So you’re shopping for a cheap bike, specifically a cheap mountain bike at a big department store. There are three that look like what you want, and are almost identical, but they are all different prices. So what’s the difference?
Let’s look at the details:
|Bike 1||Bike 2||Bike 3|
|Maker||Well known cheap bike maker||Brand I could find no info on||Licensed brand name that doesn’t make bicycles|
|Shipping Weight||39 lbs||36 lbs||44 lbs|
Of course, being a cheapo, I immediately favor the least expensive bike. Beyond that I look for brand recognition. I’m only familiar with the company that built the cheapest bike, so that’s another vote in its favor.
Then there is the question of steel vs. aluminum. There are 1.73 million pages on the web that offer arguments for either. I currently own both. When it comes to cheap bikes, steel is slightly heavier but more flexible than aluminum. It comes down to a matter of preference. Read some of the argument pages and see which agrees with your belief structure.
Let’s assume that all the frames are equal. What we look at next are the components. Those are the parts that the company that built the bike bought from suppliers to put on the bike. Nobody makes every part of a part, at least not cheap bikes.
There are a few companies that make most of the parts used by most of the bikes in the world. The big players these days are Shimano, SRAM and Suntour. Among really cheap bikes the most common little brands are DNP and Falcon. How cheap are these parts? You can get a brand new DNP derailleur off amazon.com for under four dollars. Shimano’s best derailleur goes for over five hundred dollars.
The trick is that, like bike makers, the parts makers have a wide range of parts in both price and quality. So seeing parts from one company or the other is not final proof of good or bad. However, since we are trying to decide, let’s be snobs and assume that the more expensive parts makes a better bike.
So looking back at our table, we find that the cheapest bike uses the most expensive parts. Huh?
Oh, you may have noticed that I skipped speeds. The more speeds the better right? Not necessarily. What really matters is the range of gears from top to bottom. Since I don’t have details on chainring sizes I am assuming they are all about equal. After all how much difference is there really between 18 speeds and 21? (Well, 3. That’s not many.)
The last thing on the chart is shipping weight. This does not translate directly to how much the bike weighs, but since we don’t have the information it’s a good guesstimate. The aluminum bike is the lightest by three pounds, so it wins this category. However, the cheapest bike comes in second place by only three pounds. The expensive bike is the heaviest by another five pounds over the cheapest.
So add up the scores and the cheap bike wins by a landslide. As a sanity check I used the same criteria against a $250 dollar bike and the cheap bike lost in every category except price. So you do get what you pay for, but if your budget is about $100, the cheap bike is the best. As always, do your research.
Note: One thing I didn’t add to the chart is cool factor. The $100 dollar bike was by far the most stylish. That’s one advantage of aluminum, it’s easier to sculpt than steel. However, since my idea of a mountain bike is something that gets beaten to death on a regular basis, a non-standard frame gave me pause to wonder about its durability.