$1,000 mountain bike test – 2012 redux

By Matt Pacocha, US editor, in Boulder, CO | Saturday, May 12, 2012 7.00am

We’re in year two of our US$1,000 mountain bike test and getting close to the conclusion. Our original best mountain bikes under $1,000 was a hit and is still pulling in interest from riders searching for the best bikes at this price. It’s a tough category, because there's a definite split between bikes that are ready to hit the trail and those aimed at people who are just dabbling with the thought of mountain biking. 

This is where a shop comes in – if you’re not sure what direction you should go, they’re likely going to be your best resource. But then again, shops don’t generally have time to demo bikes at this price and nor is there really a call for it, beyond the obligatory parking lot test. Manufacturers tend to reserve their demo budgets for the ‘serious enthusiast’ category, where the rigs cost upwards of two or three times more than the bikes we’re testing.

That's where we come in. We've gathered a selection of this year's top $1,000 bikes and have been using them to throw laps down on a trail west of Boulder, Colorado. One that’s a likely candidate for a rider’s first 'real' mountain bike ride, yet one we see local pros training on too. In fact, during testing we ran into Subaru-Trek's Heather Irmiger.

We test here, local (world caliber) pros train here — we ran into subaru-trek's heather irmiger: we test here, local (world caliber) pros train here — we ran into subaru-trek's heather irmiger

We test here, world caliber pros train here

This year we’ve got a good team throwing their legs over the saddles of these budget rigs: our new US editor-in-chief, Ben Delaney; our tech editor, James Huang; our mountain gear writer, Zach White; Bicycle Village manager and former pro cyclist Dwight DeBroux; and myself, BikeRadar's US editor.

So, after last year's experience, and putting in lots of laps leading up to this year’s yet-to-be-published 10-bike test, we’ve learned a few things that can help potential buyers, and manufacturers alike. Please note, though, this blog is based solely on my experiences of testing these bikes. For the group consensus and to hear us name names, you’ll have to wait for the full story.

Five things to think about when buying  or designing – a first timer's mountain bike

1 Who’s going to ride this thing?

Yeah, who’s going to ride this thing? Seems like a simple question, yet the 10 bikes we have on test will suit a mix of different riders. It should be the first question anyone asks when they approach the subject of a new bike, whether buying, designing or selling the thing. But we've found that while some manufacturers have clearly asked the question, others seem to have ignored it.

Some of the bikes are almost commuter style, some are pretty darn racy, and others are neutral and well sorted. And that’s just the geometry – component picks add a whole secondary layer. While, we’ll answer the hard questions and pick a winner, the fact that they’re not all seemingly designed with the same rider in mind definitely lends to ‘qualified’ recommendations.

Yes, there’s one bike that stands out as the best package, but there’s another that will be slightly more appealing to beginner racers. It's a decent suspension fork away from the total package but a fork upgrade sometime down the road may make this bike the best choice for that rider.

2 It’s about the package

The best bikes in this test showcase the effort that product managers have put into designing and outfitting them. They also demonstrate their manufacturer's ability to source the best, most well thought out parts to put the total package together. The results are mixed, and how they’re mixed is very interesting.

That racier bike we mentioned previously, the one with the inferior fork, comes from a medium-sized company, yet they’ve done the best job, hands down, of providing well designed, contemporary (wide bar, short stem), seemingly high-end supporting components: bar, stem, seatpost (two-bolt micro-adjust), comfy saddle.

3 Geometry is a key decision – or is it?

Geometry is paramount: it can make, or ruin, a bike, no matter what it’s made from (carbon, steel, aluminum) or what parts are hung from the frame. Bike companies are free to choose whatever angles they want for their frames, right? Wrong. The reality is that in this day and age, and at this pricepoint, the 'manufacturer' doesn't actually make the frame themself. 

Generally, we expect them to source the frame from China where, with one exception in this test, a third party will most likely take care of manufacturing. So, the product manager is presented with a choice: pick from a catalog and be left at the mercy of the Chinese factory’s knowledge of mountain bike geometry, or pay more and submit their own design. Looking at the bikes in this test, they've gone both ways.

4 Components in order of importance: Gearing, brakes, suspension and tires. Or is it, tires, suspension, brakes and gearing? Or is it…

What’s most important in terms of components? This is a tough one. Those that have the most potential to make or ruin a ride? That kind of describes everything, right? At this pricepoint, not really.

Here’s an example: does it matter what crankset or cassette you have? Yes and no. Who’s stamping the steel or forging the aluminum has little bearing, but what they’re forging or stamping it into has lots of bearing. A beginning rider isn't going to want a 48-tooth big chainring and a 28t low gear on the cassette. We don’t even want that. 

Similar can be said for stem length, bar width and bend, and saddle cushiness. It’s a complex question that requires a balance to be struck between how a component affects the bike's ride and how easy it is to change. A bum suspension fork is a bigger bummer than a sub-par set of tires.  

Here’s how we see the scale of importance when selecting a mountain bike:

Geometry: Should be balanced, neutral and skewed toward true mountain bike riding. Slow is likely better than fast, stable better than agile, but moderation is key – we’re looking for friendly, capable bikes here. We’ll also lump cockpit geometry in this category – we’re looking for comfort and contemporary designs that produce real trail benefits.

Gearing: Appropriately low is key. I’m only aware of one bike in our test with a 36t cassette cog, which seems rather silly, doesn’t it?

Suspension: Adjustable rebound damping is a godsend, and some form of rebound damping is a necessity – some of our test bikes lack the former, and some both!

Tires: Tires are one of the most important components on any bike and a top-end set can approach 15 percent of the total cost of these bikes. We've only put them so low on the list because they’re one of the least daunting components to swap or replace. When you’re buying a bike, you might ask the sales person what the included tires are intended for – you’ll want something with an intermediate tread that works in your region’s soil conditions.

Brakes: While brakes are pivotally important for any bike, we’re really quite happy with the performance of almost all of the brakes in the test. One thing to keep in mind: mechanical disc brakes may seem less daunting than hydraulic ones, but the reality is that there are more moving parts, they’re harder to adjust properly, they require more maintenance and generally offer less modulation. In our test, we’ve found the pecking order of hydraulic discs to look like this: Shimano and Tektro lead in features, bleed quality and performance, while Avid and Hayes' offerings are solid but lack in one of those key areas.

We've one bit of advice for product managers when it comes to the component package: don’t make a bike worse worse trying to make it better. For example, fitting a non-stock ‘custom colored’ headset preload cap that’s razor sharp is probably not the best idea. Any value the blue anodized finish adds on the showroom floor probably reverses tenfold when the newbie rider crashes and slashes their leg open on the trail.

5 What’s it called?

Sorry GT, but you’re the butt of the joke on this one. Your bike is called the Karakoram 2.0 but the first K is written backwards – I can’t figure out if it's even possible to make Ks do that on my keyboard – which immediately leads to confusion. Are the company Russian? Dyslexic? And what does this crazy spelling do for the person trying to sell the bike on the shop floor, or the person trying to buy it? Don’t make it worse, when trying to make it better.

That's suppose to say 'karakoram': that's suppose to say 'karakoram'

That's supposed to say 'Karakoram'

We can also put "what's it look like?" in this category, though all the bikes achieve a passing grade this year. The Redline is loud and proud, with a finish that's almost too close to neon green, and we might pick on GT again, for the Karakoram's electric blue paint with blue anodized accents, but we won’t because they offer black too.

Anyway, there you have it: our thoughts, dreams and opinions midway through the 2012 Best Mountain Bikes Under $1,000 test. What do you think? As always, we’re happy to hear your wants and needs.

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