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.
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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
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.
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
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.
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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!