You can trace mountain biking roots to the 1970s, with the first mass-produced bikes rolling off assembly lines in the 1980s. Since then it has grown from what most would consider a fringe sport to a more widely recognized outdoor activity and adventure.
Most newbies to the mountain bike-purchasing scene will find remarkable features from which to choose from but with a price tag that often exceeds decent previously owned cars.
Yet despite the lofty price tag—with some expensive mountain bikes easily exceeding $10,000—the sport of mountain biking has grown steadily in terms of popularity.
Thanks to this rise in popularity, mountain bike manufacturers, such as Trek, Santa Cruz, and Giant, have been able to develop even more advanced bikes. Today, bike design incorporates features that ensure optimum performance.
The 2020 pandemic compelled many people to return to the great outdoors. By the end of 2020, the number of people enjoying the sport of mountain biking totaled nearly 900,000, which has surely made bike manufacturers really happy.
If you are like me and wonder why mountain bikes cost so much, read on to find out why.
Why Are They So Expensive?
Admittedly, a $10K+ mountain bike does cause you to pause in shock. But even a quick review of available options at the bike shop netted a long list of mountain bikes that pass the five-digit mark.
Expensive bikes also get all the good press, so the less expensive options might be just as good but less well known.
Mountain bikes have evolved and come a long way from the banana-seat bikes our parents used to ride. Today’s mountain bikes are built explicitly for off-road trail riding, capable of handling some very tough trails and rough riding conditions.
What Makes a Mountain Bike More Expensive than a Mid- to Entry-Level Gravel Bike Model?
Mountain biking differs from other cycling disciplines. The conditions encountered in a typical mountain bike ride are considered harsh, with uneven surfaces, hard turns, and even jumps.
All of these conditions require that the mountain bike
- is extremely responsive to trail conditions;
- is exceptionally lightweight;
- is extremely durable;
- is adjustable to changing conditions;
- has improved power output;
- is extra comfortable for the rider;
- requires less maintenance; and
- has the required special components.
The reality is that the combination of a lighter-weight bike that offers durable strength, control, and comfort is the fundamental reason why a decent mountain bike can be so expensive.
This combination requires that the mountain bike be constructed with high-end engineering technologies that require specific, albeit expensive, components.
The reality is there are a variety of direct and indirect features that make purpose-built, premium mountain bikes the multi-thousand-dollar machines they are. These are discussed next.
Economies of Scale Working Against Engineering and Research Costs
The engineering initiatives required to create a high-end bike require in-depth research and development, which can be quite costly in the long run.
The engineering and research solution efforts include
- costly software;
- prototyping of components;
- testing components;
- validating testing results; and
- a cost-to-tool manufacturing process – all before the first mountain bike is produced!
As such, the engineering required to solve challenging mountain bike issues is not cheap. Because the mountain bike market is generally smaller (than other cycling markets), the per-bike cost related to engineering and research is higher.
The limited economy of scale, in this regard, is one of the biggest reasons mountain bike price points often exceed $10,000.
Mountain bikes are expensive due to the cost of the high-quality suspension components, plus others, and the technology required to keep riders safe and the bikes in working order.
Remember, this type of bike is designed for use on off-road and, very often, tough terrains. This type of riding requires the rider to traverse trippy ledges, inclined slopes, and rocky terrain and all while moving at a quick pace.
All of this needs responsive performance, with a top-class suspension system, if riders want to avoid crashing or buying a new mountain bike too often.
I have learned that the only way to keep the rider safe is to ensure the mountain bike parts are able to take a beating and remain in working order. Inexpensive parts for mountain bikes are often considered dangerous if the wheels, frame, or handlebars are not robust enough to handle the rugged terrain against the weight and shift of the rider.
And, generally speaking, as the bike parts become more advanced as in high-end mountain bikes, the price tag rises too. Nevertheless, hardcore mountain bikers are usually willing to plunk down big bucks for an expensive bike with full suspension and the lightest and strongest bike parts.
There will always be a less expensive bike you can buy. But, the cheaper bikes are made with lower quality parts, making them less reliable and even potentially dangerous if used on a challenging trail.
Mountain Bike Frames Need To Be Durable and Lightweight
The frame used to construct a mountain bike is typically the most expensive component and thicker than the frame used for a road bike.
Carbon fiber raw materials are best known for their use in aerospace programs but are an excellent fit for use in bike frames too. But note, a carbon fiber frame is pricey and can cost more than a thousand dollars, so it’s maybe not the best option as a first bike.
The carbon fiber frame’s stiffness is attributed to an epoxy resin, which prevents the carbon fiber from becoming brittle and susceptible to breakage on a rough ride.
A lightweight frame is another premium feature many mountain bikers are happy to pay for. A lightweight carbon frame offers riders the ability to climb steep terrain faster, with less effort.
Other frames made of metal include titanium, aluminum, or steel. These metals simply do not compare with a lightweight carbon frame.
It is important to note that even though it will enhance your riding experience, a carbon fiber frame is less environmentally friendly to produce.
Finally, sophisticated frames designed with perfect geometry will improve your riding experience but cost a lot more.
The Wheel System
The mountain bike wheel system can be quite complex. Each of the wheel system’s components is vital to the overall performance of the mountain bike.
A well-designed wheelset balances the bike’s performance with its tolerance using modern technological factors.
Upgrading the wheelset is a smart way to elevate your riding experience, at least for the more experienced riders. Carbon wheels, which are lightweight and stiff, can also cost above a thousand dollars, in fact, upwards of two thousand dollars!
A mountain bike’s tires contribute directly to how the bike handles different terrain. To achieve a fast ride, the tire’s rubber must be able to provide an excellent grip on any surface.
The good news for mountain bike enthusiasts is that there is an ideal tire for the various types of trails and terrains.
Tires with a higher Thread Per Inch (TPI) are lighter-weight, allowing for full suspension and reduced rolling resistance, enabling the tires to make better contact with the trail. Ultimately, this creates a safe ride, especially when cornering, as its design allows the tires to conform to the surface.
If you prefer high-performance tires that are lightweight, then expect to find your bike in the higher price ranges. But note, a lower TPI (that offers less ability to perform) will be able to resist cuts due to its thicker threads.
Lower TPI tires can also provide significantly more tire mileage, which translates to more bang for your buck.
Another consideration with regard to tires is deciding if you want a tubeless tire rather than a more traditional tire. And while a tubeless tire will reduce the chances of a flat tire, it costs more, and it still won’t help if the sidewall rips on a trail.
The mountain bike’s seatpost (aka seatpin or saddle pin) is a tube that attaches the seat to the bicycle’s frame. A seatpost is adjustable to meet the requirements of the rider.
One of the most direct ways to reduce the mountain bike’s weight is to choose a carbon seatpost. The carbon fiber material offers superior absorption of vibrations but is more expensive, as one would expect.
Therefore, many mountain bike riders find aluminum seatposts to be stronger and a great alternative to carbon fiber seatposts.
A mountain bike’s handlebars are available in various materials and each material has its own pros and cons.
Handlebars do not typically get the fanfare of the bike’s other moving parts because handlebars are not prone to wear and tear. But, for those who have a preference, carbon fiber handlebars offer the kindest rides and the longest life span, and they’re up to 40% lighter than other materials.
Titanium handlebars offer a comfortable ride as well as they are heavier and able to manage the bike’s impacts and vibrations. Aluminum handlebars offer the harshest of rides.
A mountain bike’s braking system is the mechanism that stops the bike’s wheels from turning.
Mountain bikers rely on the bike’s brakes to remain safe and in control. More specifically, several braking-system types are available for use on mountain bikes.
Rim brakes are available in a few varieties. These include V-brakes, cantilever brakes, and caliper brakes.
V-brakes are usually preferred because they outperform other brakes in most trail conditions, except the muddiest ones. They are not favored, at times, because they don’t provide bikes with enough braking power during wet conditions.
Disc brakes for bikes are available as mechanical brakes or hydraulic disc brakes. As one would expect, mechanical brakes are less costly and less complex than their hydraulic counterparts.
Mountain bike enthusiasts typically prefer hydraulic brakes as they offer more power and efficiency when stopping.
Hydraulic brakes can adjust safely to most conditions – even if the road is slippery and wet. However, if you’re trying to save money, be aware that this additional control will cost more than traditional cable brakes.
A bike’s drivetrain includes various components that help propel the mountain bike to move at varying speeds using multiple gears. These parts include
- a cassette (cogs attached to the rear wheel);
- cranks; and
- a rear derailleur and a front derailleur; etc.
The drivetrain technology can be quite pricey when reaching for premium performance on an expensive bike because the drivetrain must be able to shift seamlessly from one gear to another. Most gear systems offer 12 to 17 gears, depending on the number of cogs on the chainset.
A delay or lag may cause an accident or a rough corner turn, even for a leisure mountain biker.
The more expensive drivetrains are lightweight (of course) and offer excellent durability and efficiency.
Some bikes with advanced tech even have an electronic shifting feature, which stops water and mud from harming the shifting mechanism.
A bike is generally defined by its suspension parts. The suspension fork (aka, the shocks) is in the front of the bike.
The type of frame (e.g. whether it’s a carbon frame), wheel size, and axle will dictate the available suspension options.
The higher-end, expensive mountain bikes offer full suspension forks that are adjustable, allowing for better, more stable rides.
- Mountain bikes are designed for off-road cycling, which offers high-performance capabilities and durability when traversing rough terrain.
- A mountain bike is typically considered somewhat of a cross between a downhill bicycle and a trail bike.
- Mountain bikes seek to offer riders improved traction, comfort, and full suspension on a variety of off-road settings.
- The seat on this bike is generally plusher than the one on road bikes, especially if it’s an expensive mountain bike.
- The frame of a bike encourages riders to remain in an upright position, which offers improved comfort and control.
- The most common sizes for mountain bike wheels include 26”, 27.5”, 27.5”, or 29”.
Why Are Mountain Bikes So Expensive – the Take-Away
When considering why mountain bikes are so expensive, I considered my own bike journey and realized that mountain biking is not as expensive as it appears, especially when compared to other sports, like golf.
Yes, your bike will cost you, but after that, there’s not much else you need to heavily invest in.
Mountain bike prices can vary vastly, depending on various factors. Engineering and development costs add up, even before companies have even made their first production bike.
And most likely, the prices that brands set for these cleverly engineered bikes will not decrease any time soon (there’s also less competition on the market) unless brands can produce similar quality bikes at a lower price.
That said, over the past few years, modern bikes, even entry-level bikes in the lower price range, come with full suspension and are so well made you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a decent bike—or the right bike for you.
The average cost of a decent quality bike is around $1,500, but it really depends on what you’re going to be using your new bike for.
Obviously, if you’re a serious biker, you’re going to need a more expensive bike that offers better ride quality. Different quality bikes will not be in the same price range.
Ultimately, the best option is to invest in the best bike you can afford within your budget.