Expert Biker Explains How To Find Good Cheap Mountain Bikes

 

Now this is an article I was born to write. Finding a good cheap mountain bike is one of my personal strengths.

I firmly believe that within reason nothing, not even a tight budget, should hold anyone back from getting their hands on a really good cheap mountain bike. The world is full of great options for buying one that doesn’t cost the earth. From brand new to second hand, it’s not that hard to find a really good bike for less than you think it might.

But let’s get one thing straight right away. I don’t know If I’m down with the ‘Expert’ label my editor has sprung on me here. But I am experienced, I have been biking for a long time. I do know what I’m talking about, and I want to use that knowledge to help you get your hands on a really good mountain bike that doesn’t cost the earth.

But hey, look, we’ve all been there. Remember that. Everyone has to start somewhere, and everyone at one time didn’t know how to ride a bike. I wish someone could have pointed out some of the tips below before I bought my first bike.

Define Cheap. Define Good: Define budget….

What you need out of a mountain bike is a sturdy reliable frame, good, durable suspension, and strong wheels and rubber.

What we’re after here in this guide is how to go about finding a good cheap mountain bike. So we have to look at what categorizes ‘cheap,’ and what categorizes ‘good.’

When looking for a mountain bike there’s a couple of mental jumps you have to make.

The first thing you have to do before anything else is figure out how much you want to spend, and how much you realistically have available.

Once you know the $$$ range you have available to you, it narrows down the selection process by about 80%. How much money you have to spend is really going to be the deciding factor. Yes it would be lovely if we all had the money to buy a bike that cost the same as a small car, but for most of us that just isn’t going to happen.

The second thing you have to do is not buy a cheap bike.

Now this might seem like the inherent contradiction in this article. But you see, cheap when it comes to mountain bikes is a relative term. For instance, my $900 hardtail would still be considered a ‘budget’ bike. For Donald Trump, a $1,000,000 loan from his father to get started in business is ‘small.’ It’s all relative. For me, $900 is not a small amount of money. It is actually quite a large investment.

But whatever you do, don’t walk into a Walmart or other department store and pick up a $300 bike just because it looks good. I’ll explain why later on. Just don’t do it.

3 cyclists on mountain bikes

The third thing you have to do is to not believe the ‘hype.’

While there is a difference between a pair of $20 running shoes, and an $80 pair there’s not much difference between $80 pair and a $120 pair. The $20 pair will probably start to fall apart after one run and will probably hurt your feet. But the difference between $80 and a $120 is more than likely going to be negligible. The only real difference is the person wearing the shoes.

It’s the same with bikes. After you get to a certain price point with a mountain bike, it really all comes down to the skill level of the rider, not the bike.. I know someone who has a $3500 mountain bike. I beat them up the hill, and I beat them down the hill on my $900 bike. Above a certain price point, it’s not the bike that determines skill level and ability, it’s the person riding the bike.

What is the least you should look to spend on buying a new good cheap mountain bike?

When looking at buying a mountain bike, sh*t can really seem to get expensive fast. Some bikes go for as much as $7000-$10000. But as I’ve already stated, you don’t need to spend enough money to buy a car. The difference between you on a $300 bike compared to a $900 will probably be quite marked. The difference between you on $900 worth of aluminum and $7000 is relatively minimal. I have ridden a really expensive mountain bike. It was nice, it was good, but I wasn’t that much faster, and I still fell off it as much as I did on my regular bike.

A lot of stores, even independently owned trustworthy knowledgeable ones, are going to try and sell you a really expensive mountain bike. You can get a good Hard Tail (a mountain bike without rear suspension), brand new, for about $700-800. If you want a full suspension bike, you really don’t want to spend any less than $1800. While that’s good, it’s not cheap. I mean it’s probably cheap for a decent FS bike, but not for a good and cheap bike.

Dude, none of this is sounding cheap.

That’s true. But it is for a new mountain bike. If $7-800 is looking a bit too much for your budget, DON’T PANIC!!! There’s a section further down about how to get your hands on a good bike second hand. Keep reading, this is still valuable information.

woman on mountain bike

Why are even cheap decent bikes expensive?

They’re not for what they are. The clue is in the name. They are bikes built for riding on mountains; mountain bikes. What bumps the prices of them up are the parts and materials. Mountain bikes are made to be heavy duty. Good ones are built to take some punishment and also keep you safe.

Bikes from Walmart or similar places, generally speaking are not. They will be mostly ok, if you’re riding them around parks, or commuting with them, but they will not survive for long on actual mountains.

Here we come back to the hype. After a certain price point, many of the things that makes mountain bikes spike in price are cosmetic. In other words, the difference in quality between many $1000 bikes and $3000 bikes is extremely small.

I want a good MTB that’s also really good value for money. Where do I start?

That question brings us back to the beginning: Not all MTBs’ are created equally.

That truth is reflected in the huge choice of types and brands available out there in the market. It can be an overwhelming decision. That’s why a little time researching on the Inter-Bike can save you a lot of time and hassle.

You most likely want a mountain bike that’s fun to use. But getting the right bike for the right purpose and the right budget can be a total minefield. What makes a bike perfect for barreling down a downhill course at speed is a lot different from one designed for traveling the length and breadth of China, or Denmark for instance.

A full suspension MTB may look the business, but just how much suspension do you need? What’s the difference between a hardtail, an XC and an All MTB anyway? What do you really need or want? Do you know?

This is where at least being able to countenance the type of bike you’re after can rule out a lot of the chaff and you have home in what you need.

a man riding a mountain bike on the road

5 second guide: Do I need a Hardtail or Full Suspension. Can I realistically get a really good FS bike on the cheap.

No. You can’t.

Mountain bike suspension comes in 3 distinct flavors

Hardtail: Shocks at the front

Full Suspension: Shocks at the front and back

Rigid: No shocks at all

Shocks on bikes generally also come in 2 flavors, being either a wound steel spring, or using air sprung forks. Air sprung forks will end to be lighter and easier to adjust.

The problem with Full Suspension bikes, is that under a certain price point, they really just suck. They are heavy, and unwieldy.

This leaves you with two options: Hardtail mountain bikes have shocks only in the front fork. Front suspension reduces upper limb fatigue, helps keep your hands on the handlebars, and makes steering easier on rougher trails. If you’re looking for a reasonably priced first bike, or you have a limited budget, or after a one bike that can do most anything, then a hardtail is a solid good choice.

Rigid bikes are mountain bikes that don’t contain any suspension at all. They were almost seen as antiquated until quite recently, but these old school Cross Country bikes are making something of a comeback. The newer ones are incredibly light, and easy to pedal.

30 second guide to: Wheel Sizes

Wheel sizes for mountain bikes come in 3 sizes.

You might find some real bargains with a 26” wheel…because they’ve gone out of vogue. But then, from what I’ve read 2016’s bikes are going to start favoring the 27.5, so maybe a 29” might net you the bargain you’re looking for.

26” wheels used to be main size wheels for mountain bikes. For a long time, they were the only size available. If you wanted a mountain bike, you wanted a 26”wheel. Why? Because you had no other choice. Also, they are supposed to be faster on downhill sections. Why? Because science.

29” wheels have become much more common in recent years. 29ers are supposed to be slower to accelerate, but are faster up hills, offer more momentum overall, and are supposed to be easier to roll over small objects on the trail. Either way, they are definitely worth considering for the taller rider.

27.5” wheels are newer still. Supposedly these combine the best elements of 26 and 29 inch wheels.

Whatever wheel size bike you choose is probably going to be guided by your wallet as opposed to any conscious choice on your part. I’m just saying it’s nice to know what you’re buying. But, again, understand that the real limiting factor will come down to your skill level and physical abilities on the bike, not the size of your wheel.

a mountain bike race

The Rough Guide To The Different Types Of Mountain Bikes.

Jesus Ch*ist, all I’m after is a cheap good mountain bike. Is all this sh*t really necessary? Yes. It is.

Finding a good cheap mountain bike is going to be less about what you want but what you can afford. Most likely you will want to be looking at a hard tail mountain bike….But there’s more than one type of hardtail. because of the all-round inherent versatility of most MTBs, some can be used for pretty much everything going. The most common type of bike out there is the ‘Cross Country Mountain Bike.’ But here’s a brief guide to other types of bike that are out
there. You can probably skip the rest after the first one if you like.

    • Cross country mountain bikes

Cross Country Mountain bikes, or XC bikes as they are commonly known, are the most common bikes most people will come across. They are also the ones you will see most of in the shops. They tend to be, generally, lightweight and designed for speed. They also make up most of the sub $1000 section of bike stores. That said, the pro and advanced bikes can cost you anywhere up to $7500.

Essentially you can sub divide XC bikes into a further 2 sub divisions:

XC Race bikes are fast, efficient, and as lightweight as possible. They are nimble and fast to accelerate on. Typically, they will have about 80-120mm of travel in the front and rear shocks to deal with the occasional boulder or pot hole. They also tend to have weight forward riding positions, and go like the blazes over moderately rough terrain. They are not built for high impact jumping and landing, but instead for ascending and taking tight corners.

XC Trail Bikes are a slightly different animal. Generally, they are slightly heavier than XC racers, but still not that heavy, and are built for doing pretty much everything from dirt roads to single-track trails. Most mountain bikes available in standard outlets will fall into this category. But it’s nice to know the difference. Not that most people will ever be able to tell the difference.

    • All Mountain/Enduro mountain bikes

This one does exactly what it says in the tin. If you can’t decide what bike you want or need, then this is probably the best choice. All Mountain, or Enduro bikes, are very similar to XC Trail bikes, but will have stronger frames, and a bit more travel in the suspension. Most of these bike will be in the full suspension category, and will have around 140-160 mm travel in them. This is to help the rider go through harder and much more technical types of trail obstacles. These are best for taking on steeper more complicated trails.

As mountain biking trail centers have become more popular, The All Mountain category are all about going up, and then coming straight back down again. As a result they are heavier, because of the sturdier frame, and are a little bit harder to pedal back up again when you’re done.

In essence they are pretty much the same as Trail XC bikes, the difference is they will have wide tires for extra grip, and the type of rider you see on these will be going Hail Mary down Black Runs, and more often than not be sporting knee and elbow protection. That’s the type of bike it is.

So those are the 3 most common categories of bike. After that it starts to become just that little bit more specialized and niche.

    • Downhill Mountain Bikes

These bikes are designed for the riders who just want to go downhill, and fast, and either have no fear or really good health insurance. They are designed for speedy steep descents, and thus their efficiency and riding style are geared toward that end. The gears are set large and high for pedaling fast over the roughest of terrains. The tires will be wider, and have wider rims, and the gears and frame are more durable and will hold up extremely well under pressure. These bikes will also have disc brakes as standard, and a chain guard to keep that chain in place on rough descents.

It is not uncommon to find up to 170mm-254mm of travel in the suspension either. They also almost all have full suspension setups. They will have either air, or coils shocks. Coil shocks are heavy, but tend to be able to soak up a lot more punishment.

Most serious riders will not use clip in pedals on downhill MTBs, but instead use really sticky rubber soles so they can leave the bike in a hurry when things go wrong on steep descents at speed.
They are not built for climbing. Typically, riders will either walk their bike to the top of the trail or be dropped off by vehicle. They are not fun to ride uphill.
They are also not cheap when new, but you can find them being sold off cheap second hand. Unless you want to exclusively go downhill, this is not the bike for you.

    • Freeride Mountain Bikes

Freeride bikes are fairly similar in many respects to Downhillers. The main difference here is purpose. Freeriders have much less emphasis on weight. The frame is more compact so the rider can more easily maneuver. And they are built for jumping and doing technical stunts. The frame is designed to be more flexible. They typically have around 160-180mm of travel in the suspension setup.

To put it succinctly, freeride bikes are a cross between downhill and XC bikes, but are also not fun to push up hill. The frame tubes are also thick.

    • Dirt Jump Bikes

Again, these bikes are a cross breed. This time though they are a fusion between Freeride and BMX bikes. They also sometimes known as urban, or street mountain bikes. They tend to only have suspension in the front.
Put simple, Dirt Jumpers are the bike best suited for the riders who like to spend their time in the air doing aerial stunts. Many of these bikes will have single speed gears, only one brake, oversized handlebars, small frames, and low seat posts for stunt riding. They will also be ridden by people with no fear.

carrying a mountain bike

Single Speed Mountain Bikes

Depending on who you talk to, Single Speed mountain bikes are either the harvenger of doom, or the best thing since sliced bread. But that said, almost all of us learned how to ride our first bike with just one gear. Single speeds actually have quite a lot going for them. Going for a single speed mountain bike though is only really an option for people who are either a) already fit, or b) intend to get really fit, and fast because you will have no other choice on a single speed, or c) intend to use it on the flat or for commuting.

You can easily get a great quality bike capable of doing everything you need of it, for under $400. Single Speeds are cheap. Especially if you can do it yourself. If you ever talk to anyone who has devoted themselves to the crazy world of single speed, they will swear blind they are a better rider because of it.

There’s some truth to those statements of course. Because you have no gears to fall back on you will have to force your way through the more challenging sections of trail and just deal with the pain afterward.

Without doubt you will question the insanity that had you choosing single speed at the time as you power your way up a hill, but you will feel stronger, fitter, and more developed as a rider afterwards. That’s because going uphill you will be standing the whole way up the hill, and having to rely on your skill and technique more. You will have to anticipate what is coming up ahead in a way you don’t have to on a geared bike.

Fore warned is fore armed and all that….

How to Measure a Bike Frame and Determine Your Bike Size

No matter what your budget is, never buy a bike that is either too large or too small for you. Just don’t do it. While there is some adjustability in almost every bike going, there isn’t in the frame itself. Riding a mountain bike should be mostly fun. You will struggle to have fun on a bike that doesn’t fit properly. If a bike doesn’t fit, you will more than likely spend most of your time being sore and uncomfortable.

Mountain Bikes tend to be sized differently from other bikes. More often than not, especially down in the budget part of the market, they will come in Small, Medium, and Large. Think of smalls as for people who are 4’11” to 5’4”, mediums are for those 5’5” to 5’9”, and larges for those 5’10” to 6’3”.

Mountain bike seating positions are usually less aggressive than road bikes and plus the bike does most of the work so there is no need to be hunched over churning super hard. Your head needs to be up looking for obstacles and dangers. Find a bike you feel comfortable on and make sure you are satisfied before you pay.

Now we’ve established all that, let’s get on to the part where you actually buy a good cheap bike…

woman mountain biking in the forest

Buying new

This part really depends on budget. Like I said way back at the start. ‘Cheap,’ and ‘Good,’ don’t always go together when it comes to bikes, and especially mountain bikes. If you have a budget in between $600-$800 you can get a really good bike. If your budget doesn’t stretch to that, and for years mine didn’t you can still get a really good new bike. The search for that bike is just going to require a little bit more effort on our part. For instance, if you have patience, then you can wait and go searching for last season’s bikes from retailers.

But by far, I think the best thing you can do is go the internet, and use the following search term: “Best budget mountain bike 2015 reviews,” and “Best budget mountain bike 2014 reviews,” and finally “Best budget mountain bike 2013 reviews.” Once you’ve done that, you might be able to narrow down your mountain bike search to one or two choices. Someone somewhere will have last year’s, or the year before’s best budget bike in the back of the shop. Of course this year’s best budget option might also be in your price range.

Again if you have patience you can always wait for a sale in either the local shop, or online. I’ve always been wary of buying online, even from big reliable stores. But this isn’t because I don’t think they’re selling rubbish, it’s more because I believe you really need to test a mountain bike yourself for real in the real world before buying one, but that’s just me. There’s an awful lot to be said for buying a bike online.

You have a lot more choice, and you might get a better bargain. That said, when buying online, you may well find yourself having to assemble a bike from parts in a box, and this can be time consuming and also frustrating for your average rider. It’s not you, it’s the bike. I struggle to put a bike together from scratch, and I’ve been rising my whole life. My mind just isn’t wired that way.

Buying Second Hand

There are advantages and disadvantages to buying a second hand bike, but you’d be amazed how just a little knowledge can make a real difference and give you a much better idea of what to do. On the plus side you can get your hands on a great quality bike that might last you ages, and for next to no money. On the down side when you buy a secondhand bike, you have to be wary. Used bikes can be damaged, might need some work done and there’s always the chance you’ll end up buying a stolen bike.

That said, depending on how committed and how savvy you are you could find the bargain of the century.
There are two main ways to buy a second hand bike. You can purchase one straight from places like Craigslist, Ebay, local papers, that bloke from the pub, a friend, etc. Or you can get one via a reseller such as a bike shop.

Buying from a reseller

Obviously, when buying one from a shop, it’s going to come out a little bit more expensive, and you might not always have the choice you will when buying directly. But at the same time, you do have more of a safety net. You may get some sort of warranty, and more than likely the bike will have been serviced and fixed up before the shop sticks it up in the window for resale. As well as that if the bike falls apart like a comedy clown bike the first time you go out, you will (depending on where you live globally,) have some sort of redress with the bike shop.

But perhaps the strongest reason for buying from a commercial entity is for the advice. Staff in bike shops tend to know what is they’re doing. They’ll be able to help you pick the right frame size, and in general tailor the second hand bike to what you’re after. It also takes the pressure off you as a buyer. When you buy direct, it’s really quite easy to feel pressured to buy there and then on the spot, especially if you think you might be passing up on a bargain. It’s a lot easier in a shop to go away and have a think about it, and then if you’re not sure, you can just go home.

Couple on mountain bikes

Buying directly

When it comes to purchasing directly from a seller, there are some things you have to watch out for, and some things you really should do as well. This is where all the advice about the different types of bike, frame sizes and wheels, and suspension start to make sense. Because now you will have a better idea of what you’re looking at. There’s also a chance you’ll now know more than the person selling the bike. This will give you more room to haggle, and also stop you from buying something that cost $150 when it was new, 3 years ago…

The most important thing when buying a bike directly from another person is to stay safe. If you can meet the seller in a public place. Directly in front of a police station or someplace with other people and CCTV is normally a really good bet. This will help you feel safer than meeting someone at the back of an alley somewhere, and also help you trust the person selling the bike. Genuine sellers are not going to have a problem with this. Bring someone with you if you can, and at least tell people where you are going. The person you bring with you doesn’t have to help in the sale, but even if they stand 10 feet away during the transaction, it’s going to help if things go south quickly.

Make sure as well, the seller has no issue with you trying the bike out wherever you choose to meet. Get on it, don’t look or act like a flight risk, accelerate, brake, go up and down the gears and give it a good rattle. What I always do when I meet someone selling a bike is to take a bag with me filled with stuff that of no consequence.

I leave the bag with the seller and then charge round the parking lot for 5 minutes or so on the bike. Thieves or people with nefarious intentions might be tempted to take the bag and run. But it also gives the seller a reassurance that you’re probably going to come back. It’s a bit sneaky, but it works. Just make sure you keep your phone and keys and money on you in a zipped pocket. Sneaky, not dumb.

And don’t forget to kick the tires and spin them. And just make sure everything does what it’s supposed to do. Go over the frame with a toothpick. Get close to the frame and look for dents, cracks, and freshly painted areas for hidden damage. Turn the bike upside down and closely inspect the joints especially around those brackets. A good torch, the one on a smartphone held close enough to the frame is good enough and check for damage.

Be aware if you buy a used bike online. It’s a whole lot easier for someone to say they’re selling a Kona Shred 2013, only for a Kona Caldera 2007 to be delivered to your front door. Neither of these bikes would be a bad purchase, but you want to receive what it is you’ve actually paid for. Online it is all to easy for someone to put up a fake listing, or use poor quality pictures to hide damage and rust. If the seller is genuine, they should have no issues placing loads of high quality photos from every angle of the bike up online or emailing them to you on request. Genuine sellers will highlight any issues with the bike as well.

Also if you do look at a bike on Ebay or other sites, check that the seller has a returns policy, and have a look at their feedback scores. Anything less than 90-95% positive should have you having second thoughts. I know this is more difficult on sites like Craigslist because they don’t do seller feedback. This is one of the reasons it’s always a good idea to buy locally if you can. No number of photographs can make up for direct contact with the bike you want to buy

Now, whether you bought online, or directly, take the bike to a bike shop and get it tuned and serviced, and get an expert’s opinion.

The other important thing is to do your best to make sure you don’t buy a stolen bike. At its worst, it’s illegal. It can also be incredibly embarrassing if you meet the original owner of the bike at the top of a trail and he goes: ‘Where did you get that bike? That’s mine. I’m calling the police.’ What do you do then? In some countries, if you are in possession of stolen goods, no matter how innocent you might be, you can still be held accountable for handling stolen goods. This is not good Karma.

Holding a mountain bike

So how do make sure the bike your buying isn’t stolen

This is one of those minefields. Make sure you get a real phone number, first and foremost. If the other party won’t give you one, that should set alarm bells ringing. Make sure you don’t get a fake number from them either. Refusing to give a phone number or handing over a fake one is a classic tool of thieves. It’s also handy if you need to contact the seller because your running late, or if the police need to try and track them afterwards.

Also try and verify a person’s identity. Be wary if the seller won’t give you their full name. I asked a guy once if I could see his driving license before I handed over money. Genuine sellers will most likely not have an issue with this. If they do, then you have to ask yourself why are they so worried about giving you their name, or so hesitant to prove they are who they say they are.

Another red flag to look out for, especially if you’ve found them via Ebay, or Craigslist, or similar is whether they are selling more than one bike. This is something to look into if someone seems to be selling more than 2 bikes at any one time, especially if they seem to constantly be selling bikes but don’t have a regular genuine business behind them. Where did they get all these bikes in the first place?

Finally, and this is the nail in the coffin, to find out whether your seller is genuine or not; does it all seem to good to be true? Because if it does, then it probably is. No one, but no one is going to sell a fully kitted up top of the range fully customized full suspension branded bike that cost $2500 new, for $250, unless they want rid of it as fast as possible.

If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sorry, but nobody in their right mind would try to sell off a lightly used $3000 mountain bike for $200, unless it was hot property they needed to get rid of as soon as humanly possible.

Final thoughts

So that’s it. Another guide done and dusted. But I would like to say this before I go. First of all, thanks for reading this far. I know it was a lot of information to take onboard. But hopefully it will set you right. Secondly, I want to say this: The bike you ride does not determine how good you are as a rider out on the trail. How much fun you have out on the trail is not determined by good you are as a rider. How much fun you have is down to you. The bike you ride is almost immaterial. Just enjoy it.

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