How much does it cost to go for a bike ride? If you’re like me, you remember tooling around your neighborhood as a kid on a hand-me-down Schwinn, or riding your bike to the park to play ball with your friends, and the answer that pops into your head is—“Nothing!” Actually, it never really was free. Someone paid for the bike in the first place, and then there was the occasional tube to be patched or replaced or maybe the purchase of a new chain or seat now and then. But for the most part, it wasn’t a very expensive pursuit. Of course, we weren’t bombing down remote mountain singletrack, sloshing through mud holes half way up to the hubs, or grinding mile after relentless mile up long-abandoned logging roads either.
Today’s mountain biking requires a higher-level quality of bike, components, and gear. You can easily spend thousands outfitting yourself in pursuit of the pure joy that is mountain biking. If you follow the blogs, read the magazines, or talk to an enthusiastic salesperson, you’ll probably get the impression that you need to spend a small fortune before you can even think about hitting the trails. Although I don’t begrudge those who want to (and can afford to) buy the best of the best, I know from experience that those of us whose budgets don’t allow for such expenditures can still ride the ridges and tear up even the most remote and rugged back-country trails.
I paid about $300 for my `09 Gary Fisher Mako 3 years ago, and have put many, many miles on it over the best singletrack western Oregon has to offer. Granted, the bike is what it is, and isn’t what it isn’t. It isn’t built for hardcore downhill, it isn’t built for hard jumps, and it isn’t built for racing. But it is light enough to get me to the top of the mountain without busting my heart; nimble enough to traverse the rocks, roots, and creeks typical of the Oregon woods; and strong enough to carry my 200 lb. frame down 3,000 ft. of singletrack decent time after time without a hitch.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a sales pitch for my particular brand or model of bike, nor is it a slam on those who have spent way more money for a comparable experience. What I am trying to point out here is that you can have a whole lot of fun, and ride world-class singletrack on an entry-level MTB. The keys are three-fold: 1) Do your research and buy a good quality product in the first place; 2) Don’t abuse your bike—ride it; and 3) keep everything greased, oiled, and tight. Typically, in the entry-level bracket, you’ll find good frames out there with less-than-spectacular components. Don’t sweat it. The frame is what’s important. You can upgrade derailleur, etc. as your budget allows.
So much for the bike, let’s look at basic gear options.
- Personally I am not a fan of clipless pedals, so I just saved myself a bundle right there. I use aluminum-composite pedals ($14) and plastic mini-clips ($6) to keep my feet in place.
- Sturdy hiking shoes that grip the pedals and that you don’t mind getting filthy work well for biking. Choose wisely and these will give you years of wear.
- Moisture-wicking, quick-drying polyester is available everywhere now—not just at specialty stores. Good socks are a must and corners really can’t be cut here.
- Hydro-packs are great—especially those with room for tools, maps, food, etc. There are some fine ones out there for about half the cost of the big brand names. A tight-fitting small backpack or fanny-pack and a water bottle are an even cheaper option.
- I bought a killer Giro helmet at a second-hand store for $5—yes, $5!
Lastly, do your own maintenance and repair work. Usually the price of a tool is less than what it would cost to have a bike shop do the work. You may lay out $30 for a cable cutter, but you’ll use it many, many times over the years. Ask around and find out if there’s a do-it-yourself shop in your area. Here in Eugene, the University of Oregon Outdoor Program runs a cooperative with a full bike repair shop (complete with a part-time mechanic for advice) that anyone can join for $15 a year. We also have the Center for Appropriate Transport that offers very low-cost used parts and access to their repair shop.
In the end I say if you can afford to buy the good stuff, and that’s what makes you happy—more power to you. No doubt it raises the level of possibility and enhances the experience. But if you can’t—don’t despair. It’s entirely possible for you to be able to go out there and tear it up without breaking the bank.