I've never bought that whole ''mountain biking is too expensive'' argument, although I am well aware that I probably don't have the best perspective of value these days. I mean, the last couple of bikes I've written about cost around $10,000 USD, and my current stable of carbon fiber review rigs doesn't look much different. To be fair, we do often request the mid-priced model for testing, only to find the XTR and carbon-everything model when the box is opened... You can imagine my disappointment. But lately, it's been feeling like an attitude adjustment is in order, or maybe a field trip of some kind.
While last year's Field Test review series was full of high-end dream bikes, Kazimer and I recently traveled to Sedona, Arizona, to ride and film the upcoming value-focused Field Trip review videos. The idea with both Fields is to test the latest and most relevant bikes, but Field Trip saw a price limit of $3,000 USD imposed, with the least expensive bike going for just $1,400. That's $600 less than the drivetrain I'm currently charging, and you get an entire bike that definitely doesn't suck.
I'm not supposed to give too much about Field Trip away yet, but the gist of it is four trail bikes that cost under $3,000 and four that cost under $2,000, with an even split between direct-to-consumer and those you'll find at a bike shop. Two of those were hardtails because, well, you can't ignore them in this price bracket, and all of them were metal in order to come in below the self-imposed cost cap.
Barring a few of those unavoidable cactus-related incidents (turns out there are almost no inside lines in the desert), the two weeks of testing eight relatively inexpensive machines on Sedona's very rocky, rough, and red trails was largely trouble-free.
You'll be able to watch all the videos and roundtable arguments soon, but I came away thoroughly impressed with how capable most of the bikes were. I also learned a few things. Less Expensive Doesn't Mean Less Reliable
I have no idea what the actual numbers are, but I feel like we see more high-end products failing than their less-expensive counterparts. Maybe we're just more likely to see or hear about the broken expensive part on our Insta-news than the cheap part that also failed, or maybe the high-end components do break more often because they've been engineered to within a few grams of their lives. But either way, not a single component on any of our value mountain bikes broke during our time abusing them in Sedona.
The disclaimer is, of course, those two-weeks counts for shit if we're talking about long-term reliability, but I've also seen the rocky American southwest eat bikes alive in a way that my Pacific Northwest home just can't. Pointy rocks punch holes through $3,500 carbon frames like they're made of wet paper mache, let alone your "enduro-ready" tires, and I don't think there's an aluminum rim in Sedona without at least one questionable dent in it.
Two bikes came with tires that couldn't be run tubeless, which obviously led to a few flats, because who the hell remembers how to ride a bike that has tubes? We also had some pivot hardware rattle loose a few times, but all eight value bikes came through essentially unscathed. This includes the wheels, but the big thing to note is that there were no broken frames, despite them seeing plenty of heavy hits and chunky terrain.
And yes, they were all hucked to flat while being filmed in the slowest of mo. As long as you're riding it as intended, there's no reason why less expensive had to mean less reliable. Geo is Still Everything
This isn't news, I know, but the fact that a $1,400 full-suspension bike can (mostly) keep up with one that costs more than twice as much is incredible. Because no bike review is complete without a bit of pseudo-science, we mapped out an 11-ish-minute loop that all of the bikes had to complete multiple times under both Kazimer and myself, meaning we ended up with a minimum of four results for each of them. The lap was also split into three distinct sections: all of the climbing was done in the first third, which then put you on a technical traverse for the middle sector, before dropping into a flowy downhill that started with some rough, suspension-testing corners.
No, it wasn't some Fest-worthy downhill test track full of do-or-die super booters, but it was representative of the terrain that all eight of our value bikes were intended to face. And for the most part, I had all of my quickest times when riding the four bikes that cost less than $2,000, including my personal best lap.
Honestly, I've always felt a bit dubious about timing and how much value gets put on the numbers, but these results underlined, yet again, that good geometry is what makes good bikes. Cheap VS Expensive: Where's the Difference?
If geometry is everything but costs nothing, what the hell are some of us doing on $10,000 bikes? Sure, the fancy stuff does some pretty neat things, but what are the real on-trail differences between break-the-bank and budget biking?
Front suspension performance is a big one. While leverage can mask a lot of what's happening at the back of a full-suspension bike, there's no hiding for a budget fork that's right below your hands. These days, a high-end fork from any of the big players (and most of the small players) performs so well that it's essentially invisible to a lot of riders, even those who don't take the time to find a decent setup. They're incredibly smooth, usually reliable, and have an operating window that runs from 12-year-old children to 300lb men who only jump to flat. As they should for nearly $1,000.
It's a different story with budget suspension forks, however, with air-spring rates that somehow manage to feel regressive and damping that, well, let's just call it much less sophisticated. It's worth noting that the entry-level front suspension didn't affect the times on our trail bike-appropriate test track, even if it was noticeable, but they were certainly a factor on our bigger test rides that included much hairier, scarier trails. You'll get all the details in the upcoming Field Trip reviews.
Disappointing ergonomics proved to be a big talking point in Sedona as well, despite all of the braking and shifting controls being from either SRAM or Shimano. After extensive scientific testing that can't be backed up at all, I've come to the conclusion that both companies think people who buy reasonably priced bikes must have insanely long fingers. That's the only excuse I can come up with for having to practically remove my hand from the grip to reach the shifter paddles, and for why someone might want an 8" long brake lever that looks like it's made for five fingers to pull on. Then again, they had such low power that you pretty much needed five fingers to lay down a good skid.
Enough complaining, though. All of the bikes came with 12-speed drivetrains with a huge range that didn't even give us one hiccup, relatively wide handlebars and short-ish stems that didn't need to be swapped before we partied, and all but two came with tubeless-ready rubber. Not surprisingly, it's the four consumer-direct bikes that win the price-to-performance battle.LBS vs. Online
I spent more than a decade working in the same small bike shop, years that I wouldn't trade for anything and something that everyone in the cycling industry should have to experience, if only for some perspective. That time means that I'll always have a soft spot for any local bike shop, but I also have to admit that if I had $3,000 (or less) to spend on a mountain bike, I'd be hard-pressed to not go the direct-to-me route via my credit card.
Bike shops are all about - or should be all about - creating lasting, trusting relationships with consumers while also paying the bills, a task that seems to get more difficult every year. Of course, consumers have to pay their bills, too, and most riders don't want to spend more than they have to on a bike, but also want the most bike for their buck. If you don't have a shop close by, or don't have one with you gel with, it makes all the sense in the world to check out what's online.
All I can really say on the LBS versus direct-to-consumer subject is that while the latter will always win if you're only looking at MSRPs, your local shop deserves the chance to win you over before you go down that trail.