What should I look for in a sub-1K mountain bike?
September 17, 2012 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Which low/mid range mountain bike should I get? I'm a reasonably serious road rider, but now find myself living in an area where the road biking leaves a lot to be desired (and, frankly, the local drivers and roads have me worried for my safety). The mountain biking is supposedly fantastic, so I'd like to give that a try. I'm not looking to do jumps, but am happy ascending and doing controlled descents. This will be an off-road only bike used near Albuquerque, NM.

I'm looking to spend < $1000 on a new mountain bike. I could go a little higher if there's a real sweet spot that I'm just missing, but I'd actually like to spend a little less if possible. I'm looking at a $649 Novara from REI that gets good reviews and looks and feels fine. Or maybe the Trek 4300/4700 line.

Basically, my plan is to head to the LBS/REI, ride a bunch and see what feels best in my price range (though, I'm not a picky rider). Any thoughts on 26" vs. 29", deore vs. acera, etc...?
posted by jeffch to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can get a good starter mountain bike in the 700-1100$ range. You're looking for a hard tail, with a decently reputable part set.

29" makes for a really smooth ride, and you can roll over roots and pitted ground like it's not there. It's not as tight though, and cornering might be trickier? I'd say it depends on what you're riding, how you ride, and a bunch of other personal preferences.

If you're looking for a starter mountain bike in that price range, I wouldn't bother upgrading your shifters past stock. If you want a few easy upgrades that get you good bang for your buck, make sure your saddle and tires are really top notch.

Go to your local mountain bike store, tell them what you've told us, and do some test riding. They'll know the local trails, can fit you properly, and will be able to give you great advice. If they can't, they're not much of a store. Stay away from big stores that don't specialize in bikes.

That 700-1000$ range is a reasonable place to start for someone like you.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:03 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've got a Trek (960? I don't know, and at this point the stickers are ground up pretty hard) in that price range that I've been reasonably happy with. Two opinions about trade-offs in keeping the price of a mountain bike low:

First, go with rim brakes. Disk brakes have all sorts of cool awesome advantages, but when you wipe out hard five miles from and two thousand feet above the trailhead and have to limp your damaged bike home, simpler is better, and it's nicer to have the "tick tick tick" from a bent rim than lose the brakes altogether.

Second, pay the extra for lockout on the fork. When you're picking your way through the rock field, or on that steep climb trying to keep the rear wheel from slipping out, you'll appreciate being able to turn off the spring in the fork to give you better control over the bike.
posted by straw at 9:16 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in an REI bike shop.
That Torero is a pretty good deal for an entry-level 29er.  The Torero is the exact same frame as the Matador and the Ponderosa.  The only thing that changes is the components.  My shop sold out of the Matador, and I don't know if it's coming back (it's not on REI.com right now), but the Ponderosa is currently listed at $709.93, which is a really good deal.  You get a Deore/SLX drivetrain, a worthy upgrade, as well as a remote lockout for the shock.  You're spending about $60 more than the Torero but getting a lot better bike.  If you can afford it, I'd say go for the Ponderosa, and if you find that you really like mountain biking, spring for a better shock when you finally kill the stock shock, and consider upgrading the brakes to something a little nicer.  In my shop, we're all a big fan of the Avid BB7.  They're a dream to work on because once you make the initial adjustment of centering the caliper, adjusting the cable, and setting the pads, you basically never have to touch them again.  As the pads wear, you can simply pull in a little more cable with the barrel adjusters, because with BB7 calipers, unlike BB5 and Shimano M435/RM35, you can adjust the inboard and outboard pads independently.
Of course, you might find that the brakes are totally suitable for your riding, and the stock shock works just fine.  If you're going to spend $650 on a bike, I'd say spring for the extra $60 in this case.  It's a good value.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:28 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

From my husband, who is a life-long mountain bike rider:

I like most of what the first reply said. Generally speaking, I prefer to buy from a local bike shop and not a big-box store as the service afterwards will generally be better. I recommend brands like Kona, Felt, or Specialized. 29" is the current fad, but for good reason, and I recommend starting with that as it's a lot of fun and not just a gimmick.
posted by bedhead at 10:47 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get a good frame that fits you well. If you have that you can upgrade everything else over time as you figure out what you want. If you don’t have that you won’t enjoy it. I’m sure you know that from road riding, but it’s the same off road. I have 20 year old frames I still ride with none of the original parts.

Get a bike with simple, quality parts. The more bells and whistles within your price range the worse quality.

I think a lot of the decision about 26" vs 29" comes down to riding style and body shape. I see a lot of people saying "why doesn’t everyone ride 29?" online and noticed that it often turns out they’re 6’4". I ride 26", but it might just be because I see no reason not too. I have short legs and like to climb and ride technical trails.

I’m very conservative about bike stuff, I like things to work and not break, no gimmicks. But I like the cable disc brakes (Avid BB7’s). I would never have hydraulic brakes, and certainly not in your price range.
posted by bongo_x at 11:15 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the helpful answers. I did some test riding today and am looking most strongly at a (2012) Trek Mamba which is pretty steeply discounted into the Novara range now that the 2013's are in stock. I was instantly happy with the 29" (I'm tall, 6'3), and like the geometry, ride and feel of the bike a lot. I think the only concerns I'd have with it are the hydraulic brakes and the odd fork geometry (that would make upgrading a pain), but my guess is that Trek is where I'm going to wind up (unless there's a serious reason to avoid this bike that I'm overlooking).
posted by jeffch at 2:48 PM on September 17, 2012

Nothing wrong with that Mamba, but I would rather deal with low end mechanical disc brakes than low end hydraulic disc brakes.

They'll work fine for a while but eventually you'll need to bleed them. BB7's run about $80 for the caliper and rotor, and levers can be had for $15-20. Each. So get the Mamba and keep a small upgrade fund going. At least you'll be riding now, and if there's something you don't like, you can figure that out with your next bike.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2012

You've gotten some really good advice here in the thread, so I'm going to focus on a couple of things people didn't bring up, and give a contrary opinion on disc brakes.

First of all, you are already an experienced roadie. Everything you know about road bikes applies to mountain bikes. All of the same manufacturers dominate the space and the economics are the same. At this price point, there is very little differentiation: everyone is working with roughly the same groups of components and sourcing their frames from the same places and the profit margins are thin. You are going to find aluminum hardtails, in either 26 or 29", with disc brakes. So what matters the most at this price point is finding a bike that fits you.

Second, recognize that at this price point, you don't have something that you can upgrade your way into a race bike (or equivalent high end bike). I figure two things can happen: either you'll decide mountain biking isn't for you and the bike will sit in the garage and get ridden occasionally, or you'll outgrow it in a season and demote this to your loaner bike.

Third, I'm a huge fan of hydraulic disc brakes. I've been mountain biking since 1987 and spent the first twenty years of that riding various flavors of caliper brakes. I'm never going back. Disc brakes are awesome to ride on and are pretty easy to work on. If you turn your own wrench on your road bikes, just pick up a copy of Lennard Zinn's "Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance.". Yes, it is true that you can have various misadventures in the backcountry involving catastrophic failures of disc brakes. Are you also carrying a folding tire and a first aid kit and maybe an epi pin? Because you are much more likely to have misadventures that are fixed by those things. If you follow that thinking to its natural conclusion, you'll be riding a steel framed single speed with a rigid fork. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I'm currently riding a 29er and that is another thing I'm never going back on. I live in the southeast and see some riding areas where people are hand crafting trails from scratch in constrained areas and would figure out a way to cut 100' of singletrack in an area the size of your living room. Those trails sometimes make me think about my 26er. I lived in New Mexico for a season and rode almost every day; what I remember is some pretty open singletrack without a lot of zigs and zags and plenty of big rocks -- perfect terrain for a 29er.

Good luck with buying your new bike!
posted by kovacs at 6:23 PM on September 17, 2012

To wrap up, I took the Mamba out on a 12 mile test drive today...all good. I certainly found some of the more technical sections really difficult, but my guess is that my skills need more upgrading than the bike. During the (vast majority) of the ride where I was comfortable or just pushing my skills, the bike was great. Purchase complete. Thanks for all the advice!
posted by jeffch at 12:41 PM on September 18, 2012

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