At what price point is a mountain bike trail-worthy? What is wrong with department store bikes anyway as they certainly look the part and they seem fine riding around the neighborhood and bike paths. This is the issue we'll aim to answer in this article as well as the often-heard question: "How much should I spend on a mountain bike?"

In the most general terms, mountain bikes can be divided into two levels, department store grade, and bike shop level. For purposes of this discussion, we'll define cheap mountain bikes as department store grade under $300. We'll go through to the top 5 reasons why you should avoid riding them on trails or at least proceed with extreme caution. We'll also define a mountain bike trail as one that is not paved, has rocks, roots, narrow sections, and of course elevation or climbing involved.

We'd like to point out that there's nothing wrong with cheap mountain bikes for street riding and commuting. The position is upright giving comfort and vision, compared to a road bike. And the big tires deliver comfort and added traction for unexpected pavement cracks, potholes and gravel. Paved bike paths too are not much of an issue for a department store bike. But as you venture out and start doing some real bike trails, we would like you to be aware of the top 5 reasons below why your safety and enjoyment is compromised and why you need to proceed with caution.

Key parts on cheap mountain bikes may break without warning.​

1. The frame and fork may break in half

At Mtbr, our biggest concern is metal and weld strength. The frame and fork are the most at risk on a rocky downhill or occasional jump since they can fail and break in half without warning. And when these parts fail, momentum and force will drive head into the ground. This can result in severe injury. They can fail without any warning so the rider is completely unprepared for the impact. We can't tell you how many videos we've seen involving cheap bikes on trails and dirt jump parks where the bike breaks and the rider slams into the ground.

2. Brakes will not stop you

On flat ground, most any brake will work. But on the mountain, there is a lot more force and speed involved as the trail can get steep and narrow with little warning. Most cheap bikes have brakes that are not capable of stopping an adult rider in time. Often, the brakes can degrade too as they heat up on a long descent. The rider can blow through a corner, hit a tree, or fall off a cliff in the worst cases.

3. Gears are not low enough and will not shift well

When you get on a steep hill on a cheap bike, you'll realize why your bike has so many gears. You'll find that there are not enough low gears and it won't stay in gear. Mountain bikes need very low gearing (especially for beginner climbers) and they need to shift under some pedaling load and stay in gear. Most cheap bikes cannot do this. Thus the experience can become miserable fairly quickly as the rider is left walking most of the uphills

Brakes and suspension on a cheap bike may compromise the rider's safety.​

4. Tires and components will let you down

A lot of cheap bikes look the part but to get under that $300 price point, severe compromises are made. Form over function rules the roost and the tires often have little grip and the saddle offer minimal comfort. Parts will rattle off and it's not uncommon for cheap bikes and parts to end up carried back to the car in an average mountain bike trail

5. Assembly quality is poor

To add salt to the wound, the cheap bike is often assembled out of a box by workers who nothing about bikes. The fork may be installed backward, and the brakes may be half functional. The gearing is usually adjusted wrong and moving parts overly tightened. This assembly can often place an already inadequate bike at 50% of its potential. All these can be addressed by a mechanic but having this done can require specialized tools and more money.

The other issue worth noting is cheap bikes are often not upgradable. Changing the brakes or gearing is often a difficult affair as department store bikes often do not use the common standards used by capable mountain bikes.

For fun, we'll share this video by two high-level riders taking a $150 Walmart bike down a downhill trail. It's not realistic but it shows what parts will fail quickly when the bike is pushed.

That's our take of the 5 best reasons why you shouldn't rally your cheap bike on that fun mountain bike trail your friends have been raving about. Proceed with caution and start looking at a real mountain bike if you're really enjoying the sport and feel you're ready to tackle the mountains.

The $700 and above price point is a safe bet to start your search in. The used market is usually an option to get a capable bike much cheaper but the pandemic, Covid-19 environment has really tapped the availability of good buys in the used market under the $1000 price point. Check here for our recommended list of mountain bikes under $1000.

At around $700. Good bike options that look and act the part emerge​