This is going to be a dicey topic so I’m going to tread lightly to avoid, um, legal concerns…
This question that led someone to my blog last evening: Does Sears.com carry any decent mountain bike brands? Now, this question can be posed for any of the big box warehouses – Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dunham’s (I know a high-up at Dunham’s for full disclosure’s sake, though I’ve never gained anything more than generic insight on that relationship), Sports Authority etc.
The short answer is yes but that can’t be the end of it. If you’re shopping on the web for a bike, one of two things is true: You either know a lot about bikes or you know next to nothing. Most of us tweeners know enough to go to the bike shop and let the pros measure and set us up. That said, searching from my computer netted a Mongoose and Beachbikes has quite a few. Searching from my iPhone netted a decent Diamondback (the Trace Comp), a K-2 and a few others ranging from $400-$1,100.
The trick is, for noobs at least, knowing what to avoid while subduing the urge to save a buck (or $200). To put this simply, no matter what, you get what you pay for – while your local bike shop is making a profit on the bikes they sell, shop owners rarely get rich doing so. They have decent lives, yes, but you’re not likely to find your bike shop owner cruising around in a Ferrari – the industry just doesn’t work that way. Also, don’t go into this purchase thinking you’ll get a 23 pound dual suspension mountain bike with high-end shocks, quality disc brakes and nice rims for $200. You will get a 50 pound dual suspension mountain bike with cheap drivetrain components, cheap and heavy shocks, steel wheels, disc brakes that warp if you heat them up followed by a splash through a puddle.
Second, you have to worry about sizing. In most cases, especially in the cheaper bikes, it’s one size fits all – and believe me, they don’t fit all. The average height for a male is around 5’9″. I’m 6’0″ – depending on how they build the bike, and they’ll probably go smaller to fit more people on it, I’d be too big to fit well on it. Take the aforementioned Beachbikes Men’s MX320, an $800 bike on the website: Decent components, looks like decent brakes and wheels, it’s an aluminum bike so it shouldn’t be too heavy… But it’s an 18″ frame with 26″ wheels – bad news if you’re 6′ tall as I ride a 19.5″ frame (and I could really mess you up by letting you know that sizes vary by manufacturers, up to a half-inch, but I won’t). Now, if that were a 29’er, I’d be fine because I know that you buy a smaller frame for a 29’er (1″-2″ depending on the manufacturer’s geometry). See where I’m going? Knowing how everything works and fits together is tricky.
If I had to guess at the query’s real intent, I’d bet it’s this: Are the $200 mountain bikes at Sears.com good bikes? The answer lies in the desired use. If you’re going to be tooling around town, 5-10 miles at a time, call it 500 miles a year, then yes they are decent enough. If you’re going to try to keep up with me on a single track with a $200, 50 pound behemoth, let’s just say you’d better have one heck of a set of legs on you – and hope you just happen to be 5’8″-5’9″.
The above is what it really comes down to. My wife and I, almost two decades ago, bought “tool around” bikes from Sears and, ignorant as I was back then, we were still happy with them. They worked just fine though mine was too small, they were heavy as all get out but did the job (in fact, I just fixed my wife’s up a few months ago and gave it to a friend who wasn’t in a position to buy a bike – it’s still going). Once I really got into cycling though, once I wanted to pound out some real miles, at speeds in excess of 20 mph, millimeters count. Having the right bike, decent pedals and components, good shoes and a light bike matter – and none of that comes cheap.
If you want to tool around and take your time, by all means go for the cheaper big box bikes and ride ’em till the wheels fall off. If, on the other hand, you find that you really enjoy the sport, prepare to drop some coin. The “investment” is well worth it.