I’m a beginner, shouldn’t I just get a cheap bike to see if I like it?
There are several reasons why you might be happier, have more fun and like cycling more with a high quality refurbished bike than with an entry level new bike.
Pretty much without exception as the price of a bike goes down, so too does functionality and weight goes up. One of the things that makes the biggest difference to beginners of all ages, but is especially challenging for younger riders, is the power to weight ratio of you on the bike. All riders who are just starting out simply don’t produce the wattage that somebody with a few years of cycling under their belt can generate. This makes pushing a heavier bike A LOT more difficult, and is doubly the case for the younger or lightweight riders who don’t weigh very much. It is often helpful to think of the ratio of bike weight to rider weight, for example an 85lb rider will have a much different experience on a 32lb bike than they would on 24lb bike. It’s not just the heft and maneuverability, but also keep in mind that those legs are accelerating that weight with every turn of the pedals over and over again.
Then we come to components, first, on a mountain bike there are the major ones like fork, shock and wheels. A basic bike will have a suspension fork that is pounds heavier than those on a higher end bike, talk about adding difficulty when trying to learn techniques for lifting the front wheel over obstacles, again especially for lighter riders. On top of the weight is the functionality, often those heavier forks are not tunable for the rider weight and so will barely absorb any impact or just rest at full compression, neither of which helps inspire confident handling. Similarly, on a full suspension bike, an adjustable and functioning rear shock is so important, no bike will ride well if the shock is as bouncy as a pogo stick with no rebound control, or sagged out at the bottom of the travel all the time. Conversely even an inherently basic suspension design (single pivot) can feel ok on the the trail if the shock is decent and tuned well.
Coming back around to the power to weight ratio, a light rider will have a totally different experience on light rims and tires even if nothing else about the bike changes. Every little bit of rotational mass can be felt and you can often lose POUNDS of rotational weight simply by changing tires. Touching on the components again, things like shifters, brakes and drivetrain. If you are just learning how to shift, when the correct time to do it is and how many to do at once, wouldn’t it be nice if the controls answered your commands with alacrity and precision? There is a certain level of component, both on the road and mountain bike where function reaches a plateau, beyond which you pay more for both lighter weight and better longevity (stays working better through more mileage and wear) but not significantly better function or toughness. If you are below the level of that plateau however, such as you are on an entry level bike, function and smoothness is significantly decreased.
The bike industry has recently and rapidly decided that 26” wheels, which previously have been the longstanding mountain bike standard, are no longer applicable. There are still 2 wheel sizes but they are now 27.5” (also called 650B), and 29”. Having ridden 26” for ages like everybody that started mountain biking at the beginning, and also having lots and lots of time on 27.5 and 29 I can see why they did it. Calling it 27.5” is a little bit of a misnomer, in that, if you actually roll out a similar volume tire, it’s much closer to 26” than it is to 29” and not halfway in the middle. With that in mind, 27.5 rides and handles very similarly to 26, so much so that most all the 26” die hards have admitted to themselves that the little bit of extra roll over capability and smoothness the slightly larger diameter brings are nice features, and handling has not really been adversely affected. The 29” wheels have significantly better roll over action and really smooth out the trail, but the handling is decidedly different. They tend to accelerate a bit slower, although they do hold momentum well, and they give excellent traction due to a larger contact patch (fat bike, 27.5+ and 29+ not discussed here for simplicity sake, but let’s talk). They also tend to be a bit slower to change direction or go around tight corners. The exact same characteristics are described as “truck like handling” and “sluggish” or “stable” and “smooth” depending on the rider and what they are looking to get out of their riding experience.
I will say that at the moment, there is some amazing value to be found in the used market for high end, lightweight 26” bikes and they could still be a good option in XS and SM sizes that make a lot of sense for young or small riders. In my mind, the cut off point is around 5’3” or so, taller than that and you will definitely benefit from a larger diameter wheel.
So between lighter weight and much better function there is a lot to be said for a freshly refurbished bike as an entry to the world of cycling as it should be experienced. That’s not to say that you can only have fun on expensive bikes, riding bikes is just plain fun and any bike is better than no bike. But, there is no doubt that it is a better experience on equipment that works well, and if you enjoy it more, you’ll get out and ride more!
Already have a used bike lined up or one you currently use and love but it’s feeling played out? Let’s talk about what we might be able to do to it, within your budget, to make it a better experience for you.