Let’s start by stating the obvious: we take bike testing seriously at Outside. We review bikes year-round, riding some 100 bikes annually and logging hundreds of miles on each bike that gets reviewed in the magazine. Our testing culminates in a seven-day trip in January that includes dozens of riders and stacks of bikes.
This year, after publishing the results of all that testing in the May Issue’s Spring Bike Special and the Summer 2012 Buyer’s Guide, requests poured in for reviews of less-expensive bikes. As some readers pointed out, we tend to focus on bikes that cost more. We do so because, in general, that’s where the bulk of development and innovation takes place. Also, bike prices have soared in recent years, meaning the dollar doesn’t go as far it used. But all your appeals got us wondering: What does a limited budget buy? And how cheap is too cheap?
Looking for answers, we sifted through dozens of lower-priced bikes out there to find the best values. Then we spent the past few months putting them to the test on the trails and roads around Santa Fe. And while it’s still true that you get what you pay for, we were pleasantly surprised by some of the great values we found. In the next few weeks, we’ll present a series of reviews of bikes in the $500, $1,000, and $1,500 ranges. We begin this week with mountain bikes; look for road cycles and utility rigs in upcoming articles.
The Best Budget Mountain Bikes: Buying Advice
The first rule of buying inexpensive bikes: think simple
We generally counsel that to get a new mountain bike that will be both fun to ride as well as hold up to the ongoing abuse of riding trails, you should expect to spend at least $2,000. If you plan to log a ride or more a week, we still think that figure (or more) will save you money in the long run as the parts on cheaper bikes are likely to wear out and need replacement faster. Generally speaking, more money means less weight, increased durability, and improved turning. Still, if you’re only going to ride occasionally, you’re just trying out the sport, or your sizing might change (as in growing kids), you can probably get away with a bike that costs less. However, budget buyers can do themselves some favors with a few simple rules of thumb.
First, get your bike at a bike shop, not a department store. Bikes stocked at specialty bike shops will generally be reputable brands with better parts, and the bike shop should be able to help with fit suggestions, parts swaps, and service issues—none of which you will get at a department store.
Second, look for bikes equipped with parts from major component manufacturers, such as Shimano, SRAM, RockShox, Fox, and WTB. Because the companies equip high-end bikes as well as budget ones, these components generally benefit from a trickle down technology and know-how. Be wary of brands and manufacturers you’ve never heard of. As far as specific component suggestions, look for a triple chain ring up front for easier gearing and pedaling, and choose 29er wheels for fully rigid bikes or hard tails (no rear suspension) as the big wheels will help smooth out the bumps in the trail.
Third, think simple. On budget mountain bikes, the parts that are most likely to wear out, break, or simply work badly the soonest is the suspension (forks up front; shocks out back). For this reason, we generally think it’s best to forgo full suspension in this price category and go with a hard tail design. (Though we did find a full suspension bike that surprised us.) If you are intent on having suspension, make sure it has some sort of damping capability and rebound adjustment, which modulate and slow the speed of return. Without those, the suspension will simply be a pogo-like spring that will make it feel as if you’re going to bounce right off the bike.
Finally, consider used bikes or previous year’s models. While it’s great to buy new, the consignment racks at your local bike shop or online vendors like Craigslist can often yield great bikes at half the cost you’d pay for them new. Many enthusiasts upgrade every couple of years or more, so it’s possible to scoop up a lightly used model at a killer price. And buy at the end of the season (fall and winter), when bike shops frequently drop prices to clear out last year’s inventory. One word of caution: If you’re buying used from a third party, you should have good knowledge of components (or bring someone who does) and, if possible, take the bike to a shop for an inspection before you buy it to make sure there are no major issues.
The Best $500 Mountain Bike: Diamondback Overdrive
It is virtually impossible to find an authentic mountain bike for less than $500, but the Overdrive ($600) comes pretty close. This 29er hard tail sports the same aluminum frame as the Overdrive Pro, a $1,750 bike, but it depends on cheaper parts to hit this budget price. The result isn’t a perfect bike, but it’s plenty fun on smooth to semi-technical trails and it would be hard to get more bike for the cost.
We were impressed with the Overdrive’s geometry. The riding position is lower than most bikes in this realm, which had us nicely stretched out and well centered over the wheels for fast cornering and surprisingly nimble handling. Unfortunately, though the frame is aluminum, when you add up all the lower-priced (read: heavier) parts, you get a pretty hefty bike at 32 pounds.
Let’s start with the gripes: The Tektro brakes were decent, but not as as grabby as we’d like. (A 180mm rotor up front—as opposed to the 160 that’s spec’d—would help.) And the wheels are pretty heavy. But, considering you can spend thousands of dollars on brakes and wheels alone, neither one is really that bad. It’s the SR Suntour XCT 100mm fork that we had real issues with. The preload dial, which is meant to change the stiffness of the shock, didn’t work, and there’s no rebound adjustment, so the fork simply rockets compression off bumps right back into you at full speed. We understand that the market dictates the inclusion of suspension forks, but we wish that more companies would stand their ground and offer bikes at this price with a rigid fork, which would be cheaper, simpler, and much more fun to ride.
Now, onto the pleasant surprises. In spite of the plasticky feel, the SRAM X4 shifters powered the SRAM/Shimano drivetrain smoothly. The cockpit, with low-rise bars and short stem, was surprisingly comfortable. And the WTB Wolverine tires are some of our favorite all-rounders, cutting a great balance between durability, weight, and traction.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You might not guess it from all those complaints, but the Overdrive is a good bike for the price and is miles better than similarly-priced bikes from big-box stores. On buffed-out singletrack, it carves quite nicely and holds speed very well. And we were perfectly able to keep up with the crew—some of whom were on bikes that cost 10 times as much—on evening spins. The Overdrive would be a great starter bike for those who are just dabbling in the sport, with the caveat that if you decided to carry on mountain biking you’d want a new fork and probably wheels within a year. Another option would be to upgrade right off the bat to the Overdrive Comp ($980), which rides much nicer and will last longer.
The Best $1,000 Mountain Bike: Jamis Exile Comp
With its swoopy tubes, upright geometry, and cola paint job, the Exile Comp ($1,100) looks more femme than freeride. But as with all Jamis bikes, this bike holds far more value than its looks and price tag suggest—and it rides pretty darn well, too. Jamis may not have the cachet of other big brands (yet), but they build bikes that keep up.
Admittedly, this aluminum bike is a bit funky looking from a distance. The low-slung top tube appears a bit strange, though all that extra clearance makes it very easy to maneuver in technical terrain. Combined with an extra tall head tube (bigger than the Diamond Back), it makes for a very upright position, not unlike a cruiser bike. But surprisingly, that doesn’t detract from the handling, as we weren’t any slower on our test laps on the Exile Comp than on the Overdrive. It simply makes it more comfy to ride—never a bad thing. And overall, the bike is a lighter than the Diamondback, too, weighing in at a trimmer but hardly svelte 31 pounds, and it has niceties normally reserved for more expensive bikes like a tapered head tube, which definitely aids in steering accuracy and handling.
If this American company knows one thing, it’s that good parts count. From the solid WTB rims to the SRAM X5 shifters and the full SRAM drivetrain (X7 in the rear derailleur, a part generally spec’d on much more costly bikes), these components worked great and are well made. And the best upgrade from the Overdrive is the Rockshox XC32 TK9 fork, with a preload dial that worked to adjust the pressure, a rebound dial that took the edge off the spring rate, and a lockout that makes the fork rigid for more efficient climbing. One small niggle: Though the Geax AKA29 tires worked okay on our hard-pack test circuit and were clearly chosen as a commuter crossover for riders who frequent asphalt as well as dirt, we’d rather see something meatier for the trails.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We railed this bike hard on our local smoothie singletrack, and it handled everything we threw at it—including some reasonably techy sections. Though the bike’s tall posture was a bit off-putting to more advanced riders used to sleeker positioning, having the weight off your hands will be a boon to novice to intermediate riders. All of which is to say: it’s a great starter bike that, thanks to quality parts, will keep up with you until you’re ready for something faster.
The Best $1,500 Mountain Bike: Giant Trance X4
We’ve long said that buying a full-suspension mountain bike for less than $2,000 is a waste of money, but the Trance X4 ($1,550) proves us wrong. This is hardly the most supple or nuanced bike, but given its pedigreed geometry and more-than-adequate-for-the-price suspension, it ripped up the trails—especially downhill.
A carbon copy of the frames used in its higher-end siblings (including the tapered head tube), the aluminum X4 has five inches of travel in both front and rear. Combined with 26-inch wheels (perfect for this trail riding application), a relatively slack 69.5 degrees, and a good amount of stand-over height, the frame is built for stability on tricky trails and descending. Indeed, we launched down rocky singletrack peppered with boulders and jumps and the X4 took it all in stride. The rear Giant Air-R shock has both an air intake for adjusting the pressure and a dial for rebound rate, both of which worked fine, though tuning proved tricky: We could either set the pressure soft for slamming descents or firm for efficient pedaling—but not both. Similarly, the preload and rebound settings on the fork also worked well, but no amount of tweaking provided the plushness on small bumps that you get with a more expensive setup. Still, this is the most hardworking and agile setup we’ve found at this price.
Giant’s massive buying power allows the company to build bikes with nicer parts than you’d expect, including the choice stem and riser bars, identical versions of which we’ve seen on bikes that cost twice as much as this, and the burly, though heavy, house-branded wheels, which are built by DT Swiss. The Avid Elixir 1 brakes have plenty of stopping power, thanks especially to the 180mm rotor up front, though they were quite squawky and did go a little soft as they heated up from use on longer descents. The Shimano drivetrain is good quality, and we especially like the trigger option on the shifters, a trickledown from the company’s higher-spec components. The one big miss were the Schwalbe Knobby Nick tires: Not only did the sidewalls get beat up quickly, but the tread pattern seemed all wrong on almost every terrain and we were constantly slipping out in places we shouldn’t have been. Of course, tires are location-specific, and an easy change once you’ve determined what works in your area.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Giant has leveraged its know-how and manufacturing prowess to build a (relatively) inexpensive bike that rides admirably well. Wildly versatile, the X4 easily serves total novices and capable trail riders alike on trails ranging from manicured singletrack to harsh rock gardens and even terrain parks. We took it on our local downhill run, a 30-minute high-speed descent with a broad range of obstacles from loose, dusty gullies to shin-deep stream crossings, and not only did we enjoy the ride, but we set a new Strava time record for the segment. It’s not the most supple bike, but out of the three in this review, it's the one novice riders are least likely to outgrow anytime soon.