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So, last time I bought myself a new bike was around 2004 - that was a Trek 4300 hardtail which was a mid-range model and I got it for about $300. I upgraded it with better derailleurs, disc brakes, wheels, better front fork and it had served me faithfully over thousands of miles of road trips for 7 or so years until I'd moved.

When I moved I picked up a used newer gen (2009 or so) Trek 4500 for $300, had done similar upgrades and had been pretty happy with it.

I consider myself a fairly typical MTB rider. I don't compete, I don't focus on a single discipline (like BMX or downhill), I would just leave my home with friends or kids on a sunny weekend day and do anywhere from 20 to 60 miles over mixed terrain - some asphalt, some forest roads, some hills, some trails, occasional downhill segment. I'm happy with the workout I'm getting and I'm happy with 26" wheels with semi-slick tires (slick center, grippy edges) which allow me to enjoy riding fast on paved roads and get a decent grip on muddy/gravel trails.

However, every time I step into a bike shop now, I raise my eyebrows a bit - two things surprise me greatly:

  1. It seems that you can't get a new cross-country bike from a decent brand for less than $2,000 anymore.
  2. All MTBs have single chainring now and 10 or 11 sprocket cassette in the back.

On the account of chainring - I am surprised that people settle for much lower max gear ratios in riding scenarios like mine. I read stuff like this and the authors admit that single chainring means compromising your top speed but make the argument that you shouldn't really bother. I'm not quite buying the argument - I find myself using the 3-10 combination at ~90rpm pedaling cadence every once in a while when I want to ride fast on a paved road.

The prices just surprise me - there are no more $300 MTB hardtails in bike shops (or the ones that are there are kids models or horrible no-name brands or knockoffs). I understand that a lot happened since 2004, but going from $300 to $2,000 still seems a bit steep. E.g. browsing through Trek website, I can see that Procaliber 6 is roughly similar in terms of component quality to what 4300 used to be 15 years ago, but 6x price increase seems a bit unjustified. Also, looking at the single chainring on that one - I just don't see why I would replace my good old 4500 with that.

I'm sure I'm missing something here. What was the generational shift that happened? Are people enjoying mountain biking differently these days? If I embrace the new way, dump my old 4500 in favor of Procaliber, will I experience 6x the fun? What's the deal with single chainring? Is it that much better?

To focus discussion better - let me ask just one question:

Why should I buy a new bike these days (other than the "smell of new leather")?

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    Hi, welcome to bicycles! Wow, that's actually quite a few questions. It will be hard to get a single answer to all that which could be considered "correct." It might help if you narrowed the focus of your post on a single question; you might pick either of the 6x cost increase at the same component level or the switch to a 1x setup. Feel free to ask more than one question! – DavidW Aug 6 at 19:17
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    How did you conclude that 15 year old Alivio and current Eagle are similar level components? – ojs Aug 6 at 20:48
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    What's the deal with single chainring? Is it that much better? It is so much better. Better chainring designs and clutched derailleurs hold on the to the chain much more reliably. 10T - 50T cassettes (i.e., Sram Eagle) provide nearly the same gear range without any redundant gears. – Paul H Aug 6 at 21:57
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    @PaulH your comment appeared to dismiss the need for high gears to use on roads. I've been known to ride 60 km (round trip) on road to the trails - having the gears to handle that is very helpful, along with locking out the suspension, raising the saddle, and pumping up the tyres. – Chris H Aug 7 at 16:42
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    Giant ATX2, $475. 3x7, disc brakes and 100mm travel forks, pretty much exactly the same bike as the trek 4300. $350 inflation adjusted (presuming US) is $475 (in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/2004?amount=350). – mattnz Aug 8 at 4:07
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To paraphrase the question: Why aren't there any quality hard tail mountain bikes for $300?

Wouldn't it be reasonable to expect prices to go up since 2009? None of the following examples are an endorsement. Only an attempt to point out that there are still less expensive good bikes available.

In an aluminum frame Trek has the Marlin 5 that sells for a little over $500.
It does have 29 inch tires but it does have triple chainrings and a seven speed cassette.

If steel is OK then the Trek 820 is $400. It has 26 inch wheels and triple chainrings with a seven speed cassette.

Maybe the shop you visited didn't have these bikes on the floor.
Less expensive name brand hard tails with triple chainrings do exist.

Most major brand bicycle companies define a type of bike and a price range they want to compete in. For example "road bikes in the $500 price range" would be a product slot in their lineup. In this case "mountain bikes in the $400 to $500 price range" would be a product slot. Specialized slots their less expensive mountain bikes between $600 and $750. All that to say - Trek isn't the only one with bikes in this slot.

The single chainring bikes you are seeing are the result of the increase in the number of speeds on cassettes and/or a focus on cross country or down hill riding. With as many as 12 speeds on the cassette some people have seen an opportunity to get rid of the front derailleur and simplify the bike for some types of riding.

Edit: The question shifted while I was writing my answer!
I think this answer is still relevant.

  • Thanks for the answer. I'm thinking now of evolution of gaming computers as a reference point - 15 years ago $1000 would buy you a decent gaming computer (without monitor) - not top of the line, but enough to enjoy anything that's on the market. Today $1300 (inflation-adjusted 2004 $1000) will do just the same. Completely not the case w bikes. $300-500 was mid-range in 2004. Today it's total crap - steel frames, very basic components, etc. Evolution of gaming desktops was very linear; obviously something completely different w bikes. Wonder what – Corvin Aug 6 at 21:50
  • Also - completely with you on "maybe shops didn't have less expensive bikes on the floor", - that's a possibility, esp given that I live in one of the more expensive zip codes, but they did 15 years ago! – Corvin Aug 6 at 21:59
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I'm happy with the workout I'm getting and I'm happy with 26" wheels with semi-slick tires (slick center, grippy edges) which allow me to enjoy riding fast on paved roads and get a decent grip on muddy/gravel trails

Maybe you should take a look at Gravel Bikes, there are some very nice aluminum gravel bikes for about $1K out there. There are also aluminum hardtails for less than $2k, probably not less then $1K.

My take on what has happened is the further niche-ification of the sport. Hardtails have become more focused on riding single track and less on riding dirt roads or being decent paved road bikes at all. A newer hardtail with bigger tires, run tubeless at low pressures , a 120mm fork (or bigger) and slacker angles is going to be much more fun on the descents and flowy single track.

If you are just riding trails and riding for the descents, a single ring in front with a wide range in the back makes a lot of sense. Chain suck is a thing of the past and you can swap the front shifter for a dropper post lever.

What's really wierd though is that the same evolution of suspension that happened with rigid MTB's in the 90's is starting to happen to Gravel bikes now. We are already seeing suspension stems make a comeback and custom "gravel" forks with 80-90mm of suspension will show up any day now. So wait a few years and the more all round bike you want will be a gravel bike with drop bars.

  • Trek doesn't even have such category :) It does seem that niche-fication happened. I wonder why. Isn't the typical MTB user just like me? Ie a dude who doesn't care much about owning a super-sturdy downhill machine just for downhill and another, super-light road bike just for road, but rather just wants to have a single all-around thing – Corvin Aug 6 at 21:54
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    @Corvin Trek doesn't even have such category Yes it does. trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bikes/road-bikes/gravel-bikes/c/B546 – Paul H Aug 6 at 21:59
  • Indeed. But no front suspension? Tubeless wheels? I'm not so sure about that... I wouldn't take that on smth like a multi-day ride across mixed terrain. – Corvin Aug 6 at 22:23
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    @Corvin On mixed terrain you definitely want tubeless wheels and tires. Seems like you have have some catching up to do. – Paul H Aug 7 at 15:29
  • Tubeless tires can be run at low enough pressures that they effectively become 20-25mm of suspension if you have a big enough tire. I was a tubeless hold out for a long time and now I would not use anything else dirt capable tires. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Aug 7 at 17:42
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The $300 in 2004 is roughly $414 in current money according to consumer price index. Since prices in EU include VAT, I increased the limit to €500.

For it's worth, I was able to find several entry level hardtail bikes under €500 from brands like Cube, BT'Win, Merida, etc. The specs are quite close to old Treks with aluminum frame, 100mm suspension fork, 8-speed rear, mix of A-series and house brand components and list weight just below 15kg. The main differences to 2009 seem to be 27.5" tire size, hydraulic disc brakes instead of V's and Altus or Acera instead of Alivio. Those look very similar tech level to 2009 Alivio, except for the brakes.

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It looks like you're comparing apples and gold-plated oranges and then wondering why the orange is so much more expensive.

Trek still makes the equivalent bike you have. It's the Marlin 4.

https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bikes/mountain-bikes/cross-country-mountain-bikes/marlin/marlin-4/p/21469/?colorCode=grey_red

At $480, it has gone up in price since 2009, but not unreasonably so in my opinion

That Procaliber 6 you list is a whole different class of bike. Just looking at the highlights, you can see you're in the wrong section of the store if you're looking to replace your 4500...

  • IsoSpeed decoupler: a variation on the hardtail that makes it a not-so-hard tail. It's basically a softtail with very reduced range.
  • Remote lockout: you can fiddle your suspension from your handlebars. Good luck finding that on your $500 bike
  • 1x12 drivetrain: This is a fancy new drivetrain that essentially brand new to market.

Pretty much every component on that Procaliber is nicer than that on the Marlin. Your 4500 wasn't the cream of the Trek crop when it was new either, and that's why it was cheap then and the equivalent bike is cheap now.

That said, bikes have gotten stupid expensive on the high end in an effort to convince people that can afford it that they need pro race quality equipment for their weekend rides.

So coming back to look at your points...

  1. It seems that you can't get a new cross-country bike from a decent brand for less than $2,000 anymore.
  2. All MTBs have single chainring now and 10 or 11 sprocket cassette in the back.

It seems that you just aren't looking in the right place. They make bargain priced mountain bikes with triples.

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Why aren't there any quality hard tail mountain bikes for $300?

After a quick google search, $100 back then seems to roughly equate to around $140 now which does not justify the massive price increases.

You could go out today and buy a brand new Yamaha YZF-R3 motorcycle for under $6,000 & for around $9,000 you can get a top end carbon, short travel lightweight XC-focused MTB like Nino-Schurter rides with no engine and far fewer components.

Over the years of increased demand and clever marketing, prices have increased and put simply, manufacturers will charge whatever people are prepared to pay... They'll keep hiking the prices until it hurts profits.

My carbon 29er cost me £2,000 3 years ago (which I thought was a lot!) - To get a very similar bike now would cost £4000+ which I think is just crazy. The generational shift has really picked up speed over the last few years.

There is a popular adage which says you can have any two of;

  • Cheap
  • Strong
  • Light

You do have some choices.. If you are happy with the bike you've got (which you seem to be), don't change it. Or look for a good quality second hand bike, or if you want a brand new bike go for last years model, you can get a decent discount this way.

I've also got a few friends who have bought Chinese carbon frames and built their own rigs but unfortunately the cost of components is also such that this isn't going to save you much.

Why should I buy a new bike these days (other than the "smell of new leather")?

Only you can answer that really.

  • Motorcycles is a good example, actually! I'm not much of a motorbike geek, but it seems that you could get a Yamaha YZF in 2004 for roughly the same price as today. I find it hard to believe that so much more progress has been made in MTB world than in motorcycle world. It's hard to compare bikes and mbikes directly because of the economy of scale, but still - in 2004 £4000 was getting you into top-of-the-line racing bikes and stuff like gold-plated Versace bikes. Today it's just a model in the middle of lineup. – Corvin Aug 7 at 21:43
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    It's because in 2004 rich idiots did not ride bikes. Now they do, and manufacturers are happy to take their money. – ojs Aug 7 at 22:10

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