WELCOME TO THE 2022 PINKBIKE x BETA
VALUE BIKE FIELD TEST
9 Full-Suspension and Hardtails Ridden and Rated
Words by Mike Levy, photography by Tom Richards
Remember that one time we reviewed a $9,000 trail bike and it really disappointed us? Yeah, me neither. It turns out that when you throw a bunch of fancy parts at a fancy frame, the finished product is also fancy and probably doesn't suck, which sometimes leaves us with not much to say beyond stale platitudes and trivial criticisms about cable routing or chainstay protection.
But dial that number down to less than $3,500 for a full-suspension bike, or hardtails that come in under $2,100 USD, and things get a lot more interesting. This time around the crew headed south to Tucson, Arizona, for our annual Value Bike Field Test that saw nine reasonably-priced machines face off against each other on the rough, rocky desert trails. Two weeks of riding later and we can (almost) agree about which bike is the most impressive, which one scared us the most, and how much horchata the human body can consume before needing serious medical attention.
Let's be honest with ourselves: hardtails can be a lot of fun, but I suspect that most of us would prefer to be riding a full-suspension bike most of the time. The holdup for some is that while they certainly can give you more comfort, traction, and speed compared to only having front suspension, the extra moving bits also mean more money, weight, and complexity. Those are less of a concern if you're okay spending big bucks, but it's a different story if your budget tops out at $3,500 USD or less as ours did with our five full-suspension trail bikes. Plenty to talk about in our upcoming reviews, then.
Want to get a mountain bike but don't have a ton of money to spend? While full-suspension rigs made nearly entirely out of carbon fiber get most of the headlines, hardtails offer a simpler, and therefore less expensive, way to get into riding. And because you're not paying for the extra engineering, material, and all those pivots, they often sport an impressive spec sheet that a similarly priced dual-suspension bike can't even get close to.
But they're not just for budget bikers, either, as those who can't get through a season of riding without cracking yet another set of chainstays, destroying another set of bearings, or blowing yet another shock might have better luck - and less time off the bike - by choosing a hardtail.
How Do We Choose the Bikes?
" what I really mean to say is, "Please, just send us any bike that you have in stock.
" If you've tried to buy yourself a new ride anytime over the last few years, or even just parts of a bike, you already know that you're more likely to stumble onto the Ark of the Covenant than the 12-speed chain and derailleur you were actually looking for. Even so, Kazimer somehow sweet-talked his way into getting five full-suspension bikes that retail for $3,500 USD or well under, and four hardtails that come in at $2,100 USD or less.
Yes, a couple more bikes would have been good. Yes, some of the prices have gone up after the fact. And yeah, Kazimer can be downright enchanting when he wants to be, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't tell him how disappointed you are that he wasn't able to get the exact bike you wanted - needed - to see reviewed at this Field Test.
This is our tenth Field Test, and that's not even including all the trips Kazimer and I did over the years before we had a name for them, so we've got the testing process on lock by this point. It's not complicated: head out for a short test lap and then do another. Then do another, and another, and then a bunch more. After we've done that, we head out for some test laps before heading out for some test laps after we get back from doing test laps. Then, after we've returned, we go for a few more la... Okay, you get the point; nothing beats short, repeatable laps on a course that suits whatever kind of bikes we're riding.
That back-to-back testing is key because it lets us compare, er, comparable bikes far better than if we were riding them in isolation, and it highlights standout differences in geometry, suspension performance, and the bikes' specs. Just don't call it a shootout, alright?
All those laps wouldn't count for much if the trails were more pumptrack than singletrack. But on the same hand, as much as we like to look like we know what we're doing in photos of us riding sketchy terrain, none of these reasonably priced bikes were made for do-or-die lines. In reality, they need to be ridden on singletrack that matches their intentions, which I'd argue is light to medium duty trail riding with some rough stuff thrown in for good measure.
And that's exactly what Tucson served up for us; undulating trails with a mix of tricky, low-speed climbs and fast, rough descents, all of which were paved in pointy rocks and either all the traction or none of the traction to keep us on our toes. It was mostly smooth sailing, although there were a few crashes over our two weeks of riding, as you might expect, and we also had some mechanical concerns that we'll talk about in the upcoming review videos. Oh, and that time Palmer had to hand-sew his Maxxis rear tire in order to get out of the desert before dark, but we'll get to those behind-the-scenes stories in a future podcast.
Our Value Bike Field Tests are a little different from the normal group reviews in that we're less concerned about using control tires to equalize traction and efficiency, and we put far less emphasis on timing our laps. Why? Well, we suspect that if you're looking for a bike in this price bracket, you probably want to know more about how it performs as-is rather than how it works after we've installed $250 in rubber that's way better than whatever tires came stock on the bike.
In other words, if you're spending all your hard-earned fun tokens on a bike that costs $3,500 or less, the spec definitely matters and we didn't want to gloss over such an important factor.
Speaking of glossing over things, timing our laps will always be a thing at these get-togethers as it gives us another metric to compare and talk about, but we also know that a couple-second gap between two value-priced bikes certainly doesn't mean that one is better than the other. After all, maybe our legs felt better in the morning, or perhaps it was all the horchata that had me going so fast and dropping Kazimer?
That said, given that our nine test bikes vary so much in geometry, suspension performance, and spec, don't be surprised to see some notable differences on the timing sheet. How much stock you put in those numbers is up to you, though.
Impossible Climb, (No) Efficiency Test, & Huck to Flat
While the stopwatch doesn't lie, it's really the Impossible Climb and Huck to Flat that we're all basing our buying decisions on, right? I mean, it wouldn't be a Field Test without some senseless climbing before bottoming out on a pancake-flat landing, so you can expect the series to wrap up with Matt Beer riding all nine of these bikes up something steep and then off of something silly.
What we're not doing this time around is the Efficiency Test. I know, I know, you're probably as bummed about that as I am, but hear me out; with the value bikes having different tires, and four of them being hardtails, we thought our time could be better spent doing something else, which is why the extra climbing has been replaced with a video breaking down each of the components across all the bikes that impressed us the most. In it, we'll talk about which budget forks, drivetrains, brakes, dropper post, and other parts worked the best, along with a few things that definitely didn't.
Mike Kazimer, Alicia Leggett, myself, and Beta's Ryan Palmer spent two weeks in Tucson, Arizona, evaluating and comparing our nine test bikes while eating Mexican food for every meal of every day, including pre-lunch lunch, second dinner, and warm midnight churros.
As usual, testing duties were split between multiple riders to give us a few perspectives on how each of the bikes performed; we agree on most things but not on everything, and that lets us calmly discuss our differing opinions like well-adjusted adults. Yeah, that's how it went...
5'10" / 178 cmWeight:
170 lb / 77 kgNotes:
Tech editor, allergic to everything
5'11" / 180cmWeight:
160 lbs / 72.6 kgNotes:
Managing tech editor, noted alien skeptic
5'10" / 178 cmWeight:
148 lb / 67 kgNotes:
News editor moonlighting as a tech editor
5'10" / 178 cmWeight:
155 lb / 70 kgNotes:
Tech editor, unsure whether it's aliens or lizard people
6' / 183cmWeight:
200 lb / 90 kg Notes:
Senior Tech Editor at Beta, way too poor to be this snobby
While it's Ryan, Kazimer, Matt, Alicia, and I that's in front of the camera for these Field Test projects, the five of us don't even know which way to pull the focus or where to install the film. We'd be completely lost without our overworked video and photo crew - Max Baron, Tom Richards, and Lear Miller - who not only make sure we're mostly in focus but also manage to make us look far better than we actually are. And then, after we film for two weeks, we lock them away inside the Pinkbike editing cave and only feed them Timbits through a small hole in the wall until they come out the other side pale, fat, and with a finished video series.
Speaking of finished videos, which bike review are you most looking forward to? Which bike looks the least promising?
Now too cactus phobic to go below 49th parallel.
Amused you’re charging extra to see the results sooner. Like, you’ll have an extra 2 weeks of knowing what bike you want that’s on backorder.
Ummmm, all chaps are assless
Thanks for making these happen, at the end of the day they are entertaining, informative, and a great way to spend a half hour during the work day!
Again - it's not an accusation of any kind, it's just an impression I get from those reviews.
He also does a good job considering the real value of a frame, but sometimes gets carried away in the middle-aged-man mentality with things like titanium, etc.
Always love to see Salsa in the mix. Their MTBs get lost in the shuffle when they're known for road/gravel/tour bikes.
Levy needs to do a sunscreen field test after his stint in Sedona and then Sea Otter. Give us the sweet deets, Mike!!
Best decision of my life. Don't have to bring glasses and/or contact lens case and solution everywhere.
Your glasses look great but yeah, I think there are a few brands that make 'sport glasses' (SportRX or something is the most common one) that have sturdy frames and shatter proof lenses. Not sure what Riddle wears, he might have some insight if he's doing 50 foot drops with specs on.
I'm still on eyeglasses too. Haven't considered contacts. Being nearsighted I'm comfortable doing basically everything but driving without glasses.
Had contact lenses since 16, and monthly lenses since 18. No issues bike riding in them whatsoever.
There's also prescription safety glasses, if you're on a budget. My experience is that I have worse luck with helmet interaction with these, compared to glasses designed for mountain biking.
Recommend avoiding anti-glare coatings. They easily craze when left in a hot car. I had this happen a few times on my non-riding glasses that were left in the car while I went for a ride, before I learned to avoid getting the coating on new lenses.
It's why he prefers blind lips.
I use Shimano Equinox with optical clip. When i bought them there were cheap and that set works fine for most of the time.
There are two annoying things. First problem are eyelashes touching the optical lenses. You can used to it but it's not cool.
The second thing is dirt and water going between the optical lenses and lensnses on the actual glasses. That's FKING annoyng because you need to disasemble the whole glasses.
Normal glasses with stright lenses (as perpendicular to the ground) are very dangeuros because the angle of the lens creates air vortex when you ride fast. I was riding like that for a long time and I'm still amazed that I didn't kill myself not seeing where I'm going
Equinox and all the "sport" glasses with curved lenses solvs that problem immediately and are way safer when crashing.
My next glasses will be dedicated optical sport lenses.
Are you guys for serious that riding in your eyeglasses is dangerous? Cuz that seems ridiculous.
an adult with late-developing astigmatism who both HATES contacts and fiddling with glasses slipping down my nose.
"In the USA, we grade nearsightedness from 1 to 50. It's based on how many stars you can count when a 15 by 20 foot American flag is flying at the other end of a football field (100 yards). A perfectly sensible, freedom-rich measurement system."
For the 'Murican vision test do you use open sights or a scope?
AM: Film for Pinkbike Field Test
PM: Village People call-back
(yes I know the walmart comment is dramatic/not true, but im trying to make a point, nerds)
Also, higher end stumpys are incredible bikes - I'm referencing the components of the entry level iteration more than the geo/anything else.
So Specialized saying that the suspension of the Stumpy would be hard to recreate in aluminium is just a poor excuse for not wanting to put in the effort to do things properly.
In regards to the Status: I think that would be my kind of bike if it was available as a full 29er. As an alloy-frame alternative to the carbon-only Enduro. As of right now, it's unfortunately irrelevant to me as it's only available as a mullet.
A few thoughts: 29ers with heavy rims/tires= lots of weight. low rolling resistance yes, but if you cant afford good wheel I think a 27.5 or gasp 26 would be significantly lighter. there is a break even point where lower weight nets bigger gains than the wagon wheels. I mean, these things need pedaled uphill! If your bike weighs 35lbs why not just spec out a dual crown and go all in? pedaling a 35lb bike uphill blows.
Low cost dinner plate cassettes are boat anchors. If low cost is a factor It starts to look like fewer gears like the microshift options or a wide range nine speed or even a 2x9/10 setup would be the smarter spec to keep the weight down. My old sb66 is aluminum from front to back with beefy wheels and tires and reasonable priced modern parts and weighs about 28lbs. How are these better? If i really wanted to I could mullet out the front end and run the same basic layout as the rampage guys!
I have ridden some 29ers that freakin rip, but if 35 lb trails bikes is the tradeoff, then no thank you.
I know from direct emailing that Norco designs their frames for riders up to 300lbs (if you play around with their ride aligned you will notice that some models like the Sight the shock will hit max PSI around 240lbs)
He should go ask around on the MTBR Clydesdale forum to see what those guys are riding.
I’m 300lbs current hardtail is a giant xtc advanced 1, full sus is a intense carbine 29, cx is a trek Boone and my road bike is a carbon BMC which I think was £1200 new, none of which are bikes that are specifically built for heavy people and none have broken yet.
Road and cx seem to be quite happy bunny hopping things and the mtbs haven’t broken yet either, I’m not a big sender though will jump and hammer the trails.
As long as it’s decent bike it should been fine. If getting full sus consider air shock and fork, at these weights we don’t need to worry about stiction and having the air is cheaper than having to by springs if you loose or gain weight.
Only thing I did have to alter was the front brake on the Giant as I was getting over heating issues on fast steep descents where you had to brake hard into corners. Icetech disc and swap of pads solved this.
Pick any frame you like that fits you well, they'll all hold a 300lb rider easy. I ride a carbon frame trail bike.
Look for a Rockshox Monarch or Super Deluxe, both of those shocks will take up to 350psi easy.
If you want to spend more $, get a Fox X2 **2019 model year OR NEWER**, the production year matters, I had a 2017 X2 with a 250 psi limit, it was not enough for my weight. They re-upped the PSI limits on the newer X2, I believe to 300 PSI which will be cutting it close unless your friend drops to 290ish lbs.
Don't worry about the fork, as long as it's air, it'll do.
Don't run low PSI like some people say is "better". I've absolutely destroyed DT Swiss and Roval wheels trying to run low-PSI tubeless. Just use what works. I ended up using about 30psi and running tubes in my tires. It makes almost no difference to me lol.
And that's about it. Prepare for overheating brakes if you go on extended downhill sessions. I just swapped my Hope Tech brakes out for Hayes Dominions, trying to avoid the overheating issue. Good luck.
Thing I like: The background and back story behind the test; obviously a massive show of passion all around.
Thing I'm neutral about: The format, but that should be neutral, yeah? Or maybe the title... it's titled, "Video...," So I almost glossed over the article entirely, because I prefer photos over video content for general web browsing.
Thing I dislike: The glaring Beta ad at the beginning of the article. I thought I had muted ads for Beta...?
Thing I hate: The link to Beta under every bike. This is sorta silly, but I really dislike it.
Thanks for reading this far, there is no prize.
Good to see Diamond Back here, but a test with smaller but not overly obscure brands such as Cotic, Bird, Orange, Mondraker etc. would be cool and perhaps more helpful in helping folk decide between big brands or value-boutiques (I just coined that; you're welcome).
Its nice to be able to test/demo a bike you guys talk about to see if I agree/get a sense of what you're talking about so I have a baseline of comparison for bikes that I can't test ride without some serious effort or would have to special order... Or to be able to have one reference point to compare a whole new group of bikes the following season. And at the risk of provoking ire of everyone - I don't mind seeing one higher price point bike being compared to the value ones - if done right it helps to get a sense of what to upgrade.
If only there was somewhere closer to home for Mike to test the bikes
Anyone who's lived it knows escaping the months of damp darkness is absolutely essential for sanity.
Loved the filed tests up until now, but if its on the dark side of PB then fair play to the payers, they get their 20 mins of entertainment.
Oh wait, the article features desert…..
Awesome read Levy, thanks.
"Anch'r" would be more accurate though...
Some of these fashion comments are coming from people who obviously have never been to closing weekend at a ski hill. Thrift stores rock!
I also think there is room to "call a spade, a spade" with regards to these value bikes, where there is a divide between bikes that don't have huge flaws and bikes that do. When you compare a more expensive bike like that Specialized to the Siskui T8...the Spesh spec is garbage with its el cheapo suspension and SX drive train while almost being 36lbs too. But for LESS money, the Polygon is lighter with a much better spec having Fox/SLX and still nice geometry. That kind of stark reality, especially for newer MTB'ers looking for purchasing info, doesn't come through in the reviews but it should imo.
As for spades being spades, I don't think there's ever been a Field Test where we've been as critical as this one
I like the idea of keeping past winners...maybe.