Mountain bikes have changed a lot since 1999 and you are in for a treat. Everything is lighter, stronger, more rigid, and more reliable.
Brand-wise, you really can’t make a mistake with the major brands: Cannondale, Specialized, Trek, Giant, Santa Cruz, etc… They are all making excellent stuff right now.
Get a bike with an aluminum frame, preferably hydro-formed. Ideally, I’d suggest a carbon frame, but that would be outside your budget. So, aluminum it is.
As for the fork, make sure it has a lockout. Locking the fork when climbing makes for much higher efficiency and the benefits are very noticeable. Lockout is nice on the pavement, too. A good fork with lockout is highly complex so make sure it is working properly before you buy it. Check for leaks and complete functionality.
For the price you indicated, a hardtail will be of much higher overall quality than a full suspension bike as a large chunk of cash isn’t being funneled into the rear suspension. Hardtails are lighter and more responsive than full suspension bikes, but they require more skill to ride efficiently and will punish you for your mistakes. If you are not a virtuoso rider who can maximize the benefits of a hardtail, go for the full suspension.
As to 29’ers, this is the current debate in the mountain biking world and it is beyond the scope of [del]the internet[/del] this post to really address the issue and I dare not attempt it should my computer burst into flames. There are many factors involved in the 29 v. 26 debate. You should check out the mtbr forumsfor info on this issue and all other things mountain bike-related. This is one of my favorite websites and it is a tremendous resource.
Highly disappointed with the constant battles with gear adjustments on my Specialized Rock Hopper. Winter riding gets some sand in the gears and instantly it goes out of whack. Sand. SAND! A mountain bike should handle mud, blood, roots, small rocks, and chipmunk skulls before it goes out of whack. The hubs have low tolerances, so they grind and squeak because of the ill fitting hardware. The brakes rock, and the frame is amazingly light, and I love the fit after putting a longer gooseneck on, but if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t buy it. The MTB I had before it was a steel frame, and after having this frame I can assure you that I would never even consider going back.
Mountain bikes generally require much more maintenance than road bikes and a mountain bike that is being put through its paces in mud, water or sand on a daily basis will require constant maintenance. A romp through a big, muddy puddle can instantly throw a perfectly clean bike’s shifting into chaos until the debris is worked out of the system through further riding.
This is especially true of the newer drive trains, which have nine or even ten cogs in the rear, as the tolerances between cogs are quite fine.
If you are constantly battling your drive train, you first need to make sure it is clean and that your shift cables are not internally contaminated.
If the aforementioned is clean and lubricated and you are still having shifting problems, you then need to make sure that the drive train is set up properly. This involves the limit screws on the derailers, the barrel adjusters, and the shifters.
If you are still having problems, then there is something physically wrong with at least one piece of hardware. You could have: Worn chain/cassette/chainrings, loose cassette/chainrings, bent cogs/chainrings/derailer cage/hanger, loose derailer pulleys, cables that aren’t seated properly, malfunctioning shifters, etc. Any of these (and more) can give you endless grief.
When was the last time you had your bike cleaned/tuned up/looked at by a mechanic?
As a point of reference, I find myself cleaning and lubricating my bike and tuning the shifting after any dirty ride. I find myself replacing the chain twice per year, the shift cables every year and the cassette and chainrings twice every three years. Wipeouts can be quite destructive and I’ve replaced the rear derailler twice and the front derailler once in the last two years. I don’t know how hard you ride but the maintenance I describe is typical for a bike that is being ridden regularly in nasty conditions.
Tell me a little more about the hubs. A properly configured bike that is clean, lubricated and in tune should not emit a single chirp or squeak.
Thank you all. Good info to consider and I will definitely check out the mtbr forum Shamozzle suggested.
Starting from a bare frame is not impossible, but would prefer at least a basic component set initially. Very little of my existing component set is even transferable (that which isn’t completely knackered). Everything has changed a lot.
I’ve ridden both hard tails and full suspension. Loved my old Diamondback WCF hardtail, light and stiff carbon mains and supple ridding chro-mo chain stays. Wasn’t a fan of the aluminum hardtails back in the later 90’s, just seemed too stiff through the chain stays.
I just bought a 2011 Trek / Gary Fisher Rumblefish that is in your price range… you might want to check it out. It is a full-suspension 29er. I love it, but I was riding a Trek 3900 before so it is night and day difference from that.
Have you considered a single-speed? Don’t laugh…a lot of serious riders have gone in that direction, seeking a “purer” cycling experience. And in the process, ridding themselves of considerable expense, weight and mechanical complexity and generally becoming better riders. They’re winning races too…single-speed doesn’t necessarily mean slower, especially not when riding in the rough.
I’m not an expert and not really qualified to address the 29" -vs- 26" controversy, but my own experience with a 29er has been extremely positive. I don’t think I’ll ever buy another 26. Especially with a single-speed the extra roll of a 29er is important. It’s also better at going over large obstacles.
If interested, here is a review of the Redline Monocog 29er (the “Willys Jeep” of bicycles) that I wrote about a year ago.