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.
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.