There are lots of good entry level mountain bikes out there. In many ways, the best type of entry level mountain bike you can buy will be determined by the type of riding you do. Before going any further, lets take a look one of the types of entry level mountain bikes you should avoid.
Department Store Mountain Bikes
Most department store mountain bikes come in one size only. They are usually relatively inexpensive, heavy, and come with cheap, low end components. They typically are not fine tuned by the person who assembled them, and the components that do come on them can sometimes be very difficult to fine tune. If you are doing anything other than street riding, I would suggest staying away from a department store mountain bike.
Don’t be fooled though. Just because you purchase a bike online doesn’t mean it is not department store quality. Places like eBay and Amazon sell department store style bikes, and you can tell because the prices are usually very low, usually under $300. Sometimes, you can get a very good bike for $300, but in many cases, these will be clearance bikes that the seller has heavily discounted.
Department store mountain bikes typically have 7 speeds are less, and often come with a grip shift shifting mechanism. While there are some decent 7 speed mountain bikes out there, I would recommend avoiding anything with grip shift (or twist shift), and if your budget allows, avoid anything with less than 8 speeds. The once exception to this rule are high level vintage mountain bikes, and in some cases, bike store brands like Marin, Raleigh, and Giant.
Before continuing, let me clarify one thing. When I use the term 7 speed, in most cases, I’m referring to a 21 speed bike with 3 chanrings in the front, and 7 cogs in the rear, which is how most entry level mountain bikes are set up. This is also known as a 3X7 speed bike, or a bike with a 3X7 drivetrain. So, an 8 speed bike typically would have a 3X8 drivetrain, or 24 speeds total. Make sense?
So what is a good entry level mountain bike?
Look at the drivetrain. At the most basic level, the general rule of thumb is that a good entry level mountain bike will come with a drivetrain with 8 speeds or better. Having said that, there are many different configurations, but the three most common are:
3X8 or 24 speeds total
3X9 or 27 speeds total
3X10 or 30 speeds total
There are some exceptions to this. For instance, in very rare cases, you might come across a 1X8 or a 1X9 speed drivetrain, but this is typically only found on used bikes with which have been modified for this configuration. Sometimes, you will find new bikes, with a 1X8 or a 1X9 speed drivetrain, but they are not very common.
What is more common are bikes with a 1X10, 1X11, or 1X12 drivetrain. In most cases, these bikes are more advanced.
You might also find a bike with a 2X8, 2X9, or a 2X10 drivetrain. Any of these configurations are fine, depending on what kind of riding you do.
Look at the fork.
Most entry level mountain bikes come with Suntour forks. Some entry level mountain bikes also come with RST forks, or another brand of fork. While these forks are ok, entry level bikes equipped with Rockshox forks typically will perform the best. Now, don’t get me wrong. Both Suntour and RST make forks that will blow some Rockshox forks out of the water, but if you can afford it, an entry level bike with a Rockshox fork is a good way to go.
Having said that, don’t get your hopes up. Its not very common to find Rockshox on bikes selling for less than $1,000. There are other fork brands that make high quality forks, but they are not common on entry level bikes. Sure, there are always exceptions, but they are usually few and far between. For most riders, the entry level fork that your bike comes equipped with will do just fine.
One thing that a lot of people do is upgrade their stock fork that came on their bike with a Rockshox they purchase online, at eBay or Amazon. Now, you don’t want to do this blindly, as there are certain things to look for, but look for an article soon on this website that explains how to do this.
Look at the brakes.
Most entry level mountain bikes come with disc brakes, although some come with v-brakes, but that is pretty rare in this day and ago. There are some really cheap mechanical disc brakes out there that many mountain bikers upgrade to. One of the better types of mechanical disc brakes that you can sometimes find on entry level mountain bikes are made by a company called Avid.
One thing to look for is a reservoir that is connected to the brake lever, which usually has kind of a long cylinder shape to it. If that is the case, the bike probably has hydraulic disc brakes, which is a good thing, as they give you a lot more stopping power than mechanical disc brakes.
Other things to consider.
There are other things you can look at to help you find a good entry level mountain bike, like looking at the wheels, tires, crankset, and other components, but these should give you a good starting point.
One more thing I will say is that typically speaking, the more speeds on the rear cogs, or cassette have on them, the lighter weight the bike will be. So, an 8 speed cassette will usually be lighter than a 7 speed cassette, while a 10 speed cassette will typically be lighter than a 9 speed cassette, and that is often true with all or most parts on a drivetrain. So, the higher the component group and the more speeds it has, the lighter and better performing it will typically be. The exception to this would be on some vintage bikes, particularly from the early to mid 1990s. What you will find is that back then, 8 speed components were pretty much top of the line, so 8 speed components from that era are typically lighter than 9 speed components of today.
Hopefully, this article will help you better identify what is a good entry level mountain bike.