How to Stretch Your Mountain Bike Budget

Which mountain bike components are worth the money? And which break the bank without improving your ride? Here's how frame, suspension, wheels, shifting, and brakes (and more) stack up.

Mountain bike riding in the desert

Written by
Spencer Powlison

Published on

Posted in
Guides

You’ll encounter three types of mountain bikers on the trail. There are those who spare no expense, top-of-the-line everything on their rides (ugh, lucky). Then you find folks who ride cheap, beat-up bikes from 10 years ago, miraculously thwarting calamity through every rock garden. And finally, there are “normal” riders, who want a nice bike, but have to make compromises, lest their kid’s college fund runs dry.

This is an oversimplification. But most riders (myself included), run up against budget limitations when shopping for a new mountain bike, picking a parts upgrade, or -sob- replacing something that broke. This is when it gets interesting. So here’s how to stretch that MTB budget.

[button]Shop all mountain bikes[/button]

Mountain bike tech: Buy this, not that

Off the top, it is more economical to buy a complete bike. No matter how fun it is to build up a frame from parts, it always ends up costing more in the end for an equivalent build. Fortunately, the following thrifty advice applies whether you’re buying complete or upgrading parts.

Seek out good suspension, save on frame material

Alloy full-suspension mountain bike

Carbon fiber is more expensive to produce, marketed more aggressively by companies, and most desirable to riders. Aluminum frames are typically heavier, but many riders won’t notice a drastic difference between, say, an aluminum Santa Cruz Hightower and a carbon Santa Cruz Hightower, assuming they had the same components. Some even prefer alloy.

The things that make your bike go “ka-boing” should take precedence over the frame material. A high-end fork and/or rear shock will transform a bike’s personality. If you can afford RockShox’s Ultimate trim or Fox’s Factory line, take the plunge. If you can only upgrade one suspension component, make it the fork, because it will have a greater impact on handling, steering, and overall comfort. 

Brakes beat shifting every time

You shouldn’t completely cheap out on your shifting, but it’s miraculous how good mid-range shifting components have gotten. Shimano’s SLX is a terrific 12-speed drivetrain option, as is SRAM’s GX. They’ll lose out to higher-end offerings in terms of finish and overall component weight, but for typical trail riding, this is all most riders will ever need. 

OK, XC racers, earmuffs. For the majority of trail riders, shifting performance comes second to braking performance. Brake power and modulation will make your ride infinitely more fun (and safer). If shifting fundamentally works well, your lunch ride won’t be transformed by slightly faster or more refined action. Great brakes with good ergonomic adjustments will surely make your favorite downhill more fun.

[newsletter]

Wheel performance comes from great tires

Sensing a theme? Yes, carbon fiber wheels are the hotness these days. However, if you’re hard on parts or can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on wheels, alloy rims won’t disappoint. Their ride quality might not be as finely tuned as that of a carbon rim, but remember: Tire choice and tire pressure make a far more noticeable difference on the dirt.

A sticky, high-end rubber compound like Maxxis’s 3C Maxxgrip and a slightly more affordable dual-compound tire are not much different in terms of price, but there’s a major difference in grip and performance. Always spend more for better rubber compound, and if you ride rocky terrain, a tougher casing, like EXO or DoubleDown (Maxxis technology as well).

Grab fresh grips, not bars

MTB grips

Unless you absolutely can’t stand the bars on your mountain bike, or the stem is the wrong length, don’t bother replacing them. Most manufacturers have settled on fairly comparable designs in terms of rise and sweep. Unless you need radically different ergonomics (and if you do, then it is definitely worth the money), get comfortable with your current set-up. Don’t pay any attention to the super-cool trail bros and their flashy anodized bars. It’s chill, bro, you just spend your money on PBRs instead.

While you might have trouble telling the difference between two different handlebars of the same size and shape, the right grips will shine as soon as you pick up a bike. Thick vs. thin; soft vs. firm; grip pattern — these are all considerations. Fortunately, grips are inexpensive and easy to swap. It just takes a little experimentation.

Buy used (but not too used)

Shameless plug: We sell used mountain bikes — Certified Pre-Owned, to be precise. So TPC has skin in the game. But no matter if you buy used from us or Craig or whoever, you’ll spend less, because the bike will have already depreciated to some extent. Naturally, if you don’t buy from someone who offers a guarantee (and we do!), be extra careful and savvy to make sure this “new” bike of yours isn’t significantly worn.

[button]Shop all mountain bikes[/button]

Lightning round!

Okay, should you upgrade this or that? X or Y? A or B? Here’s my (very opinionated) breakdown of which parts get priority:

Bars > stem
Dropper post > bars
Saddle > dropper post
Cranks > chain
Cassette > cranks
Shifter > derailleur

How do you stretch your mountain bike budget? Let me know in the comments!

More from Guides

  • ENVE Buyer’s Guide: Pick The Perfect Wheelset
    ENVE Wheel buyer's guide
    Guides

    ENVE Buyer’s Guide: Pick The Perfect Wheelset

  • Electronic Shifting: Is It Worth It? Shimano Di2, SRAM eTap & More
    Shimano electronic road bike shifting
    Guides

    Electronic Shifting: Is It Worth It? Shimano Di2, SRAM eTap & More

  • Must-Have Gear for Unbound Gravel 2022
    Must-Have Gear for Unbound Gravel 200
    Guides

    Must-Have Gear for Unbound Gravel 2022

  • Deep Dive: Specialized Diverge vs. Trek Checkpoint
    Deep Dive: Specialized Diverge vs. Trek Checkpoint
    Guides

    Deep Dive: Specialized Diverge vs. Trek Checkpoint

  • Beginner's guide to power meters: How to measure watts
    Power Meters Guide: How to Measure Watts & Cycling Power On a Bike
    Guides

    Beginner's guide to power meters: How to measure watts

  • Coil vs. Air Shocks: MTB Shocks
    Coil shocks vs. Air shocks for mountain bikes
    Guides

    Coil vs. Air Shocks: MTB Shocks

  • Ibis Mountain Bike Buyer's Guide
    Ibis Mountain Bike Buyer's Guide
    Guides

    Ibis Mountain Bike Buyer's Guide

  • Carbon vs. Aluminum Wheels: How to Choose & Upgrade Your Bike Wheels
    Carbon vs. Aluminum Wheels: How to Choose & Upgrade Your Bike Wheels
    Guides

    Carbon vs. Aluminum Wheels: How to Choose & Upgrade Your Bike Wheels

  • Orbea Road Bike Buyer's Guide
    Orbea Road Bike Buyer's Guide
    Guides

    Orbea Road Bike Buyer's Guide

  • SRAM GX Eagle vs. XX1 Eagle
    SRAM GX Eagle vs. SRAM XX1 Eagle
    Guides

    SRAM GX Eagle vs. XX1 Eagle

  • Why Ride An Endurance Road Bike: Endurance vs. Road Race vs. Gravel
    Why Ride An Endurance Road Bike: Endurance vs. Road Race vs. Gravel
    Guides

    Why Ride An Endurance Road Bike: Endurance vs. Road Race vs. Gravel

  • Carbon vs. Aluminum MTB Wheels: Is Carbon Worth It?
    Carbon MTB wheels vs. aluminum MTB wheels
    Guides

    Carbon vs. Aluminum MTB Wheels: Is Carbon Worth It?

New Arrivals

SHOP BIKES

Newsletter Sign Up