When it comes to Mountain Bikes, there is a clear difference between the bikes you see at a department store and the ones you would see at an actual bike shop – price.
In fact, the Mountain Bikes sold at stores like Wal-Mart and Target are often just a percentage of the costs you would see at most bike shops.
What warrants such a huge cost difference? What’s the difference between cheap and expensive Mountain Bikes?
The difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes really comes down to their build quality and intended use. Expensive mountain bikes are well built and can hold up to the stresses of mountain biking. Cheap mountain bikes are built to look the part but are not meant for riding on an actual mountain bike trail.
Many factors attribute to how trail-worthy a mountain bike is.
And just because a mountain bike is cheap, it doesn’t mean it is not worth buying. In fact, I further explain this in an article on whether or not cheap mountain bikes are any good.
By knowing the differences between cheap and expensive mountain bikes, you are better able to decide which one works best for you and your budget.
List of Differences between Expensive and Cheap Mountain Bikes
The difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes goes a lot further than a few upgraded features and a better name brand.
There is a lot of behind the scenes work and history that goes into every bike you see on the market – it just depends on the target customer.
To better understand, I will breakdown the real differences between an expensive and cheap mountain bike.
I am sure a few will surprise you.
One of the first and most important factors to separate cheap mountain bikes from expensive mountain bikes is who they are built for.
Think about it – where do you see most of the cheap mountain bikes?
Cheap mountain bikes are often found in the same stores that sell groceries, clothing, cosmetics, and just about everything else.
This is because cheap mountain bikes are typically only marketed to the average consumer – someone who is looking for a decent bike for general riding.
The average consumer isn’t going to be hitting whistler or some crazy downhill course any time soon. More likely, the cheaper mountain bikes sold at these department stores will be used for riding around local parks or neighborhoods.
And the roughest these cheap bikes will experience will most likely be from the rain after being left outside or dust from being kept in the garage.
On the contrary, where do you find the “expensive” mountain bikes?
Expensive mountain bikes are found at your local bike shop – a store that is dedicated to everything cycling.
When you walk into one of these stores, you usually see a specialist at the counter helping a customer, a tech working on a bike in a repair stand and rows upon rows of expensive bikes.
The whole environment is about bikes, so when a person enters one of these stores, they are looking for something quality and specific.
The intended customer is such an important factor because it really dictates how the rest of the factors play out from there.
The next and arguably most important difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes is their build quality.
This includes everything from the manufacturing process to the actual assembly of the mountain bike once it’s at the store.
To help you get a better understanding, take a look at the graph below featuring the NBDA sales numbers for the bicycle industry in recent years.
As you can see, the “cheap” bikes sold at department stores account for 74% of the units sold but only average $89 per unit.
As you can guess, this means the bikes must be manufactured quickly and as cheaply as possible.
This often translates to cheaper material and less strict standards when it comes to overall build quality.
And you will see later, this has further implications down the line.
On the other hand, expensive mountain bikes are manufactured by some of the most reputable brands in the industry – like Trek and Giant.
And while brands often hike prices due to popularity, they must also protect and maintain their reputations by manufacturing quality mountain bikes.
This results in more refined manufacturing processes, in which costs savings do not get in the way of quality.
Brands like Trek and Giant also uphold higher safety and quality standards throughout the whole manufacturing process.
Finally, you must also keep in mind who is building your mountain bike.
Often, a mountain bike is not shipped to a store or bike shop fully built – instead, it is usually shipped in a few separate parts.
This means most mountain bikes are assembled once they arrive at the store or bike shop.
For cheap mountain bikes, this usually means that a general department store employee assembled the bike.
And although they make the assembling process straight-forward, department store employees can make wrong and unsafe adjustments to the mountain bike.
With expensive mountain bikes, this worry is almost non-existent as you can rest assured that the bike was built by a professional.
Now that we established a few of the determining factors, its time to review some of the obvious differences between cheap and expensive mountain bikes.
One of the biggest factors that separate expensive and cheap mountain bikes is their durability
And as you can imagine, durability is really important when it comes to mountain biking.
Like I mentioned earlier in the article, the goal of cheap mountain bikes is to build them as fast and as cheaply as possible.
This usually results in lower quality material and production standards.
Which is why so many cheap mountain bikes clearly state they are not meant for riding on mountain bike trails – because their parts would not hold up to the rough riding.
Expensive mountain bikes differ greatly because they are built specifically for the harsh riding that comes with mountain biking.
Everything from the bike frame to the components is built to be as strong as possible without adding unnecessary weight.
And while this does translate into higher costs, it is well worth it to know that you are riding on a sound machine.
On top of durability, the difference in reliability between cheap and expensive mountain bikes is huge.
And this is something I can attest to personally.
When I started to get back into mountain biking in my adult years, I’d didn’t really want to go slap down hundreds of dollars on an expensive mountain bike.
From my younger years, I already knew to avoid the cheaper mountain bikes and was hoping to find a middle ground.
I ended up finding two used mountain bikes on VarageSale; an old $5 hardtail with dry rotted tires and a newer full-suspension made by Jeep.
Now I know what you’re thinking, when did Jeep start selling mountain bikes and are they as reliable as the vehicle when it comes to off-roading?
As you can already guess where things are going, it wasn’t.
Remarkably, the mountain bike worked. And it was a huge improvement over my experience with department store bikes, but it had one huge problem – it was always falling apart.
I couldn’t adjust the gears and brakes fast enough, they were always providing poor performance.
I even changed the cables and housing.
And don’t get me started on the noise in that bottom bracket.
I virtually babied this mountain bike just to watch it slowly fall apart over the course of 7 rides.
I didn’t have much hope for the $5 hardtail, it had dry rotted tires and the seller said it had been sitting for over 10 years. But when the bottom bracket on the Jeep mountain bike tapped out, I had no choice but to fix up the hardtail.
With the Jeep mountain bike now being a parts bike, I took the wheels off and put them on the old hardtail and took it for a ride.
To my surprise, the hardtail still shifted like butter and both brakes were working.
This didn’t make any sense. This hardtail looked archaic compared to the Jeep bike and it definitely didn’t look like anyone took care of it.
How could a 20-year-old mountain bike that sat for 10 years work better than a newer mountain bike that I worked to restore?
I ended up re-checking the name on that $5 hardtail, “Barracuda”, and found out that it was actually from a pretty reputable brand back in the ’90s.
This is when I learned a valuable lesson on the reliability of cheap mountain bikes vs expensive mountain bikes.
Where the Jeep mountain bike parts were built to work, the Barracudas parts were built to last.
This is one of the clearest differences between cheap and expensive mountain bikes. The parts on cheap mountain bikes are not built for reliability.
And if you wanted to know, I am still riding that $5 hardtail with the original cabling, chain, and Tektro brakes to this day.
Although we briefly touched on this in build quality, we have to mention the difference between components on cheap and expensive mountain bikes.
Like I said before, the goal of cheap mountain bikes is to build them as fast and as cheap as possible.
Manufacturers are able to do this by outfitting the bikes with the cheapest parts available.
This includes everything from the handlebars and derailleurs to the chain and cables.
And while this doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, you will quickly see how those cheap parts affect your riding experience.
The brake pads and assemblies aren’t as effective, the cabling is prone to stretch and fail and the suspensions are as stiff and ineffective as you can imagine.
The plastic pedals that come standard on cheap mountain bikes don’t exactly invite confident riding either.
Worst of all, the cheap components that make up the drivetrain make for one of the noisiest rides ever.
Just check this video below in which Seth’s Bike Hacks takes a Walmart mountain bike on a mountain trail.
You can hear the chain and derailleur rattling around on even the smallest of bumps. It is so weak that it later gets bounced into the spokes of his rear wheel!
And if you ride on anything rougher than smooth pavement, expect those parts to wear down even faster.
On a more expensive mountain bike, the parts and components are made to work together and provide a dramatic improvement in rider experience.
Even if you opt for the most budget model name brand mountain bike, you can expect the components to work well and for a long time.
To get a better understanding of what I mean, check out the video below where Seth and The Singletrack Sampler ride their Diamondback Sync’r Hardtails – a budget model/entry-level mountain bike.
Notice how much quieter the ride is. You don’t hear the derailleur and chain slapping around, the brakes don’t smell like burning rubber, and the suspension is doing its job. You can even tell how much more confident they are on the bike.
This is another area where expensive mountain bikes beat cheap mountain bikes by a landslide.
The brakes on an expensive mountain bike last surprisingly long, the cables rarely ever need maintenance and the components work well together to provide a quality riding experience.
Keeping the topic of providing a quality riding experience, another surprising difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes is their frame geometry.
Mountain Bike Rider has a great explanation of frame geometry, however, it is essentially the shape of the bike frame and how it affects your fit on the bike.
This includes how far you have to reach to grab the handlebars, the distance between where you sit and where you stand on the bike, and even how balanced your weight is between the wheels.
The manufacturers of expensive mountain bikes have spent years perfecting frame geometry to provide riders with the best and most comfortable fit on their bikes.
With expensive mountain bikes, you are able to buy a bike that matches your exact size, height, and preference.
There are many options for frame sizes and you can further fine-tune the fit by having custom handlebars, seat posts, and pedals.
And most of the time, if you buy from your LBS, they will even give you a free fitting so you can guarantee the right fit.
On the contrary, cheap mountain bikes do not have the best options when it comes to frame geometry.
As you already know, cheap mountain bikes are all about cutting costs and speeding up production.
One of the best ways to do this is to provide a “one-size-fits-all product”. This is why cheaper mountain bikes only advertise their wheel size as a way of measuring the size and fit of the bike.
And as you can guess, this doesn’t provide the best riding experience for everyone.
A lot of the differences between cheap and expensive mountain bikes can be hard to see.
One of the most unnoticed differences is their weight.
When manufacturers are trying to save money building cheap mountain bikes, they will use sub-par materials and parts.
As you can guess, those cheaper metals are not as strong as the ones used on expensive mountain bikes.
In order to improve the strength of the bikes, they have to add thicker metal components that also add additional weight.
When it comes to mountain biking, weight can be a huge factor for some riders.
The manufacturers of expensive mountain bikes know this and work to deliver the strongest and lightest bikes out there.
They do not this not only by using higher quality materials, they also improve their process for manufacturing and building the bikes.
The result is lighter and stronger mountain bikes than the ones sold at department stores.
If you’re an average rider, this may not be immediately apparent, however, cheap and expensive mountain bikes differ greatly on performance.
Taking a few of the points above, you can already guess why this is so.
The parts on a cheap mountain bike are just not that well made, and even worse, they are not made for each other.
In addition to the bike frame, almost all of the parts on a mountain bike are made to work in conjunction with another.
This is why you cannot just throw on a new set of wheels or cranks without checking the specs for the rest of the parts on the bike.
With cheap mountain bikes, manufacturers are more worried about parts that work as opposed to parts that perform.
This is why cheap mountain bikes feel harder to pedal and have ineffective suspensions and brakes.
And these flaws are exaggerated once you’re out on the trail. Not only will the bike struggle to handle the stress of mountain biking, but you also will not be able to push the bike as hard as you need to.
And when you do push the bike, you will be too worried about it breaking to have any fun.
Expensive mountain bikes are the complete opposite. Most of the parts on those bikes come as a set, with the brand being either SRAM or Shimano.
Couple this with the fact that the bikes are built around the rider, it is easy to see why the performance is so much better.
Since we mentioned this briefly in the last point, this is a good time to mention the difference in standards.
If you don’t know what I mean by standards, I am talking about commonality among manufacturers and parts providers.
Expensive mountain bikes usually stick to these standards. Which allows other manufacturers to provide parts for their bikes.
This also makes it loads easier to upgrade your mountain bike, as most parts all stick to the same standard sizes and fitment.
Cheap mountain bikes on the other hand do not always stick to these standards.
In fact, cheap mountain bikes come with such proprietary parts, it is virtually impossible to replace or upgrade anything on the bike.
Remember when I was talking about the failing bottom bracket on that Jeep bike I bought?
There are many ways to diagnose and fix an issue with your bottom bracket – if you have the right tools.
I couldn’t fix that Jeep mountain bike because I couldn’t find the right size tool. I searched for every bike and department store and couldn’t find anything that would work.
Not only did this make a repair impossible, but there was also virtually no way to upgrade the bike to make it rideable.
Although I alluded to this in the last point, this next one deserves its own explanation.
A huge difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes is their levels of support.
When I was having trouble with the cheap Jeep mountain bike, I couldn’t just take it to the LBS for a repair.
For one, the costs would have far exceeded what I paid for the bike. Second, there was no guarantee they would be able to fix or replace the parts on the bike.
This is one of the biggest flaws about those cheaper mountain bikes, there is little hope for repair or upgrades should you need it.
And even if you had the tools, there is little to no resources online to help you complete those repairs or upgrades.
Compare that with the support you receive for expensive mountain bikes and the latter wins by a landslide.
Even with that 20-year-old hardtail I found, I could easily take it to the LBS for upgrades and repairs, because the standards were the same as the bikes they support today.
Finally, it is very important to notice the difference in innovation between cheap and expensive mountain bikes.
This one is actually huge because there is a lot that goes into it.
Innovation, or the Research and Development that goes into mountain bikes, is lead by the manufacturers of expensive mountain bikes.
Cheap bikes not only take longer to adopt the latest trends, they virtually have no contribution to the advancement of mountain bike tech.
While I believe cheap mountain bike manufacturers work to improve their manufacturing processes, this is all for the goal of lowering costs.
Expensive mountain bike manufacturers are the ones leading the charge to bring new products and innovations to the market.
They are the ones supplying the bikes for the best mountain bikers in the world, so they are always working to deliver the best and most advanced product possible.
This is another reason there is such a cost difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes, as there is a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into making a quality mountain bike.
Are Expensive Mountain Bikes Worth it?
In our article on cheap mountain bikes, we explain the purpose of cheap mountain bikes and whether or not they are a good choice for you.
But what about expensive mountain bikes? Are they worth it?
Expensive mountain bikes are worth it if you plan on riding mountain bike trails and often.
A cheap mountain bike is not a good option for riding mountain bike trails and if you do happen to take one out, the riding experience will be more stress than fun.
An expensive mountain bike will not only provide a better experience, it will give you a lot more confidence on the bike when you’re out on the trail.
And if you plan on riding often, you will be better off buying an expensive mountain bike.
The cheap mountain bikes do not last long, especially if you take them on mountain bike trails.
Although the expensive mountain bikes cost more upfront, they will last a long time and can easily be upgraded or repaired.
Why do Mountain Bikes cost so much?
For most of us, the high cost of some mountain bikes can be a little offputting, especially if you are just getting started.
But if you had the chance to read some of the points above, you can see why mountain bikes are so expensive.
There is a lot of research and development that goes into making mountain bikes.
Mountain biking can be a really dangerous and demanding sport. This really puts the pressure on manufacturers to make the best products they can.
High-quality materials, refined manufacturing processes, and industry-leading innovation are among the many reasons mountain bikes cost so much.
How much you should spend on a Mountain Bike
There are so many mountain bike manufacturers out there that you can find a mountain bike for just about any price range.
Knowing how much you should spend on a mountain bike really comes down to two things; your budget and how you plan to ride.
Your budget will be the strongest predictor as to what mountain bike you should buy.
While you can easily get wrapped up in the mountain bikes that cost thousands of dollars, it is just as easy to find a quality mountain bike for a few hundred dollars.
Before you start shopping for a mountain bike, come up with a budget that you want to stick to. Keep in mind all the extra costs you may have for gear and transportation.
If you can only afford a cheap mountain bike, don’t worry, they can still be a decent option for some riders. Just keep in mind their limitations.
Once you decide on a budget, you want to start thinking about how and what you want to ride.
If you’re looking to keep things casual and ride the average mountain bike trail, then there is no need in spending a whole bunch of money on a high tech bike.
However, if you plan on riding parks and doing things like jumps and downhill courses, you would be better off spending a little more money up front to make sure you’re getting the right bike.
How to save money when buying a Mountain Bike
Whether you’re in the market for an expensive or cheap mountain bike, you can always save more money on your purchase.
Here are a few ways you can save money when buying a mountain bike.
Buy Last Season’s Models
As mountain biking has grown in popularity, the competition between manufacturers has grown as well.
This actually works to the benefit of mountain bikers, as manufacturers are always working to release a new and improved product each year.
Just like cars, there is typically a time period in which you can expect to see a new mountain bike hit the market.
Shortly after the new model mountain bikes hit the market, the older models will start to see some decent price cuts.
This is a good time to take advantage of those cost savings, as the mountain bikes don’t vary much from year to year.
Buy Used from your LBS
In conjunction with the point above, you can actually get a great deal on a mountain bike by buying used from your LBS.
This is one of my favorite ways of saving money on a mountain bike for a few reasons.
For one, the mountain bikes are a lot cheaper than any new bike and even the previous season’s models.
As well, you can virtually guarantee that the bike will be in great condition. Not only do bike shops have high standards for the bikes they sell, but they also tune and adjust the bikes for max performance.
Finally, even if you buy a used mountain bike from your LBS, most shops will treat it like you bought new. This is great because when you buy a mountain bike from a bike shop, they will often throw in extras like a bike fitting and a free yearly tune-up.
Craigslist, VarageSale or Facebook Marketplace
One of my favorite and most successful ways to save money on a mountain bike is to buy used on a website like Varagesale or Craigslist.
Although this method requires more patience and research, it can be the best way to save the most money.
Most of the mountain bikes on these platforms are priced super cheap and they only need a little TLC.
This is also one of the only methods in which you can negotiate on price.
Just be prepared to do a thorough inspection before you buy it.
Buy a Budget Model
In most situations, when a manufacturer releases a new mountain bike, they release a model in a few different tiers.
The tiers are often determined by the parts on the bike like the drivetrain and brake assemblies, however, the mountain bike frame is the same.
This is a great way you can save money on a mountain bike, as you can buy a lower-tier/entry-level bike and just upgrade the parts over time.
Wait for a Sale
Finally, you can also save money on a mountain bike by buying during a sale.
In addition to the seasonal sales from manufacturers, some bike shops will have sales of their own.
This is usually the result of an excess of inventory or possibly to speed up the rolling out of new models.
Either way, a sale by your LBS is a great way to get a good deal on a new mountain bike.
Is it worth buying a used Mountain Bike?
Depending on your budget and preference, you may feel a little wary of buying a used mountain bike.
And for good reason – these bikes aren’t managed by professionals and it is definitely a risk spending the money it costs for a mountain bike.
But it is actually a really good idea to buy used when you’re looking for a mountain bike.
Buying used is a great way to save money, and you can always save the extra cash for better gear or future upgrades.
Plus, you won’t be as worried to get it dinged up, which happens often in the sport of mountain biking.
Again, just make sure you do your research and always give the bike a good looking over before you hand over the cash.
In conclusion, there are a lot of differences between cheap and expensive mountain bikes.
I hope this did not deter you from cheap mountain bikes, as I do believe they can be useful.
Please use this article as a guide for your research.
Good luck and safe riding!