Buying your first mountain bike – top tips and handy hints

Recently I seem to have come across lots of people wanting advice on buying their first mountain bike so I thought I’d collate it all into a post to make things easier.

So if you are reading this you have either decided you want to buy a mountain bike or you are looking for advice to give to someone. Well there are 2 ways to go about it, the short way or the long way.

First off the short way is just to go into a good bike shop (I’m going to write another post on how to find one of these) and just ask straight up “Whats the best first mountain bike you have for me?”. Chances are they will try to ask you a load of questions which you may or may not be able to answer but if you push through that and dogmatically focus on the answer to the simple question they will make a recommendation and point you to a bike. There is a damn good chance that this will be entirely suitable and highly likely the bike you will end up with if you go the long route. Staff in good bike shops know what they are doing, know what are good bikes for folks to get started on and know local trails. Take their recommendation and buy that bike.

There you go, job done. Now just go and ride!!

The problem with the short method is for a lot of people they need to be surer than that and need a whole load of information to understand the decision. I get that, its the way I buy stuff to so lets look at the long method.

So when you go into ‘the good bike shop’ the staff are going to need some information so they can advise you best, lets start there.

The first questions you need to know the answers to are “Where am I going to ride my mountain bike?” and “Who am I going to ride with?”. These are crucial questions to find answers to because without these answers chances are buying a mountain bike will be a complete waste of money anyway.

If you don’t already have a good answers to these 2 questions one of the best places to start is again your ‘good bike shop’. Go and talk to them about the local trails and clubs then go and check them out the trails yourself Even without a bike its worth a look to see whats there. Many bike shops will have demo bikes available, take one with you. Even if there is a ‘hire’ charge this will be 100% worth while.

The reason you need to have answers to these questions is that the type of bike that would be ideal as your first bike could vary dependant on the types of trails locally and the people you will be riding with will also make a difference.

This point is important. When buying a new bike you are probably best off buying something quite similar to the people you are going to be riding with, if you are going to ride regularly you are going to end up with one anyway so you might as well bite the bullet nice and early.

It happens all the time, it goes something like this: A person goes to a shop to buy a bike so they can ‘try out’ this ‘new to them’ sport with a load of friends who have encouraged them to do so. These friends have all the gear including skill compensating dual suspension bikes. Newbie has checked out the cost of these and once his eyes stopped watering they decided to dip their toe in the water with a budget hard tail (only front suspension) that cost 25% of their mates bikes. Newbie then goes out with the gang for rides with said mates only to find that while they love a lot of the experience they have a sore arse and are constantly left behind. They lust after  a bike like the friends have.

This goes 1 of 2 ways. Either the person stops going riding with this gang and the cheap option bike sits in the corner collecting dust or they buy another bike like their mates and wish they had just done that in the first place.

So at this point you have the information for the next phase of your bike purchase. You have a good idea of where you are likely to ride and who with. Hopefully you’ve hired or demoed a bike at one of these locations or borrowed one from a mate. This way you will know that you enjoyed it and so the money wont be wasted.

The next phase is about working out what bike is going to be most suitable for you. The trap folks fall into here is looking at spec sheets and price. They do this because its easy. The problem is what matters most is what bikes fit you best and this cant be done from internet spec sheets or catalogues. Fortunately it is relatively easy to do but it does take a bit of time.

What you need to do now is go to as many different bike shops as you possibly can and sit on as many bikes as you possibly can, if possible ride them around the car park. You should also have a quick go on as many of your friends bikes as you possibley can. Even better is hiring bikes and demoing bikes. NB it does NOT matter what the spec is. Its really really surprising what you will find out from this exercise.

Different bikes fit different people differently. What you are looking for are the bikes that feel right for you. Everyones body geometry is subtly different. Some folks have long arms in proportion to their height, some folks have long legs and a short body, some are statistically normal, it doesnt matter. Interestingly different manufacturers tend towards a different fit, some have short top tubes, others are proportionally longer, different seat angles change things again. Remember IGNORE the specifications and the bits hanging off the bike, its all about what feels right.

Try lots of bikes and talk to lots of shop staff. They wont mind (or they shouldn’t!!) its their job to help you and if they do the job well you are highly likely to appreciate it and buy stuff off them when you are ready.

So now you know where you are likely to ride your new bike and who with so you will be narrowing down the type of bike that is going to be best for you. You’ll have tried a few bikes out and hopefully found some that for some weird reason felt ‘righter’ than others. You will have also visited your local bike shops and made a judgement on whether they are a ‘good’ bike shop or not. You have your ‘short list’.

Bear in mind that recommendations you get from a lot of people will be based on what suits them or feels right for them. Don’t ignore it but don’t give it anywhere near as much weight as what feels right for you

As long as you are buying a bike that feels right you cant really go wrong. If you are someone who needs to buy a bargain then do your shopping around, just don’t fall into the trap of buying a bike that you don’t know will feel right.

The specifications of the components don’t matter too much for now, its difficult to buy a bad bike nowadays if its from a reputable brand. As this is your first bike its not guaranteed you are going to get maximum use out of it so its worth airing on the side of caution. If you use the bike lots then you will end up replacing some bits through wear and tear anyway so upgrades can be done then. As you go through this process you will learn loads anyway and will want to change things to customise the bike so it suits you even better.

For your first bike my recommendation is to buy from one of those ‘good bike shops’ you’ve visited as second hand is fraught with pitfalls if you don’t know what you are looking for. One option is to buy a second hand bike off one of those riding buddies you’ve identified. People tend to be reluctant to sell bad bikes or the wrong bike to someone who is going to give them hell for it later. But new bikes do just work and there is a lot to be said for that plus you will get some initial servicing as part of the deal and this is very useful.

At then end of the day the best bike is the one you’ve got and can ride so get one and get out there riding. Don’t get caught procrastinating to the point where you don’t ride enough.

So to summarise:

  1. Have a good idea where you are likely to ride and who with.
  2. Visit as many bike shops and sit on/ride as many bikes as possible
  3. Talk though recommendations with lots of shop staff.
  4. Buy a bike that feels right, dont worry about the specifications and bits too much, they are not very important and can be changed
  5. Go ride the hell out of it and have a ball



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Fat-Skeptic to Fat-Evangilist in just one bike

In May last year (2012) I had a go on the fatbike that Andy had brought to try on the sand. I was very fat-skeptic.

“Of course a bike wont work on the deserts soft sand”, I thought.

Oh how wrong I was. From that brief play on a small dune just outside Arabian Ranches I almost ran home and started googling everything  could about fatbikes. There wasnt much about using them on sand, most of it was about snow biking and the growing interest around the world in riding the 82mm rim / 4 inch tyre combinations on trails.

I came to the conclusion that for use on the sand I needed as big a tyre as I could get and by luck I came across information about the relatively new Surly Moonlander with its 100mm Clown Shoe rims and 4.7″ Big Fat Larry tyres. I quickly decided this was my best option and set about buying one even convincing Damian in the process to get one at the same time (took 10 minutes on the phone, it wasnt hard and he’s a soft touch for a new cycling idea!)

Since picking the resulting purchase up from Abu Dhabi airport I’ve had a cycling epiphany. I’ve learnt a lot about the desert I’m surrounded by, I’ve started cycling to work occasionally because I can now, I can cycle from my door into a desert dotted with camel farms, inhabited by a significant population of gazelle and onyx and I’ve even been lucky enough to be part of the group of cyclists that crossed the Liwa desert by bike for the first time, 2 days that are right up there in my list of top cycling days ever.

I’m going to put together as much as I can about what I’ve learnt over the past 10 months to give those new to fat bikes in the desert an ‘information’ leg up. I’ve got a few posts to write including places I’ve been riding (I’ll include some GPX (GPS compatible) files), technical information like my tubeless experience (very +ve btw) and of course all the details for anyone wanting to repeat the Liwa crossing.

Hopefully by the time you read this there will be a UAE Sandbiking option in the blogs page menu at the top below the main picture. Click on it and it will take you to my collection of information I’ve been putting together



Posted in Arabian Adventures, Cycling, Moonlander, Sand Biking, Surly | 4 Comments

Dear Blog – please accept my apologies

for I have been neglecting you for far to long.

Starting with this post I aim to make it back up to you in some small way by paying you some attention.

My excuse is poor, I was initially distracted by glossy print and then suffered a bit of writers block leading to me not writing or producing images of anything for anyone, not even you dear Blog.

So to make amends I’m going to start a new page detailing my new found enthusiasm for cycling in the desert. I need to tell you all about it, about some big adventures I’ve had and about future plans. I’ve got some plans to use video as well as photos too so we’ll see how that goes.

I intend to spend plenty more time in Oman surfing this summer too. I felt like I missed out last summer with all the visa and passport malarky to start off with and then not being at home much as the summer wore on. I will have a root through some of the photos from last summers travels and share the better less boring holiday snaps with you too, I’ll not to over do it though, most holiday snaps are only interesting for those who were there!

So enough apologies, action speaks louder than words.


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12/10/2012 Showka Descents Video + Wadi Racer Strava Segment

Had a great ride yesterday. I’ve quickly put together some of the chest mounted GoPro footage edited to include some of the key descents of the area and posted it on my vimeo account

It includes a full un edited run of Wadi Racer which is in my opinion the definitive Hot Cog track. I’ve set up a Strava segment called “Wadi Racer Short TT” that can be found at

So lets see who is quickest along this very gradually descending fast and technical boulder fest. If your going to play make sure your bike is feeling strong 😉



Posted in Arabian Adventures, BMC, Cycling, Mountain Biking, Trail Fox TR02, Video | Leave a comment

to write or not to write? this is the question

Last week a walker who’s plan had been to complete a circuit in the Wadi Ghalilah area in the Hajar Mountains, just outside of Ras Al Khaimah, was late ringing in to his family as planned. This obviously worried them greatly and they tried to do something to raise the alarm and in the process a friend of mine, Simon Cahill of Arabia Outdoors, was contacted. To mount a search in this part of the Hajar mountains is a particularly difficult task. The ground is very steep and uncompromising mountainous terrain, its a very big area that even includes an international border plus there is a very limited number of people in the area with the expertise to even participate in the search let alone organise it. On top of that the alarm was raised as it was getting dark. Although the family were worried there was a high probability that the walker was just running a bit later than planned. A search of walking reports from this area will show plenty of people who have been for an adventure there who have found it tougher than the expected and got back down later than planned so it is a normal thing to have happen.

Early the next morning, with the walker still missing, Ras Al Khaimah police mounted a search at first light that also utilised their helicopter. Unfortunately they found the walkers body, a tragic outcome for the persons family and friends.

While I don’t know how they are feeling as I don’t know them at all and I believe its important not to assume, what I do know is how I’ve felt in the past when close friends have died in mountaineering accidents, its tough as hell. A couple of them (there have been 4 total in 3 separate incidents) were very very close friends, the kind who don’t slip out of your memory, the kind I will always miss. Procrastinating about what it is I’ve been asked to do has meant they have been right at the forefront of my mind more than usual and its caused some tough moments for me in the past few days as a result. I wish I could talk to them about it, their thoughts and opinions would be great to have right now (and always).

What it is I’ve been questioning is I’ve been asked by Outdoor UAE to submit a piece concerning the accident. Part of the reason for this is that there has been quite a bit of news coverage in the national press here in the UAE. This is partly because the walkers planned route included the infamous, notorious and spectacular Stairway To Heaven (a ‘path’ that follows a wild line up through the Wadi Ghaliah headwall built by the Hajar’s hill tribes to give them a shortcut between RAK and the large plateau area at the top). There are sections where the tribesmen built steps out of piles of stones, the thing is that these so called steps seem to defy gravity as the piles of stones extend out from the cliff.

The Stairway to Heaven is describes in Explore Publishing’s UAE Offroad Guide and is therefore one of the only walking routes described in any detail in any easily available publication. This is something lots of people seem to have an opinion on 🙄

The reporting that I have seen in the national press has at best had significant inaccuracies based on the information I have been given, but at worst has been sensational badly written tripe full of contradictions. Put simply its been SHITE in my opinion. My ‘source’, Simon, is certainly what I would describe as very trustworthy and has been closer than most to the actual story. It is a fact that there are no witnesses to the incident that lead to this persons death but there are some reasonable assumptions that can be made based on what information I have and after discussions with other people who know the area and the same information I think we are agreed that in all likelihood the incident that lead to the injuries happened at about 5pm in an area of steep broken ground quite late in the descent. i.e. NOT a fall from the spectacular and exposed Stairway to Heaven as every paper seems to have reported (one even reported that he had fallen into a crevasse!! Yeah, right, the UAE is famous for its crevasses obviously).

So eventually (sorry not very good at getting to the point, it takes a while) I get to my original question regarding the piece I’ve been asked to write. Its been requested something concerning both the accident AND mountain safety itself.

Well the accident bit of it is easy because I think I have access to good information. The problem is the mountain safety advice.

I have some quite strong opinions on this kind of thing, the kind that some folks might get very wound up over and while it might not seem like it sometimes I don’t actually like to wind people up, flip side is I’m confident my opinions are pretty good and based on some significant personal experience from a lot of time playing a lot of ‘outdoor’ games so perhaps some people would do as well to listen.

In a nutshell I think that if folks want a nice safe life free from any risk then more fool them. Let them sit on the sofa watching telly and get obese (DOH! so much for avoiding risk ha ha!!). If folks want to do what some would perceive as stupid and risking such injury that may even put their life in danger then let em fill their boots. Why not?

NB I dont support at all folks doing stupid things that put other people in danger! Those tossers weaving through the traffic at breakneck speeds in huge 4wd vehicles on the Emirates Road in Sharjah (still dont get why the driving is so bad specifically on that bit of road). I’d love to see those people caught by the police and prosecuted with the full force of the law.

But folks putting themselves at risk for shits and giggles, why not? See the problem is that both risk and safety are completely subjective, one persons dangerous could be another persons walk in the park.

Safety guidelines that fit with the ethos of the adventurous activities/games we play have always seemed fundamentally flawed. Some examples:

  1. Never go alone – problem is I’ve had some of my best experiences in the outdoors alone. I love not having to organise or be organised. I love the simplicity of it and the pure feeling of self reliance. It may be mountain biking, mountaineering, kayaking or climbing. By myself the other day kayaking on the Black Run at Wadi Adventure, no one could see me, no one was ‘watching my back’. It felt like an easy place to maybe take a roll, wouldn’t be hard if this happened to smack my face on an obstacle under the water and brain myself, unconcious, injured and upside down I’m up against that fundamental safety problem with watersports that humans cant breathe water. By the time I’d have come into view of the rafting base I would have been in a bit of a state. But it felt great, exciting and empowering, the same as soloing a climb. These are things that on the surface are a bit daft but a lot of people know the benefits can outweigh the risks.
  2. Only go where you know where you are going or where someone you are with has experience – wheres the exploration and fun in that!!!!  If this is one of the things everyone should be doing then how is anyone ever going to find anywhere new? Around the world nations hold their famous explorers as hero’s, think of the places no one would know about, both a big and small scale if this, sensible on the surface of it guideline had been adhered to by everyone.
  3. Stay within your abilities – another load of tripe. My recommendation is to go out and take a great big bite of more than you can chew. Nothing beats that feeling of ‘oh shit, here we go’ but then succeeding despite it, even failing and taking a pasting feels great in the end because you tried. How will you ever know your current limits if you don’t explore right up to and beyond where you think they might be. Staying within your comfort zone is just a route to a life of mediocrity, cardigans and slippers. Bleugh!!

So from receiving a request for an article about guidelines for mountain safety I find myself wanting to say to everyone go out and find your limits, even cross the line where you think they may be and do it where you know nothing about where you are and do it alone!!

Hmmmm, doesn’t sound very sensible does it, hmmmmm, does sound kinda fun though!

If you choose to accept my, what I think is excellent, advice can I just point out something that I think is VERY IMPORTANT. If you follow my advice dont come crying to me, or anyone else for that matter, when it all goes horribly wrong.

Take responsibility for yourself and your actions.

That is the thing that is most likely to actually keep you safe. Forget any poxy safety guidelines written in some mythical outdoor safety manual. Do your research, make a plan, be properly prepared and then go and have a fantastic adventure with only yourself to blame for the consequences. This can be done with other people, taking responsibility doesn’t just happen when your solo.

Every one I know who are what could be described as good climbers/kayakers/mountaineers/surfers/outdoorsmen etc are all people who fully take responsibility for themselves. They make sure they fully understand the game they are playing and plan, prepare and then get out there. Some times they get their butts kicked and everyone laughs about it over a drink. Sometimes its not funny at all and the consequences are brutal for all concerned. Why folks continue to do it despite these consequences is a whole other blog post I’ll need to help me think about it.

to write or not to write? hmmmm, dont know.

Lastly to the family, just in case someone one of you reads this, please accept my sincerest condolences. It tore me apart when similar happened to me but I’m soooooo glad I knew them and they were my friends. I’m pretty sure that none of them or me can/would/could/should change a thing. They were all people who’s light burned brightly and I loved them very much for that and miss them badly.

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First ride at Showka on the BMC Trail Fox (inc Video)

On Thursday I received a BMC Trail Fox TR02 from Adventure HQ in Times Square, Dubai. I’ve set up a page under “My Bikes” to post detailed information about it. You can find the page at

Here is a youtube video I’ve put together using footage from a chest mounted Gopro camera I was wearing on the bikes inaugral / shakedown ride at Showka on Friday morning.

The first outing and shake down ride for the BMC Trail Fox. Out from the roundabout Weaved our way up to and through Lisa’s Gash to the top of the bridge descent. The descent from the bridge is feeling great ATM! Then through and up to Wadi Racer. From the top of the steep gully across the ‘plain’ and then down the wadi to the resting tree by the farm took about 9:51. This should be clocked on Strava as the short Wadi Racer time trial. There needs to be a longer one that includes the ascent. From there it was over and round Gregors Mount (pause for face plant incident) before heading home. Just over 30km I believe. Top ride. New bike was tested on some of the best and toughest that Showka has to offer and I’ve got to say I’m pretty damn impressed! Great ride folks, shukkran

Music Rolling in the Deep by Adele. Taken From The Brand New Album 21. No Copywright Intended. Always Support the Artist. Order/Download from Amazon- Hmv- or iTunes-

For more information on mountain biking in the UAE check out the UAE Mountain Biking page on my blog at

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Gear Review in May’s Outdoor UAE Magazine – Columbia Powerdrain Shoe

In this months Outdoor UAE we had a pair of Columbia Powerdrain shoes on test.

click the image for larger version

My conclusion was

If the idea of a good all round shoe that performs just as well when wet as dry, is nice and grippy on both wet and dry surfaces, looks subtly neat and drys pretty damn quickly to boot appeals then these are the best I’ve seen. I’d recommend these to anyone with a boat, anyone who spends time in and around the water’s edge and particularly to anyone participating in activities like rafting where foot protection is important both in the craft and out on rough watersides where toenails have a tendency to get torn off in the rocks or the soles of feet get cut. Get the right size and these will do most things well wet or dry.

If you want to find out the details get yourself a copy of the magazine

Columbia is available through both Columbia and Sun and Sand Sports stores. You can contact them through their facebook page at



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