I worked for a few years as a bike mechanic, and regularly post on the Bike Radar forum.
There are various 'hybrid' bikes on the market, the best bet is to go to a decent shop (the ones mentioned above are fine) and try a few out. Here is a guide I put together for beginners and budget mountain bikes, but many of the same principles apply for quality: (you may prefer larger chainrings for higher gear ratios)
I think for general mountain biking, the following features should be considered: (aimed at buyers spending less than 250 quid)
- Alloy hardtail frame. Full suspension at the lower end of the market (sub 300 and even upto 500 quid) is heavily compromised. Its very heavy, undamped, poor bearings and pulls down the spec elsewhere. Steel frames at this level are often mild steel and are 2 or 3 pounds heavier than an alloy frame.
- Suspension fork with alloy crown and one piece lowers. Cheap pressed steel lowers and crowns flex badly. Preload adjusters are a good feature to help set sag and ride height for differing weights. Rigid is preferable to a bad suspension fork.
- Compact crankset (42/32/22). Many entry level bikes have larger chainrings (48/38/2
from cheaper groupsets. This doesn't allow a very low gear and is often over geared for the terrain a MTB will be used on. Replacable chainrings are a bonus.
- 8 speed freehub. 8 gears from a cassette and freehub gives a better spread than some 7spd screw on freewheels, often 11-32 teeth rather than 14-28. Also this allows the bearings to be spaced further in the hub, allowing a stronger rear wheel/axle. Shimano make the best budget 8 speed set ups.
- Cartridge bottom bracket. Old adjustable cup and cone bottom brackets are poorly sealed and are prone to coming loose.
- 32 or 36 spoked wheels. Lots of beginners MTBs are coming with fancy 'paired' spokes, or 24 bladed ones, purely for looks. They use heavy rims, are poorly constructed and are not worth it compared to standard wheels. Look for stainless spokes if possible, and sealed alloy hubs with quick release axles.
- Alloy components. If possible, ask about the seatpost and bars. Alloy units save some weight, and are more comfortable.
- Brakes and levers. Make sure the levers aren't plastic as they flex badly. Cable disc brakes stop better in the wet but usually add cost. Don't go for discs over other essential features.
- Aheadset or threadless headset. Much better bearings and more reliable than the older quill stem and threaded headset.
Many bikes for 200 pounds now have all these features! Don't be afraid to ask for a saddle swap if they are uncomfortable, and enquire about the quality of the tyres..
Or try asking direct at the site!
We don't bite!