
So let's focus on Mountain. Types of MTBs, when you think about where you ride, they fall into classifications. From fast rollers to steep downhill terrain the categories might look like
XC (Cross-Country) = fast rollers & light
Downhill = steep descents & heavy
NICA races are XC races, top performers are fit and have great racing skills with lots of training that includes physical & ental readiness plus well developed bike skills, know that all things add up to the final equation of high performance, and the bike is just a piece of the equation.
If you only rode XC, then an XC bike is what you would want for the NICA races, but… is that what the bike will actually do. Pt1 talks about key parts of the bike and define what a bike engineer might call the "design envelope," or basically what did they design the bike to perform well at. The analogy to a car, might be if your design envelope was a drag strip race, then the car will be fast, fast to accelerate and fast throughout the distance it needed to travel, what they don't focus on is handling curves, turns etc. because there aren't any. Picture the dodge charger. On a track with curves and hills and only a few straight away sections, might cater to a car like a Porsche 911. For extended duration all around driving you might go with a "GT" or grand touring vehicle make by companies such as Porsche or Ford. The same analogy goes with bikes, different bikes for the type of riding. Need a bigger envelope for one bike to handle, you are making the bike a more general purpose vehicle.
What bike to get? Part 1
Having said that… Even at practices, XC bikes may not always be the "perfect" choice, where we ride changed, we break out of that terrain envelope (or profile) when we ride the steeper, rockier terrain, so taking an XC bike on a rocky trail like Rocky Ridge or some at UC campus could be a little tough on the bike and push the envelope, riding more gentler on the little XC bike with less travel, with enduring hard repetition, the suspension could overheat, and other things. Thesharper rocks could do more damage on the thin-n-lite XC tires, where a trail tire could hold up just fine. Bigger drops translate to needing more "travel" in the front fork and rear shock, exceeding the limits of the suspension translate to "bottoming-out" which wears the suspension, translating to more repairs.
Q: A great local bike shop question is what/where do you ride?
A: Your answer will translate to I ride 1) XC (Calero) or 2-3) Trail-Enduro, [Trail examples 1-Rocky Ridge, Coe, or Trail-Enduro = UC, SDF/Demo) but I also ride XC and NICA. So does that mean I need two bikes one specialized for each type of riding? Not necessarily. Two bikes are one way to solve the challenge, but usually a trail bike is the definition of a bike that can be used down to XC and up to Enduro-Downhill type trails. This is also why it's the most popular selling category of bike, but here's some points to help you decide a plan.
Q: So why doesn't everyone just ride trail bikes?
A: When the bike is designed for a specific type of category, it will usually perform better in that category or "envelope". XC is a great example, this category like Road, is all about the right quality components, and reducing weight (and drag for road bikes.) A trail bike is a great bike to start because it's terrain "envelope covers XC to Enduro style riding. (Note: it's also common to have. Road bike AND a Mountain bike, don't give up the road bike because you're riding mountain right now. Riding both is great cross-training and has it's advantages. Our brethren BMC team that races NICA also does road practices for this very reason, training benefits.
Q: What are grade levels of bikes?
A: So in each "category" there are different "grade levels" for the category. Often a good - better - best portfolio . Bikes have components and a common strategy is start at some level of "goodness" and upgrade the components that matter for your specific type of riding as needed. The drivetrain (makers like SRAM and Shimano) are common suppliers to the top bike brands, they have starter levels that are lower than entry, but the bike you will be looking at will be in these categories not the super low department store grade. The difference are the quality of the materials & design that translate to durability, and weight advantages. Remember for the premier bike racing, it's a matter of ounces and all the ounces add up. This is also true for the bike manufacturer, there's an example in the end of the Specialized lineup.
Q: Electronic Shifting: Do you really need it?
A: No you don't have to have it, While it adds cost the bigger consideration relates to a a maintenance consideration, electronics are good if you are comfortable managing it, particularly to those electronically inclined, keeping the system charged, knowing how to tell what battery level you are at BEFORE leaving on your ride. So note, you need to meticulous, as there's nothing worse than being fifty miles out on a ride, in the middle of nowhere when your battery dies and you are stuck in one gear, the wrong one. There are many mechanical-shifting holdouts that attest to the feel mechanical and reliability (the battery ) which is a real thing. If you have issues running out of cell phone battery, then mechanical may be the right choice and save money. Component quality and materials are equivalent. If you go electronic, you need to know the right brake taps to see get that LED to blink the right code for communicating flashes that translate to how much battery life is left, or use the app that's bluetooth paired. If that is at all concerning, don't go electronic so quickly.
Q: What about suspension?
A: this is a great topic well researched and published. The key takeaways: tie to the suspension travel, the travel will be aligned to the 1-2-3-4 types of trails you ride.
XC: 100-120 mm | 4"
Trail: 120-170mm | 5"
Enduro: 170-+.| 6+"
Q: What wheel size should I get?
A: for the riding we are talking about, the majority of the industry is focusing on 29", the 27.5" (same as 650C) is a great size for some rider heights but benefits such as log / rock clearing is better with the larger diameter and larger diameter is generally faster rolling as long as it's not too big for a young rider. From supply chain to inventorying parts, the newer bikes are so well engineered that the differences are starting to fade and the benefits point to a 29" in your future. If buying a used bike consider wheel size as it relates to resale value, 650C having less demand over time, and 26" even less demand.
Q: What drive train should I get?
A: Look for 12 speed drives, in 2022, they are now common up and down the grade levels. In mountain category, while SRAM and Shimano are both great, SRAM got a head start and seem to have the stronger favor in the MTB community, this translates to SRAM component bikes have higher resale vs the Shimano counterpart for the moment. If you have multiple bikes, having components in the same family are viewed as an advantage as brake fluids are by brand, SRAM=DOT fluid, Shimano, Maguro have mineral oil. Drive train perspective, if your budget affords, stick to 12 speed over 11 speed if you can, it will give you better hill climbing range. Then there’s gearing, there’s tons of good stuff on that researchable on the internet.
Q: Do I need a dropper post?
A: in short dropper posts are a good thing as you ride more steep terrain. The down side is they add weight, so in race conditions, for XC, you will find many pro-bikes have a fixed carbon seat post vs a dropper post to save weight. In general dropper posts are a good thing for all around riding.
Q: Are there any XC unique features?
A: For XC racing machines (NICA/CCCX), there are technologies from select manufacturers that optimize things such as controlling the suspension lockout, which you want lockout when climbing, and open when descending. This lack of lockout in a climb translates to power in-efficiency, that looses time and energy. During racing it's not easy to do this for both your front and rear suspension. Specialized lead this innovation by introducing the "Brain" this is an inertial sensor in both the front and one for the rear to intelligently manage lockout so you don't have to touch a thing. Other manufacturers (such as Scott XC bikes) have accomplished this other ways by adding an additional cockpit control for the rider to control lockout keeping your hands on the grips. SRAM - Rockshox is releasing soon a version with similar automated functions rivaling the Specialized brain that will be on other manufacturer's bikes.
Q: Clipless or flat?
A: Well, in racing, to maximize power during the 360 degrees of the pedaling power stroke, the clipless (aka clips) deliver more power throughout the full cycle stroke. Not a good idea to move to clips during the race, the better thing is do lot's of practice rides to make sure you are ready for all that comes with clips (more on that in a minute). There's lots of brands of clips, and it can be a religious type of discussion that you can go to the forums to pick what suits you and where you ride. Common brands for MTB are crankbros, shimano , and you will need to have matching shoes that have the clip in addition to the pedals. If you don't ride clips plan on having flats and practice with clips if desired. Note this get's into a lot of preference here so talk to several folks, here's one link to reference https://pedalchile.com/blog/clipless-differences This spec says 10% increase vs flats, and recall some quote higher, but that's based on the type of riding, MTB vs track / sprint. If you got 10% more MPG on your car that would be significant if you are riding a lot. One thing about riding with clipless is do NOT ride them the first time nor even the first month(s) for some without riding them in practice. You need to have that mental reactiveness for how to unclip, it can't be a conscious decision or it will be too slow. Ask any clipless rider if they ever senselessly fell on their bike because they didn't unclip fast enough. You will often see a smile and hear a good story, and it will usually be in the first month of riding with clips. Also know there's tuning of spring tension with clips, like many things, and especially for kids, they may want to use the "light action" clips that will take less to trigger a release (as release is paired to rider weight, and the default settings if not properly adjusted are set for a medium set adult.)
Q: What frame size should I get?
This is where the magic happens from the bike manufacturer (vs component manufacturer). You will pick the right size that is related to the rider height. For the kids factor the fact that the kids may grow in Middle to High School, and depending on where they are at in growth, you might size up, or you might plan to trade up bikes later. The more towards Enduro-Downhill you ride, the more "slack" the geometry will be. This is a deep topic worth researching on your own as is suspension selection, and too much for here.
Q: How light is right?
A: Light also is proportional to cost. Weight varies by frame size, so when comparing fairly, you need to compare the same size frame. Well without looking up the latest specs, most commonly a "Medium" is the weight specified in a review, so note the large in the same frame is likely heavier. The lightest bike is reportedly the Specialized Epic SuperLight weighing in at some sub 19 lbs. The typical XC bike may be 22-30 lbs. the weight contribution from several factors, frame material such as carbon, drive train component materials, wheels, even tires (grippier tires are often heavier and more puncture resistant than "fast rolling" tires. So a fast rolling tire setup may be great on an XC trail, but may be vulnerable on big and sharp rocky trails. The fork holds fluid, the more travel the thicker the stanchion and heavier. An XC epic may be a 32 where a trail bike would have a 34 or 36, the Enduro a 38, the larger the number the heavier too. Emergency kit (tubes, CO2, bag, etc), water bottle. Trail bikes are 30-36 lbs and heavier on down the list.
In NICA races you will see XC and Trail bikes. Remember that XC is as much on fitness and riding skills where the other end, downhill is all riding skills. Takeaway: Light is better, but being light alone gets you further, but it isn't going to be what gives you the win alone. It's rider skill, knowing the trail and pre-riding, identifying the passing zones and using them, training, nutrition and the whole prep.
Be weary of target number weights you read in magazines. Note they usually quote the weight of the medium sized frame, the large and respective XL will weigh more for the same make/model, it's got more materials. From factor to what you will likely race with will increase weight when adding water bottle/cage, pedals, etc. Just make sure you are comparing apples to apples. A factory bike might weigh in at 24 lbs, but after putting it with all riding gear it can go up several pounds.
Tip: Race day, remove the heavy things you don't need, for example if you flat out, your race is most often done, you can avoid a DNF by walking in if close to the finish, but if you flat out, you could be done. So you could take off the emergency pack that has the tube, levers, CO2, Pump and saddle bag weight. I believe in keeping the bike computer as the data on your ride can help you improve the next ride.
Do more research
So does that sound like a lot to consider, well there's much more when considering what the bike manufacturer does to the whole bike "system". After you have these basics down, and identified what / where you ride, it may be time to take a visit to your local favorite mountain bike shop. There's a bunch of choices out there. Trailhead in Cupertino and Bike Therapy in Morgan Hill, Sports Basement in Campbell are some good local places to start comparisons. Also highly recommend "demo-ing" the bike as speeds and feeds are one thing, but how it feels (and properly tuning the suspension) is key to a great performing bike. More links at the botoom.
With Specialized as one of the leading brands (there are a bunch more other good ones too) here's a summary lineup that may help with many of the conversations. Specialized is only referenced because may are familiar with the brand and the offer a bike for each of the categories mentioned).
Don’t forget for each "Category" of bike there's the "Grade" of the build (aka the quality of the components). In each Category of bike using the Specialized Example, they may not offer all grades but the stack looks something like this:
The higher the "grade" the lighter the bike. So a swag would indicate that an S-works Stumpjumper would be lighter than a comp aluminum Stumpjumper and likewise a comp Epic Evo. If doing one bike for all conditions a trail bike is great for all-around riding. If picking something more for racing XC then move closer towards an XC specific bike. If starting off getting into the game with entry grade is fine, it's a big step up from the department store stuff, but if the budget allows the mid-grade gear lasts longer and the higher the grade, the better resale value.
If on the topic of the XC bike these bikes in the "Performance" grouping vary, starting at $1.3k for a performance hardtail, $2.5k to $12k for full suspension. Note pricing will vary, particularly during COVID and supply channel issues.
All registered NICA riders had the opportunity to take advantage of manufacturer discounts, but this has been impacted consistently across manufacturers during the COVID-Supply Shortage. Let's hope it resumes soon!
There's also a NorCal loaner bike program, don't know much detail of how it's operating these days, but this link here is a start.
So Really What Bike to Get? Part 2
(;TLDR? Just Tell Me)
Armed with all this introductory information. It's not one size fits all. If only XC racing the hardtail like a Specialized Epic hardtail is the fastest rocketship, watch what the varsity kids ride on a smooth XC terrain, but when the course changes to a more rocky terrain (ie. Granite Bay or more) racers then move to a Specialized Epic (Full Suspension for example). But when they ride do a fun ride, for trail-enduro-downhill they may also have a separate trail-enduro bike and not ride the XC bike on an enduro trail. It's all about selecting the right bike for what types of trails and how hard you ride them. If you ride all around but dominantly XC, yet occasional trail, and are looking for the one bike, then that might move you to a Specialized Epic Evo. Generically stated, bikes are engineered for a given "envelope" and a XC race bike is good for a specific ride envelope of where it's usually ridden, taking the bike out of the envelope often accelerates wear riding a bike for a course that it's not intended. A "2.0 trail" category bike (reference the table above) on the other hand has a wider envelope making it an all around MTB but not the best for downhill, not the best for XC, but great for riding it all. (Note: not pushing one brand but Specialized is well known and good for comparing the different types of bikes for the type of riding.)
Really, a hardtail on the typical NICA XC course? They are fast (as mentioned earlier riding a full suspension without locking out your rear on a climb looses efficiency, locking it out on most suspensions you need to stop to lockout unless your bike has that lockout convenience to lockout w/o taking your hands off the grips) the you are loosing power - speed. The downside is that descending with a hardtail on rough rocky terrain is pushing higher level rider skills higher to manage the chatter vs cush rear suspension. So abbreviated, try out a hardtail, but you will know when you're ready for racing in one, so starting off racing advice, go full suspension, and if you don't have lockout, for XC NICA you would likely firm up your suspension on NICA race day.
For all purpose a trail bike is a great bike to get in the game, then as mentioned go to the highest level of grade in your budget, knowing to stay away from department store grade bikes, generally known not to last the year (some good YouTube video shootouts to google if bored).
Other ways people solve your dilemma, one size doesn't fit all. Another approach is a "builder" approach and start with the bike you have/need for the type of riding you are doing now. Then your next bike may be the bike to support the other type of riding that is outside the envelope of bike Depending on what bike they have now, you can upgrade components on the existing bike to reduce weight for example, or upgrade the fork or drivetrain (ie. Eagle 12-speed) to improve climbing performance. You could also take the existing bike to make it a great trail-all-around bike and a separate bike for racing NICA or gravel for "cross-training"
The two bike approach may sound strange, but it is a thing, so if your kid is talking this, know that is done. But it's NOT a MUST. Also consider that if they love riding and you support them getting out and exercising they may want that road bike, and a dirt jump bike too. Uuugh. A bike parking garage follows. Know that higher quality bikes have higher resale, slower depreciation. SRAM Eagle in MTBs right now are commanding higher resale for the same fame that has the same manufacturer with same grade Shimano. Good Luck.
You will need to determine across a multitude of factors. Also consider if you are a cycling family, you may have an all-around trail bike and a XC rocket monster for races. For the roller XC course, ride the XC hardtail. But in general a XC FS bike. For practices a trail bike to cover the mix of riding we and your child will actually ride. Step up on the grade to get a nice lightweight version of the trail bike (over the entry bike).
In the example that would translate to the best Stumpjumper that fits in your budget. (Or Epic Evo if you are all in with a focus NICA and XC riding yet still ride trial and only want one bike). The Epic Evo bigger than XC rock drops and eliminates the brain as the brain was design to perform on XC terrain, not steeper. But if you are asking a 100% NICA bike look for the XC focused bike like the epic and epic hardtail. (or equivalent manufacturer's XC bike as well) .
The expense feels high.
One thing to consider is that higher grade bikes hold resale value longer than entry grade bikes. Used bike buyers look for a well maintained bike AND the right quality level components (lower grade stuff degrades faster). So a "step-up" strategy maybe what you pick, for example identify the highest grade trail bike in your budget. (ex Expert Pro or Sworks ) and it will have a higher resale as your kids interest in biking grows, you get more options without depreciating your initial investment.
If someone has found a good buyer's guide overview link, share and "send it" this is also the domain of a good trusted bike retailer that has the latest and greatest. DEMO DEMO DEMO. Riding is also a personal preference so find out what bike works well for you and the way you ride.
Don't go by spec alone, try to ride it. Locally manufacturers like Specialized and Santa Cruz have demo centers, take advantage as they are local. Other places if into more downhill are at the bike parks if you go to NorthStar, Whistler, et. Al.
Also check in with Trailhead and Sports Basement, two local retailers that sometimes have demo-days and try-before you buy fleets.
Like Used Cars, buyer beware. Looks good and performs well, buy from a credible source, talk to the seller or buy from a certified shop (ie Pros Closet). Internet sites beware of scam artists, and it's always tough to know about the bike without seeing it in the flesh. Look at lots of pictures, not there ask for more. Pinkbike, Craigslist, Ebay, probably good articles about buying bikes out there. But good questions to ask are: Q1: When was this last services and what did they do. A1: Should talk about general last maintenance tune, but if older than a year, suspension tune, this answer includes the front "fork" had a maintenance on XX date AND the "Shock" was last serviced on YY date, usually a longer interval like "1yr fork basic tune and 2 yrs back on shock full rebuild", the other answer might be "I don't know" = never done, like that used car was never taken into the shop, so assume that from the date of the model year (date built) it was never serviced. Note a shock rebuild can cost $200-$500, a fork service is $80 basic - $300. Look at the seller that rode the bike, if a big guy = higher wear, if a small guy or another kid, less wear in general so full shop servicing is less likely. Look for scratches, post particular the stanchions (the gold, black or silver part or the suspension) scratches there are bad, more than cosmetic they collect dust and degrade the suspension faster, bad scratches assume you may be replacing sooner. Look for fluid leaks in suspension and test disc brakes (don't buy non-disc brake MTBs). Look at the tires, new treads are ~$60 per wheel if near end of life. If the little "rubber hair" is on the tread it's pretty new and has good life. One other shopping trick the downside of the frame downtube, feel the frame for chips and dings on the frame, if this has a lot of them, the bike is likely been ridden pretty hard, if like new, feel good about the purchase. Lastly go to YouTube and check out other videos on "how to buy a used mountain bike"
Simple things to do well on race day
That doesn't require a new bike…
Know the course
The term "local knowledge" is always a factor in racing. Racing bikes and even more in motor sports, dirt bike to formula 1, all the top finishers spend extensive time memorizing the course, knowing every curve and how to approach and exit the course. How does this translate to riding NICA? Know the course. Study the course while sitting there in the car, think of where the passing lanes are, where it's single track and know passing. If just starting, know how to pass. It is proper form to call out "Passing!" and even better "PASSING on your LEFT!, where in the heat of it all the rider you intend to pass will only hear "PASS" and "LEFT" and pray they don't move left.
Maintain your bike
Maintenance is crucial. Regularly maintain your bike, make sure you keep spares. When practicing, ride with the parts should you get a flat. (Tube, CO2 or Pump), and if your chain fails (MasterLink = must match your bike's chain ie. SRAM Eagle 12speed vs a 11, 10 speed use different master links). Keep a clean chain. After flats, chain breaks are the next most common thing. Inspect the drive train, is it smooth shifting? (At NICA races there's often a mechanics at the race that can inspect your bike, but note the thousands of kids that race may have lines so if it's a big concern take it in before.
Sat cool and energized
Maybe a topic on it's own, but know your body. If taking energy goo's and drinks, don't try them the first time at a race. DON'T. Start trying them at practices. Eat well the night before, stay hydrated etc.
Get in the game
You've practiced hard, you know the course, you steed (bike) is sound, and you're feeling great (nutrition), remind yourself - REMIND YOURSELF YOU CAN DO THIS and most of all HAVE FUN WITH THIS.