What to Look for and What to Expect
Mountain biking is a gear-intensive sport. There’s no doubt about it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re shredding the steepest chutes on a downhill trail, putting the screws to your cross-country buddies or simply heading out to explore some remote mountains at your own pace, the gear needs to work. And, you will need to pay for that gear. Walking into a bike shop or doing a Google search for your next trail machine can be a bit intimidating. The options seem overwhelming, but there is one thing all buyers are looking for—every rider wants the best bang for his or her hard-earned bucks.
We set out to explain how to get the best value when looking for a new bike. Whether you’re looking for an entry-level bike to give the sport a whirl or looking for the race weapon that will put you on the podium, we have you covered.
IS THERE A “BEST” BRAND?
This is probably the question we field most frequently in our “Ask MBA” section of the magazine. Readers ask whether they should buy a Trek or a Specialized, a Giant or a Pivot, etc. While there are advantages to each of the brands we test, there is no one bike that will work best for every rider. We carefully select the bikes we test to reflect the needs of our readers, and while no bike is perfect in every circumstance, we can say with confidence that every bike we test in Mountain Bike Action is the “best” choice for at least some riders.
FULL SUSPENSION VS. HARDTAIL
There is no denying that hardtails are fast and efficient machines, but full-suspension bikes are far more versatile. Hardtails are generally more affordable since they are easier for companies to manufacture and require less maintenance. Full-suspension bikes are more expensive and more complicated to design and
manufacture, but they are also able to handle more diverse terrain.
Moving up to a full-suspension bike is a great upgrade if you’re willing to pay the price up front and keep up with the added maintenance that comes with the additional moving parts. If you aren’t a dedicated cross-country racer or can only afford one bike, a full-suspension bike is the more versatile option; however, a full-suspension bike is not a necessity, especially if you’re not planning to spend enough to get into a lightweight, high-performance bike.
HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED TO SPEND?
Ask non-riders what they’d expect a “nice” mountain bike to cost, and they will likely come back with a number that’s shockingly low to someone who’s into the sport. That number, usually between $500 and $1000, is also shockingly high to someone who has never tried to climb a mountain on a 40-pound department-store bike or descended a rocky and technical chute on a bike with a suspension fork that has springs better suited for closing screen doors.
We stay away from testing bikes that cost less than $700. This is not because we’re trying to be elitist. In fact, we’ve seen many very talented riders come up riding these entry-level bikes and go on to become shredders; however, bikes in the $200-$700 price range have very low-end components that won’t hold up to the rigors of day-in, day-out off-road riding. While the price tag may seem enticing at first, these bikes will likely cost you more in the long run as you wear out and break components that must be repaired or replaced.
SHOULD I BUY USED?
It’s tempting to go on Craigslist or eBay to pick up a “gently used” bike that was “only ridden to church on Sundays.” Trust us, this is almost always more headache than it’s worth, especially if you can’t see the bike in person. Our staff has bought bikes online that were delivered in a beat-up box leaking sand because the bike wasn’t even cleaned before it was shipped.
If you do choose to buy a used bike, remember that you’re likely giving up the factory warranty that comes with any new bike. You’re also forgoing the support that your local shop would provide in the form of discounted labor and parts. If you do find a deal on a used bike that’s too good to pass up, we wish you the best of luck.
Buying upgrades down the road is almost more fun than shopping for a new bike. If you plan to upgrade parts eventually, invest your money in a bike that will be more affordable to upgrade. The frame and the suspension are the most expensive features of a bike. Find the frame and suspension design that you like, then focus on the rest of the build.
WHAT TO EXPECT FOR…
This is one of the most competitive price points for any mountain bike maker, so you can expect to see some serious value. Whether you’re looking for a cross-country bike or an aggressive all-mountain rig, you should be able to find one that suits your needs. If you’re looking for a lightweight XC bike in this range, your best bet is a hardtail. Suspension bikes at this price point are typically much heavier than their rigid counterparts and have lower-end components. The hardtail bikes in this price range are notably lighter and offer better ride quality. Take advantage of the larger wheels with 27.5-, 27.5+ – or 29-inch-diameter rims to help compensate for the lack of suspension.
At this price, riders can choose a higher-end carbon hardtail, an entry-level carbon full-suspension bike or an aluminum suspension bike with better components. It’s a tough choice to make, as all of them will work relatively well. A full-suspension bike at this price point will typically have between 100–160 millimeters of travel and be set up for anything from cross-country to aggressive all-mountain riding. The shock and fork will be higher-end and lighter and use air springs that will allow you to fine-tune the ride quality and performance. As a bonus, many bikes in this price range come stock with dropper posts, although some might be externally routed. These bikes often come with a drivetrain that may not be top-of-the-line but will have many top-of-the-line features, such as a single-ring crank and an 11- or 12-speed cassette. This is the first price point where a full-suspension bike makes sense, but you still won’t find a bike suitable for serious XC, enduro or DH racing in this price range.
When companies spec bikes for different price points, they often use the same frame and vary the components to hit those marks. Typically, you will see upgrades to the suspension, such as external compression damping, or upgrades to the wheels, such as tubeless compatibility. This is also the price where it makes the most sense to start considering high-end frame materials. If you’re planning to keep the bike for a while and slowly upgrade the components, buy the high-end frame first and worry about the small component details later.
Once you cross the $4000 mark, you’re looking at high-end frames kitted with parts that are one tier down from the top. This is the price point where it becomes difficult to discern a big difference in performance between these bikes and more expensive rigs that cost twice as much. If you can afford this price bracket, you’ll likely get the best bang for your buck with high-end frame material and high-end suspension and drivetrain technology. The bikes will also sport cutting-edge geometry and suspension designs that will be relevant for years to come—unless the industry decides to invent another wheel size any time soon.
$5000 and up
At this price, you can have anything you want and have confidence that what you’re buying is top-notch. Whether it’s a downhill bike or cross-country race rocket, these bikes are built to perform. Most
riders willing to spend this much will opt for a carbon fiber frame, although there are plenty of custom titanium and steel frames that occupy this space too. The things to focus on if you’re willing to spend this much money are fit, function and frame design. First, make sure the bike fits you properly, as you will likely be keeping this thing for a while. Second, be honest with yourself about where you’re going to ride the bike and buy a bike that will fit those needs. If you mainly ride rolling trails, you probably don’t need a bike with 7 inches of travel and would be happier with a faster and lighter bike. Finally, pay attention to the frame and suspension design. Be sure to test several of them, and read our write-ups and descriptions of different designs. A 5-inch-travel bike with a single-pivot design rides much differently from one with a dw-link design, and it’s best to know that before you plunk down your credit card.