So you're thinking about getting into mountain biking? Great, now let's get you a bike! Any internet search will give you a wide variety of advice, opinions, and prices ranging from $400 to $14,000. In the end you want a bike that offers a balance of both quality and affordability, i.e. an "entry level mountain bike"... but they are NOT all created equal.
One of, if not the biggest downfalls of cheap big-box-store bikes is that when you inevitably have to fix or replace something, they don't always conform to the typical measurement standards, which means quality replacement parts from a bike shop won't fit quite right. Bike stores do not sell the low-level parts you find on these bikes.
Our mountain bikes range from $494 to $849 and you can [view them here]
Beginner mountain bikes (called "entry-level" in the industry) need a few basic features for an enjoyable and safe ride: Suspension fork, multiple gears, durable components, quality wheels & tires.
The best beginner mountain bikes are going to have some sort of suspension fork on the front to soak up bumps on the trail. Any mountain trail-worthy suspension fork should have at least 100 mm of travel. This info is often listed on higher quality beginner mountain bikes, however you won't find this info listed on bikes from big box stores like Dick's Sporting Goods or Walmart.
Any suspension fork under 100mm of travel will eventually wear out due to being extended and compressed to the max in both directions so often, which can not only damage the bike, but cause the rider to be bounced over the handle bars more easily.
You've no doubt seen somewhere a beginner mountain bike described as 21 speed, 24 speed, etc. Your best entry level mountain bike should be multispeed, meaning there are gears on the front at the pedals and at the center of the rear wheel. Multiply the number of front gears by the number of rear gears and you'll have the total number of speeds. This larger ranger of speeds gives you options for going fast, climbing hills, and everything in between. The more gears, the more you will enjoy riding as a beginner mountain biker.
Not only should a good entry level mountain bike have lots of gear options, but all of those drivetrain parts should be of good quality. This is where nearly all big box store bikes miss the mark, which brings us to our next topic --->
Now that you have all of those fancy gears to try out you're gonna need some good components to make them work smoothly and last for years - think shifters, gears, levers, derailleurs, and chains. We call all of the "parts" that go on a bike, components.
The best beginner mountain bikes will have quality components by the top brands in the industry, namely Shimano and SRAM.
Just like with the suspension fork, cheap mountain bikes will have all of the things that make the bike look "standard", but they just aren't built to last like a better quality entry level mountain bike will. Failure in any of these parts not only cost you money and lost time but can get you hurt when they break.
The best budget friendly mountain bike from a proper bicycle shop will have components that are made to withstand trail riding - they are made to take repeated abuse. Period. Some lower quality brands will have name brand stickers all over them to make you think they're using quality parts, but it's a lie. Any bike from Walmart of Dick's will have the lowest tier of those top brands we mentioned earlier. It gets the name on the bike, but those parts just aren't built to last.
And speaking of parts made to take some trail riding abuse, lets talk about where the rubber meets the road...or trail.
Quality Wheels & Tires:
First lets clarify that wheels and tires are two separate parts. Wheels are the round metal part(s) that the rubber tires are placed onto.
The best beginner mountain bikes WILL have double walled wheels, no question. Why double walls you ask? Think about what your wheels endure in even a basic trail ride. Single wall wheels (only one layer of metal) WILL BUCKLE! It's not a matter of if, but rather a matter of when this happens. Double walled wheels might get bent or even buckle but your going to have to do some pretty heavy riding before that happens. In addition to added strength, the spokes and the hubs will also be stronger and sealed off from moisture, dirt, and trail grit, which not only helps you go faster but increases the lifespan of one the wheels.
Tires are super important as well and often overlooked. Just because that "affordable mountain bike" from the big box store has cool looking knobby tires doesn't mean they are durable or provide much grip. They often use tires with very thin sidewalls and soft rubber to keep the price down, but again we're trying not to skimp on any of the important parts here.
Quality entry level mountain bikes will have tires that not only provide really good grip on the trail, but they will last longer (even when left in the sun), and are designed specifically for the type of bike they're installed on. A gravel bike will have very different tires than a hybrid or mountain bike.
So while budget mountain bikes from big box stores can be very appealing due to their low price ($150-300), they are built with incredibly low-quality bicycle parts that oftentimes can't be replaced with bike-quality parts. When you're cruising down your next single-track (a mountain bike trail that's wide enough for only one bike) is not the time to find out that the "super affordable mountain bike" you just bought has cheap parts. Purchasing a good entry level mountain bike will get you out riding safely, and the more you ride the more you will learn what you prefer in a bike. Upgrading parts down the road is much more affordable and rewarding than repairing a cheap bike, or worse yet... making a visit to the ER because your font suspension fork seals blew out!+
We repair and performance routine maintenance on cheap bikes and expensive bikes everyday and know there absolutely IS a difference, on every level. Better components lead to a more enjoyable ride, a bike that last longer, and a good way to dip your toes into a new activity safely for a reasonable price.
If you're interested in a one of the best entry level mountain bikes that we've tested this year, check out the Fuji Nevada 1.7 (pictured/$849), or the Nevada 1.9 ($699). These bike hosts all of the features mentioned above in slightly different configurations.