The Underdog Route: The Paradox of Choosing the Best Cheap Mountain Bike

September 20, 2021
The Underdog Biker

Mountain biking is a rich person's sport, and it leaves behind the ones who can't afford it, despite skill or passion.

The Journal of Transport and Health published a study on the American demographics of cycling. The data showed that from 2001–2017, there was an increased cycling interest among high-income, highly educated earners between ages 25 and 44. That's typical, considering only this demographic can afford a $2,000 plus starter bike, plus any follow-through part upgrades like suspension forks, disc brakes, or rear derailleurs. All this can cost roughly $4,000 plus more.

Given the price ranges of bikes and parts, no wonder adult bikers believe there's no such thing as getting the best cheap bikes for adults who are into the sport. Cheap bikes are almost always equated to bad bikes. But despite the crippling cost, there are those who defy the norms in a desire to get into mountain biking. They're willing to lose a limb and draw blood for just a taste.

 These people are what most cyclists would see as an outlier—an underdog.

Underdogs don't have to buy into the notion that they need to buy an expensive mountain bike to ride side-by-side with the rich mountain bikers. There's another route an underdog can take. A less expensive, but more rewarding route. But first, let's answer the question: are you an underdog?

The Underdog Archetype

Underdogs come in different types depending on the context, but more or less, we have a general idea of what it is. For us, we define it as someone whose intensity of desire for something is disproportionate to the internal and external obstacles.

In the context of being a mountain biking aspirant, typical situations make someone fit the underdog archetype.

You are fascinated by bikes.

The fascination typically starts from a mild spark. An unskippable advertisement about a mountain bike on Youtube. A random friend from Instagram who posted an Instagram-worthy image of a Trek Marlin. A stranger across the street coasting on the pavement with a road bike. It's either one or several of these small things that worked their way into your psyche and ignited something inside. It's like a stovetop burn on your fingertip that you can't help but suck on.

Suck on it, you did. You search the internet for bikes, and watch hours of videos that showcase badass mountain biking on the edge of rough terrains. As you go further down the rabbit hole of video recommendations, it gets more and more exciting. So you pay more and more attention. On the street, you do a 180-degree head-turn whenever you see a beautiful trail bike pass by. You ogle at one when it's smack dab in front of you, and you ask the rider questions. You didn't care if it's dumb. You're just so fascinated by everything MTB.

That's when you realize you're viciously hooked into the sport. The fascination is now full-blown, and there's no turning back.

... but you think it's too expensive to own one.

After all the itch-scratching, you scar yourself for the first time—psychologically at least. Stumbling upon the price tags of common mountain bikes, your heart breaks. You can't cover the $2,000 upfront cost on that mountain bike. It's too expensive.

Affordability is a valid obstacle considering how most people perceive themselves on the poverty line.

A study about self-identification of social class in the U.S. that involved a sample of millennials states that 56.6%of American millennials believe that they have to work hard to earn a decent living, and another 8% of millennials believe they barely make it through the day. So, it's likely this belief will bleed over their purchasing decisions, such as buying an MTB.

Maybe you're working paycheck to paycheck, and you'd rather spend that $2,000 on something you think is more important, like student loans, daily necessities, or child care. Saving up for a $2,000 bike will take significant time. Before you even hit that amount, you'll most likely use it to pay for something else like overdue bills or an emergency., you don't know anything about bikes.

To add to the obstacle of an expensive mountain bike, you realized you don't know anything about bikes either. You only know they look good in pictures and videos. You only see the jaw-dropping stunts bikers do on their rig. That's where the fascination started in the first place! But you can't seem to pinpoint the difference between a hardtail and an enduro bike, whether Shimano parts are good, or if a Diamondback Atroz is a good starter bike.

Sure, you can drop by at a local bike shop and ask around, but you have reservations. How do you know if the bike salesman isn't just pushing you to any bike? Perhaps an expensive mountain bike, so he can get a nice chunk of commission. Or even the undesirable, cheaper bikes that have remained in storage since time immemorial.

Hesitation due to lack of knowledge is one of the challenges an underdog faces when mountain biking. The underdog attempts to solve this by asking the opinion of others.

... and you think conversation from family and friends is gospel.

After mulling over the cost and the type of bike, you realize you can't make this decision on your own. You don't live in a vacuum, after all, so you turn to the ones you're closest to for a decision.

You ask your loved ones if getting a bike is worth it. If you're lucky, a supportive spouse or parents will echo your decision to get that pricey mountain bike and maybe even put you up for it. But more often than not, friends and loved ones would tell you to cut the fantasy loose. If that’s the outcome, then it's the end of the story.

What's difficult is when you're surrounded by a set of friends that unintentionally set you up for a trap with good intentions. In order to gain more “insider knowledge” about biking, most newbie bikers turn to those who own bikes and get recommended an expensive one they can barely afford.

These are the typical scenarios experienced by an underdog archetype of the biking world. More often than not, they either give up the desire and pass it off as a mere phase, or they fall into what we like to call the “expensive bike” trap.

The "Expensive Bike" Trap

The "expensive bike" trap is an important concept any underdog should know. The trap is set by one of the most powerful forces that drive purchasing decisions—peer pressure.

Consider this scenario: You're hanging out with bike bros—well-off guys who get together to ride expensive MTBs and talk shop. They spew slang like "knobby tires", "tempo", and how this and that is "ripping their legs off." It's all foreign to you. You also love bikes, except you don't have one. So, you sit there and try to decipher the banter like a combination code that opens the bike bros' world.

Of course, it won't. Because until you're riding with them, you're not “in the group.” So, you tell them you want to purchase a beginner mountain bike and want their advice, and they're happy to oblige.

They recommend brand names and tell you why it's the best bike. You're convinced. Then, you go home and check the prices, and you find yourself rationalizing. You tell yourself to “look past the price tag” and “it's not about the money”'

Down at the bike shop, you choose one of the branded bikes, swipe your card, and think about how great it would feel to impress the bike bros when they let you ride with them next week.

That's how you fall into the expensive bike trap. But if you haven't fallen into it yet, here's a question that will keep you on the right track.

Are the Best Mountain Bike Brands the Best for You?

There is no doubt that the best mountain bikes have popular brand names slapped on a visible part of the frame. These brands are popular because the manufacturer has a reputation for consistent, high-quality builds that match or surpass performance and comfort expectations. Because of that, they tend to max you out financially.

Despite the promise of a smooth ride and friends' admiration, there are unfavorable consequences to consider:

High maintenance costs.

If you think the one-off cost of a branded bike will set you up for life, you're committing a rookie mistake. The cost of replacing bike parts that are bespoke to the manufacturer can damage your wallet considerably. There's only one source for the parts. You can try generic and low-budget parts down at your local bike shop, but these may damage your premium bike even more.

Prone to bike theft.

Branded bikes are often popular in name and look expensive to the eyes. It will attract unwanted attention. You'll worry about your bike being stolen when parked outside. There goes your peace of mind. You can end up spending more to fix this problem, from a simple bike lock to a more complex indoor bike garage setup.

It's often built for someone with more biking experience or money.

These premium bikes are best left to experienced owners. Rightfully so, because more often than not, these experienced riders have been through hell and back to learn hard lessons and know how to take care of a bike. Also, premium bike manufacturers target a specific consumer group, and those groups tend to have the cash to burn for the high maintenance cost the bike requires.

You won't get to know your bike better.

Let's say you're willing to throw bundles of cash on the bike just to get apex performance and the comfort you need. What are you trading in return? If a bike works most of the time—and when it doesn’t, you always pay someone to take care of the problem—you won't get to know your bike as much as your mechanic will. You won't know the basics of bike maintenance because you're used to having it serviced.

We're not discounting the capabilities of an expensive bike. But if you're one who eagerly wants a mountain bike but has little money and almost no knowledge about how things work in the biking world, is this the only route you can take? The expensive route? Perhaps there's a better path to forge.

Cheap Equals Good: Disrupting the Stigma of Cheap Bikes

The stigma that a cheap MTB is a bad mountain bike for anyone is single faceted; it reinforces the expensive bike trap. Yet, if we take some time to view this central concept from multiple angles, we'll find that there's plenty of favorable ideas that disrupt the popular thought.

Cheap doesn't always mean price.

We tend to view the word cheap to mean low price, especially when we're talking about purchasing decisions. While that is true, it's only part of the truth. Cheap can come in many forms. Price is one, quality and effort are another. While there are cheaply priced and low-quality men's and women's bikes, there are also cheap men's bikes as well as cheap women's bikes with premium quality. Try buying a pre-loved bike or rummage around a garage sale to find good cheap mountain bikes that age like wine. You can pinch the penny without sacrificing quality.

Department store bikes: the poster child of cheap.

Avoiding the department store bikes and their cheap 29-inch mountain bike stock seems like sage advice from an experienced biker. But it won't hurt to ride a low-price, low-quality department store bike if you're just starting out. You won't be throwing yourself on a challenging trail ride anytime soon anyway.

A cheap bike lets you start small and start it as soon as possible. If you mean to practice MTB skills, it's best to start practicing now. So grab that cheap bike and ask no questions!

Who says you have to buy a cheap bike anyway?

If you're tight on cash your chances of purchasing a bike are slim. You can always rely on your charm and ingenuity. Talk to friends and family that have a bike to spare. Ask them if you can borrow it for practice. You can also look around for abandoned bikes and “adopt” them. Just be absolutely sure that the bike has no owner, so you won't risk being labeled as a bike thief.

Changing your belief about cheap bikes paves the way for you to see the silver lining in what most bikers consider unfavorable. As an underdog, this mindset is a must to get you started on the underdog route.

Taking the Underdog Route: The Unexpected Benefits of a Cheap Bike

An underdog like you doesn't follow the usual route to mountain biking success. Despite the less-than-optimal conditions of the underdog route, it has a little more to it than just practicing skills and improving technique. There are unexpected benefits that you can capitalize on along the way.

Low-quality or old bike parts will teach you repair and maintenance skills.

A low-quality bike gives you a lot of headaches, but only if you see it that way. That low-quality bike may be taking more from you, but consider what it's teaching you. If you spend a lot of time figuring out how to repair your bike, you'll hone your repair skills. You'll find interest in getting to know your bike on an intimate level, and know how to take care of it so that you can maintain its function longer. These experiences make you a wiser bike owner.

A flimsy bike will teach you handling sensitivity and flexibility.

Take that flimsy bike out on a spin. You'll find yourself constantly getting a feel of the bike because you know it can break with just one wrong turn. From the tire pressure to the chain and crankset, even handlebar alignment, you'll feel the bike as if it's a part of you, and you'll adjust accordingly to keep you and your bike safe and damage-free as you ride out—an important skill to learn if you intend to ride the trails.

You'll be relentless in your training.

Once you know the ropes of how your cheap bike works, you'll gain the confidence you need to push yourself and your bike to the limit. You'll be oriented on a technical level because you'll be used to seeing how your knowledge and skills mesh with your cheap bike's capabilities and how to best bring them together to get the best result. But ultimately, the best result you'll get is that you'll become a better mountain biker in the process.

Embrace the Paradox

As an underdog on the path to MTB success, embrace the paradox. Believe in the possibility that the best can come from something cheap, worn-down, and low quality. It's all a matter of how you work with what you have.

At the age of ten, Rajesh Magar started out on a BMX bike that was given to him by a family friend. A few years later, he worked his bones off to buy himself a $25 bike from a friend. His ingenuity and passion compensated for the rest. He turned the bike into a capable racing rig that placed him 6th in his first race. In 2018, the 21-year-old, four-time national champion Magar was considered one of Asia's top MTB riders.

Rajesh's story could be your story, too. No matter how cheap or worn-down your bike is, no matter how cash-strapped and ignorant you are at first, if you have the overflowing desire to excel, you'll do alright in the less-traveled underdog route. The best cheap mountain bike is, after all, the one that forces you to be a better mountain biker in the end.

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