Mountain bikes are great. They’re the SUV of cycling - they can take on any job, from a trip to the store to a continent-crossing expedition. Unfortunately, a lot of cheap mountain bikes are just plain lousy. Built for show rather than go, they look great in the store but are heavy, slow and fall apart quickly. In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know to get a great deal and avoid a costly mistake.

The Golden Rule

The most important thing to bear in mind when buying a cheap mountain bike is this: it’s always a trade-off. On inexpensive bicycles every dollar counts and a dollar spent on one component has to be saved on another. If a bike has all the latest features at a great price, there’s a good chance that quality of materials and build have been scrimped on to keep the price down. Race mechanics often say “Good, fast, cheap - pick any two”. It simply isn’t possible to build a good bike with dual-suspension and disc brakes for under $400.


Suspension is one of the best aspects of a mountain bike, allowing you to ride rough tracks and drop off kerbs with ease. Unfortunately, suspension is also a difficult and expensive system to build. Cheaper suspension is often too springy and under-damped, giving a bouncy ride like a broken old Cadillac and sapping your pedalling effort. It can also be excessively heavy, making your bike a pain to pedal up hills or lift onto your car’s bike rack. This is especially true of rear suspension, which requires a complicated and expensive linkage mechanism to work well.

On bicycles under $500 you should be very wary of rear suspension - it is a strong sign that the bike wasn’t designed to give the best possible ride, but to look good in the store. Front suspension is cheaper and simpler, but it’s worth looking out for brands like Suntour and Rockshox to be sure you're getting a quality suspension fork. If you don’t plan to do much true off-road riding but instead stick to bike trails and paths, consider a bike with no suspension at all. Fat tires do a remarkably good job of smoothing out the ride on gravel and dirt trails. Remember the golden rule - drop the suspension and everything else on the bike will be better for the same price.


There are two main brands of mountain bike gears - Shimano and Sram. They are both excellent manufacturers, providing high quality parts. They both have may ranges of parts, with a great variety of quality and price. More expensive drivetrain parts will last longer, shift gear more smoothly and weigh less.

Sram make it nice and simple - their lines are numbered, from X3 to X9. The higher the number, the better quality the parts will be. All Sram parts are of excellent quality, even the cheapest X3 range.
Shimano make things more complicated by naming rather than numbering their product ranges. From cheapest to most expensive, their ranges are Tourney, Altus, Acera, Alivio and Deore. All these parts should offer excellent performance, although the cheaper ranges offer fewer gear ratios than the Sram equivalent.

On the very cheapest of mountain bikes, you’re likely to find components that are Shimano branded, but not marked with one of their named component ranges. These are formula parts, produced to Shimano specifications, under license to other manufacturers. These parts are well-designed, but quality control is often poorer than Shimano manufactured parts and the cheaper materials are likely to wear out more quickly. The extra cost of Tourney or Altus branded Shimano parts brings a huge improvement in quality and is one of the best things you can do to ensure you get a quality bike.


The frame is an essential part of a bicycle - without it, you’ve just got a pile of parts! There are two main choices of material for cheap mountain bike frames - aluminum and steel. Steel is the cheaper option, but can often be significantly heavier than aluminum. If you’re looking at steel framed bicycles, “cro-mo” steel is much stiffer and lighter than “high-tensile” steel. Aluminum frames are more costly, but they’re also much lighter than most steel frames. They are more expensive not just because of the cost of the material, but because aluminum is much more difficult to weld than steel. An aluminum frame is a good sign that care has been taken over the manufacture of the bike. An easy way to tell the difference at a store is with a magnet - steel is magnetic, but aluminum isn’t.


You have two basic choices of brake mechanism - V-brake or Disc. V-brakes are simple, cheap and easy to maintain, but they don’t stop as well as disc brakes in extreme conditions, particularly on wet and muddy rides. Unless you plan to ride aggressively, V-brakes are likely to be the better choice on a cheap mountain bike. If you want the extra braking performance and don’t mind the extra cost, go for disc brakes. Here, you have two main choices - cable or hydraulic. Cable disc brakes are cheaper and simpler, but their performance is much poorer than hydraulic discs and often no better than good V-brakes. Hydraulic discs work just like the brakes in your car and provide incredible stopping power, but they are much more expensive and require expert handling if repair is ever needed.

Other Parts

The other parts of a bicycle are often a really easy way to spot where costs have been cut. Plastic brake levers or brake arms are a dead giveaway - they’re just not adequate and provide awful braking performance. Cheap saddles use a simple molded foam construction rather than a more costly stitched-on cover. These wear much more quickly and aren’t as comfortable. Wheels should be solid and resist flexing. If you’re buying at a store or used, check the spokes - they should be evenly taut, as any loose or slack spokes will result in the wheel quickly bending or buckling. Pick up the bike, spin the wheel slowly and look at the gap between the rim and the frame - if the rim wobbles from side to side, the wheel has been badly built and will fail quickly.


Mountain bikes bought from supermarkets and department stores often come unassembled. Obviously this means that you will have to put the bike together yourself which isn’t always easy, but it also means that the bicycle hasn’t been checked for safety before you ride it. A bike bought from a bike store or reputable online retailer will have been assembled and checked by a professional bike mechanic, so you can be sure that your bike will be safe to ride.

Buying Used

If you’re on a tight budget, buying a used bike may be a better deal. If you know a keen cyclist, ask their help - an expert eye will help you avoid bikes that have been mistreated. If that’s not an option, there are a few key signs to look out for. Is the bike clean? Is there any rust on the chain or sprockets? Is the saddle badly worn or ripped? Lack of maintenance kills bikes more quickly than anything and a bike being sold with rusted or damaged parts is likely to have other, less obvious problems. If you have the opportunity to test-ride the bike, check that the brakes stop you and that all the gears work. Listen out for any squeaks and rattles.


Hopefully you’re feeling better informed and more confident in your choice of mountain bike. The most important thing is to find a bike that suits you and your style of riding - there’s no point getting a dual-suspension bike if you only plan on riding on the sidewalk. With a little care and attention, you can buy a mountain bike that will provide years of fun and fitness without breaking the bank.