Updated: Mar 26
"We signed up for the bike team, and now we need to get a bike. What should we buy?"
We get that same question before every season—several times. And rightfully so. A new bike is a big purchase, and all the options can be intimidating.
But with a little direction, your kid can be off-and-riding on just the right bike for programs like Eau Claire Youth Cycling and NICA.
TLDR: If you just want a stress-free, no-brainer suggestion, jump to the "Just tell me what to buy!" section at the end of this post.
WHAT'S CONSIDERED A MOUNTAIN BIKE?
At the most basic level, you’re going to want a bike designed to handle off-road trails and encounters with rocks, roots, and dirt. Compared to other types of bikes, mountain bikes typically have wider tires, better brakes, and a more rugged build.
Most will also have some sort of suspension to smooth out the humps and bumps, just like your car does. And this is where one of your first choices comes in —front or full suspension.
Front suspension bikes — also called hardtails — have suspension at the front wheel only. Full-suspension bikes have suspension at both the front and rear wheels. Full-suspension will give you a smoother ride, but you’ll pay more money for it and will have a heavier and theoretically slower bike.
For the type of trails youth bike programs ride, either front or full-suspension is fine.
SO. MANY. OPTIONS.
The choices don’t stop there. In an effort to target as many niches as possible, the bike industry cranks out a huge variety of wheeled objects under the “mountain bike” name.
Some of the common brand names to look for are Trek, Giant, Specialized, Salsa, Kona, and Marin. Buy a mountain bike from one of these brands, and you can be comfortable that it'll be suitable for off-road riding.
Avoid Schwinn, Huffy, Mongoose and other brands sold in big-box stores like Target and Walmart. While they might be called “mountain bikes”, I’d call them MBSOs — mountain bike-shaped objects. They have low-quality parts, are often poorly assembled, and can be significantly heavier than their quality counterparts. Ok for riding around the neighborhood or to-and-from school, but frustrating and potentially dangerous on trails.
The mountain bike category has been broken down into sub-categories based on the type of terrain you plan to ride. Want to go fast down steep & rocky hills? Spend a week biking through the wilderness? Speed along on smooth singletrack? Brave ice and snow? Categories include, downhill, enduro, XC, all-mountain, trail, fat, etc.
For Midwest riding with your local youth program, look for an "XC", "cross-country", or "trail" bike. These categories are well-suited for climbing, descending moderate hills, and the relatively flat terrain of we have a lot of here in Wisconsin.
Avoid e-bikes (with electric assist motors) and single-speed bikes (only one gear) if your child will be doing NICA youth races — they’re not allowed.
The bikes you’ll find will mostly have frames made of either aluminum or carbon. Carbon is somewhat lighter, rides somewhat smoother, and is more expensive. In the context of a new biker joining a youth program, your wallet's more likely to discern the difference than your child will. Don't stress this decision, as your budget will likely make the choice for you.
It’s important to get the right size bike. Check out the size charts on manufacturers’ websites. Ask a salesperson. Do a quick test ride. Since your child is probably still growing, go a size up if they’re in between, but don’t force it.
WHERE TO BUY A NEW BIKE
Ok, you've got a better idea of what kind of bike to buy. Now, where should you shop for one?
LBS (Local Bike Shop)
A locally owned bike shop is going to have good, reliable bikes and will be able to tell you what the best option is for the type of riding your child will be doing. If you’re fortunate enough to have multiple shops nearby, visit a few and consider the following:
Do they have the kind of customer service that makes you want to build an ongoing relationship with their shop? (You’ll be back when you need service, repairs, gear, and upgrades)
Do they take time to put your child on the right size bike, and do they include minor fit adjustments in the sale price?
Do they have a variety of bikes in stock to choose from? Do they allow test rides (when the weather is nice)?
Do they support the local youth team and/or trail organizations? (Buying from shops like these leads to a stronger mountain bike community in the long run.)
Don’t worry too much about the specific brands they carry. The difference between the common reputable brands at a given price point can be negligible — parts and quality will be similar.
Retail bike chain or sporting goods store with a dedicated bike shop
Stores like Scheel’s, REI, and Erik’s can have similar service and product offerings as an LBS. As above, visit, ask questions, and see if you like what they have to offer.
Just like anything else, you can find a new bike online. Many bike shops have web portals, and most manufacturers allow you to buy directly through their own websites. There are even companies that only sell their bikes online.
Online shopping makes it easy to find what you're looking for, and you don't have to worry about what is or isn't in stock locally. But you miss out on the benefits of a shop owner or salesperson being there to listen to your needs and ensure your child gets just the right bike in just the right size.
HOW MUCH TO SPEND
This largely comes down to your budget. New mountain bikes can cost anywhere from $500 to $10,000-plus. What you need to know, though, is that more money doesn't mean faster or more fun. You don't need to spend five grand for your child to enjoy the sport or do well in races. And remember, they're probably still growing. Chances are they'll grow out of this bike in just a year or two.
Based on our experience, a "good enough" price for middle and high school kids is $700 or so. That'll get you a more-than-capable bike for our purposes here.
Finding a good deal on a used bike used to be easier. Then COVID came along. Participation in cycling shot way up, and at the same time, factory production went way down. Suddenly, you had to pay a lot more for a used bike, if you could find one at all.
A couple of years later, deals are a little easier to come by, but it helps to have patience and know exactly what you're looking for (and what to watch out for). Be forewarned, buying used is more work, carries more risk, and usually leaves you without a warranty or shop having your back, should something go wrong. But if the seller is someone you know and trust -- like a coach or a teammate -- it's a very viable option.
If you do decide to take a chance and hunt for a used bike, check out Pinkbike, Facebook Marketplace, or bike-related Facebook Groups. Visit your local bike shop, too.; sometimes they have a selection of previously owned bikes.
BEYOND THE BIKE
Once you've got a bike for your child, don't forget the other gear they'll need to be safe and prepared out on the trails. The following are either essential or highly recommended:
Helmet - All youth bike programs will require this, and it's just a no-brainer (pun intended).
Bike shoes or sneakers - They don't have to be cycling-specific, but should be closed-toe, not sandals.
H2O - Either a water bottle and bottle cage or a hydration backpack.
Spare tube, patch kit, and mini pump - Flat tires happen. Every rider should carry what they need to make it back to the trailhead.
Snack - Your child is the engine on their bike, and engines need fuel.
Trail Organization Membership - There's no such thing as trail fairies. A lot of volunteer time and energy goes into the trails we ride. Supporting the local club -- like CORBA here in Eau Claire -- is the best way to say "thank you!"
JUST TELL ME WHAT TO BUY!
OK, maybe this is all more info than you can handle, and you just want us to make it super-simple. Here's our stress-free, easy-to-follow advice:
Pick a price point you can afford, between $700 and $2000.
Find a reputable bike shop nearby that carries a quality brand like Trek, Giant, Specialized, Kona, Salsa, Salsa, or Marin. (Avoid Walmart and Target and brands like Huffy, Mongoose, and Schwinn).
Tell the salesperson you want a bike for your child who will be joining the local youth mountain biking team.
Choose a model they recommend that falls in your price range and fits your child right.
Yes, this is simplistic and ignores things like suspension, wheel sizes, frame materials, and so on. But if your goal is just to get something your child can enjoy bike team with, you can do so confidently with this method.
AND THAT'S IT!
Just remember, there is no perfect bike. There's no magic amount of money you need to spend. Getting outdoors, being active, and enjoying the trails are the truly important things. Now go ride, and have fun!