Budget Bikes - are they up to the task?

will a budget bike bend under pressure?   Steve coward took a leap of faith and tries to answer that question

fuji_nevada 2.0

As the holiday season hits full swing many folks will be indulging in Hong Kong’s 2nd favorite sport which is shopping – we all know that MTB is #1.  But before you plunk down your hard earned money on a top-end bike perhaps it’s worthwhile to reconsider bikes towards the bottom of the range? Steve Coward did. Steve owns and operates CrossCountryHK, a local MTB skills training and guiding company. Here are his insights on budget bikes.

by Steve Coward.

Most of us up-grade or replace our bikes over the years as our passion, skill level and overdraft increases. But buying bikes in quantity for a mountain bike training and guiding business has forced me to kick this evolutionary process firmly into reverse.

With the price of new bikes in HK ranging from $450 to beyond $50’000 I’m frequently asked for advice on a first purchase. Price wise bikes beyond a four-digit price tag were well beyond my meager $3500 budget, I needed about eight purely for teaching the basics, no fancy anodized paint, no stop-on-a-dime, hydraulic disc brakes, and no-rear suspension required. With the help of my eager to please local bike shop owner I set about testing the lower end of the $5000 price bracket to help me get an idea what would fit my needs and also those of the average beginner who is out to buy a sensibly priced first bike.

Village Junkers @*%$#!

Starting at the bottom of the barrel are the bikes below $1000 HKD. Unless I needed convincing otherwise, even the bike shop owner referred to these as total rubbish. As a common rental bike they have a life span of about two months and often require some quite substantial repair even between rentals. Cranks that bend when the bike is accidently knocked off its stand, gears that disintegrate mid-ride, bottom brackets that part company with the frame… you get the idea.

Unfortunately its bikes like these that attract the masses with their cheap price tags then put the masses off biking for life with their lack of comfort, reliability & safety. Suburban cycle racks the territory over bear testament to this, full to bursting point with rotting corpses of aptly named ‘Break Point’s, ‘Terminator’s as well as the more optimistically named ‘Turbo Bike’s. Live here a while especially out in the sticks and doubtless you will have had the displeasure of riding one of these gearless, brakeless wonders. In the interests of self preservation (partly of my reputation) I decided against including these as a serious contender.

Rolling the dice on a Fuji Nevada ($2600 HKD)

With these horrors in mind it was with some trepidation that I eyed the newly assembled blue and white ‘Fuji Nevada’ hard tail in the bike shop. At a recommended retail price of $2600 I wasn’t expecting too much but on closer inspection I felt a flutter of excitement that this could actually be a bargain.

On the plus side were the big fat knobbly kenda tires, Truvativ crank, Shimano Alivio gears, Alex rims wheelset, a fetching two tone paint scheme. Most of the components I was familiar with as they were also on my two year old reliable ‘pop-to-the-shops’ Giant bike which I use daily, though largely on road.

fuji_brakeshifter

Down side? Well some reservations about it being only a 24 speed, V-brakes and I just knew that the Suntour 80mm fork wouldn’t feel as buttery smooth as the Rockshox Revelation fork I’d become accustomed to (which cost more than the whole Fuji bike). However the real proof had to be in the riding. It would be plain unfair to pit an entry level bike worth $2600 against my usual hard-tail ride, a mid-range $10’000 Cannondale but at a quarter the price was it a quarter the quality? A head to head ride around Tai Mo Shan ride would tell…

Playing Russian Roulette – a test ride in Tai Lam Country Park

Clicking through all 24 gears seamlessly whilst the massive knobbly tires whirred away on the tarmac of the car park reminded me just how worn out my 27 speed Cannondale actually was. That silky smooth ‘new bike feel’ with no rattles or creaks just can’t be beat even at this level.

fuji_gears

Settling into a comfortable gear I plodded away toward Hong Kong’s highest point. Although hardly Mountain Biking almost any ride in Hong Kong involves an element of road riding to link up the trails but this 30 minute warm up was completed over a minute faster than on the Cannondale three weeks previous, now that’s a good start!

With temperatures barely in double figures I turned around and headed down the concrete ribbon that winds itself around Tai Mo Shan. Most Disc brakes bikes require a couple of fingers on the levers at most on all but the steepest of hills but I was beginning to wish I could sprout another handful with the V brakes on the Fuji. Eventually stopping I realized the problem to be a miss-aligned rear brake pad rendering it useless. This was easily fixed and improved performance to an acceptable level, probably some higher performance pads would help things further, a fairly inexpensive upgrade compared to burning holes in the soles of your shoes!

fuji_cone_ tented

My first taste of off-road was straight down the entrance of the Tai Mo Shan downhill trail, admittedly way beyond what any sane beginner should be attempting in their first few weeks (or months) on a cross-country bike. For the un-initiated riding this first section is comparative to playing a video game with one hand tied behind your back and one eye closed only with rather harsher consequences for failure. Point, shoot, pray even, and hope for the best!

As you pass the point of no return where the trail hits about 45° trees, rocks and your whole life wiz past at warp speed as you hurtle down this near vertical mud-slide. Teetering on the verge of being ‘totally’ out of control as well as out of your mind you cling onto your handle bars by the finger nails, backside millimeters from the rear tire in a desperate bid to keep both wheels on the ground. Steering in this position is like riding a turbo-charged shopping trolley down a cobbled street, only harder. Any attempt at reducing speed over the Teflon lined tree roots spells imminent disaster and then after a butt clenching 30 seconds…..it’s all over, and that was on a dry day!

Diapers don’t need changing thanks to grippy Kenda Kenetics

Amazingly the Fuji took it in her stride and I had no need for a change of underpants. Those impressive Kenda Kinetics 2.1 tires played a big part in my successful descent, surprisingly good given the cheap price tag. –A large number of manufacturers spec narrower 1.8 tires on budget bikes as I’ve found in previous years. It makes a bike go faster on the road, however narrow tires are mostly useless on HK’s trails which have you fighting for grip even in damp conditions.

Back on the relative normality of a horizontal trail where the horizon’s where it should be and I’m getting used to the feel of this budget bike. The ride position is one I’m familiar with on more expensive bikes, sloping top tube on an aluminium frame. The WTB saddle’s pretty comfortable - if a little wide for my liking; the slight riser bars with soft grips feel right as well. I felt a little flex in the fork when aggressively tackling some of the more technical sections though again this would probably be beyond beginner level riding. I never really noticed the lack of one extra cog at the rear this being a 24 speed, though a weaker rider climbing a steep hill after a punishing ride might be walking a little earlier.

fuji_saddle

The fork really does feel a bit sticky though over the smaller obstacles somewhat reluctant to move at all. Push it a bit harder and it wakes up but then compresses almost fully returning faster than a shotgun recoiling, there really isn’t much in between. Use the bike for longer rides over rough technical and this lack of controlled rebound will soon wear you down. A good upgrade here would be to buy a secondhand fork that has a degree of ‘tunability’ , I recently picked up a Rockshox Tora for $500, even at this level the bike will feel discernibly more comfortable.

Is It a Keeper??

As a beginner level bike for someone on a real tight budget you can’t go too far wrong with this. The entry level category has come a long way in the past few years in terms of value for money usability, something experienced riders like myself had turned a blind eye to until this pleasant journey of rediscovery. I have a friend, desperate to slow down the expansion of his mid-life waistline, has been pestering me for months to find him a cheap bike and until I actually rode this I wouldn’t have recommended it. He’s since bought one and he’s loving every minute of it while gradually regaining some fitness before venturing off road.

Unless crossing over from road biking or running beginners will probably be using the bike on-road a fair amount in the pursuit of fitness and to be honest you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference in ride between a more expensive model. The deficiencies will start to show when the bike is pushed to its limits as I found out, but given a trail like Tai Lam Reservoir you could ride this all day and barely reach these limits.

Keep a realistic lid on extravagant up-grade spending though, on a bike of this level. If you feel you’ve outgrown V-brakes, 24 gears, heavy crank and that dull fork all at once, you’ve outgrown the bike. All these upgrades combined will probably cost more than the equivalent next level of bike that’ll have a lighter frame. Just around the $4700 mark is the Mt.Fuji Pro, with its Tora fork, 27 speeds, lightweight frame and powerful Avid Single digit V-brakes as standard.

 

fuji_welds

 

 

Just what is an entry level bike?

As always ‘Safety First’, the last thing anyone wants let alone a beginner is for a bike frame or wheel to fail under normal use. Thankfully today this is a very rare occurrence, aluminum framed hard-tail bikes normally start at $2000+ and at this level are over engineered to be strong at the expense of slightly heavier. If you’re not sure take a close look at where the frame tubes meet at the quality of the welding, it should look tidy but prominent.

Most bikes in this price bracket will have V-Brakes (rim brakes) or mechanical disc brakes. If adjusted correctly both types will stop the bike sharply without too much effort, although V-brakes will take worryingly longer in the wet. Entry level Disc brakes, usually cable operated are becoming increasingly common on cheaper bikes but can weigh a considerable amount compared to good quality V-brakes. –Of the five bikes I bought two years ago with entry level mechanical discs, over half have ceased to work!

Most forks in this price range will do an acceptable job over the terrain & pace a beginner will normally ride, flatish trail & road. Adjustment will probably be limited to ‘preload’ which should be increased if you find you’re using all the available travel and bottoming out frequently.

An entry level Mountain Bike will do most things its more expensive big sister does and until the going really gets tough a beginner may be hard pushed to tell the difference.

More $ = Less Bike?

If I’ve learnt one thing from owning & riding a $26’000 bike and a $2600 bike is that the former isn’t ten times better than the latter.

By far the biggest amount of that expensive price tag is spent on components that weigh less, in some cases just a few grams less but cost a few thousand more. Useful if you’re seriously looking at a spot on the podium where leaders are seconds apart but far less important than the difference an extra 30 minutes of training a week could make…

Another thing to bear in mind especially if you’re going to be riding more than once a week is that expensive lightweight components will wear out quicker than their cheaper, slightly heavier counterparts which could have you spending a further $5000 a year on a replacement drive train components, ouch! A good compromise is mid-range equipment like Deore, SLX which I use, plus it costs peanuts in comparison.

Bottom line is whilst the latest carbon fibre full suspension might cast admiring glances in the car park, it’s the owners ability to ride it on the trail that really matters…

What’s in a name?

In most cases each brand only produces frames and relies on roughly the same components grouping as every other manufacturer on their entry level range, usually a mix of Shimano or Sram. However the price difference between well known brands such as Trek, Specialized Vs. a lesser known brand like Fuji or Hasa can be as much as $2000 for what is essentially the same components package. –Don’t let your conscience overlook the fact that top name brands are often more expensive because of the money they invest in frame design technology that is often just copied by the lesser known manufacturers, although more prevalent amongst top end bikes.

18,21,24,27 Speed?

The first Mountain Bike I owned had 18 gears way more than the 12 I’d had on my racing bike, almost more than I felt I needed at the time, most MTB’s now have either 24 or 27. Despite the difference most bikes will have a similar low gear and a similar high gear with the 27 speed bikes having slightly more range in between. To be honest without looking it’s a difference most experienced riders would hardly notice but usually means a $500-$1000 price increase to have the luxury of a couple of extra usable gear ratios.

As the holiday season hits full swing many folks will be indulging in Hong Kong’s 2nd favorite sport which is shopping – we all know that MTB is #1. But before you plunk down your hard earned money on a top-end bike perhaps it’s worthwhile to reconsider bikes towards the bottom of the range? Steve Coward did. Steve owns and operates CrossCountryHK, a local MTB skills training and guiding company. Here are his insights on budget bikes.