My humbled and slightly slanted opinion. But first of all, ride whatever you feel comfortable with and make sure you have fun with it. If you don't have fun with it, it is not for you.
- Build or buy?
Does not matter but build your own is always fun and great learning opportunity regarless of how many gears you use.
- Which bike/frame manufacturers are the primary players in this space?
There is ONLY one: VASSAGO... Just kidding there are many good ones. I have only ridden (and liked) Vassago, and Redline.
- If buying rather than building, is there a general consensus on the brand that provides the best bang for the buck?
If you going SS and rigid, you should be able to find very nice full bikes for about $700. Throw in a fork and discbrakes and you're looking at a $1500 bike. That may be "middle of the road" for new bikes though. Tons of used or slighly used for much much less. And tons of full bling bling for more. Just depends on how deep your pockets are for quality parts that will give you most bang.
- Gearing and ratios? I've heard that 2:1 (e.g., 32x16 for example) is the *standard* build, but is that the right place to start (will initially be riding mostly at Croom)
This is where I play dumb with all the number cruncher tecquie wannabes... I pedal whatever gear I feel comfortable with and I have fun with. 32x18 for 29er seem to be standard. You can push that gear just about everywhere around here. Maybe a 19 or 20 at Alafia and if you going to do reds at Carter or Santos. Don't know about SS 26er since I never ridden one.
- Since at some point I'll be riding more technical terrain, I'm thinking that a freewheeling rig is better than a fixed. Is that the right assumption?
YES! Leave the fixied for the low IQ folks... (hahaha.. j/k)
- It seems that a lot of the SS riders are moving to 29er's, is this something I should consider from the start as well?
Of course! But again, ride what you will have the most fun with. Why not both? Just don't go 69 or 96 weirdo stuff.
- Front shock. I'm assuming that this is probably what *most* people prefer, but I see a couple of popular models out there that are rigid. Thoughts?Rigid is for low IQ folks... again, just kidding.. I rode ridig for about 3 months. After a night ride at the bumpy rooty flatwoods, I realized I needed a front fork so I could take my hand off the handle bars to reach for bottles while riding at night rigid. I have not ridden rigid since but I might do it again if I get an extra frame.