Navigating the Market: How to Buy Your First (Used) Mountain Bike

So, you just watched a kick-ass, awesome video that someone posted on YouTube from their recent visit to a bike park.  And you’re thinking, Damn, that looks fun; I’d like to give that a go.  The problem is, the only bike you’ve ever owned is that 1999 Schwinn rusting away out in the garage, or the “mountain bike” you got for Christmas that was probably pulled off a Walmart shelf, and those guys in those videos don’t look like their riding bikes from Walmart.  So, you navigate over to Facebook Marketplace, or perhaps pop in to your LBS (local bike shop) to see what’s it’s all about.  After the stars fade from your eyes and reality begins to set in, you realize that the mountain bike market is much more expansive and much more expensive than you initially realized.  After all, some of us out there who ride pedal bikes whose value significantly outweighs the motor vehicle we drive.  A top of the line mountain bike, from a major manufacturer, such as Scott, Trek or Canondale, may exceed $10,000 US dollars.  There are also dozens of brands to choose from.  How does one decide?  What brand is best? How much is reasonable to spend? What type of mountain bike will best suit someones needs or desires?  Live Life Outdoors is here to guide you. 

Consumers need to take much into consideration when making their first major purchase.  First and foremost, the size of their budget.  Lesson number one: the sport can get very expensive, very fast.  For example, $1,500 may get you a decent full suspension in the second-hand market, say, a bike that’s five or ten years old, but it might not be anywhere near enough to purchase, brand new, even an entry level squish (a mountain bike with suspension in front and rear) from a bike shop.  Someone looking to purchase a brand new bike may be looking at spending somewhere around $3,000. The saying “what’s cheap is not good, and what’s good is not cheap” holds as true in mountain biking as it does in many other outdoor hobbies/activities.  And while one certainly does not have to spend thousands on a bike, it is important to keep in mind that buyers will get what they pay for in this industry. The fact is, a good quality mountain bike will be a significant investment, so budget accordingly.

Once riders figure out their budget, they need to figure out what kind of rider they are going to be.  By which I mean, they need to consider what kind of riding will they be doing 90% of the time.  Big jumps, drops, and tricks are sexy when viewed online, but most riders will not find themselves riding like that on a day-to-day basis—in fact, most riders will never achieve that level of skill or daring.  Moreover, that’s only one type of mountain biking.  There are all types of riding and all types of bikes engineered for specific kinds of riding, from downhill, to enduro, to cross-country, trail and all-mountain, among others.  What riders need to consider is the terrain that’s in their backyard, because, almost certainly, that’s what they’re going to be riding the majority of the time.  The type of bike best suited for a bike park is not the same as the type best suited for riding the trails in Southeastern Massachusetts, or Florida or upstate New York.  For instance, where I Iive in Southeastern Massachusetts, it’s pretty flat, but rocky.  There are only a handful of places where the elevation exceeds 700 or 800 feet above sea level.  A downhill bike makes no sense, but a bike suited for lots of ups and downs and technical terrain does.  Consider your geography and make your purchase accordingly.  Here’s a brief guide to help you figure out what may suit your needs:

There are two major categories of mountain bikes: hardtails and full suspension.  Hardtails have a set of forks—the front suspension—but no shock—the rear suspension.  The tail of the bike does not pivot, and so is, well, hard.  Full suspension bikes have a shock and forks, and thus will almost always be more expensive.  More moving parts, more engineering, more money.  There are also fully rigid bikes, mountain bikes with no suspension at all, but for our purposes only the first two categories will be discussed.  Most experienced riders will advise those new to the sport to learn on a hardtail.  Hardtails are less forgiving and stiffer than their full suspension counterparts, but often more nimble; they therefore force the rider to learn and rely on technique rather than the bike’s ability to absorb more technical aspects of the trails for them.  While there are benefits to learning to ride a hardtail, this author doesn’t necessarily think one way is right or wrong.  Riders should decide what works for them.  Initially, consumers will find that hardtails are much, much cheaper than a dual suspension, and therefore most first purchases are hardtails.  Also, should they decide the sport isn’t for them, for whatever reason, the initial investment may be significantly smaller.  Fewer moving parts—no shock/rear suspension—also means fewer problems which also means less money when it comes to maintenance.  Riders who find themselves riding frequently will need to perform regular maintenance: it is an absolute necessity.  So, if money is a concern, a hardtail will save money in both the short and long term.

Hard tails tend to be faster than full suspension bikes for a couple reasons.  First, the bike is stiffer due to the lack of a shock, so more of the energy going into the pedals gets transferred into the drive train.  Additionally, the travel of the forks—the distance the forks will move or compress—tends to be shorter; again, more of the power produced by your legs goes into the drivetrain, rather than being eaten up by the forks as riders stand up and lean over their bars to produce power: the longer the travel on the fork or shock, the greater the bikes ability to absorb energy encountered on the trail, or in this case, produced by the rider. 

Don’t buy more bike than needed. Hardtails are probably the most practical first purchase not only because of pricing, but also because it will most likely be the case that riders new to the scene will not be hitting 6-foot drops, massive rollers, and intensely technical terrain.  In most cases, beginner riders simply do not need that much bike for the trails they will be riding.  Of course, every rider is different, but for me, it took about six months before I seriously considered upgrading my hardtail to a full suspension; and even then, it was because I wanted to try more technical terrain and more difficult, larger features, and not necessarily because the bike wasn’t doing the job it was built to do.  So, while this piece will not prescribe what type of bike should be your first, riders should strongly consider starting on a hardtail. Those who become devotees of the sport will eventually find a way to purchase their dream bike at some point.        

Don’t be too concerned with brand on the first purchase.  There are lots to choose from.  But the fact is that any of the major companies produce high quality bikes.  Trek, Canondale, Specialized, Scott, Santa Cruz, will all provide riders with a quality product that should last for years if cared for and maintained properly.   However, I would caution against boutique and store brands as a first purchase.  Bikes such as Evil, Pole, and Yeti are three of a number of boutique brands, while Schwinn, Diamondback and Mongoose are store brands.  Often, boutique brands charge a premium for their bikes that the extra ka-ching simply doesn’t justify in terms of return on performance.  Or, as is the case with Pole, the engineering on the bike may be designed for a very specific kind of terrain which may only be found in a handful of places in the world.  The larger price tag is simply not worth whatever performance those bikes bring, or their companies claim they bring.  And store brands, are, well, just not engineered for serious riding. Purchasing a bike from a reliable producer designed for a certain purpose will produce the best results in terms of performance and satisfaction with the purchase.   

There are a couple other considerations to keep in mind.  The first is wheel size, especially regarding the used market.  Avoid bikes advertising 26” wheels.  They are harder and harder to find as the industry has moved ever increasingly towards larger wheel diameters.  27.5s are still readily available and popular, but the industry standard is now the 29er: bikes with a 29” wheel diameter.  If you purchase a bike with a 26” wheel set in the used market, it may be difficult to find parts when it is time to replace or perform maintenance on them.  This is something to keep in mind when weighing a potential purchase. 

The two largest impacts, by far, on a bike’s price, however, are going to be the bike’s group set and the quality of the shocks and forks.   The group set is what makes up the drive train and transmission on the bike.  When a seller is advertising their bike in an online marketplace, they should include what components are on the bike, for example, Sram GX, or Shimano SLX groupset; if this information is not included in the bikes description, ask about this.  Sram and Shimano are the two major companies providing components for most bikes, and there is definitely a hierarchy, which you can find by clicking here.  I’m not going to cover all of that, but buyers should familiarize themselves with the different components and the value of each set. Here’s what to know: first, the higher you move up either of those lists, the better the product and the more it will cost.  Second, there won’t be a huge difference in moving up only one level, from say, the Sram X5 to the X7.  There will, however, be a huge difference in performance going from the GX to the XO1 components.  So pay attention to what’s on that bike.  If a seller is asking a premium for a ground level setup, move on and find another bike or seller. 

Shocks and forks have a similar hierarchy, although, there are more than two companies producing products for your rig.  Ohlins, Cane Creek, Fox and Rock Shox are just a couple of them, but chances are you will see either Rock Shox or Fox.  Pay attention to travel first, and diameter next.  As I mentioned before, travel is how far the suspension will move and is measured in millimeters: the more travel, the more technical or difficult a trail the bike can handle, and therefore, the more a seller or manufacturer will demand for that component. Diameter refers to the width of the barrel of the forks.  Usually, the diameter of the fork will be directly visible: here’s an example.  The numbers 32, 34, or 36 are labeled on the fork. The takeaway here is that the longer the travel and the wider the diameter, the more that shock is likely to be worth, because the more trail it can handle.  For instance, a fork with 150mm of travel and a 36mm diameter will be more valuable than a fork with 120mm of travel and a 32mm diameter—all other things being equal.  If you will be riding in local state parks or trails that may be relatively technical, that is, have some or even lots of obstacles—roots, rocks, etc—but not a ton of elevation, riders won’t need a fork with 180mm of travel and a 38mm diameter. Keep this in mind as you research models and what will best suit your needs.

And one last final piece of advice: check the bike’s model on Bicycle Blue Book.  In the current market values might be at or above their blue book value, and that might be fair, but Bicycle Blue Book will ensure that a seller won’t rip-off a buyer.    

A good quality mountain bike is a significant investment.  There are a lot of moving parts, both literally and figuratively.  Some of which matter more than others.  However, these guidelines allow a potential buyer to navigate what is sure to look like a very daunting market on the first go-round. 

This article did not really address issues buyers might find in the new market, and for good reason.  For riders considering a new rig, it’s important to know that the industry sets prices for their various models.  This means that a brand-new bike online from a shop in California is going to be asking the same price for a Scott Genius or a Trek Fuel, say, as your local bike shop, and that will be the same as what Trek or Scott advertise for that model on their websites.  If you’re purchasing a new bike, it doesn’t matter where you get it; the price should be static across the board.  The second-hand market, however, is a little trickier to navigate.    

Get out there everyone!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Questions to ask a potential seller:

  1. Is the bike ready to ride, or does it need to be serviced, as in a tune-up?
  2. What year, make and model is the bike? Ask for a serial number.
  3. Has the suspension been serviced recently? If so, when? How many hours or miles are on the suspension? Fox recommends the forks be serviced every 125 hours, or yearly, whichever comes first. This is a loose guideline, generally speaking. Even for riders who may find themselves getting after it three or four days per week, an annual service is probably sufficient.
  4. For sellers who do not advertise what components are on the bike, be sure to ask about the group set. Also, be wary of sellers who do not advertise this, or who are cagey about answering questions or don’t know the answers. If that’s the case, keep coming down on the price, or find someone else.
  5. Only make an offer when you are really ready to buy, but always low-ball it. Sure, some sellers will be firm and may not budge, and that may be a fair price, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.
  6. Has the bike been maintained properly? By the seller, or by a lbs (local bike shop)?
  7. How many owners has the bike had?
  8. Try to find out a little about who you are buying from. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation. Are they a student? What do they do for work? How often do they ride? Perhaps even why they are selling.

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