At first, everybody is confused about the differences between cheap and expensive mountain bikes because the price gap between them is like the Grand Canyon. After gaining more and more experience on trails I finally understood what these differences are and I ended up upgrading my cheap mountain bike.
Expensive mountain bikes are designed to allow experienced riders to maximize the speed at which they are able to ride over technical trails (with bigger obstacles) while cheaper mountain bikes are designed to welcome newcomers to the sport without breaking their finances.
Newcomers will not be able to really take advantage of an expensive mountain bike, yes they will receive a confidence boost but they will use an expensive mountain bike like a cheap one because they don’t have the necessary skills to push the bike to its limits (keep in mind that real mountain biking skills are formed in years not months).
But don’t worry we will break down all the differences between an expensive and a cheap mountain bike and I will tell you if you really need an expensive mountain bike.
The Main Differences Between a Cheap and an Expensive Mountain Bike
The main difference between cheap and expensive mountain bikes is the performance on technical trails, now let us examine the main performance differences between them:
- More specialized: expensive mountain bikes are specially designed for a mountain biking discipline, because mountain biking disciplines are very different you need specially designed MTBs, you can find out what are the main types of mountain bikes here!
- Faster downhill: expensive mountain bikes can be ridden faster on stiff downhill portions of your ride because they are equipped with better suspensions that make it easier to ride over bigger obstacles at speed,
- More precise at braking: riding in rough off-road conditions without efficient braking is a recipe for disaster, the more experienced you are the faster you want to ride, which means that you need a bike with better brakes (ex. a 4 piston brake system will give you more stopping power on stiff descents),
- Can land bigger drops: if you like trail riding, enduro, or downhill then you need a bike that can handle big drops, cheap bikes can easily break on big drops because they aren’t equipped with the tougher components (the need to save money is at fault here),
- Can be ridden harder: due to the tough nature of their components and the better suspensions expensive mountain bikes can be ridden harder and you can really smash the trails riding them without the fear that you will end up with a broken bike, a veteran rider can sometimes push even an expensive bike over its limits,
- Better at climbing: expensive XC bikes are as light as a mountain bike can be and because of this they are the best climbers, on enduro and downhill bikes the climbing performance is not the focus, expensive trail bikes will have a better transmission than cheap MTBs (many come with a 1×12 system which is great for climbing),
- Better for cornering: bike geometry is meticulously designed on expensive mountain bikes, modern bikes perform much better while cornering on stiff downhill sections of your ride, this makes them more fun.
Now it may be obvious that an expensive mountain bike will come equipped with better components, that are lighter and tougher but one more important thing to mention here is that more expensive mountain bikes come equipped with a dropper post and this is a big quality of life improvement that will have a massive impact on how you ride downhill.
If you ride enduro or downhill then you really need a very tough and reliable bike and this doesn’t come cheap, downhill and enduro bikes are true off-road monsters that can handle almost any type of terrain and abuse.
Now let us examine what will the differences in components between expensive and cheap mountain bikes be:
- Suspension: expensive MTBs can have rear suspension, the difference in suspension quality can be very high, an air suspension will perform much better than a coil one, suspension on expensive MTBs have more adjustments and the majority of them can be locked for better climbing performance,
- Brakes: most modern mountain bikes come with hydraulic disk breaks but there is a big difference between brakes designed for enduro and cheap bikes, high end brakes have more stopping power and are better ad modulation,
- Frame: frame geometry has evolved a lot in the last couple of years, now MTBs are more stable, and slacker to perform better downhill, but well-designed frames are a lot more expensive than cheap frames that haven’t really evolved by a lot over time,
- Transmission system: transmission systems on MTBs have evolved a lot over the years, the most popular system now is the 1×12 speed (of course not for downhill bikes) which is the most expensive one if you want a light, efficient, and tough transmission system you need to be prepared to pay more money,
- Carbon components: many high-end bikes are equipped with carbon handlebars, seat posts, frames, etc because they are lighter and they make the bike feel stiffer, an expensive mountain bike will feel totally different than a cheap one,
- Dropper post: this will completely change the way you ride downhill, it is a grown-breaking innovation but it isn’t cheap, a good dropper post can reach up to 800+ dollars (the price of a cheap MTB).
Keep in mind that when I am referring to cheap MTBs I don’t mead the Walmart ones because those MTBs arent trail-worthy.
So let’s skip 200-400$ MTBs because those are just marketed as MTBs, in reality, if you take them on the trails you will put yourself at a high risk of crashing so be careful.
Does an Expensive Mountain Bike Make a Difference?
Expensive mountain bikes really make a difference if you ride on technical trails and on stiff descents. Not having the proper suspension, good brakes and the required traction will make some trails very hard and risky to ride.
A good mountain bike will give you the necessary confidence to tackle bigger obstacles and improve your skills.
Keep in mind that all cycling disciplines are gear-dependent, not having the right bike can be a major disadvantage. On technical trails, a good mountain bike can be the difference between a painful ride and a fun one.
For a beginner, the only difference between a cheap and expensive mountain bike would be the comfort and the boost in confidence, but for an experienced rider, this difference can be like having just a little bit of fun or a ton of fun because a good bike allows him to ride with greater speed on technical descents and this will give him the much-craved adrenaline level.
Do You Really Need an Expensive Mountain Bike?
If you want to ride aggressively on technical trails, over big roots, rock gardens and you really want to make your heart pump on stiff descents then you really need an expensive mountain bike but if you are new to the sport or just want to enjoy relaxed rides trow nature than a cheap mountain bike will do the job just fine.
For casual riders that are ok with taking it easy on the trails, a 500 to 1000$ mountain bike will be the sweet spot, if you are a beginner and need help choosing a mountain bike then this article is for you!
Riding aggressively on very rough mountain trails requires a good mountain bike that is equipped with reliable and performant components.
If your preferred riding style is downhill or enduro then this question has no sense, you need top-of-the-line bikes to enjoy these mountain biking disciplines.
Is It Worth Upgrading a Cheap Mountain Bike
If you have a cheap mountain bike it is worth investing some money in it but not too much. Just don’t invest more than 3/4 of the price of the bike because if the upgrades are too costly you would be better off getting a new bike.
Making small upgrades like the saddle, handlebars, grips, and pedals will improve the comfort of your rides and will not break your bank.
One major upgrade you can make is getting a better fork, it will be expensive but it will be worth the money, again don’t overspend, get a fork that can be mounted on your bike without changing too many components.
One of my friends upgraded his fork on an entry-level hardtail and he needed to change the wheel hub and recalibrate his front wheel, this ended up costing him more than the entire bike, this is a bad investment. You will be better off buying a better bike, new or second hand and then selling the old bike.
An expensive mountain bike will allow you to ride more aggressively and on more technical trails than a cheap one will.
The cheaper you go the more skills you need to ride over roots, rocks, and downhill. If you want to enjoy racing in local events a cheap mountain bike will hold you down but an expensive one will not overcompensate for the lack of skills.
For beginners the optimum route is to buy a cheaper hardtail mountain bike and start riding, this will allow them to develop basic mountain biking skills and in a couple of years, a bike upgrade will be the natural thing to do.
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I started mountain biking many years ago to improve my overall health state. After my first ride, I fell in love with the sport. Now I spend dozens of hours a week researching and training to compete in local XC and Enduro events.