5 Reasons to Avoid Cheap Mountain Bikes for Riding Trails

Don't put yourself in a dangerous situation

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The single biggest reason not to use a cheap mountain bike on trails is rider safety.

At what price point is a mountain bike trail-worthy? What is wrong with department store bikes anyway as they certainly look the part and they seem fine riding around the neighborhood and bike paths. This is the issue we’ll aim to answer in this article as well as the often-heard question: “How much should I spend on a mountain bike?”

In the most general terms, mountain bikes can be divided into two levels, department store grade, and bike shop level. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll define cheap mountain bikes as department store grade under $300. We’ll go through to the top 5 reasons why you should avoid riding them on trails or at least proceed with extreme caution. We’ll also define a mountain bike trail as one that is not paved, has rocks, roots, narrow sections, and of course elevation or climbing involved.

We’d like to point out that there’s nothing wrong with cheap mountain bikes for street riding and commuting. The position is upright giving comfort and vision, compared to a road bike. And the big tires deliver comfort and added traction for unexpected pavement cracks, potholes and gravel. Paved bike paths too are not much of an issue for a department store bike. But as you venture out and start doing some real bike trails, we would like you to be aware of the top 5 reasons below why your safety and enjoyment is compromised and why you need to proceed with caution.

Key parts on cheap mountain bikes may break without warning.

1. The frame and fork may break in half

At Mtbr, our biggest concern is metal and weld strength. The frame and fork are the most at risk on a rocky downhill or occasional jump since they can fail and break in half without warning. And when these parts fail, momentum and force will drive head into the ground. This can result in severe injury. They can fail without any warning so the rider is completely unprepared for the impact. We can’t tell you how many videos we’ve seen involving cheap bikes on trails and dirt jump parks where the bike breaks and the rider slams into the ground.

2. Brakes will not stop you

On flat ground, most any brake will work. But on the mountain, there is a lot more force and speed involved as the trail can get steep and narrow with little warning. Most cheap bikes have brakes that are not capable of stopping an adult rider in time. Often, the brakes can degrade too as they heat up on a long descent. The rider can blow through a corner, hit a tree, or fall off a cliff in the worst cases.

3. Gears are not low enough and will not shift well

When you get on a steep hill on a cheap bike, you’ll realize why your bike has so many gears. You’ll find that there are not enough low gears and it won’t stay in gear. Mountain bikes need very low gearing (especially for beginner climbers) and they need to shift under some pedaling load and stay in gear. Most cheap bikes cannot do this. Thus the experience can become miserable fairly quickly as the rider is left walking most of the uphills

Brakes and suspension on a cheap bike may compromise the rider’s safety.

4. Tires and components will let you down

A lot of cheap bikes look the part but to get under that $300 price point, severe compromises are made. Form over function rules the roost and the tires often have little grip and the saddle offer minimal comfort. Parts will rattle off and it’s not uncommon for cheap bikes and parts to end up carried back to the car in an average mountain bike trail

5. Assembly quality is poor

To add salt to the wound, the cheap bike is often assembled out of a box by workers who nothing about bikes. The fork may be installed backward, and the brakes may be half functional. The gearing is usually adjusted wrong and moving parts overly tightened. This assembly can often place an already inadequate bike at 50% of its potential. All these can be addressed by a mechanic but having this done can require specialized tools and more money.

The other issue worth noting is cheap bikes are often not upgradable. Changing the brakes or gearing is often a difficult affair as department store bikes often do not use the common standards used by capable mountain bikes.


For fun, we’ll share this video by two high-level riders taking a $150 Walmart bike down a downhill trail. It’s not realistic but it shows what parts will fail quickly when the bike is pushed.

That’s our take of the 5 best reasons why you shouldn’t rally your cheap bike on that fun mountain bike trail your friends have been raving about. Proceed with caution and start looking at a real mountain bike if you’re really enjoying the sport and feel you’re ready to tackle the mountains.

The $700 and above price point is a safe bet to start your search in. The used market is usually an option to get a capable bike much cheaper but the pandemic, Covid-19 environment has really tapped the availability of good buys in the used market under the $1000 price point. Check here https://reviews.mtbr.com/best-mountain-bikes-under-1000 for our recommended list of mountain bikes under $1000.

At around $700. Good bike options that look and act the part emerge


About the author: Francis Cebedo

The founder of mtbr and roadbikereview, Francis Cebedo believes that every cyclist has a lot to teach and a lot to learn. "Our websites are communal hubs for sharing cycling experiences, trading adventure stories, and passing along product information and opinions." Francis' favorite bike is the last bike he rode, whether it's a dirt jumper, singlespeed, trail bike, lugged commuter or ultralight carbon road steed. Indeed, Francis loves cycling in all its forms and is happiest when infecting others with that same passion. Francis also believes that IPA will save America.



Comments:

  • Matt says:

    Meh . . . maybe a decent point for extreme loads on the frame caused by downhill riding and big jumps. I’m not sold when it comes to the more moderate loads imposed on the frame by X – country riding. One of my first races, maybe 20 years ago, some elite rider showed up with an el cheapo mountain bike, branded ‘supercycle’ from Canadian tire, sort of like a Walmart, and demolished the field. A bad workman always blames his tools. Enough said.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> Meh . . . maybe a

      Ahh, the legend of the elite racer on a department store bike beating a bunch of lesser athletes. Those old races were more like dirt road courses anyway and races are won on the climbs. And I’m sure that racer professionally tuned that bike to prove a point.

      A year later, that bike would be destroyed riding trails. Heck maybe even a week. Really would not recommend a bike that doesn’t shift, doesn’t brake, with uncontrolled suspension on a real trail with valid descents.

      We’re not saying spend thousands either as there’s a point of diminishing returns with bikes. But there is is point where a product is suitable for a task at hand… and under $300 is not it.

  • froze says:

    What a person needs to do, if interested in a low-end mountain bike, is find either a rigid frame and fork MTB or buy a hybrid without a suspension fork. Suspension forks are only necessary if you’ll be doing some serious downhill type of racing, for all other activities off road it’s not necessary; I use to ride mountain trails in California all the time with a rigid mtb without a suspension fork, but I wasn’t racing. You can’t even find a decent fork on a bike till you get up around $800 then you’ll get just an ok one. Cheap suspension forks don’t last, they don’t work right, they’re heavy, and they take about 50 watts from your forward pedaling energy. They put suspension forks on cheap bikes because they know that young males want to look macho, and those forks are like a fishing lure to a fish. Simply stay away from them and avoid the headaches.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> What a person needs to do

      Agreed 1000% We are horrified when we see cheap bikes with suspension fork or rear suspension. They’re really just decoration but add so much weight and slop in the system.

      29ers are good or even better is 27.5 with 2.8 aka ‘plus’ tires if more comfort is desired.

  • Douglas Vlad says:

    Curious? Why do the Wal-Mart family build cool trail in Arkansas, and ride really expensive bikes? And then sell the cheap ones in their stores? I understand, this is America, and cheap big box stores will always exist. But wouldn’t said family make sure that folks know their buying cheap.

    • Lindy says:

      WalMart now sells through their online network, a line of really solid mountain bikes under the brand name Viathon.
      https://www.walmart.com/search/?query=mountain%20bikes. I read some reviews and they are pretty good.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      We wrote an article on the Bentonville phenomenon here: https://reviews.mtbr.com/bentonville-arkansas-mountain-bike-utopia-in-the-making

      Basically, the dad, Sam Walton started Walmart to deliver affordable products to the common consumer. The son became a hardcore rider and wants to create an economy in Bentonville through biking and active sports. They’ve since bought a few high end mountain bike companies to fill in the void in the Walmart foundation group of companies.

    • Varaxis says:

      People aren’t conditioned to commit a lot of money for a bike. They’re used to shopping a certain price point.

      Wouldn’t you be shocked if you had to pay $300 for a full face helmet when you’re used to paying $50 for a basic one? Similar in purpose, but different in performance/effectiveness/capability.

  • Hugo says:

    Thanks Tony A. Because I was about to post same video. These folks more concerned about liability lawsuits. Visit and ride places where the demographic dictates how much to spend on a bike. They develop skills riding and mechanical and as the video shows excel out on the trail.
    Adaptation to circumstances beats simple monetary fixes……in the rest of the world.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> bottom line is components.

      Agreed!!! And there are no good suspension components in the couple hundred dollar mark. Some very good components are starting to become reachable, like Shimano Deore, and we’ll see them in sub-1000 bikes.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> Thanks Tony A. Because I was about to post same video.

      That is a great video! But that is not a sub $300 bike. That is a bomb-proof kona bike in the hands of a skilled rider who knows the terrain very, very well.

      Not really concerned about lawsuits, just riders’ teeth and safety.

  • Summer Heat sucks says:

    bottom line is components. Find a quality reasonably priced hardtail with decent components. Bottom shelf shimano and sram will fail. You will be replacing or repairing constantly. There are some good options out there but 300 or less is asking for serious and dangerous problems.

  • Jeffrey A Potter says:

    I’ve held onto my 26″ bike from 20+ years ago and although I do not race… I did ride quite a bit with my rigid fork stiff frame. I did get crepitis in bilateral wrists from a 5 hr romp in the rugged terrain. I did put an air fork on the bike and had to MacGyver a way to keep my u-brakes from the rigid fork to be utilized on the old (but new to marzocchi EXR air fork). I have also upgraded the grip shifters (old sram) and am in the process of turning my original 3×7 drivetrain to a 1×7. I’ll be hoping I’m not sinking TOO much into a bike that may just be not worth it anymore… I’ll be keeping an eye on the crack I have on the head tube at the top end of the steerer tube. 😇😎

    I just cannot afford the newer or even slightly used newer bikes and am willing to keep riding this old Specialized Rockhopper until I’m forced to upgrade. And in which case…. I may still look for a decent aluminum 26″! 😇😎

    • Matthew Schanen says:

      @jeffrey A Potter Specialized offers a lifetime frame replacement. You should stop by a specialized dealer and reach out to Spec. directly. But even without getting a warranty frame I think replacing the entire bike would be cheaper than having that headtube fail and you eating the bars & trail.

  • EEP says:

    Can someone then explain, why a bike that a company like Trek markets a bike like a Marlin, with just average components. Is it in hopes of getting hurt, or is it in hopes of upgrading. Totally legitimate question….. It seems $700 doesn’t even buy a “quality” bike these days. I recently got into the sport, got an “as new” 08 Hard Rock XC for $300, found a deal on a Reba fork for $100, got better handlebars, it has Altus components (not amazing but not terrible). It seems to do ok on my local blue trails and I don’t overdo it. I took it on a black trail today, and I was surprised I fared decently. It’s no 3K bike, but it held it’s own and I didn’t hurt myself. Not yet anyway…. What must someone spend for a “safe” bike….

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>Can someone then explain, why a bike that a company like Trek markets a bike like a Marlin

      So Trek sells the Marlin at different levels, from $500 to $850. It’s their gateway bike and they seem like decent bikes. The biggest variables are how much the buyer is willing to spend and what kind of trails they’re going to be using it on.

      Most often, folks don’t want to spend more than $700 and they only take it on bike paths. So these are perfectly sound tools for this. And when the user finds out they like riding more adventurous terrain, they can grow into the bike and upgrade pieces here and there. A bike like this is usually professionally assembled and everything is upgradeable. Bear in mind too they have to support the dealer so there are margins involved so they can only offer so much bike.

      The sub-$300 bike, poorly assembled and not upgradeable.

  • Resgaush says:

    I disagree completely with the content of the article. I got into mountain biking over 20 yrs ago on a Walmart level rigid bike with cantilever brakes and I did all sorts of trails, in the lake Como mountains in Italy so lots of climbing and lots of downhill. I would go as far as stating cheap mtbs do not require nearly the maintenance a modern sophisticated mtb needs, other than re-tightening whatever comes loose every now and then it will go forever. The only difference is you have to be mindful of what you are riding and not exceed what common sense dictates. I wouldn’t be afraid of hitting the whole enchilada in Moab with my old bike! I find the current trend of hyper specialization in mtb design a bit ridiculous, and way above the level of the average rider. I now ride a mid range polygon XC which is way faster and much nicer to ride but it’s not safer, as I now speeds are really quite a bit higher….

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> I wouldn’t be afraid of hitting the whole enchilada in Moab with my old bike!

      I really appreciate your input. There is no one answer for everyone. Whole Enchilada on a Walmart level bike… holy moly though. Maybe Redbull Rampage on the way home. 🙂

      A great rider do a lot with a poor bike. We would never recommend it though. Rather grow the sport and keep folks safe. Not saying spend $5k. There a lot of good bikes starting at $750. A dropper post is so, so good. Keeps the fun factor and safety so sky high.

      We did a lot things 20-30 years ago during the evolutionary days of mountain biking. That’s how the sport develops but it’s definitely far from ideal given what we’ve learned by now.

  • David Carr says:

    If all those rigid fork hard tail bikes 30 years ago were so rad, why has MTB design evolved so drastically over time? I’ve had my fair share of crappy bikes in the past but thoroughly enjoy my mid level full squish bike. At least the crappy bike experience lets me know what I’ve got.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> If all those rigid fork hard tail bikes 30 years ago were so rad, why has MTB design evolved so drastically over time?

      Agreed David Carr. The mountain bikes of 30 years ago were so awful. Luckily, we were riding mostly fire roads and double-track. They were necessary evolutionary steps as the mountain bike category was being invented.

      The department store mountain bikes today though… look about the same as the ones 20 years ago. 🙂

  • richard mullen says:

    thanks,just plain fun to watch

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>thanks,just plain fun to watch

      Right? I know they’re putting the bike through some pretty extreme stuff but it shows how it can be destroyed in an hour. A good mountain bike should last years and should have good resale even after a decade.

  • Mosco66 says:

    Big Store bikes are shit but a good place to start for beginners, as you become more comfortable riding trails etc, then upgrade or you’ll become despondent and ultimately give up, too much bike and you may never grow into it or think you can and run out of talent and injure yourself. Bums on Seats are healthy on many levels but start at the beginning.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> Big Store bikes are shit but a good place to start for beginner

      If one just wants to ride around the neighborhood and on bike paths, department store bikes are ok to start with.

      But if one plans to do trails and mountains, absolutely stay clear of big box bikes. Start at the $500+ mark. Doesn’t have to be expensive, just sturdy and upgradeable.

  • Brett says:

    I bought a somewhat cheaper bike rather recently, just around the 500$ mark. I haven’t ridden a bike in what seemed ages so I looked around for something with a decent frame, okay components and upgradable. 2 reasons why I went with a cheaper bike. 1. I knew I was going to fiddle and break stuff so ideally, a cheaper bike helped my conscience knowing this it’s a learning process, and learned I did. 2. It’s expensive getting into a hobby, let alone the bike certain gear helps the mind on longer rides, especially in the heat. So with those 2 out of the way I did my best to find something decent without breaking the bank or the bike unknowingly how to fix it. I’ll keep the bike more than likely as long as I can, customizing it as I go until I get something better all around. My skill level is low, I just enjoy the peace and quiet trails can give you but I’m learning to be a better rider, once my skills outreach the bike, I’ll upgrade.

  • Ken Davis says:

    I think this article was right on with what I’ve experienced. I started on a big box bike. I found that the cables stretched and the gearing wasn’t low enough for some climbing.I can still remember the first ride on a real mountain bike and how well connected it felt. I have a Trek marlin 6 about the 700 dollar price point and it is a good example of a good entry level mountain bike.

  • Craig Wagner says:

    That picture of the guy on the fat bike bailing (right after the broken handle bar) is the worst photoshop I’ve ever seen. I love it!!!

  • John Fox says:

    What you should do is look for an expensive bike, but then go for the same framed bike, but with cheaper, more affordable components. These components can then be upgraded and the main part of the bike, the frameset, is still there.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>What you should do is look for an expensive bike

      Yes, that is a great strategy. Look for a frame with great upgrade path options as you grow with the sport.

  • Joey says:

    99% of new riders do not ride their bikes like what you saw in video. So, these cheaper bikes have a place in the gadget madness bike industry. Ran into a couple who purchase bikes for first time to get in shape. Their tires never left the ground over 1in.

    Bike shop sold them full suspension santa cruz bikes….

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> 99% of new riders do not ride their bikes like what you saw in video.

      For sure. Most department store bike riders don’t have their skill either and would get hurt in the first or second segments. And the key is will the department store bike last 1 year and keep the rider safe?

      Anyway, just a fun video where the bike is wrecked in a few hours.

  • Keegan Quinn says:

    So, I got a Northrock (XRC27?) From Costco; how does that bike rate?

  • Gus Laskaris says:

    I have $4200 full-suspension mountain bike. I’m not sure it would survive those downhill runs those guys did in the video. I’d at least break a few spokes.

    They seemed very good-natured about the bike and admitted ti was a good ride for somebody just looking to cruise around. Personally, I was astounded how well the Walmart bike did. Nobody who buys one will even come close to that kind of abuse and I think it would do fine on most trails given the severe beating it took in the video. Probably uncomfortable to ride and heavy but you can’t say it’s not rugged.

  • Johan says:

    The worst experience I had with a cheap bike was rust on the aluminium frame at the rear suspension nuts where steel meets aluminium. The front suspension fork developed severe free play but luckily not noticeable under load. The handlebar and stem on the other hand, were over solid. The rear derailleur had some slack causing the change to jump in top gear when it is time for a lube. I rode it on Bangkok streets and sometimes through floods. I have great memories of it though. Done 20 000 km on it and only replaced rear wheel bearings and minor components like brake pads. I had to sell it before emigrating back to my country.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> The worst experience I had with a cheap bike was rust on the aluminium frame at the rear suspension nuts where steel meets aluminium.

      Our big fear with department store bikes is the rider takes it to a real mountain bike trail. They either get hurt or quit the sport forever because of an awful experience.

  • Ian says:

    If you get V-brakes, a rigid fork, a 2by or 3by drivetrain, and keep it on the ground, a cheap bike usually is rideable on many XC trails and certainly will do 1000’s miles on gravel if you maintain it. I bought a cheap $300US fat bike on a trip to Australia and other than the stock to high gearing it has been pretty good. Gearing got upgraded for dozens of dollars, and now after a few too many cased jumps the rear axle broke, so I’m figuring out how to convert it to a 10mm axle. Anyways if I wasn’t a 200lb’r jumping poorly, it probably would have done trails for years without a problem.

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