How to Test Ride a Bike: Part II, Off-Road

How to Test Ride a Bike: Part II, Off-Road

When test riding a mountain bike, most—but not all—of the rules applied to test riding a road bike apply to a mountain bike. Because mountain biking is in such a state of technological evolution, most riders I have talked to this season have said that their next bike is unlikely to be of the same general category as their last. Some riders are moving from 29-inch wheels to 27.5. Or they are moving from 27.5 to 27.5 Plus, or from hard tail cross country to trail. I’ve not spoken to a single rider this year who plans to purchase a bike with either the same amount of travel or the same wheel/tire size as they currently own.

If you fall into that group, there are a few things to keep in mind when you go out for your test ride.

All the same rules apply to a mountain bike ride in terms of finding a dealer who will allow you to take the bike for a ride beyond their parking lot. If you can’t ride the thing on trails, there’s no point. Focus on the size of the bike and suspension design rather than the component spec if the exact model you desire isn’t available.

Mountain bike fit can be a bit more forgiving than road fit and weight distribution isn’t quite as critical because you’re moving around on the bike a good deal more, rather than planted in one position for miles at a time. When you get to the dealer, know your saddle height as well as you saddle-to-bar reach. Even if you plan to ride the same category of bike (i.e. cross-country or trail), knowing your preferred bar height may not be useful; differences in tire and wheel sizes, BB drop and suspension travel can all affect your bar height.

What is truly important is working with a shop tech to make sure the suspension is set up for your weight. If you tend to wear a hydration pack, make sure you have it on during setup. Improperly set up suspension can give you the wrong impression of a bike and its abilities. Similarly, unless by some chance that you’ll be riding the same tire and wheel size, don’t bother with your usual tire pressure. Ask the shop staff what is appropriate to that bike’s setup.

The ride
Just as riding the roads you know blind is critical to an informative test ride of a road bike, riding the trails with which you are most familiar is how you will best learn if that bike works for you. Being on unfamiliar trails can make a test ride difficult. The combination of a new trail and different bike can undermine confidence. If you can’t ride trails you know, then it’s helpful to stick to terrain easier than you might usually ride.

If you can ride trails you know, here’s a little trick to try. Choose a short loop and then do it once—twice if it’s really short—taking exactly the same line in each turn you usually take. On successive tries, experiment with new lines, especially if you’re on a bike with more travel, bigger wheels or wider tires. It can be a great way to open your eyes to a bike’s abilities.

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  1. Don Cafferty

    “When you get to the dealer, know your … saddle-to-bar reach. Even if you plan to ride the same category of bike (i.e. cross-country or trail), knowing your preferred bar height may not be useful …”. Excuse me, I am a “roadie” and not familiar with mountain bikes other than my fat bike. Because of the contradiction, perhaps more clarification is needed (at least for me).

    1. Author

      What sort of clarification are you looking for? I’m not sure which specific point you’re referring to, but happy to help.

  2. Tom in Albany

    So, will a bike shop really let you take their shiny, new mountain bike and thrash it on the trails? It would seem to me that they’re taking a fair bit of risk.

    1. Mike E.

      Some of the shops in my area have demo/rental fleets of current models (for their mountain bike lines). The cost of the demo/rental goes towards a new bike if you decide to buy.

    2. Author

      There are plenty of shops that keep a few bikes around specifically for test rides. The best opportunity is when a manufacturer visits the local dealer with their demo fleet, though. Just ask. The worst they can do is say no.

  3. Don Cafferty

    Stack, reach and saddle setback are typically measured with respect to distance from the centre of the bottom bracket. When measured this way, stack height of the handlebars should not be affected by wheel size or tire diameter. Saddle setback and reach are independent of one another. Two bicycles could have the same saddle to bar measurement and also have different saddle setback and reach measurements because the two bicycles have different seat tube angles. When measured from the centre of the bottom bracket, the angle of the seat tube is not a factor. As a protocol, bike fitters establish saddle height and setback first and then determine reach. When I bought my fat bike, reach was not a problem but initially I could not obtain my required saddle setback until a different saddle with longer rails was used. In cycling forums, there is sometimes discussion of cyclists seeking a different seat post in order to lengthen or shorten the saddle’s setback. It is better to determine whether the necessary setback can be achieved before purchase of the bike rather than after. The above measurements can be done in the store. Lennard Zinn provides an explanation for measuring stack and reach at

    1. Author

      You raise a number of great points that definitely apply to a pro fit session. My point is that in doing a demo ride, bike setup isn’t as thorough as in a full fitting. Measuring proper setback, stack and reach isn’t something that happens in test rides at most shops and never at the demo days I’ve attended. And if you’ve been riding a 29er and are considering 27.5, measuring from the ground to the bar doesn’t help.

  4. Don Cafferty

    I understand Padraig. Because of one bad experience, I don’t test ride bikes unless I can achieve my fit. Also, if I decide to purchase the bike, i know what I have to do to achieve my fit. With my cyclocroos bike, it meant a longer stem. I was able to include that as part of the sale.

  5. Winky

    Mountain bikes have become comically oversized. The cover photo looks like something out Land of the Giants.

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