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I am not experienced with bicycles, although I have been using them for years to get to work, as well as to go out in the countryside (dirt trails) to take nature photos.

I have used affordable B'twin bikes and I was generally happy, but after my last bicycle was stolen I am looking to step up a bit. There are countless articles on the internet suggesting not to spend too little. But I find it very difficult to find anything tangible or easy to understand about what precisely one would really get by paying more.

Take for example the Rockrider 520, 540 and 560. (I am linking the English Decathlon site so people here can read it, but I do not live in the UK.) I am looking at these: all of them are better than what I had. The price more than doubles when going from the 520 to the 560. I look at the specs, but I am unable to translate them into what I could do with the 560 that is not possible with the 520, or how the experience would be different. I am looking for help with this, especially advice that I could translate to other models as well, although it is these three that I am looking at now.

All of these are marked as:

Not suitable for XC, All Mountain, Enduro and BMX.

This restriction seems to cover all forms of mountain biking (which is puzzling) and some websites suggest to dismiss all of these bicycles from the start because of this note. However, the cheapest model from Decathlon that does not have this note is 50% more expensive, way more than what I can afford (where I live, it's actually 2x the price of the discounted 560).

To sum up:

For any bicycle I pick, it is easy to find another one that is two or four times as expensive. How can I better understand what one gets in practice for paying more? The specs often just mention components of a certain brand, but it is hard to even see which component is better, not to mention how having a better component translates into riding experience (please see the specification lists I linked).

When looking at the three choices above, my spouse asked me "Even the cheapest one is better than what you had. What would you gain by paying more than that?". And I could not answer. What I really wanted (bigger wheel, better gear range and theoretically better brakes) is indeed present in the 520 already.

As to the question "why a mountain bike", I would like to be able to go on rougher trails (rocks, roots) without too much worry. I would like to learn how to do that safely and efficiently. However, I am not young and sporty or physically skilful person. I also keep thinking that my own physical limits may be reached much before that of an expensive (for me) bicycle.

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    Of course, manufacturers get better prices on components than the rest of us do. Nevertheless, I always find it astounding that there are manufacturers that can sell bikes at 250 pounds and still make a profit. And to do so, they need to make heavy compromises with respect to component quality. – cmaster - reinstate monica Oct 14 '19 at 21:41
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    If a mountainbike is not suitable for XC, what is it supposed to bu suitable for? Just tarmac? Why do they even put a suspension fork on it if it can't do XC? Or is it just for XCM? – Vladimir F Oct 15 '19 at 7:14
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    @VladimirF They put a suspension fork on it because the general public think that bikes with suspension are cool and/or comfortable, so they sell well. – David Richerby Oct 15 '19 at 7:54
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    @Clueless My hard-tail mountainbike cost less (8 years ago though). but the manufacturer did not dare to suggest it cannot do cross-country the least technically demanding mountain bike discipline (but very physically d.). I would tend to believe that must be some error or something. Especially when they actually supply it for testing on trails! youtube.com/watch?v=DBmIttbUHy4 BTW, the video review is quite positive. – Vladimir F Oct 15 '19 at 10:58
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    @Clueless So what I fear from the disclaimer is that they fear that the bike is not solid enough and it could break in a bit of terrain so they say it is not suitable. You can do a lot of great stuff with a cheap bike. One does not need a 10 or 12 speed cassette, one often does not need full suspension (some people do!) one does not need a superlight frame - a solid metal one is good enough. I do good riding even with rim brakes. But what you do need is for the bike to be solid enough so that it does not break easily. Such disclaimer is not very comforting in this regard. – Vladimir F Oct 15 '19 at 11:14
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With so many good answers I hesitate to say anything.

But, in an effort to add something useful to the conversation...

The Value Curve
Part of the reason it's hard to understand the difference between more and less expensive bikes is that you do get what you pay for, but cost increases faster than value.

What is Value?
For the purposes of this answer I'm defining "value" as some measurable improvement.
For example, a $15 steel chain that will last 3,000 miles vs an $80.00 stainless steel chain that will last 8,000 miles (made up numbers - this is only an example)

Why is There a Curve?
The cost to manufacture increases faster than value. Each improvement cost more to manufacture than the last one.

For Example
It's easy to see a difference between a $50.00 bike and a $400.00 bike.
It's harder (not impossible) to see the difference between a $800.00 bike and an $1200.00 bike.
As price goes up it gets harder and harder to see an increase in value.

I would argue that at some price point there is no value increase and you are paying (hopefully) for craftsmanship, like extra polish or fancy lug work or exotic materials that are expensive but don't contribute to a measurable difference.

enter image description here

Suppose I agree that there is a value curve - what should I do?
There is a "sweet spot" in the curve. A place where you get the most bang for your buck. The problem is that I can't tell you exactly where that is because it changes over time and it depends on the individual's situation - finances and type of riding.
Bike shoppers have to balance their budget with the desired level of performance and decide where their sweet spot is.

Always test ride bikes before buying. Always ride more than one so you can compare.
A parking lot is not a great way to compare ride but it's much better than nothing. Bike feel matters.

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    "cost increases faster than value" -- this is one of the most important things for a consumer to understand. It's true to bikes, and nearly every other non-commodity good. Product lines and brands are designed to capture as much consumer dollar as possible; this is accomplished by providing a wide range of price points to accommodate a wide range of consumers. Price goes up quickly once you get past a basic level of quality; the seller is targeting a much smaller number of consumers, with a much larger amount of disposable income. – Peter Duniho Oct 15 '19 at 21:08
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    +1 Its important to note the value is defined by the user - a commuter values durability, a racer weight, so a commuter might get more value from a $20 steel chain over a $200 light weight titanium chain, or a 9 speed over a 12 speed. I suspect the curve starts steep - value increase quicker than cost on very cheap bikes - the sweat spot is where the curve levels out before climbing again. Only problem of finding your curve, because we all have different needs and budgets. E.g. If I win the lottery tonight, my curve changes dramatically. – mattnz Oct 16 '19 at 3:49
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    +1 for looking at the question from an economics point of view. – Criggie Oct 16 '19 at 4:05
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    Pretty much anything has a similar value curve. The cheap crap at the bottom is effectively disposable, and expensive since you'll quickly discover how bad it is at doing what it is meant for. In the middle there's a sensible spectrum of reasonable value where price and features correlate sanely and where most people will find the best value, and at the top the sky is the limit for price - expensive because you pay through the nose for prestige features that don't matter for all but the most extreme customers (if at all). – J... Oct 16 '19 at 14:01
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    The only thing I'd add to this is that you need to determine what the utility to you of a component is, because the extra cost may be paying for something you don't care about. That is, there isn't really a single value dimension, because you may value durability where I value lightness (or just durability under different conditions) – Useless Oct 16 '19 at 15:20
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Simply put, what you get by paying more is better features (more gear ratios, hydraulic brakes, better suspension), less weight, and better durability and reliability.

It's pretty obvious that stronger and lighter materials cost more. Better suspension and gear trains require more sophisticated designs with more components with lower tolerances, which cost more to design, test and manufacture.

The bikes you reference are at the bottom end of the price spectrum. These are pretty much intended for people who want a bike that looks like a mountain bike but will only be used on prepared trails. The warning is there because they are not durable enough for real trail use, and the manufacturer won't be liable if a bike fails and someone gets hurt.

At the price point you are looking at, you certainly will get a better bike if you pay more. It will be lighter, it will shift gears and stop better, and it will run more smoothly on rough trails. Like you said, there is always a better bike, more expensive bike. What you need to do is determine what riding you are realistically going to do and if these bikes are going to be suitable. If they are, then you are OK.

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    You failed to mention sex. To the aficionado, the more expensive bike is usually sexier. – Daniel R Hicks Oct 14 '19 at 21:10
  • You also failed to mention carbon wheels. – Weiwen Ng Oct 15 '19 at 1:53
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    @WeiwenNg I just listed a few examples, I'm not providing a comprehensive list of technologies or upgrades – Argenti Apparatus Oct 15 '19 at 1:56
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    "durability" is a two-edged point. Pros might train on Ultegra because while manufacturered the same way as Dura Ace, the equivalent Ultegra part is slightly heavier and as a consequence more long-lasting. Some of the nastiest chainrings out there are made of steel, which will outlast most of the rest of the bike wheras more expensive+lighter will last a far shorter time. – Criggie Oct 15 '19 at 3:52
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    Lower tolerances. – d-b Oct 15 '19 at 18:36
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Let's compare the specific bikes you linked: the XC 100 to the 560. The language used on the product page is quite different, because they're targeting a different audience, but we need to scroll down to see the concrete differences:

  • The more expensive XC 100 is roughly one kilogramme lighter. That's a bit less than a 10% weight saving, but other things being equal, lighter is generally more expensive
  • the XC 100 lists two distinct aluminium alloys used in its frame. Whether or not we care about the fine metallurgical differences, it's going to be more expensive to manufacture
  • the XC 100 comes with the SRAM NX EAGLE groupset, and the 560 with the SRAM X5. That's easily a USD200 difference at list price

There are lots of small finishing kit changes as well (different bars, seatpost, grips, saddle etc.) which aren't listed in enough detail to compare. Generally though, the less expensive bike will have less expensive finishing kit too. Whether it is actually worse for your purposes, or less durable, is however debatable.

The 560 does have a review from someone whose chainstay cracked; this part of the frame is likely the stronger and more expensive Al 6013 alloy on the XC 100.

Now, whether you want the stronger rear triangle, the ~1Kg weight saving or the more expensive groupset, and whether they're worth the price difference to you - well, that's up to you.

Navigating rougher trails is not necessarily the same as throwing your bike around them at speed, and the 560 (which seems more accurately described as a mountain bike-styled tourer) may be fine if you keep the impact forces down.

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The difference is the same as with any other consumer good like a knife, a blue jeans or a TV set:

  • When it is new it usually looks and feels good.
  • Expensive ones still feel good next year.
  • Even the cheapest TV will still show you all programs in color, even the cheapest jeans will cover your behind, and even the cheapest knife will cut your bread. But will it be fun?
  • You can spend almost unlimited money if you want to (and have it).
  • The benefit from paying more is roughly logarithmic.
  • You are less likely to be disappointed with an expensive model, and it will probably last longer.
  • Brand names cost extra.
  • It is often unclear what you are buying for more money, except the social signal that you spent money.

Specifically for bicycles others mentioned already that precision and material improve with higher prices, leading to lower weight, smoother operation and perhaps a longer life. In my experience the "longer life" improvements level off as soon as you are out of Walmart: I bough two bikes in 2001 for ca. $700 and $1400; they hold up equally well.

Additionally in some places more elaborate designs are possible which

  • improve maintainability (screwed, nor crimped)
  • extend maintenance intervals (better seals in bearings)
  • on occasion improve operation (Shimano parallelogram V-brakes).

For really cheap parts maintainability is not important from a money standpoint because you simply buy a new part (e.g. a complete crank set including three inseparable chainrings for the price of a single high-quality chainring).

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    I really like this answer, the only bit I disagree with is "You are less likely to be disappointed with an expensive model". For very cheap bikes $100-200 im usually thinking "wow, I rode this 20 miles and nothing fell off" while more expensive ones i'm usually a little disappointed that dropping $5000 doesn't actually doesnt feel 20x better in any reasonable sense. – Vality Oct 15 '19 at 21:52
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    @Vality Lol :-) – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 16 '19 at 5:50
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    Just recently I saw a video of a bike pro who was testing a Walmart bike (50 or 80 USD? or maybe it was 150? - that range anyway) and the verdict was that the bike is good. It survived trips which I would never even think about taking. – WoJ Oct 17 '19 at 12:49
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All of these are very good answers to your exact question. But lets not forget the reason you are buying a new bike. Your old one got stolen. A cheap and an expensive bike can both be just as easily stolen. As OP pays more for a new bike, the risk of having the bike stolen goes up. While it is very important to make the considerations you are for a better bike, may I please recommend you upgrade your storage/security method before upgrading your bike. While not an actual component of the bike itself, I challenge you to consider the cost of security included in the cost of the bike.

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    Hi, welcome to bicycles. While yes, the risk of theft may be a consideration when buying a new bike, that wasn't what the question was about. The question was just asking what value a higher-priced bicycle has. – DavidW Oct 16 '19 at 15:05
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    @DavidW What exactly is the "value" of an expensive bike that you can't ride, because somebody stole it? Exactly the same value as a cheap bike that you can't ride because something just broke. Well, actually the cheap broken bike has more value, because you can mend it. – alephzero Oct 17 '19 at 0:34
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    To restate your words "As OP pays more for a new bike, the risk of having the bike stolen goes up." – Criggie Oct 17 '19 at 7:23
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    @DavidW Understood. Thanks for the clarification on this SE culture. The OP stated they had their last bike stolen. It seemed prudent to mention the money spent on a better bike might be better used for increased security on a lower cost bike. – Jammin4CO Oct 17 '19 at 16:46
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There are many things that cause the price to increase and give the rider a better experience.

Frame - more expensive frames will generally be lighter, transfer power better, and provide some small bump compliance to smooth the ride.

Suspension - The suspension components will be more sophisticated with more options to tune for the rider. This can range from lighter materials to special stanchion coatings (makes the suspension travel smoother), to multi setting dampers.

Gears - Again, lighter materials can be used. You can have more gears, or a wider range of gears. They will shift better when applying power, and have improvements (such as a clutch mech) to avoid dropping the chain on rough terrain.

Brakes - Better brakes offer improved stopping power (useful on very steep trails), improved modulation, and on XC models ligher weight.

Wheels - Wheels can become lighter, stiffer and stronger. They can also provide tubeless compatibility.

Tyres - More expensive tyres will typically have some combination of: lighter, more grip, faster rolling, improved puncture resistance.

Seatpost - On more expensive models you are likely to find a carbon seatpost to offer some comfort via flex OR a dropper seatpost for improved confidence in technical terrain.

On a purely personal side note, I would never recommend buying a new mountain bike without tubeless compatible rims (even for a beginner). They really transform how a mountain bike behaves, and i'd rather have a cheaper bike with tubeless wheels/tyres than a more expensive bike without

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The rational answer to your question is quite straightforward: check the average price of each component and this price is roughly proportional to manufacturing cost. You will have then four broad categories:

  • Cheap components are heavy, but nowadays they will do the job, although they may need maintenance often, and maintenance may not be straightforward due to poor design;
  • not so cheap components generally are lighter and sturdier, they will do the job and maintenance will not be needed so often;
  • expensive components, even lighter and very reliable;
  • wildly expensive components, super light, reliability may be an issue, requiring expensive (time- and money-wise) maintenance.

But instead of doing this time-consuming internet surfing process, I recommend you to visit the nearest, biggest Decathlon: they usually have a small park to test the different bicycles. Start with the 560, then test the very expensive mountain bike, then finally go testing the 520. And back to the 560.

You will have a definite feeling of what are the differences among them, and you will discover if they fits you. Given the info you gave about yourself, I tend to think that a 520 will be perfect for you, with only one "major" upgrade: change the handlebar grips, they can improve massively the feeling of the bicycle.

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    Testing is surely good advice. I'm curious though whether the handling is so obviously different that it's palpable on a short test track. I hope the OP will report back to us ;-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 15 '19 at 12:53
  • @PeterA.Schneider My hidden take is that you should buy a good, expensive bike only after you mastered a cheap bike. But the cheap bike should be "enough" to do the job (so the doubt between 520 and 560). I also think that on the Decathlon trail an unexperienced mountain biker will see no big difference, between a basic hardtail and a decent mtb ... – EarlGrey Oct 16 '19 at 21:26
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I wanted to add another point of view - your personal enjoyment / usage of the bike.

As I was in the same predicament a few years ago, I decided to get something that is cheaper but I can improve over time if needed. In the lower/mid-end bikes, there will always be compromises - you might get great breaks but a terrible fork and etc. so it's important to choose the things that are important to you.

You know what kind of riding you do, so when picking a bike research the options that will benefit your enjoyment of the bike. For example, I hated the groupset my bike came with. I loved riding my bike, but after switching to SRAM's NX (1x11) I can honestly say I enjoy my rides at least 20% more. There are other parts that I don't care for and won't swap with better ones, because it doesn't make my ride more fun/reliable.

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