MTB on a Budget: Where to Spend & Where to Save on Bike Parts

by | June 29, 2020

We kicked off our MTB on a Budget series by looking at where to spend and where to save on apparel and protective gear, which means that now it’s time to take a look at the one thing you actually need to go mountain biking – a mountain bike.

If you browse through previous Pinkbike reviews you’ll see that yes, mountain biking is an expensive sport. The good news is that you don’t need to spend $10,000, or even $5,000 to buy a bike that can do just about everything you ask of it.

This article goes over the pros and cons of spending or saving on various components and on the bike frame itself. It’s worth noting that the main focus of this article is on where to spend (or save) on new parts. Going used is obviously the best way to save even more money – we recently put together this video that goes over the basics of purchasing a used bike.


Save on a Frame

Typical Full Suspension Frame Price: $1,500 – $3,500+ USD
Recommendation: Under $2,000 USD
Used: Yes, but be sure to inspect it carefully

Whether you’re going with a hardtail or a full-suspension frame there’s a simple way to save – choose aluminum over carbon. By choosing alloy you’ll save somewhere around $1,000 on a new frame alone, although there is typically a weight penalty, usually in the neighborhood of one pound (.5 kg).

You’ll be able to go just as fast on that aluminum frame (take a look at what bike Loic Bruni, the current DH World Champion, rode to victory last season for proof), and the on-trail feel of carbon vs. aluminum isn’t anything to lose sleep about. Plus, aluminum frames are typically better at surviving crashes, especially ones into rock gardens, which means your investment should hopefully last for multiple seasons without any major issues.

Going with a hardtail over a full suspension frame is another way to save – the lack of a rear shock and extra moving parts reduces the frame price and the amount of maintenance you’ll need to do. However, hardtails aren’t for everyone, and if you can swing it, especially if you’re planning on doing more aggressive riding, I’d recommend looking for a full suspension bike.


Spend on Tires

Recommendation: $50-$100 USD per tire
Used: Not unless they were only ridden to church on Sundays. And not dirt church.

Yes, tires can be expensive, and you might have paid less for your last set of car tires, but it’s not worth skimping when it comes to the connection between you and the ground. That bucket of tires at your local bike shop that are on sale for ridiculously low prices? There’s a reason they’re on sale – more than likely they’re narrow, hard compound tires that are better suited to gravel paths than actual mountain biking. They’re also probably 26” in diameter, but that’s a different topic.

The ideal tread pattern, compound, and sidewall construction will vary depending on your location; it’s worth asking other riders in your area for recommendations. The enduro pros may all be on tires with extra thick casings, but it’s entirely possible you don’t need that much protection, especially if you live in an area without too many rocks. There’s no need to ride around with an extra pound or two of rubber if that’s the case, just like you don’t need sticky mud spikes if you live in a place with mostly smooth, hardpacked trails.


Save on Wheels

Recommendation: Up to $750 USD
Used: Potentially. Check the bearings, and inspect the rim for cracks or major dents.

Just like with your frame, aluminum rims are the way to go if you’re shopping for wheels on a budget. Start by choosing a wheelset with rims that have an internal width that’s compatible with the tire size you’re planning to run – these days 30mm has become the de facto standard, a number that works well with most tires between 2.35 – 2.6”.

When it comes to hubs, having the fastest engagement possible isn’t a necessity – those ultra-quick engaging hubs are typically the most expensive. Of course, it is nice if you can find hubs that offer 10-degrees or less between points of engagement – I’m a fan of DT Swiss’ 350 hubs with a 36 tooth ratchet ring. They’re simple, reliable, and I’ve had countless sets roll through on test bikes without any issues.

Those aren’t the only options, though; there are numerous pre-built wheelsets in the $500 – $700 range that hit the mark when it comes to weight and durability. Hunt Wheels, Spank, and Stans are three companies that come to mind when it comes to relatively affordable pre-built wheels.


Spend on Grips, Save on Saddles & Pedals

Recommendation: Up to $40 for grips, Less than $80 for saddles & pedals
Used: Maybe. These are heavy wear items, and it’s nice to be the one that does the breaking in when it comes to grips and saddles.

Just like with tires, it’s not worth it to try and skimp on contact points. You’re going to be grabbing onto those grips and sitting on that saddle for hours at a time, so they’d better be as comfortable as possible. Spending the extra dough for the nice lock-on grips in your preferred width and rubber durometer is worth it every time.

When it comes to seats, it’s worth spending to get the shape that works best for you, but you can save money by skipping the titanium or carbon railed version. Take the WTB Koda, for example, one of my personal favorites. You can spend $40 for the steel railed version, $80 for the chromoly, or $130 for the titanium railed model. The padding does change a little bit depending on the model, but the shape is what really matters, and that’s the same no matter the pricepoint.

Pedals are an easy place to save money without incurring a massive performance penalty. Plastic bodied flat pedals cost half the price of aluminum options, and usually use the same axle and bearing system. When it comes to SPD pedals, Shimano’s M530 pedals take the cake when it comes to price vs performance. They’re readily available for under $60, and they seem to last forever. There’s a new version on the way, the ME700, which will hopefully offer the same level of longevity with a slightly larger platform around the clip-in mechanism.


Spend on Brakes (Within Reason)

Recommendation: Up to $150 per wheel, $250 per wheel if you want to splurge
Used: Yes, assuming nothing is bent, broken, or seized up.

Brakes aren’t a place to skimp – save those cable-actuated disc brakes for commuter bikes – but you also don’t need $1,000 brakes that are individually polished by German craftsmen.

As you drop down in price you won’t have as many tool-free adjustments available, but if you don’t mind pulling out a multi-tool to tweak your lever position that’s not much of an issue.

One thing that’s worth spending on are metallic brake pads, especially if you live in a wetter climate. Lower priced brakes often come with resin pads, and sometimes even resin-only rotors – it’s worth spending more to gain the improved wet weather performance and pad lifespan that comes with metallic pads and compatible rotors.

It’s a good time to be a brake buyer on a budget – there are more four-piston options then ever at a range of price points, which is the way to go if you’re building up anything other than a lightweight XC or downcountry-mobile.


Save on Handlebars and Stems

Recommendation: Up to $60 for a stem, $75 for a handlebar
Used: No. It’s too hard to know what kind of abuse a handlebar has seen – save on dental bills by buying new.

That wall of carbon bars and shiny CNC’d stems may catch your eye at the local bike shop, but resist the urge to spend if you’re on a budget. A stem is a stem, and a $30 – $40 option will work just as well as those $80 – $150 models. I would recommend going with one from a known brand in order to get a little extra peace of mind about its construction and durability.

The same goes for handlebars. You can save a decent amount of weight by going with a carbon bar, but that’s also going to leave your wallet a whole lot lighter. Once again, aluminum is the way to go to save some dough. Pick a bar based on the rise, sweep, and length that feels the most comfortable to you, and then go with the one that fits your budget. Just like with stems, I’d stick with a known brand rather than trying to find the absolute cheapest option from some dark recess of the internet.


Save on Dropper Posts

Recommendation: Up to $250 for a post and remote
Used: Yes, but don’t settle for less drop than you really want.

You should absolutely spend on a dropper post if you don’t already have one. I think there are still three people out there who don’t understand the appeal of being able to lower your seat with the push of a lever; for everyone else, a dropper post is a necessity.

The good news is that prices have dropped dramatically over the last few years, and there’s no reason to spend more than $250 for a post, remote included. OneUp, X-Fusion, and PNW Components are three examples of companies that offer reliable droppers at a reasonable price.


Save on a Drivetrain

Recommendation: Under $500 for a complete 12-speed drivetrain, cranks included
Used: No. Buying a used chain, cassette, or derailleur is a recipe for issues – those parts typically wear out before someone decides to sell them.

Smartly spec’d bikes have higher end brakes and suspension paired with a more affordable drivetrain. Why? Because there’s not a massive performance difference between the top tier and more entry level drivetrains, other than weight.

12-speed drivetrains are here to stay, and now that both SRAM and Shimano have options ranging from budget to baller it’s the way to go if you’re looking to upgrade your current setup.

If you’re in the Shimano camp, it’s worth spending a little more to get an XT shifter, even if the rest of your drivetrain components are SLX or Deore level. It’s not that much more expensive, and it gives you the ability to drop the chain two cogs down the cassette with one push of the lever.

Speaking of Deore, I’ve been riding on the new 12-speed drivetrain for the last couple of months and have zero complaints so far. Sure, it’s not the lightest, but performance-wise it’s been very, very impressive, and the entire gruppo is available for less than $300, although you’ll need to budget a little more if you don’t have a MicroSpline compatible freehub body.

On the SRAM side, I’d recommend going with at least a GX shifter due to its Matchmaker compatibility. The NX and SX shifters get the job done, but the ergonomics are lacking a bit. If you’re looking for the most gear range, you’ll need to go with at least a GX cassette – the NX and SX options have an 11-50 tooth spread compared to the 10-50 tooth range found on GX. Keep in mind that NX and SX cassettes work with a splined freehub body rather than SRAM’s newer XD driver body. That could potentially help keep the costs down if you’re planning a drivetrain upgrade and don’t already have an XD freehub body.


Spend Wisely on Suspension

Recommendation: $800 or less for a fork.
Used: Maybe. Make sure that it’s from a trusted seller, and that the item isn’t more than a season or two old.

Typically, the more you pay for a fork or shock the more external adjustments you’ll have access to. With RockShox, that means you’ll get adjustable high speed compression damping, while on Fox you’ll see adjustable high speed compression and high speed rebound.

In addition, higher end models often use a different damper than their lower priced siblings. For instance, in RockShox’ lineup the Ultimate and Select+ series forks use a Charger 2.1 damper and the Select forks use a Charger damper, while more budget oriented forks like the Revelation use a Motion Control damper. If you can swing it, I’d recommend aiming for a Charger damper over the Motion Control – there’s a noticeable difference between the two.

Fox’s lineup is arranged a little differently than RockShox – they’ve moved their more affordable options over to the Marzocchi side, which is where you’ll find the Z1 and Z2. In the budget arena, those two forks are hard to beat. They’re heavier and lack some of the adjustments of a 34 or 36, but the damper works very well, and are certainly worth considering if you’re trying to maximize your suspension spending.

Is paying extra for that Fox’s fancy Kashima coating worth it for someone on a budget? Maybe in a laboratory, but in the real world the black anodized stanchions used on the Performance Elite fork feel just as slippery smooth as the bronze/gold coating found on the Factory level forks. The internals and adjustments are identical, which makes this an easy way to save $100 or so without any significant performance loss.

Shocks

During our Sedona Field Trip, Mike Levy and I both noted that budget shocks are much easier to live with than a budget fork. On complete bikes it’s not uncommon to see the same shock spec’d on a variety of price point for that very reason – there aren’t as many varieties of shocks to choose from, and the performance difference isn’t as drastic.

That said, rear suspension is a pretty costly upgrade to do later, so if you’re choosing between different frames it may be worth your while to buy once, cry once, and spring for the full fat shock out of the gate.


Agree? Disagree? What did we miss? Where would you choose to spend your hard-earned dollars?

Stay tuned for the next edition of this series that’ll cover where to spend and where to save on tools and accessories.

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