This page started as a long list of ideas, but as discussions continued, the coaches realized that buying a bike is as personal experience as buying clothes, maybe more so, as most outfits don't cost as much. Instead, we will provide you with some very basic concepts and a few hard rules. Then we direct you to your local bike shop. Each local shop sells one or more of the major bike brands, so which shop is as much a selection as the bike itself.
NICA rules specify that your bike must be at least a 26 inch wheel mountain bike. Currently MTB bikes come in 26, 27.5, and 29 inch wheels. All are legal for NICA use.
A NICA race course is 4-5 miles, and HS riders make anywhere from 2-4 loops in a race. A box store bike (Walmart, Academy, etc) is usually designed for approximately 100 miles of use. If you train hard to compete at that distance, you need to be used to riding double your race distance at steady pace. Using that math, we do not recommend buying a box store bike as even basic training will exceed the planned life of those bikes in the first month or two. That being said, it is legal, and has been used before. The biggest issue is that when something breaks, is very hard to fix a part, you are almost back to buying a replacement bike.
There are a few simple things to check up front to know if the bike you are looking at meets our recommended minimum features. 1) Does it have a derailluer hanger? This part is designed to bend or break before the derailleur or frame in a crash. If the bike doesn't have it, its likely that the bike isn't maintainable. If a part breaks, you are looking at replacing the bike. 2) Is the front crank modular? Are the front sprockets bolted or riveted in place? If you see rivets in front, again, this bike is probably not built to sustain rough use. 3) Does it have front and rear disc brakes? Do they have standard bolt on mounting points? If you see rim brakes or the brake caliper is not mounted in a standard bolt on configuration, then that is another queue that the bike is not the best option. You'll notice this by the two bolts parallel to the wheel above and below the caliper. If you buy at a bike shop, all of the above will be handled easily, but if you are looking for a minimum cost by buying used or online (or other), these general rules will help prevent you from buying a bike that might be below the level you want to ride.
NICA races are XC, meaning they include equal amounts of climbing and decent. This means weight matters, unlike pure descent trails. There are multiple features available for MTB, to include: tubeless tires, carbon frames, full suspension frames, dropper posts, 1X chainrings, reduced weight, etc. Any coach will be happy to discuss these options with you if you ask, but each of us will tell you we have our own personal preferences. Basically, each feature comes with a price, and weight drops as the price goes up. (NOTE: 1X gearing has become more prevalent even with lower cost bikes. It is a feature you should strongly consider)
The ultimate answer is we recommend you talk to the bike shops. You know what you are willing to spend, and what your preferences are. They can provide you the best detail on what each feature costs and you can try out multiple bikes.
The only additional information we'll offer is that most of the major brands offer a discount for bike purchase to registered NICA riders (requires purchase in season, and NICA registration proof). This discount varies by brand, and is as much as 25%. The second tidbit is that there is a strong resell market for bikes in the NICA community. You can consider buying used or selling if/when you want to upgrade. (NOTE: COVID made a significant impact in the supply of bikes. Costs and delivery times were affected.)
Buying used carries the concerns of knowing what you want, and having an idea of what to pay for it. The following sites can help, but should not be considered gospel:
(facebook - Only MTB Swap Meet, requires permission but open upon request)