The Sub-$1,000 bike test

It’s not about the bike, it’s about riding one

It’s 2.45 on a Thursday afternoon and I’m approaching hour five in chamois (unfortunately, trail time is only just over two hours). My colleague, BikeRadar's technical editor James Huang, and I are two days into a multi-bike group test and we're both grinning ear to ear.

We just rallied our test loop’s rockiest downhill at near race speeds on bikes costing less than $1,000. Our pace is verging on the irresponsible, especially considering the suspension fork on the Giant Yukon FX I’m riding has ZERO rebound damping (mind you, the rear suspension performance is amazingly good).

We’re both so giddy that we’re laughing; Mr Huang just barely kept it together in the rocks we just blitzed, coming out the other side with a flat and a broken suspension fork. Despite, some technical issues, two things are undeniably apparent — we’re having a blast and it really has nothing to do with the bikes; it’s simply the fact that we’re out riding.

Yep, Lance Armstrong and I can agree about one thing, at least: it’s not about the bike. It’s about getting out there and riding one.

We catch a decent amount of flack for the bikes we test here at BikeRadar: they’re too expensive; you’ve gone and changed the spec; carbon wheels on a mountain bike… are you guys mental!?!

BikeRadar tech editor James Huang putting a $949 bike to the test

In some cases I take a little bit of offense. We make a conscious effort not to be snobby and we make changes to spec to offer more perspective and allow riders to make better decisions when plunking cold hard cash down for new gear. If given the choice we always try to pick the most relevant option for you, meaning high-performance and affordable (but not cheap) products, but sometimes manufacturers only want to put out the best or most expensive.

If you ride more that three days a week, you’re probably going to appreciate a $3,000 bike more than a $1,000 bike (we've broken a fair amount of stuff on our sub-$1,000 test bikes in just a few days of testing); that said, the gap between $3k-4k and $10k is much more subjective — think diminishing returns the more you spend. Sure you’ll reduce weight and better suspension performance, which are good things, but these features don’t directly correlate to the amount of fun you'll have. When fun is concerned, price doesn't matter.

BikeRadar guest tester and cyclo-cross connoisseur Anthony Carcella offered insight on three of our test bikes; he came away appreciating his Reynolds 853 steel tubed bike more than ever 

One of our testers pointed out that these $1k bikes are like gateway drugs. You’re going to have enough fun on them, you're going to break them and you're going to learn enough about their strengths and weaknesses that you’re going to spend $3k the next time around — if you're bitten by the biking bug, that is.

Despite the amount of fun we had, our budget-based multi bike test did make a couple of things painfully apparent. We can tell you straight out that adjustable fork damping (that really works) is a more important feature than bottom bracket spindle spec or any type of frame stiffness. Likewise, any disc brake found on a mountain bike — whether mechanical or hydraulic — works better than the best linear pull rim brake of five years ago (or maybe ever). And good tires can make or break just about any bike.

The same goes for features that really shouldn’t cost a manufacturer anything additional to incorporate. Mr Huang (@angryasian on Twitter) has been tweeting his ruminations on this, thinking about sorted geometry and well thought out handlebar width, bend and proper stem length specs.

Basically, if a product manager has covered the bases and made the bike ‘safe’ for a beginner — ie. specced a fork that’s not going to buck you, brakes that work and good tires — you’re going to have a good time. And that’s just what we had over our two days and 40 man-hours (four testers, spread over two six-plus-hour test sessions) of budget bike testing, which you can read about in our guide to the Best Mountain Bikes Under £1,000.

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