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New Mountain Bike Setup Guide

September 3, 2021

So you’ve just picked up a new or second-hand bike and you’re not quite sure how to get it set up for you? Here are a few simple tips to help you get comfy and ready to hit the trails.

Jump To Section:

  1. Safety Checks
  2. Seat Height
  3. Tyre Pressure
  4. Handlebar Height
  5. Cockpit Setup
  6. Suspension Basics
  7. Hydration, Tools, and Spares
  8. Jargon Buster

What You’ll Need:

  1. Allen Keys or Multi-tool (torque wrench recommended)
  2. Tyre Pump (preferably with a gauge)
  3. Shock Pump
  4. Ruler or Measuring Tape
  5. Mobile phone with a level app
  6. A friend or helper (optional)

1. Safety Checks

"It's a good idea to give the bike a once over to make sure everything is done up properly before heading out on its maiden voyage"

Assuming that you’ve picked up your bike from a store, or bought it from somebody second hand (we’ll save assembling a bike from the box for another day), they really should have done this for you...

But even the best mechanics can get distracted and overlook an important step while prepping your bike so it’s a good idea to give everything a once-over to make sure nothing comes loose or falls off on your first ride.

A torque wrench is recommended if you have carbon parts and/or have never worked on a bike before but it’s not essential.

Most bolts on a bike only need somewhere between 3-6Nm of torque which might be less than you’d think, so don’t go crazy cranking things down. Just make sure that they're not loose and you should be fine.

Concentrate on what you're doing and make sure that the allen key is bottomed out in the bolt head before you start turning it so you don’t slip and round it out. You'll probably need to undo it again later on!

Things to Check:

  • Stem: Where it clamps it to the fork as well as where it clamps the handlebars.
  • Pedals: Note that the right pedal threads in clockwise while the left pedal threads in anti-clockwise.
  • Wheel Axles: Make sure that quick-release levers are closed and positioned correctly, bolt-up axles are snug.
  • Suspension Pivots: Check all the pivot bolts and make sure nothing is loose. Check them all again after the first couple of rides.
  • Brake Pads: The pads are secured with a small bolt or a retaining pin. Make sure these are in place or your pads might fall out on the trail (it happens!).

"Brake pads can fall out on the trail if the retaining bolt is misplaced or comes loose. They are fairly delicate and only need the tiniest amount of torque so be gentle."

"QR Levers should point up or back so that they are nicely tucked away. Don't ever have them pointing forwards or they could get snagged on trailside objects and come loose."

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2. Seat Height

Getting your saddle height right will not only make your pedalling more efficient, it will also maximise your comfort and reduce the chance of injury to your knees or lower back. It’s worth taking a little time to get it right before you hit the trails.

At the correct seat height your leg should have a slight bend of approx 25-35 degrees when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke.

There are a few fancy ways that professional bike fitters might use to determine your seat height but we’ll focus on the heel method which is easy to do at home, in a car park or even during a ride.

The more scientific methods might be more accurate (and expensive), but the heel method is a great starting point and might be all you’ll ever need to use.

"Set your seat height so that your leg is fully straight when your heel is on the pedal at the lowest part of the pedal stroke."

"Your leg should have a slight bend of approx 25-35 degrees when your foot is placed on the pedal normally. My pasty leg is just on 25 degrees here"

The Heel Method

  • Wear your riding gear and the shoes you’ll be riding in.
  • Put your bike on a trainer or next to something you can balance against while sitting in a normal seated position (or get a helper to hold you).
  • Place your heel on the centre of the pedal and pedal backwards a couple of times to get you settled on the seat, come to rest with the pedal down around the 6 o’clock position and inline with the angle of your seat tube.
  • Your hips should be square with even pressure on your sit bones and your leg almost fully locked out. If there is a bend in your leg, raise the saddle, if you can’t reach the pedal with your heel, lower the saddle.
  • Put your foot back on the pedal normally. There should be a slight bend in your leg of around 25-35 degrees.
  • Go for a ride and get somebody to watch your hips from behind as you pedal. If there is any rocking in your hips or you need to point your toes at the bottom of the pedal stroke your seat is too high. Lower it 10-20mm at a time until those things go away.
  • If in doubt, err on the side of being a little on the low side. Having the seat slightly too low is much better for you than having it too high.

For/Aft Position and Angle

"A level app on your phone placed on a hard flat surface like a clipboard allows you to take repeated measurements with consistency when adjusting your seat angle."

"Markings on the saddle rails serve as a visual guide to assist with fore/aft positioning."

  • Start with the saddle level and centered on the rails. Your phone probably has a level app on it which is handy for this.
  • You might find it more comfortable angled down a couple of degrees if you do a lot of climbing or you’re riding a full suspension bike with a lot of sag.
  • If it feels like you’re too far behind the pedals or like you’re riding a recumbent bike you might need to slide the saddle forward on the rails.
  • If you feel pain or discomfort in the front of your knees you might be too far forward.
  • If you keep gravitating towards the tip of the saddle you might have it set too high and you’re subconsciously sliding forward to compensate. Lower your seat height by 10-20mm and see if it helps you keep your sit bones in the right spot.

"If it feels like you're riding one of these your seat might be too far back"

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3. Tyre Pressure

Not sure where to start with tyre pressures? Try using an online calculator like this one to get you in the ball park.

If you’re buying a bike through a shop I would 100% recommend that you pay a little extra to get them to do a tubeless conversion for you. That way you won’t have to worry about pesky thorns ruining your day and you can run much lower pressures for better traction and comfort.

If you already have the bike and it still has tubes we have a super in-depth blog about how to do a tubeless conversion yourself HERE

If you’re sure that you want to stick with tubes, check out the Tannus Armour Tyre Insert, or one of the new breed of lightweight puncture-resistant tubes such as the Tubolito, Schwalbe Aerothan, or Pirelli Scorpion Smartube.

"With a bit of practice you can dial in your thumbs enough to know when your air pressures are OK for riding."

"For consistent results it's recommended to find a reliable gauge and stick with it."

  • Some people swear by the accuracy of their thumbs but it’s a good idea to at least start with a pressure gauge so that you have a reference point while you’re getting your thumbs calibrated correctly.
  • All gauges aren’t created equal: There can be a lot of variation between the readings on different pumps and gauges so choose one and stick with it. That way you’ll have a consistent reading to refer to as you’re fine-tuning your preferred pressures over time.
  • The right amount of pressure involves achieving a fine balance between optimal traction, rolling resistance, puncture resistance, and protecting your rims from damage. Then there are other factors such as whether you’re running tubes or tubeless, your riding style, the terrain, trail conditions, and even the wheel size.
  • It’s better to start high and come down a few psi at a time until you find something that feels right.
  • Try using a tyre pressure calculator like this one if you have no idea where to start.

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4. Handlebar Height

"A bar height that is the same or slightly lower than your saddle is a good place to start, but you should experiment with spacer placement to see if you prefer a higher or lower setup."

Setting your bar height requires some trial and error and the right height for you depends on many factors such as the type of riding you do and the steepness of the terrain where you ride.

An XC racer will prefer low bars to help keep the front end down on the climbs while a DH rider will prefer a higher setup for more composure and control on the descents. A Trail rider might prefer a balanced setup that is a compromise between the two extremes.

A good place to start is by setting your bars to be the same height, or slightly lower than your saddle. Experiment with spacer placement over a few rides to see if you prefer a higher or lower setup.

Try dropping the bars if you feel like you are lacking front end grip in the corners, or raising it if you feel like you're being pitched forward on the descents.

  • Your bike will come with a number of spacers under the stem to allow you to adjust the height of your handlebars without the need to buy new parts.
  • To lower the bar height, remove the stem and a spacer or two, then replace the stem and put the spacer/s above it.
  • When refitting the stem, ensure that you tighten the top cap to preload the headset bearings BEFORE tightening the pinch bolts on the side of the stem. Otherwise the headset will remain loose, no matter how hard you crank down the top cap.

"Start by undoing the top cap and pinch bolts on the side of the stem"

"Wiggle the stem off the steerer and slide off a spacer or two. Keep the front wheel on the ground or support the fork with your hand to stop it from falling out."

"Wiggle the stem back on and slide the spacers on top. Install the top cap and tighten the bolt to preload the headset bearings. You should be able to turn the bars freely without any friction or binding."

"To get your stem straight, try looking down over the face plate of the stem so you can use the fork arch as a reference to line it up against. Tighten the stem bolts to the manufacturer's spec using a torque wrench or your own judgement."

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5. Cockpit Setup

All your cockpit controls such as your brakes, shifters, and dropper post remote should be positioned so that they are easy to reach at any time without having to think about it.

"Mountain bike handlebars have lots of buttons and levers on them these days, and everything needs to be easily accessible without having to look down or strain to reach things."

"Move the levers into a position where you can comfortably reach the hook of the lever with your index finger and squeeze hard without the lever squashing your other fingers."

"You might need to run your shifter/dropper post remote inboard of your brake levers to get them in the right spot."

"Brake lever angle is a matter of personal preference but they should be easy to reach while standing, which is the position you'll be in when descending."

  • Hydraulic disc brakes are designed to be operated with one finger. Move the levers into a position where you can comfortably reach the hook of the lever with your index finger and squeeze hard without the lever squashing your other fingers.
  • If you have separate clamps for the brake lever and shifter/dropper remote you might need to swap their position on the bars so that the brake lever is inboard of the other clamp to get it into the right position.
  • Your shifter and dropper remote should be easily accessed without adjusting your grip but not get in the way during normal riding.
  • Brake levers should be easy to reach without thinking while standing on the pedals.
  • Riders on steeper trails tend to angle their levers up so they’re easier to reach while off the back of the bike. This also puts your wrist in a stronger position that supports most of your weight on the palm of your hand.
  • A lever that is angled too far down puts your wrists in a weak position and forces you to use more forearm strength to hang on which can cause arm pump.
  • Some riders like their brakes to engage with the lever further out while others prefer it closer to the bars. The lever reach can normally be adjusted with an allen key or a dial on the brake lever blade.

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6. Suspension Basics

Most new bikes come with suspension setup guides but these are also available online.

Fox and Rockshox have a series of super handy videos on Youtube that run through the process for basic setup and advanced suspension tuning.

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7. Hydration, Tools, and Spares

"Don't leave home without the essentials!"

It's always a good idea to be as prepared as you can to hopefully avoid the long walk of shame back to the car park with a broken bike (we've all been there!).

You’ll need to be able to carry water and some tools to make simple repairs, fix a flat and tweak your setup, so make sure you’ve got a multitool with you at the very least.

Need some ideas on how to carry tools and spares? Check out our blog post about it here.

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8. Jargon Buster

Reach (brake lever): How far the brake lever sits out from the grips. This can normally be adjusted via a small bolt or dial on the brake lever to suit the rider's preference or the size of their hands.

Reach (bike frame): On a MTB frame geometry chart the reach refers to the horizontal distance between the bottom bracket and the centre of the head tube.

Bottom Bracket: Where the bike’s cranks rotate in the frame.

Arm Pump: When your hands get so fatigued during descending that you can barely hold on or squeeze the brakes. Your forearms might be so full of blood that they feel rock hard and pumped up.

Seat/Saddle: These terms are used quite interchangeably to refer to what your butt goes on when you’re riding a bike.

Sag: The amount that your suspension compresses under your body weight.

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Still got questions or feedback about anything we've overlooked?

Feel free to hit us up on the live chat or get in touch by emailing us at help@mtbdirect.com.au

Meet Rob!

Rob grew up in Canberra but recently moved to Bright in Northeast Victoria to be close to some of Australia's best MTB trails. He's been into racing MTB's since his teens and has learned a thing or two about bikes along the way. His current steed is a Norco Sight C2 and he's looking forward to hitting up all the rounds of the Victorian Enduro Tour this season.