When you first get started Mountain Biking, there are a lot of expenses that come along with your new hobby.
Of all the cost associated with Mountain Biking, your Mountain Bike will be the costliest item to buy.
This leads a lot of people to look towards the more budget friendly options, like the Mountain Bikes at Walmart or a similar department store.
However, a lot of riders will tell you to avoid the Mountain Bikes at these department stores, even referring to them as Cheap Mountain Bikes.
But how do you decide for yourself? Are cheap Mountain Bikes any good?
Cheap Mountain Bikes are good for riding through neighborhoods and parks, and even some beginner Mountain Bike trails. We do not recommend cheap Mountain Bikes for the more serious Mountain Bike trails and always make sure you inspect the bike for safety before riding.
As you can see from the statement above, cheap Mountain Bikes do have their place, however, this all depends on how and where you plan to ride them.
To help you better decide if a cheap Mountain Bike is the right option for you, this article will go over a few things to keep in mind, as well as some tips to make the right choice.
When it is Okay to buy a Cheap Mountain Bike
If you ask most Mountain Bikers, you will probably hear the worst about those cheap Mountain Bikes.
In fact, I feel confident saying that most Mountain Bikers would tell you to stay far away from a cheap Mountain Bike, regardless of your intentions.
This is where I a may get a little flak from the community, as I think there is definitely some instances where a cheap bike will suffice.
To help you determine if this is your case, see if one of the situations I describe below applies to you.
A cheap Mountain Bike works fine for:
You know where you see a lot of those department store Mountain Bikes? Around your neighborhood and at your local park.
In fact, when I’m riding the paved trail at my local greenway, its not Road Bikes and Hybrids that I see – its Mountain Bikes.
This is where cheap Mountain Bikes excel and where I would even recommend them.
If you’re buying a Mountain Bike just to ride around a neighborhood, at the local park or on the occasional stretch of grass, a cheap Mountain Bike is a great option.
This is what I would call Relaxed Riding, where you’re not putting your bike under too much stress.
No matter how cheap the bike is, you should have no problem riding on pavement or smooth grass.
Taking things a bit further than Relaxed Riding, you can actually take some cheap Mountain Bikes out on the trail.
I actually bought a cheap Mountain Bike so one of my friends could ride with me. And although the ride was a bit louder and slower than normal, both he and the bike made it out in one piece.
This is another situation where you should be fine using a Cheap Mountain Bike.
Although most cheap bikes aren’t trail rated, with a proper safety inspection, you can take them out on some of those beginner Mountain Bikes trails.
Just make sure you do a proper safety inspection and only stick to the beginner trails.
Most department store bikes wear down if you ride anything rougher than beginner trails.
A Prepared Rider
Finally, it is perfectly fine for any rider to use a cheap Mountain Bike, as long as they are a Prepared Rider.
And what I mean by Prepared Rider, is someone who knows how to work on Mountain Bikes, as well as someone who knows the risks of cheap Mountain Bikes.
There are a lot of potential problems that can arise if you opt for a cheap Mountain Bike, so you must be prepared to correct and prevent those issues.
When I decided to buy that department store bike for a friend, I had already spent years riding and fixing my own Mountain Bike.
On top of that, I was already well aware of all the potential issues people find with cheap bikes.
Couple this with the fact that he would only ride beginner trails once every blue moon, a cheap Mountain Bike made total sense.
So as long as you know what you’re getting your self into, as well as the limits of your bike, riding a cheap Mountain Bikes is still okay.
When it is Not Okay to buy a cheap Mountain Bike
If the situations above don’t sound like a match for your case, there is a good chance you should avoid a cheap Mountain Bike.
Like I said, there are instances where a cheap bike will do fine, but there are even more where they won’t.
Take that cheap bike I bought for example.
My friend only rode the bike once or twice and we stuck to the most beginner sections of trail.
If he ever planned on riding as much or as hard as I ride my bike, a cheap Mountain Bike would have been a bad choice.
To help you decide if your situation is similar, here are situations where you don’t want a cheap Mountain Bike:
Riding More Serious MTB trails
As crazy as it sounds, most of the cheap Mountain Bikes come with stickers warning you not to ride them on Mountain Bike trails.
This is where cheap Mountain Bikes fail.
Since they are built to be cost effective and low quality, the parts wear out faster and are not as durable.
This makes for an unsafe and uncomfortable ride on anything harder than most beginner trails.
For this reason, a cheap Mountain Bike is not a good option if you plan on riding the more serious Mountain Bikes trails.
You should never ride too fast, rough or hard, and should avoiding jumping all together.
For those who want to improve their skills on the bike and fully experience a Mountain Bike trail, you should try to budget for a decent Mountain Bike.
If you plan to Upgrade
In addition to the safety concerns that come along with cheap Mountain Bikes, they are also loaded with proprietary parts.
Even though my friend only rode that department store bike a few times, I found myself working on his bike more often than mine.
This wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except for the fact that none of my tools seemed to fit the parts on his bike.
What I later found, was that most of the cheap bikes use even cheaper components. Those cheaper components use really specific bolts and nuts, some parts are even welded completely together.
Not only did this make repairs more frustrating, it made upgraded virtually impossible.
This is another reason why you may not want to buy a cheap bike, as there is virtually no way you can upgrade the bike in the future.
This is a huge problem for avid riders, as we are always working towards that next upgrade for our Mountain Bikes.
When you plan to ride often
Finally, a cheap Mountain Bike is not the best option if you plan on riding a lot.
Like I said, the components on cheap Mountain Bikes are not meant to last that long, especially if you ride them hard and often.
This is a really bad safety risk if you push your bike to the limit.
On top of that, your bike can be very frustrating and time consuming to work on.
And although the parts may be cheap, they are often harder to find and more proprietary than standard Mountain Bike components.
So for this situation, I would not recommend that you choose a cheap Mountain Bike.
Hardtail vs Full Suspension
There are a few exceptions to some of points that I mentioned above.
One of the major discrepancies comes from the two main types of Mountain Bikes – Hardtails and Full Suspension Mountain Bikes.
Hardtails are a type of Mountain Bike with a rigid frame and a single suspension built into the front forks.
Full Suspension Mountain Bikes have the front fork suspension and another suspension in the middle of the bike frame.
For this reason, it costs a lot more to manufacturer a full suspension.
That has not stopped the budget manufacturers from building cheap full suspension Mountain Bikes.
The problem with this, is that those budget Mountain Bikes prioritize the suspension, and opt for cheaper components everywhere else.
To make matters worse, that suspension system is even cheaper and barely functional for real riding.
This is why I recommend that you always choose a Hardtail when you buy a cheap Mountain Bike.
Not only are they more affordable, they will have higher quality components compared to a full suspension.
What Gearing to expect on a cheaper Mountain Bike
If you’ve been following the Mountain Bike industry for the last few years, you are probably already aware of the latest trend in gearing.
For a long time, the more gears you had, it was viewed as having a better-quality bike.
Today, the trend of 1X drivetrains has turned that theory on its head.
Instead of boasting Mountain Bikes with up to 30 gears, the more expensive Mountain Bikes are being sold with a single chainring in the front.
Unfortunately, the cheaper Mountain Bikes have not caught up to this trend.
Even some of the expensive brands still sell models with the old 3 chainring setup.
But don’t worry too much about this, as the gears are more than manageable.
Just don’t plan on upgrading any time soon if you opt for a cheap Mountain Bike.
What to look out for on Cheap Bikes
Although I see the benefit to Cheap Mountain Bikes, there are still a few things to be wary of.
To make sure you don’t make those mistakes, here are few things to look out for when you’re buying a cheap Mountain Bike:
1. Build Quality
One of the first things to watch out for on a Cheap Mountain Bike, is the Build Quality.
And this doesn’t just come down to the materials used to build the bike. It also comes down to how the bike is assembled.
Unfortunately, a lot of budget manufacturers build Mountain Bikes to look the part more than play the part.
On top of this, a Mountain Bike must be assembled before they can put it out on the showroom floor.
At your LBS, the bikes are assembled by professional who have likely had decades of experience with Mountain Bikes.
With a cheap Mountain Bike, they are often assembled by an average department store employee, who has virtually no experience with bikes.
This is why you find backwards parts, loose bolts and less than functioning components on most new cheap bikes.
2. Outdated Parts
Another thing to be wary of is Outdated parts.
Like I said, manufacturers are able to sell Mountain Bikes so cheap, only because the parts and processing are even cheaper than their projected profit.
In an effort to save even more cost, manufacturers often use really outdated parts and features.
This is not a problem for a lot of riders, but for serious Mountain Bikers, this is a non-negotiable.
Outdated parts are not only worse when it comes to performance, they are also a lot less safe than the newer and more efficient parts we see today.
Couple this with the next point and you can have a big problem on your hands.
3. Proprietary Parts
Again, manufacturers are able to sell Mountain Bikes at such a cheap cost, only because components and processing are equally as cheap.
This often results in manufacturers designing bikes with extremely proprietary specifications.
Not only will you have trouble finding the right tools to repair your bike, things like upgrades and swaps are completely out of the question.
This is one of the major flaws of cheap Mountain Bikes, and why some say they can be more expensive than a decent Mountain Bike.
4. Full Suspension
As I mentioned earlier in the article, buying a cheap full suspension Mountain Bike is almost always a bad idea.
To sell Mountain Bikes for such a cheaper price than the competition, manufacturers have to lower the quality of the components that make the bike.
Since it is so costly to add a second suspension to a Mountain Bike, manufacturers will make those cheap parts even cheaper.
This results in a Mountain Bike that performs terribly but is also potentially unsafe.
If you’re going the cheap route, try to stick with a Hardtail.
This will be a good way to get the most bang for your buck.
Are Cheap Bikes Worth Upgrading?
With just about every part on a Mountain Bike being replaceable, you would think that you can just upgrade a cheap bike to a decent standard.
So are cheap bikes worth upgrading?
Unfortunately, is not a good idea to upgrade a cheap Mountain Bike, and in most cases, it is not worth upgrading.
Taking a few of the points from earlier in the article, cheap Mountain Bikes are not worth upgrading for two reasons:
- Upgrades are often more costly than the whole bike
If you take a look at some of the most common upgrades for Mountain Bikes, you will quickly see that just about everything costs a few hundred dollars. When you’re able to buy a Mountain Bike from Walmart for just over $100, it does not make sense to throw on that kind of money into a cheap bike. Even if you decide to upgrade the least expensive components, you would get a way better ROI investing in a decent Mountain Bike.
- The Bike is so Proprietary that most parts will not fit
Another reason that cheap bikes aren’t worth upgrading, is that fact that they rarely fit the standard bike components sold on the market.
Not only can the nuts and parts be uncommon, the geometry and assembly of the bike frame could prevent any changed or upgrades entirely.
Of course, there is always an exception to most any rule and with a keen eye and some skill with bike tools, an experienced rider can possibly upgrade a cheap bike into something worth riding.
However, this is not recommended for a beginner.
Best Place to buy a Good but Cheap Mountain Bike
So now that you know that a cheap Mountain Bike can be a good option for certain situations, you may be wondering where you can find the best Mountain Bikes on a budget.
This is actually really important, as not all of the cheap Mountain Bikes are the same.
In fact, there are a few places where you can get a really good Mountain Bike at a really great price.
To help you find the best deal for your budget, here are a few recommendations for places where you can find a good but cheap Mountain Bike.
1. Craigslist, VarageSale, Facebook Marketplace
Not only is this the best way to save the most money on a bike, this is also the best way to find an expensive Mountain Bike for cheap.
The real trick here is being patient and sticking to the standards you set for the Mountain Bike you’re looking for.
2. LBS Used Selection
Though not always the cheapest option, you can find great deals on Mountain Bikes if you check out the used inventory at your Local Bike Shop.
Not only are these bikes inspected by professionals, they can also score you a free bike fitting or yearly tune-up.
Best of all, they come with the guidance and expertise of some of the most trusted people in the bike industry.
3. Dicks Sporting Goods
When it comes to cheap Mountain Bikes, department store bikes get the worst rep.
However, there is one “department store” that scores way above all the rest, and that is Dicks Sporting Goods.
Though they’re not technically a department store, they often get lumped in with the rest of the big box stores – and this is a mistake.
Not only does Dicks carry some of the best Mountain Bike brands on the market they are also offer some of the most affordable pricing.
To top it all off, the bikes are assembled by professionals, just like you would see at your LBS.
Though they can be slightly more expensive that store like Walmart and Target, Dicks is one of the best options of you’re looking for a great Mountain Bike for cheap.
4. Most Department Stores
Finally, and surprisingly, you can actually score a great deal on a decent Mountain Bike at just about any big box store.
Walmart keeps cranking out these cheap Mountain Bikes and its for a reason – they’re getting the job done…at least for most people.
If you have a keen eye and aren’t afraid to put in the effort, you can actually maintain a Mountain bike that you buy from a big box store.
Just don’t plan on taking it down any tough Mountain Bike trails or you may find yourself in over your head.
In conclusion, the question of whether or not cheap Mountain Bikes are good is a little more complicated than yes and no.
On one hand, they are perfectly fine for casual riding on paved surfaces or smooth grass.
However, they are not the best option if you plan on riding a real Mountain Bike trail.
Regardless of your choice, I wish you the best of luck and safe riding!