When is a Mountain Bike ‘Too Old’ to Justify Buying?

There's a good chance that in the past year, someone has asked you what kind of bike they should buy because they want to try mountain biking. What do you tell them?
Photo: Jeff Barber

Nobody likes being told that their bike isn’t good enough to enjoy this sport. That deterrent has been presented to people directly and indirectly for far too long and presents the notion that folks need to pay a lot of money to enjoy mountain biking.

Unfortunately, there is a pretty strong correlation between the amount of money spent and the quality of the bike. For a lot of people reading this, there’s a good chance that in the past year, someone has asked you/them what kind of bike they should buy because they want to try mountain biking. What did you tell them?

Most of us probably didn’t advise them to visit a big box department store or to find a 20-year-old relic off of Craigslist. It would be equally poor advice to tell a new rider that they should spend $9,000 on brand new carbon super bike. The topic and how that line shifts has come up in a few different ways for me over the past week and it got me thinking, especially since we are not really in a buyer’s market right now.

At dinner with a friend recently, he mentioned that he is trying to sell a roughly ten-year-old XC bike, but keeps getting lowball offers. The bike was listed for about half it’s ten-years-ago price, but still has geometry that says “I’ll think about the descent when I’m halfway down it and regret bringing this bike.”

Then there are the other things we remember about old XC bikes: long stems, two-by drivetrains, and short reach and wheelbases; the things we’re hesitant to pay for these days. But, then again, the market often dictates the price.

There’s also the fact that bikes depreciate in value much differently than a car would. Even five years ago, one-by drivetrains, dropper posts, and wheel sizes were still all over the place, whereas you could shop for a car today that is ten years old and still get the important things like air conditioning, power steering, and Bluetooth connections.

In an online forum, I saw a familiar post. Someone was deliberating about buying a bike and wanted advice from other mountain bikers. For $1,400, the seller was offloading a Trek Scratch, a bike that was phased out by the Slash model about ten years ago. The Scratch was sort of a freeride bike before freeride and park bikes were re-designated as enduro bikes.

The Scratch had 170mm of rear travel with a Fox Van coil shock and a 170mm Fox fork, along with a 2×10 drivetrain. Even though this 26-inch-wheeled Scratch could probably scratch its way up some climbs, it was a little too early to come standard with a dropper and the buyer would be relegated to the quick release clamp. Braking was controlled via Avid Elixers, the precursor to SRAM’s frequently cursed Guides.

The geometry on the Scratch is surprisingly modern in some aspects: a 75° STA in the low position, and a 66° HTA, with 439mm chainstays, but there are still some signs of the olden days like a short reach and wheelbase. The Scratch in this particular post actually looked immaculate.

Advisors were split in two camps: The proponents recommended buying because of its condition, and the Scratch is still somewhat modern-looking. If the buyer was planning to use it strictly as a park bike, they wouldn’t be disappointed.

On the other side, opponents mentioned the outdated geo, the front derailleur, the 26″ wheels, and the fact that $1,400 can still go a long way on a newer bike. Which camp was right? Both had good points and it probably didn’t make the decision any easier for the buyer.

Obviously, everyone comes to their own decision on a matter like this by weighing their own variables. How long will I have the bike? What kind of riding will I use it for? I don’t really care and I just want something that is durable and still works, so what does it matter? Sometimes the best part about these questions is splitting hairs, discussing the nuances, and peeling back the layers.