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Used Mountain Bike Buying Advice

Dark MoonDark Moon Registered User regular
edited May 2011 in Help / Advice Forum
Howdy PA cycling crew. You guys indirectly talked me into giving cycling another chance after a 12 year break, and now I ride 20-25km a day on a road bike. Thanks!

Trouble is, the roads in my city are rough. No, beyond rough - going off established bike trails here is akin to taking to the streets of Ajdabiya after a particularly vigorous shelling. I also have a girlfriend who is rather fond of mountain biking. As such, and being a man in possession of no fortune, I must be in want of a good deal on a mountain bike. This 'good deal' clause leads me to eschew new bicycles in favour of the used ones in the classifieds.

I am no stranger to buying used things. I deal in used camera gear year round as a source of new gear and as a hobbyist business venture. What I need is a guide to picking the best used mountain bike I can for sub $200. Yes, this isn't much. This is a tentative "try mountain bikes on the city streets instead of my road bike and maybe tool around at some provincial parks on weekends" bike, not the last mountain bike I'll ever buy.

I know the basics, what with checking the chain length and the breaks and ensuring the frame is in one piece. What I don't know are:

-Good brands - I really don't know anything. My LBSs sell mostly Norco, Giant and Trek. Are these brands universally decent or are some model lines big box bikes destined to fail quickly and spectacularly? What other, slightly older brands are still decent for the pitiful sum I have for this purchase?
-Ideal number of speeds - Does this matter at all? Anything over 10 seems excessive, but maybe I'm just too used to my mid-70s road bike.
-Suspension. What's best for rough road/mild offroad use and how does one check to see if suspensions have been worn out?
-Breaks. What's the best type of break for a mountain bike? I have cantilever ones at the moment and they are atrocious - is there such thing as a decent cantilever break? Or are all modern bikes side pull or disc? Upsides/downsides to disc vs side pull?
-Tires. What to look for in a good all-purpose, all-surface mountain bike tire. I'm really in the dark here, as I've only ever ridden on tiny road tires.
-Any other generic used mountain bike specific advice (or, hell, any used bike advice I've not solicited but should have).

Many hugs and kisses to anyone who helps me out, as well as to those who read but can't think of anything to say.

Dark Moon on


  • SporkedSporked Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    Yay for people mountain biking! Mountain bikes a very different animal than road bikes. I should really be sleeping, so I'm gonna give you the quick and dirty -

    Brands - gt, specialized, trek, giant, cannondale still make decent mountain bikes (or did a few years ago). Don't get a walmart bike. Go to and look up reviews for any bike you're considering.

    Most mountain bikes have 21 (on the low end) to 27 speeds (pretty standard). low ratios for climbing huge hills etc. This is not an excessive number of gears for the animal.

    Any full suspension bike you pickup for sub 200 is going to be a huge, heavy, worthless piece of shit you're going to hate. This is not exaggeration in the slightest. You can probably find a decent hardtail with a fork that won't explode for about that much, I remember selling a gt something or other a few years ago for about that. Check for side to side/fore and aft play and squeaks (rear suspension) and leaks/squeaks/total lack of rebound damping (front and rear). if you find a gas fork, it will make some noise, that's normal.

    Most recent mountain bikes have linear pull brakes or disc brakes. (brakes). don't buy anything with cantilevers, it's either garbage or too old. discs will probably be out of your price range., if anything with discs is super cheap, be wary, make sure they're shimano or avid systems.

    Tires are easy to replace- ideally for road/light offroad you want somethign about 1.8-1.95ish width, with a fairly non aggressive tread, and a continuous center block. don't buy giant mudtires, they WILL slow you down measurably on pavement.

    Check the major joints for cracks. bring a rag when you do to clear off grime and shit. this is a big deal with older mountain bikes, especially aluminum bikes.

    Mountain bikes are heavy and slow. A cheap steel hardtail mountain bike is going to weight 30+ pounds, walmart F/S bikes can be 45+. My specialized is pretty light for a mountain bike and it weights 24ish pounds with tubes in. I can average about 14 miles an hour commuting to school on it, on my ex's little trex crossbike which weighed a solid 10lbs less, I would average 18. so there's that.

    I'm sure there's more, but that should get you started.

    Sporked on
  • BlindZenDriverBlindZenDriver Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    Sporked did a good job with the basics so I only want to add a few minor things.

    The tech advancement with regards to mountain bikes has been almost as fast as seen with computers. This means the original sale prize of a bike even two-three years old is not a great yardstick if comparing to a new bike. For example not that long ago disc brakes was very exotic now it's the norm except with those that want the absolute lightest bike. The fast tech advancement also mean some bikers will upgrade again and again long before their bikes wear out - this means it's possible to buy great gear that's slightly out of fashion for small money (and it also means bike shops will have discounts on last years models).

    You need to get a feel for the whole scene and a good way is to buy some magazines. One good all-round mag is "Mountain Bike Action".

    Remember to budget for safety gear. You will need a new helmet, gloves and shoes is also a good idea (and a must if you buy a bike with clipless pedals).

    One thing I disagree with Sporked about is with regards to mountain bikes being slow. For sure they are slower than racing bikes but not so with regards to less focused bikes except if you mountain bike is one meant only for Downhill.

    Downhill bike:

    BlindZenDriver on
    Bones heal, glory is forever.
  • DangerousDangerous Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    Great advice by Sporked. Unfortunately it's true, any MTB you're going to find for under $200 even used is probably going to be heavy and not very fun to ride. If it has suspension, it will likely be of very poor quality or completely seized.

    Another thing to check before you buy is the drivetrain. Judging wear can be a little difficult, but if all the teeth on the front or rear sprockets are curved on one side like shark fins, then it's worn enough that you will probably get slipping when you pedal hard, or chainsuck.

    In that price range unless you luck out big time, cheap disc brakes are terrible and a decent set of linear pull 'V-brakes' will serve you better. Before you buy, check all cables to make sure they pull decently (shift and brake) and don't stick. Replacing cables isn't that big of a job, but by the time you pay labour at a shop you've added a good percentage onto the price of your used bike.

    One final thing I always do is give the bike the drop test. Pick it up 2 feet off the ground, then let it fall while still keeping hold so it doesn't drop to the ground. If you hear any strange rattling besides the chain hitting the chainstay, it means something is loose. It's usually the headset, bottom bracket, or hub cones. Tightening these isn't a big deal, but if they've been ridden like that for a while then the are probably worn out, so use caution.

    Dangerous on
  • schussschuss Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    For under $200, you'll likely only get shit and end up spending far more just to keep it going, since it will either have shitty or worn out components (or both). Sorry. I'd recommend saving until you have at least $600.

    If you're still serious, go for something without suspension, made of steel. Something like a steel hardtail from the 90's shortly after the move to 1 1/8 head tubes (don't get something with a quill stem, they suck) could work. Also, to get even a chance at a decent bike for that price, you should be looking at single-speeds.

    schuss on
  • PhotonPhoton Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    I'm certainly no expert, but have been looking into mountain bikes myself recently.

    For the type of terrain you described, you could potentially look into more of a hybrid bike, suspension may not actually be neccesary just for bumpy roads and nice light trails?

    As people have said, any suspension on such a cheap bike (especially if full suspension) is just going to be crappy and heavy, so why not dispense with it altogether in the hope that the money may have gone into better parts elsewhere?

    Photon on
    PSN: photon_86
  • mtsmts Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    you should ask your girlfriend since you will liekly be riding with her no? see what she is riding. as stated they have different bikes for different purposes

    mts on
  • schussschuss Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    Also note that the experience on a crappy bike is vastly inferior to that of a good bike. I'd just recommend finding a bike shop near the streets you frequent, and ask to go on an extended test ride.

    schuss on
  • saltinesssaltiness Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    Have you considered putting some bigger tires on your road bike? What make/model bike do you have? If you have 23/25c tires on it now putting some 28 or 32c tires can make a huge difference while still maintaining the speed and efficiency of your road bike.

    If that's not an option though, you'll probably want a fully rigid MTB with 2" or so tires. Unless you're doing real off-road riding, suspension isn't going to do anything for you especially for less than $200.

    saltiness on
    XBL: heavenkils
  • Dark MoonDark Moon Registered User regular
    edited May 2011
    Thanks everyone! Very useful thread and I heeded much of your advice in my purchase. I ended up with a 2000 model Specialized HardRock in damn good condition for $100. No suspension to speak of, but a very solid bike with decent components for the price. It's been a joy to ride so far, and I should be able to resell for about what I paid for it when I eventually get a proper mountain bike and sell this one.

    Dark Moon on
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