Cheap go fast shit.
I love thinking about what we need versus what we want. The imagination often gets in our way. It will cost us money and slow us down. It keeps us slow.
I see riders in my area all day long on bikes that are too big (travel) for them, too heavy, too expensive and just plain fit wrong. It’s a shame when you consider that they keep spending more and more money for worse and worse performance. The marketing guys have them wrapped around their fingers. The customer is programmed to think more is better but it’s often not the case. Even when they spend all the money they possibly can, the system they build doesn’t work properly or is fit completely wrong to them and their riding style (if you can call it that). Typically, what they need is to spend less money and buy less bike.
This morning, Vernon Felton of Bike Magazine posted to the magazine’s blog about some value bikes that are available to people looking for a real mountain bike at low cost. I chimed in, saying that there was greater value in the market than the examples that he cited. After a few comments on his facebook page, he challenged me to do better. I accepted the challenge. I was quickly surprised that while I feel I was able to make a better list, I wasn’t able to do as well as I thought.
Several factors come into play when looking for a good mountain bike, especially in the value category. While Vernon’s or my experience do much in seeing through the marketing hype and fancy paint, there are benchmarks that a bike should meet. In the end, the goal is to make a purchase that doesn’t waste money by throwing it toward junk and to get something that is honestly usable for the sport of mountain biking.
1. The bike needs to be built to last. Mountain biking, when done right, is abusive to bikes. It gets crashed. It is dragged through mud, dust, and slop. The parts are ground down by the harsh use and abuse. The frame and the parts need to survive in working order to provide the experience we expect. Some bikes do this better than others and suspension bikes are always at a disadvantage to hardtails.
2. A quality fork w/15 or 20mm TA. You can find bikes with forks that don’t work for cheap money but nobody needs that. Some bikes will still be sold with 9mm QR’s which is a joke in the face of modern TA systems and how hard a bike is pushed these days. We expect smooth travel with good damping and anything less is unacptable.
3. 120mm-160mm of front travel. You really aren’t doing yourself any favors with less. I can ride a 100mm fork on a hardtail, but 140mm is really superior. I can ride 120mm fork on a suspension bike but with a 160mm fork, I’m going to actutally charge at the speed that the rear end travel allows.
4. 0mm to 125mm of rear travel. Hartails are rad in all but certain conditions. I love hardtails but I do admit that riding in Marin is perfectly suited for their use. Suspension bikes are really fun and provide a level of control that puts a smile on most peoples faces. Still, too much of a good thing is bad. 160mm of wheel travel in the rear is only useful in a small percentage of situations but is a penalty in 99% percent of riding. 100 to 125mm of rear is where you are going to get the most bang for your money and effort while pedaling up and around.
5. Hydraulic brakes, strongly prefering Shimano. Cable actuated brakes are absolutely unuasable in real mountain biking. Hydralulic is the only choice and always has been. Shimano makes the best brakes in the business. Period. I would much rather (and have) run the lowest level Shimano brakes instead of the best SRAM has to offer. The brakes are that good.
6. A dropper seatpost. Game changer is a word thrown around a lot these days but with regard to mountain bikes the dropper post really is that. They probably produce the single greatest change to how we use the mountain bike since the advent of clipless pedals and disc brakes. They are a requirement if you expect to go fast on a ride, even on a hardtail. In fact, a hardtail bike without a dropper post should be considered a go slow bike rather than anything else.
7. A long front center. Compared to bikes of the past, a modern mountain bike has a long front end. Front centers in the range (for a medium) of 690mm for 29ers and 705mm for 27.5ers are what we are using today. This allows for much greater entry speed into whatever difficulty lay ahead. The challenge here is that a bike too long will be an issue when very tight switchbacks are common where you ride. A CC Angleset is used to move the front wheel’s position for longer front centers. The name ‘angleset’ is really a misnomer. It should be called a ‘front center set’.
8. No more 26ers. I’m sorry to say the day of the 26er is over. They will still have uses for dirtjump, pumptrack, flow, and small peoples bikes but we aren’t going to see them on trailbikes again. In fact, for mountain biking with a hardtail, 29er wheels are the only choice outside of special circumstances. With full suspension, a 27.5″ wheels is usable but only if the rider is going to be riding very aggressively (or is small).
The real thing to take away from all of this is that we get the bike so that we can ride. It’s a tool, not the goal. If you can get a perfectly good bike (not the absolute best) and still afford decent kit and a trip to Whistler or a few weekends at an awesome destination, then you are miles ahead of simply having a fancy bike on it’s own. Putting the money into the riding and not so much the bike will ALWAYS be better money spent. It will ALWAYS make you a better rider. Get want you need for a bike, but don’t waste money that could go toward the ride.
I didn’t have a lot of time today but I tried my best to put together this list.
Five hartails and five suspension bikes.
* $1249. Kona Kahuna 29. Needs dropper. Understated elegance. This is just such a nice bike and a real bargain. I’d say it’s probably one of the best deals out there for someone looking to get into the sport without over spending or wasting money.
* $1550. Specialized Rockhopper Pro Evo 29. While the Crave Comp has a better part spec, the Rockhopper has a modern geometry that will allow for much better use. It’s an ugly bike and does get points off for SRAM drivetrain and brakes. At this price point, you want Shimano parts without question, similar to the Kona.
* $1540. Trek Superfly 5 29. Needs dropper. World cup pedigree. A solid basic mountain bike.
* $1699. Santa Cruz Highball 29. Needs dropper, angleset and fork extention. This is a gorgous bike with a decent parts although the SRAM brakes really set it back.
* $1,399. Marin Nail Trail 9.6. Needs dropper, extended fork, and angleset. A solid but uninspired bike. Definately beat with an ugly stick. The part spec is good and is probably suited for lots of abuse.
* $2,650. Giant Anthem X 29. Needs dropper. There is no arguing that the Anthem 29er is one of the top bikes out there. As always, start with stock and go slacker and longer up front. 120mm up front is the hot setup.
* $3,000. Giant Anthem SX 27.5. I have one of these. Amazing things. Toss an angleset in and a 160mm fork and you will be going fast up and down the hill.
* $2,799. Kona Process 134 29. The new Konas are just amazing. For so long, they were the dinosaur of the industry but the brand is back and they are good. They emphisize solidness and durability.
* $2499. Santa Cruz Bantam 27.5 Needs dropper. Needs Angleset and fork extended. A shame it doesn’t have Shimano brakes. Really sick hard hitting fun bike. I used to own a Butcher and it was a really great bike.
* $2,840. Trek Remedy 7 27.5. Needs dropper. Rough and tumble. Points off for the silly rear shock.
* $2,000. Specialized Camber 29. An incredible value but with a 9mm QR fork I couldn’t recommend it. Needs dropper
* $1100. Trek X-Caliber 8. Lack of a steerer tube that will take a tapered steerer. Off the list. Incredible value though. Needs dropper