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5 Tips For Getting the Best Mountain Bike for Your Money

Dafuq? We don't want to know how much extra price the Lexus branding & rocket launchers add to this thing.

So… the best value for bikes… this is a tough one. Value is relative–if you’re a hedge fund manager, fuck it, buy a Santa Cruz, BMC or Specialized carbon superbike with Enve wheels, ceramic bearings, Di2 shifting, ROTOR cranks and titanium spokes (and HANG YOUR HEAD when I pass you). If you’re easy-going, crushing it on your current ride, and just need the wind blowing through your hair, keep riding what you got.

This guy! Flossing corners on a bike as old as his beard. Don't forget that. photo: BetterRide

The rest of us need to find the sweet spot that's above buying crap and below just getting more carbon for the sake of it. One strong suggestion: if you woke up this morning and decided to buy a new bike, DON'T DO IT. Don't expect the spare money in your pocket to get an awesome ride. Use the strategies below to build a smart decision as you save up for a year or two–or even a couple weeks while you eat Ramen.

My current daily driver/enduro bike is on its 6th year, both seatstays are cracked from rock-strikes, as is one of the chainstays and the head tube (straight up tree-slam at Highland last year). Enamel and prayers keep it riding great so I'm sure it'll make it through this year - damnit.

Looks ugly, but it's holding. Gunnar Waldman photo.

The longer I keep it going the better value it is year-over-year. When I do buy a new "A" bike, I want to get something quality enough to get me through 5 or 6 seasons.

I was interviewing the product managers at GT, Cannondale and Trek for an upcoming article and they were nice enough to lend insight to this piece as well. They feel the optimum window for value bike purchase is every 3-5 years (though now is good, of course) - meaning that's how you'll get great technology you would have paid 8k for a couple years ago at a fraction of the cost - that's still compatible with current available parts.

Anyway, here's some guidelines to help maximize value for when you do pull the trigger.

#1: There’s the popular phrase; Light, Strong, Cheap–pick two out of three

You can be cheap, just don't be this cheap. Just don't do it–you won't like it for even a second. 

Cheap is just what we individually can afford. We all have our number, stick to that as best you can and if you’re into gravity, focus your spend toward strong, if you’re more XC, focus it to light. As prices get higher, extra money is mostly about saving weight and adjust-ability, and ROI on that is biggest for riders at the top end of their game. But if you’re at the top end of your game you’ve probably shifted all life priorities to spend any money you have on cycling, and we don’t need to have this discussion. 

On the flip-side, while cheap can also come with strong, you don't want to drag around a 50lb pig.

You might get the bike you want at your price by delaying a nice add-on like a dropper post or chain guide for a few months. Take the long view, remember, this is your bike for years.

#2: Find the lowest price-point that keeps a company’s top frame design

The lowest spec model of Santa Cruz's popular Bronson bike still packs the company's well-regarded VPP suspension design while coming in $5,000 less than the top model in the line. Santa Cruz photo.

Many manufacturers have an “A” suspension design, like Giant’s Maestro or Santa Cruz’s VPP, and then will go to a cheaper single-pivot design or easier frame angles at lower price points (not hating on single-pivot, they're just easier to make). Try to keep money in the higher end suspension technology. Then:

Figure out if you can live with some heavier (cheaper) frame materials that still use that same design. Instead of a full carbon frame, a carbon front-end with an aluminum rear triangle or an all-aluminum frame. These have the same geometry and design as the costly frame, just a bit more weight. Marketing aside, aluminum is still awesome.

Trek's MTB Brand Manager feels making a decision based on each brand's unique advantages, like Trek's Active Braking Pivot or RE:aktiv suspension damping or GT's new AOS carries more value than the direct-to-consumer site's approach of delivering a top component spec with less frame-design advantages.

#3: Get the most trickle-down technology on parts spec, maintaining some semblance of strength and lightness:

Shimano's lower-end SLX groupset has nearly identical performance to the most experience XTR pieces with only a slight weight penalty. Trek Bikes photo.

The same is true with drive-train and components. Look for a manufacturer's cheapest groupset that has interchangeable technology with its top end. All parts break or wear out (ALL of them, I promise) as you become a better rider. Swap out for lighter, better stuff as you go.

SRAM’s new GX1 1x11 drivetrain has a lot of the tech and gear range of the XX1 and XO1 lines at an affordable price point.

SRAM's GX1 offers up the company's 1X11 drivetrain at a more affordable price. Sram photo

Shimano Deore and SLX drive trains and brakes are also great. If you see a bike spec’d with these, it’s just fine.

When upgrading stuff, weigh your options. For a single-chain ring drive train, think about evolving your 2x10 with a 1X10 one-up or e-thirteen cog rather than a pricey new 1x11 system. A new SRAM XX1 drive train is thousands, but the one-up just means replacing 15 and 17t cogs from a 10-speed cassette with a 16 and adding a 42 tooth cog, then installing a narrow-wide chain ring up front. All that is about $200 and a little bit of fiddling on your part.

Kashima coating looks cool, but most will get far more out of having their suspension set up properly. Ryan Dunfee photo.

Give up Kashima coating on Fox suspension. Truthfully, when I've gotten the settings and PSI right on a fork, it has meant MUCH more than the coating.

The guys at GT and Cannondale were very adamant about the fact that on the lower price points they really try to spend on a few choice components (usually the ones harder to replace) as well as maintain good specs on things that don't cost more, like short stems and wide handlebars.

#4: Buy it right the first time

Get on as many bikes as humanly possible before pulling the trigger on one. And definitely get a good sense for what size works best for you. Austin Hopkins photo.

At every opportunity, get on bikes of different sizes, shapes, prices and ride them. Buying a bike is a major investment and you need meaningful time on the product to be smart about your purchase. You don't want to buy something on impulse and find out it's not what you need (or the wrong size) and then have to unload it. Individual demo days are usually listed on manufacturer's websites and large expos like Outerbike or NEMBA Fest are fantastic opportunities to test bikes side by side. Check with your local shop, too, to see if the brands they work with are offering any local demo days.

I'm sure certain regional product reps are already sick of me. Or maybe they just think I'm cheap and looking to ride for free (which is true, the more miles I can put in on someone else's bike, the less wear and tear on mine). Seriously, this is an issue the industry is wrestling with, people need to get on the bikes to buy them. I've got my list of top three that I'll jump on when the best opportunity presents itself.

Also, keep up with component reviews and know which roll-outs are evolutionary and which are revolutionary (remember, you're going to go through a few sets of components over the life of the bike). 

#5: Be opportunistic

Get in good with your local shop and they'll be more apt to keep their eyes out for you and offer deals. Topanga Creek Bicycles photo.

If you have a good relationship with your local shop (and you SHOULD, damnit–more on that later), let them know what you're looking for and what your number is. They'll reach out when something right comes through their door, or when they're ready to drop the price on what you've had your eye on. I can't stress this enough, be cool to your local bike shop and they'll be cool to you. Good ones want repeat customers.

Buy last year’s model in the winter. Just like cars, shops want to get old inventory out the door when sales are slow. Sites like Competitive Cyclist (there are a ton of other sites too), or even the manufacturers themselves, will give deep discounts over the winter. If you ride an XL or S frame, you'll definitely find great deals (DON'T buy the wrong size for price).

If one of your friends or a guy from your shop is a one-season-and-done kind of guy, buy his used bike. He’s probably OCD and has obsessed over it. There's also a lot of regional exchanges like northeast bike classifieds or the Pinkbike classifieds where you can find something close to you to check out in person.

If you feel you know what you’re doing, and the the local shop can't connect the dots, buy used on eBay or Pinkbike. I’ve done this a couple times with good results, but the horror stories are out there. Regardless, do enough homework to know what a really good deal is–that way you can pull the trigger fast when you see it.

Bottom Line:

Superfly 29er: good components, good frame design. Boom. This one retails for about $1,900.

According to all the product managers, and me, you can get an awesome bike for around $1,000.  ESPECIALLY, they say, if you buy a hardtail or are ok with 26" wheels (I'm on the fence about this one, yes 26ers ride great, but I'm not so convinced buying a wheel size that's on its way out is a great idea).

They don't change geometry anymore for lower end bikes like a lot of manufacturers used to (to make value bikes more 'easy-going' - though you'll still see that sometimes).

The GT and Cannondale guys said it's a point of pride to make a great bike at a solid price for the guy that wants to do everything, they just have to put more thought into prioritizing what spec to spend that limited amount of money on when designing a bike for the lower price-point.

Cannondale's SL29 has a rockshox fork and nice tires for a decent price at around $1800. 

For a full-suspension bike, you do get a value-jump when you go to 2k-3k range. Sorry, that's the deal. And, of course, very often you’ll see larger manufacturers like Giant or Trek able to deliver better value at this price point (with some carbon creeping into the frames even at this level) because of their scale. But, there are mini-major manufacturers that understand it's smart to build sales volume at this level (GT, Felt etc.), so look at them. And boutique brands like Santa Cruz deliver great designs in all-aluminum versions. Again, aluminum is still awesome.

Of course, once you get several years of solid riding under your belt and are irrevocably addicted, high-end shit is like nirvana (and you'll be better able to appreciate the difference) but, seriously, be wise.

We'll also take a look at how to save money year over year on other parts of the sport as well as the right type and length of travel bike in future articles.

From The Column: The Goods

Thanks for the tips, looking forward to more info in further articles especial about the types of bikes. I am naive when it comes to the enduro vs trail vs XC people talk about these days.  I ride a ‘99 Schwinn homegrown (bought when I was 15) and school my buddies on their 29ers loaded with all the trimmings. But I do think it’s time to upgrade - I am sick of scavenging parts for my part to be rebuilt. Last time I rode LPS/and the rim I Moad the people loading the bike said “holy sh*t, that’s vintage!! You are hardcore man!” I am glad to have learned to ride without full suspension and 26 inch wheels…I feel like a better technical rider because of it. Keep the articles coming!

    Thanks MJ we’ll make sure Gunnar keeps them coming!

    Dude, thanks for writing! You’re having fun and that’s what matters. Gotta say, you’ve put in the miles. My first bike was a Raleigh Technium (half steel half aluminum) Chill from 1989 and I STILL have it. 26inch wheels, no suspension. I sometimes take it to work and the neighborhood kids borrow it to beat around on. And you’re right, if you get on a hardtail every now and again, it’s keeps you sharp. One of the next few articles will be about picking the right bike by evaluating what type of riding you do.

Great read.. As I’m sure most readers of TGR experience, I get pinged all the time from people on what bike they should buy.  I’d love to see an article by TGR that assists seasoned riders to better advise new people to the sport, and cushion the realities of mountain biking and it’s sticker shock. 

Specifically, I’ll ask these inquirers if they want to ‘mountain bike’ or ‘ride a bicycle in the vicinity of nature’.  They almost always say look at me funny and state with an air of confidence, ‘I WANT TO MOUNTAIN BIKE!’

I’ll then ask them their budget.  It’s almost always $600.  When I break it to them that most $600 ‘Mountain Bikes’ are generally suited for rail trails (i.e. riding a bicycle in the vicinity of nature) or freshman year of college, they’re in disbelief.  At this juncture in these exchanges, I’m typically accused of being a goon handler for my LBS, or some fancy investor whose portfolio is solely comprised of stock in mountain bike manufacturers whose cheapest bikes start out at $3,000. 

This article will go a long way to cutting into arguments!  Keep the content rolling. 

I would love to see an article differentiating mountain biking from riding a bicycle in the vicinity nature. 

    Good point Trailsr. I think that first seasoned rider-new rider advice column could be cool, I’d been thinking we should put something out about the reality of what kind of bike you can actually get for $1,000–new, used, and what the compromises are. Or maybe “Why you can’t get a mountain bike for $600.” If you’d be interested in helping out with whatever piece, shoot me an email at ryan.dunfee@tetongravity.com. Thanks!

These tips are gret because they can tell me something that I need for australian assignment help. It’s what I’ve been looking for many years, and now I think that it’s the best thing for me.

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