Buying Guide: Get the Details You Need to Buy the Best Mountain Bike under $1,000
Bicycles have been with us for well over a century at this point. They’ve changed a great deal, but the underlying concept remains largely the same. However, one area in which the evolution of bikes has definitely accelerated is in specialization – there are more types of bikes today than at any point in history, all of which are designed for a specific purpose. If you’re looking for adventure off the beaten path and want to take a bike along, you’ll need to consider specialized mountain bikes for that purpose.
Why Use a Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes offer the features you need for tackling steep slopes, rugged terrain and harsh conditions. They go where other bike types cannot. If you’re interested in breaking away from the pack and getting out into the middle of nowhere, or even taking on that adventure bike park filled with rock gardens and ladders, you’ll need a mountain bike.
Trying to use another type of bike in these conditions will definitely be disappointing. In a worst-case scenario, it could actually be dangerous. Trying to take a racing bike up a steep, scree-strewn slope is a recipe for disaster. Trying to descend a mountain trail on a cruiser would be sheer folly.
So, to answer the question of why you would use a mountain bike, the answer is because to do otherwise would be foolish, even dangerous. If you want to tackle off-road riding, you need a bike designed to handle those conditions and triumph.
What Separates Mountain Bikes from Other Types?
Most bikes share the same basic DNA. While they might be specialized for specific uses or environments, you can tell at a glance that they’re the same basic type of vehicle. They have two wheels (in most cases), a saddle, a pair of handlebars, and pedals, all supported by a frame. Given that all bikes share these commonalities, it’s natural to wonder what separates a mountain bike from other types on the market.
First, understand that there’s no such thing as a “mountain bike” these days. What once was a specific type of bike has today become an entire category with a range of subtypes designed for specific purposes in adventure riding. Second, understand that while mountain bikes might be designed for a host of different purposes, from downhill only to trail riding to all-mountain riding, they still all offer some of the same differences when compared to other bike types on the market.
Each type of bike focuses on a specific riding position. For instance, road bikes, racing bikes, and other bikes designed for pure speed put you in a crouched position, with your head close to the handlebars and your back bent. While uncomfortable, this provides you with the best aerodynamics, reducing drag and increasing your speed. Mountain bikes don’t do that. These bikes focus on a much more upright riding position, which is more comfortable on your back and neck, and allows you to see obstacles in the way.
To be clear, most bike types have no suspension. Mountain bikes are the complete opposite. These may have any number of different suspension systems. Some have full suspensions, some have front suspensions only (hardtail bikes). However, there are some mountain bikes that have no suspension at all.
Each type of bike has a tire design specific to its purpose. Racing and speed-oriented bikes have narrow tires with very little tread, which helps them build speed and reduces drag. Cruisers have balloon tires with wide cross-sections and a moderate amount of tread. Mountain bikes have large tires with rugged tread designed for better grip over dirt, gravel, slick rocks and other off-road conditions.
Mountain bikes must deal with some of the most extreme conditions in environments that would turn other bikes into piles of rubble. In order to do that, they need strong yet light frames. Most are made from aluminum alloy, but you will also find more exotic materials (read: stronger, lighter, and more expensive) on the market, such as titanium and carbon fiber. Steel is still used to an extent, but it’s weight means that its use is limited.
The shape of a bike’s handlebars can tell you a lot about its purpose, and what riding it would be like. For instance, a racing bike has downward looping handlebars because the rider is supposed to crouch over to reduce wind resistance. Mountain bikes almost universally have flat handlebars (although they may protrude forward some with specific models). This is because the rider needs excellent steering control, but must also maintain a mostly upright posture.
While many bikes today have little more than back-pedal brakes, or basic rim brakes, mountain bikes require serious stopping power. Note that all models but the most entry-level today come equipped with disc brakes. These are similar to the disc brakes used on automobiles, and come in both hydraulic and cable-activated styles. Disc brakes offer better stopping power, more consistent braking, better performance in wet conditions, and better affordability.
One area where mountain bikes still resemble other bikes is in their gearing. Mountain bikes can have any number of gears in their drivetrain, from a single-gear setup all the way up to 30+ gears.
As you can see, mountain bikes differ from other styles of bikes in a number of crucial ways. Simply put, if you’re going to go off road, then you need the right equipment to ensure safety and performance. Mountain bikes deliver that where other styles fail.
Of course, you also need to consider the type of mountain bike you want and need. As mentioned, “mountain bike” is no longer really a type of bike. It’s a category in its own right. In the next section, we’ll discuss the many types of mountain bike to help you determine if one of them would be right for your particular riding needs.
Types of Mountain Bike
Once upon a time, if you bought a mountain bike, you were buying a specific type of bicycle. Today, that’s not the case. Buying a mountain bike means being confronted by a host of subtypes and additional bike styles. You’ll find a number of options available within the wider mountain bike family, but each option is a bit different from its siblings. You need to know enough about each to make an informed decision about whether or not it would fit your needs. In this section, we’ll provide you with an overview of the various types of mountain bikes on the market today, what they’re designed for, and more.
Trail bikes are the most prevalent of all the various types of mountain bikes, and are the closest to what most people think of when they picture a mountain bike. These are designed for all-purpose off-road riding, but not for any specific type of competition or off-road racing. They’re rugged, strong, and good all-around performers. You’ll find that these bikes can be equipped with front, full or even no suspension, depending on the make and model, and the average suspension travel across the category is 120 mm to 140 mm.
Cross-country bikes are the next step in mountain bike evolution. They’re designed for those who want speed, but also the ability to tackle rough terrain and steep climbs/descents. Cross-country riding may be just a few miles, but it may also involve treks of 25+ miles; therefore, these bikes are often lighter than their trail-riding kin. However, they can be used on local trails with equal ease, and make great trail bikes for those who are not interested in competing. Note that the suspension travel for cross-country bikes is usually 80 mm to 100 mm.
A newer evolution in the mountain bike category, fat bikes are exactly what they sound like. These bikes have much fatter frames, and very wide tires. In fact, the tires might be as wide as five inches! This provides them with an excellent foundation for off-road performance on a very wide range of surface types, from loose gravel to snow and everything in between. Fat bikes are great for those who simply want excellent traction on any surface, but are also good options for those who are just starting out and want a ride that’s a bit more forgiving than a traditional trail bike.
All-Mountain Bikes/Enduro Bikes
While some bike subtypes might have diverged from the main lineage in this category, you’ll find that all-mountain (AKA enduro) bikes are the distillation of everything it means to be a mountain bike. They’re stronger, more agile, more capable and outfitted with more technical features than any other bike in this category. That’s because they’re designed for riders who need the most out of their bike every single time they hit the trail. These bikes are designed for the steepest of ascents and descents, scree-covered slopes, and rugged mountain crags. They feature light but strong frames and special gearing that allows you to pedal uphill, while being robust enough to handle any downhill that might get thrown at you. Note that suspension travel for all-mountain bikes is significant – 140 mm to 170 mm.
Downhill Only Bikes/Freeride
Downhill, park, or freeride bikes are something different from the rest of the mountain bike family. These bikes are designed for exactly what the name implies – they are strong and rugged, but they’re mostly geared for going down hills. This means they have unique suspension designs and body geometry that allows them to take those downhills at high speeds. Note that riders usually wear mountain bike helmets with full faceguards, and often wear body protection, as well.
Electric Mountain Bikes
One of the newest types of mountain bike on the market, electrics offer the ability to go farther, and to get there faster. These bikes use a pedal-assist system that relies on an electric motor and a battery operated to the conventional drivetrain. They’re designed to help you get where you want to go without blowing yourself out in the process. With that being said, they’re heavier and more difficult to maneuver than non-electric bikes, and they also cost more. There’s also the question of motor maintenance, battery replacement, and the like.
By this point, you should have a good grasp of the various types of mountain bikes out there, as well as what they are designed to do, and where they operate best. Next up, we’ll discuss some of the most important features to consider when buying a mountain bike for yourself.
Important Features to Consider
You should begin your consideration of mountain bike types and styles with a comparison of what each type is designed for, as we’ve outlined above. However, once you have narrowed down your options, you’ll need to conduct a more detailed comparison of your choices. This means you’ll need to know the most important features for your needs, and how those features will affect your ride quality and overall biking experience.
We’ll start with the bike’s suspension simply because there is so much divergence out there. As we’ve mentioned, there are bikes with no suspension, bikes with only front suspension, and bikes with full suspension. What can you expect with each?
With no suspension, you can expect a hard, jarring ride, particularly when going downhill over rocks and other obstacles. However, this is preferred by some, particularly by those focusing on uphill climbs and on racing. Bikes without a suspension are also the lightest, as they lack additional components that add weight.
Hardtail bikes have a suspension system on the front wheel, but nothing on the rear. This offers a slightly less jarring ride than no suspension, and provides a bit of cushion for your arms. It also provides greater power from the pedals, as there is no rear suspension to eat up the energy. These bikes are also lighter than those with a full suspension.
A full suspension offers you the ability to cover rock fields without jarring your teeth out of their sockets, but that comfort comes at a cost. You’ll get less power from each pedal stroke, and your bike will weigh more than it would with only a front suspension, or without a suspension.
Next, let’s tackle brakes. While disc brakes are the most common on mountain bikes, some beginner-level bikes come with rim-style brakes. While there is nothing technically wrong with this, there are some things that you should be aware of.
One of those is the fact that prolonged use of rim brakes will eventually damage the wheel to the point that it must be replaced. Disc brakes don’t do that, and you only need to replace the pads and the rotor periodically. Second, you’ll find that rim brakes are less adept at providing good stopping power in wet conditions. Finally, you’ll discover that disc brakes are more expensive than rim brakes, and can be more difficult to inspect for wear and tear.
Ultimately, disc brakes are the better choice, although you’ll need to balance performance with your riding style, use habits and overall budget.
Finally, we’ll touch on frame material. This will impact pretty much every area of your riding experience. The most common material is aluminum alloy, and that’s fine. It’s light, durable and strong. However, there are other options.
Titanium is one alternative to aluminum. It’s lighter, stronger and even more durable, but it is more expensive. Carbon fiber is a second alternative. It’s even more costly than titanium, but it is also commensurately lighter. You’ll find titanium is usually only found on the higher-end bikes. Carbon fiber can be found on mid to high-end bikes. Steel should be avoided if possible.
Wheel Size and Bike Fit
It’s important to say a few words about wheel size and overall bike fit.
Once upon a time, adults were pretty much limited to just 26-inch wheels. Today, that’s not the case. You’ll find 26, 27.5 and 29-inch wheels. What gives? What’s with the different sizes? Simply put, the larger the wheel, the better equipped the bike is to tackle obstacles in the road. Larger wheels are able to roll over rocks, logs, and other obstructions much more easily than smaller wheels are. However, there is a tradeoff. Larger wheels are slower off the mark, meaning that your acceleration will be negatively affected. Larger wheels are also less maneuverable.
Mountain bike tire widths range from just a couple of inches all the way up to five inches. The wider the tire, the better the grip on the trail or riding surface. However, the wider the tire, the greater the weight and the more difficulty you’ll have maneuvering the bike in the first place. Overall, mountain bikes have much wider tires and wheels today than they did in the past across the board, but you’ll find some truly fat options available.
When it comes to choosing the right fit for you, you’ll need to first consider the size of the bike. They’re sized a bit like t-shirts – coming in small (S), medium (M) and large (L) varieties. You can usually count on a small bike from one manufacturer being roughly the same size as a small bike from another company, too. Most bike makers include a sizing chart that tells you where your body height fits in their sizing scheme, and it’s usually a better idea to go with a bike that is a little smaller than it would be ideally, rather than one that is too large.
There you have them – some of the best mountain bikes under $1,000. In our comparison chart above, you’ll find trail and cross-country bikes, enough to suit virtually any taste. While most options are geared for beginners, they also make good choices for intermediate riders looking for affordable but reliable rides.