For the right bike, I am happy to spend up to $3K+ for the right hardtail. Our plan is to move to Utah full time in the next year or so and can always go FS in the future (but I hope to drop some weight first and learn more about my interest to do downhill, etc.). Of course, if you think it is best to just buy a FS now, I am open to suggestions. Budget isn't a major issue as I have been saving for a while and for a FS, I could go well above $3K. I care more about finding the right bike than a specific budget.
This is a pretty good path, but you're likely to find that whatever you wind up choosing, you'll have to change something because there will be SOMETHING that doesn't work how you envisioned.
Should I buy a stock bike or work with my local bike shop to custom build a bike. There are plenty of good frames but I worry that if I need to upgrade the front shock, brakes, wheels, etc. because of my size, is a custom build a better route than a "stock bike". When I say custom build, I mean buying a frame and then selecting components individually. It seems silly to me to buy a "high end" hardtail to have to swap out a number of the brand new components.
This one is really kinda difficult to say if one way is better than another. Current availability challenges make it even more difficult to say which is better. There's value to both paths. If you're in a "you don't know what you don't know" situation, starting with a complete bike and making a few changes over time can give you opportunities to learn so you can make better informed decisions. Certainly if you know exactly what you want, putting together your own bike from a parts list can get you exactly what you want with no fluff. But to put that pathway into perspective, a friend of mine started a new FS build a long time ago. I don't remember when, but he's had to do more waiting than anything. His frame had to be built, so there was a wait for that. The last part he's waiting on has been the brakeset. He wanted Hope brakes for this build. He ordered them in Feb and just got the shipping notice the other day. Thankfully he's been able to ride his hardtail this whole time. But if you don't have another bike to ride in the meantime? That can affect things quite a bit.
I would say that most items will work just fine if you select a complete bike and modify it later as you learn about your needs. Some of them are going to involve a riding style component. You say you're about to move. Are you familiar with the trails in your future home? Have you ridden them already and know how your riding style will change compared to what it is now? Do you have a history of blowing up hub internals, dinging rims, etc?
Because I will be doing more trail riding, I don't think I need a super slack bike but most bikes seem to be more aggressive geometry which is not what I need (right)? What quality hardtails are better for trail riding, etc.? I have been researching the Orbea Laufrey, Salsa Timberjack, Santa Cruz Chameleon, Surley Karate Monkey or Krampus, Pole Taival, etc. Some of these are Steel and other Aluminum. The only one that I have actually ridden so far was the Chameleon in a 27.5 (thanks bike shortage).
The bikes in your list exist on quite a spectrum. The Surlys being on the conservative side of the spectrum. The Timberjack and Chameleon being pretty well-rounded trailbikes. The Pole being pretty progressive. I'm not familiar with the Orbea, so I dunno where it slots in. I ride a Guerrilla Gravity Pedalhead. It's not as progressive as the Pole, but moreso than the Timberjack and Chameleon, especially with the 140mm fork I put on it. I do mellow xc stuff on it, as well as burly technical trails. It's not an extremely progressive geometry, but I don't have any issues with it on plain old trail riding. I enjoy the geometry, really.
As for a front shock, due to my size, should I be focused on a coil shock vs air? Seems like less maintenance for a coil. Also, it is easy to get drawn into the idea that I need a ton of travel in the shock but I worry about my size vs the design of the shock.
You can go either way, for different reasons, really. Air is more adjustable and to a finer degree. You'd probably need to replace the spring in a coil fork to get the firmest one offered. And you won't have as much fine control over the spring rate. Preload allows some adjustment once you get a spring installed, but adjusting a coil fork is less easy. Once you get it adjusted, reliability is very good, though. Honestly, though, I think picking a strong, stiff fork chassis is going to be more important for you, though. The travel you choose should be determined based on the frame you have (and the geometry that will result) and the terrain you're riding. Most forks out there are obtainable in multiple travel lengths (or are adjustable) to help dial in bike geo and handling characteristics.
Wheel Size - 27.5+ vs 29? I have a 29 now but not sure what is best for the future. Not sure if this is really a big deal or not.
This one comes down to preference more than anything. Your riding style will play a role in what you wind up preferring for a given bike and terrain, though. Plus size tires seem to be preferred by folks who take a mellower approach to riding. They "crawl" over technical terrain quite well. Bikepackers often love plus tires (especially 29+). But there's less sidewall support, so hard-charging riders often find that reduced support problematic in corners with high bike lean angles and speed. The last thing you want when you're pushing a bike over hard in a fast corner is for the sidewall to fold on you.
Any recommendations on a bike shop that would be highly qualified to help a Clyd? Not as worried about geography but want to work with someone to help me identify what really matters when making a decision.
This one is a tough ask. If you're asking for help choosing a bike off-the-shelf, you're not going to wind up with much variation in clyde-worthiness. If you're looking to assemble one from the frame up, then you have more to choose from. Generally speaking, sizing up the brakes is easy to do. Instead of 2 piston calipers on 160 or 180mm rotors which is pretty standard OEM setup, you might consider 4 piston calipers and at least a 200mm rotor up front, if not more. Terrain plays a role here, too. If steeper, go bigger on the brakes. For wheels, rims are usually the biggest weak point. But hub internals can matter for some. Rims are pretty easy from most manufacturers to step up a level or two in the burliness category. Hubs are a bit more of a challenge. There's plenty of talk in the wheels forum about hub internals, and some ppl seem to manage to destroy any hub. Others never have a problem with anything. And it doesn't seem to me that the rider's weight is the major factor there.