You don’t need a Lamborghini to go to and from work. Sure, you’ll get there a lot faster and you’ll experience a much more exciting ride, but for most people, it’s simply not practical or financially feasible to drive a Lamborghini for everyday errands. And can you imagine the high-maintenance costs that would come with driving such an exotic sports car? Well, it’s the same when it comes to mountain bikes; you don’t need a pro-level bike to get out and have fun. There are top-dollar machines made for the pros, and there are economical bikes made for the average rider. Sure, average riders can ride a top-tier bike, but they better be prepared to replace expensive parts as they wear out or break. There’s a reason we don’t see Lamborghinis on the road every day, and, for similar reasons, we don’t see $10,000 bikes on every trail.
For this month’s “The Trail Starts Here,” we’re diving head first into the world of economy bikes. We’re not likely to see flashy new technology or cutting-edge designs, but we will discover some tips that will help you find bikes within the $3000 price range—bikes that still shred but don’t boast over-the-top price tags. Here are some things to consider when purchasing a bike on a budget.
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH ALUMINUM
Riders have become obsessed with lightweight, ultra-stiff, carbon fiber bikes. And while these bikes are undeniably awesome, they may not be right for everyone. If you’re buying a bike on a budget, consider whether you want a more expensive carbon frame with lower-level components or an aluminum frame with better components. Of course, you can upgrade later; but, if you immediately want the benefits of better suspension, a smoother drivetrain or higher-end wheels, opt for an aluminum frame. If you compare the weight of an aluminum frame to that of a carbon frame, the aluminum frame will likely add a half to a full pound over its carbon counterpart. This might sound like a lot, but for the average trail rider who’s just out to have a good time, the benefits of carbon will be marginal. An aluminum bike with a nice list of components is a solid option for any rider on a budget.
FULL-SUSPENSION VS. HARDTAIL
If having a carbon frame is a high priority for you, then opting for a hardtail might be something to consider. In the $3000 price range, it will be hard to find a carbon full-suspension bike with worthy components. If you opt for a hardtail, you not only eliminate the cost of a rear shock, but you also eliminate the engineering and R&D costs of designing a full-suspension frame. Furthermore, you eliminate pivots and bearings, which can add maintenance costs to your bike down the road. That said, a hardtail can be limiting on certain trails. Consider how you plan to ride your bike and then purchase your new ride accordingly. If rough and rocky terrain is calling your name, opt for a full-suspension bike with quality suspension. If blasting up and down smooth singletrack and fire roads is more your style, go ahead and get that lightweight hardtail.
OPT FOR A SINGLE RING
The future of drivetrains is leaning towards 1x systems. The days of shifting between two or three front chainrings are nearly gone—and for good reason. Front derailleurs tend to do more derailing than shifting. Sure, they give you a larger gear range, but with modern drivetrains such as SRAM’s Eagle 12-speed system, there’s no longer a need for double or triple rings. Now, we know this article is geared towards bikes under $3000, and a lot of you are probably asking, “Aren’t 12-speed drivetrains expensive?” Well, thanks to trickle-down technology, SRAM’s GX Eagle system can be found on many bikes in the $3000 price category. Riders who love Shimano will find its 11-speed 1x systems offer an ample range of gearing as well. Whether you’re buying a top-tier bike or you are on a budget, we advise you opt for a single ring.
LOOK AT COMPONENTS CAREFULLY
Not all components are created equal. For example, can you tell the difference between a RockShox Pike RC and a Pike RCT3? To offer bikes at a lower price point, many companies will spec lower-level components in areas where a rider might not notice. Often a bike will come with a Shimano XT rear derailleur but will have a Shimano SLX shifter. Another place to look is a bike’s cassette. Budget-minded bikes often have cassettes made from less expensive materials that tend to weigh more. Tires are another great place to look. Added layers of protection, tubeless beads and other technologies can vary in tires with the same name. Carefully look over a bike before you buy it to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck.
For those of you still considering the difference between the two forks listed in our initial question, the Pike RCT3 offers low-speed compression adjustments and a three-position switch with three modes—open, pedal and firm. The Pike RC is only spec’d OEM and has a compression switch adjustable from open to firm. While most riders might not notice much of a difference, the RCT3 will offer better adjustability for the more advanced rider.
CONSIDER CONSUMER DIRECT
Another way to save some coin is to consider buying consumer direct. We’ll apologize in advance to our favorite bike shops, but the reality is that the consumer-direct model can save you money. Now, it might cost you more in the long run (as your local shop isn’t likely to do you any favors on discounted parts or labor), but the initial cost of the bike is likely to be much less. If you’re a rider who likes to work on his or her own equipment, opting for a consumer-direct bike is a good way to go. That said, a rider who frequents his local shop daily, asking questions and looking for deals, should spend his money at the store that supports him. Ever heard the saying, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”?
AVOID OUTDATED TECH
Every year bikes get more technologically advanced. While you might be getting a killer deal on a bike with 26-inch wheels or quick-release axles, it’s simply not worth buying an outdated bike, as it will be incredibly difficult to find parts if you need a repair. Another example is non-Boost axles. From time to time we still see new bikes with 100mm front axles and 142mm rear axles. This might not make a huge difference in performance over the new Boost spacing (110mm and 148mm), but it does make a world of difference when buying a new fork or wheelset or trying to fit wider tires. While it might be confusing keeping up with all the latest tech, it’s better to purchase a new bike with most of the market’s modern trends. This will allow you to more easily find and swap parts—until, of course, the next advancement comes along.
SAVE FOR UPGRADES
Mountain biking is an off-road sport and, as with all other off-road sports, things are going to wear out or break. Unfortunately, it’s just a matter of time. When purchasing a new bike, consider which parts are likely to wear out first and start setting aside some cash to replace or upgrade those parts. If you take a look at our monthly bike reviews, you’ll see a portion of our tests dedicated to “Tricks, Upgrades or Tips.” Pay close attention to this portion of the magazine to see what additional costs may come with your new bike. Remember, don’t spend your entire budget on your new ride. Save some coin for upgrades and replacement parts.
There’s a huge market for used bikes online, and while we generally advise against buying used, it’s one way to get a good deal. The important thing to look for when buying a used bike is to make sure it has been well-maintained. If everything looks worn out and beaten up, it’s best to keep looking. Some riders spend tons of money upgrading their bikes, only to find out that their resale value doesn’t nearly reflect the amount of money they put in. If you can find a clean, gently ridden, used bike for sale, it might be worth buying. But, we recommend bringing a knowledgeable friend with you to make sure your excitement doesn’t interfere with your judgment. That said, there are a ton of great used bikes out their looking for a good home.
SUMMING IT UP
Top-dollar bikes are fun to look at, fun to ride and are great conversation pieces, but for many riders, these top-dollar machines are just not in the cards. The initial cost is only part of the equation. A broken carbon wheel or a mangled high- end derailleur is not cheap to replace. The more expensive bike you ride, the higher maintenance costs you can expect. We’re not saying you should ditch your ride for a less expensive economy bike. If you have the funds for a gold-level bike, by all means enjoy it. We’ll admit we love riding top-dollar bikes, but in the same way you wouldn’t buy a Lamborghini, it might be out of the question to purchase a $10,000 bike. If you’re considering a new bike in the 3000-dollar price range, consider the above tips. Buying a bike in any price range should be a fun experience, and arming yourself with knowledge will ensure you find exactly the bike you need.