walmart bike price tag

Most cyclists scoff at big box bikes. You know, bikes from a department store. Wal-Mart bikes. Not without good reason – the bikes are low quality and often dangerous.

That said, I’ve had cyclists write in really really excited to be riding their bike, even if it’s a Schwinn from Wal-Mart. (I know the feeling – I grew up riding bikes from department stores. My first mountain bike rides were on a Murray with 24″ wheels. My first BMX bike was a “Walgoose” – a Mongoose from Wal-Mart.)

As much as I’d like to get these people onto better bikes, I know that’s not always an option. So if you have to stick with what you have and upgrade a little bit at a time, here’s how to do it.

Cost-Conscious Upgrades

Other times where I’ve written about upgrading your mountain bike (or upgrading your road bike), that’s assuming you purchased the bike from a bike shop. Or maybe you purchased a used bike, but if you did, it was a quality bike with a strong, lightweight frame, and it fit you correctly.

Those were situations where it was worth sinking money into the bike.

You would be keeping it for years. It might even have a high resale value.

This is different. If you have a big box bike, you’ll want to be very cost-conscious with your upgrades. (Because the best value would just be to save up your money for a better bike.)

You have to realize that these bikes are typically not meant to be upgraded. Don’t expect Walmart to stock replacement parts. And there isn’t always compatibility with aftermarket parts.

But if you can only afford a little at a time, and can’t get a bike shop bike, there are some things you can do.

Here are some upgrades to consider (in order of importance):

The Seat

Anytime we talk about upgrading parts on a new bike, the first thing to go is always the seat. Whether you’re on a $100 bike or a $1000 bike, the included seat is the first thing to go.

Installing a more comfortable seat is an instant improvement in how much you enjoy cycling.

The catch is that this is personal preference, and it’s hard to find the perfect one. Often, cyclists might spend many hundreds of dollars on seats before they find a good one!

(Lightweight racing saddles with carbon fiber or titanium rails could easily cost over $150, so it’s no wonder the costs add up.)

Fortunately, just about any aftermarket seat with some cushioning will be better than what came on your bike in the first place.

One of the most popular choices is the Planet Bike Men’s A.R.S. Anatomic Relief Bicycle Saddle. This seat costs just $26 and it comes from a legit company, not some random Chinese seller on Amazon.

If you have your eye on performance, WTB saddles are generally comfortable and popular (i.e. compatible with a wide range of butts).

The WTB Speed Saddle can be found for under $40. (Check price on Amazon.)

If you’re looking to spend as little as possible, this seat costs less than $15. (Check price on Amazon.)

Pedals

Can’t seem to keep your feet on the pedals?

Your bike probably has solid plastic pedals. These provide little grip when dry… and absolutely no grip when wet.

If money is super tight, try to glue some grip tape on them (you might even get free remnants from a skateboard shop). But new pedals are so much better and worth the investment.

Try some Fooker pedals – they’re only $21 and come in seven different colors!

These are made from a nylon/plastic/composite material, but they have metal pins that provide lots of grip. Your shoes will stick to them.

They’re a knockoff of the RaceFace Chester (a $50 pedal), but look to be pretty nice.

Tires and Tubes

The stock tires on your bike will be extremely durable. They’re made with such hard rubber that the sidewalls will probably rot away before the tread wears out! (And depending on your climate, that could take decades.)

The problem with this type of tire is that the ride feel and handling will suffer.

To improve the comfort of your ride, and to get better traction for more spirited riding, consider new tires. Better tires are more supple and provide more traction, so you feel more confident when cornering.

My suggestion here is not for a specific tire, but rather, find something on clearance from an online bicycle retailer like JensonUSA. Just filter by whatever size you need – 26, 27.5, or 29 – and then sort by lowest price.

If you look hard enough, often enough, you can find good quality tires for $5-10 (that will be miles better than a $10 tire from a department store).

We’re talking tires that are normally $30-70 each, on sale for $10 each!

Adding a higher quality inner tube can also improve the ride quality. They’re more supple and allow your tires to perform at their best. So consider ordering a new set whenever you find new tires.

(And while you’re at it, add talcum powder inside your tires, to help prevent pinch flats.)

Handlebar

Most modern bikes from bike shops come with a 720-800 mm wide handlebar. However, at a department store, the bikes probably still come with something like a 600mm wide bar. That’s a full 6″ narrower!

Why upgrade to a wider handlebar?

Wider bars offer better control and more stability. Usually the change makes it feel like you’re riding a whole new bike!

That’s in addition to more comfort and better ergonomics for your upper body.

So measure your bike’s handlebar. If it’s narrower than 680 mm (about 27″), consider getting a wider one.

You don’t need anything fancy. It just has to be wider.

There are a couple popular options on Amazon: the Wake handlebar (about $20) and the Jessica handlebar (about $27).

Just be careful of a couple things… First, you have to get a handlebar that matches the clamp diameter of your stem. See, modern bikes will have a 31.8mm or 35mm handlebar and stem. But some cheap bikes might still have a 25.4mm diameter handlebar.

Unfortunately, you can’t really find a good 25.4mm handlebar anymore. So what you’ll have to do is replace both your handlebar and stem. Stems aren’t that expensive ($10-15), but at the same time, a new stem doesn’t really improve your bike (aside from allowing you to run a modern handlebar).

Second, make sure your cables are long enough. Because you will have a wider handlebar, your brake levers and shifters will have to move further away from the bike. And sometimes, your cables might not allow for this. But you can test this in advance.

Just remove the grips, loosen the brake and shift levers, and slide each one a few inches toward the ends of the handlebar. If you can move them that far out (and tighten them down in the new positions), and there’s still a proper amount of slack in your cables when you turn the bar side to side, you’ll be fine with a new handlebar.

Grips

Grips are another personal preference item. But, your stock grips are probably hard and uncomfortable. Perhaps even to the point that wearing gloves doesn’t help.

If that’s the case, consider replacing your grips.

Pro tip: replace your grips at the same time as you replace your handlebar.

There are plenty of good ones available under $15. Some of my favorites are Oury and ESI.


The Suspension Fork

At this point, you’ve upgraded most of the small parts and accessories on your bike. That’s as far as most people will go. But if you’re still riding the same bike, and tackling slightly rougher trails, you may decide to upgrade to a better suspension fork.

If you’re riding dirt roads and the fork just bounces up and down, rather than smoothing out the bumps, it’s time to replace it.

Sometimes you can find a new fork for $100. It won’t be great, but it will be better than what you have now!

Some things you need to know when shopping for a fork:

  • Wheel size (26, 27.5, or 29″)
  • Axle type (quick release, thru axle)
  • Brake type (rim or disc)
  • Head tube size (most likely 1 1/8″)
  • Suspension travel (probably 80mm)

You need to get a fork that matches your bike’s wheel size, axle type, and headtube size, and is compatible with the brakes you have. You’ll want the suspension travel to be similar; it doesn’t have to be exact.

Availability varies. About the only legitimate brand of fork that can be purchased new for anywhere near $100 is SR Suntour. (Check SR Suntour prices on Amazon.)

If you have the money, the RockShox Recon Silver TK is an excellent fork. It has some fancy features and it’s available in nearly every size you could be looking for. (It would be an upgrade for basically any bike that retailed at $600 or under.) This one retails at $249-289, and you’ll probably have to order it through a bike shop.

Learn more at sram.com.

Also, you should know that this replacement requires both bike repair skills and bike tools. You’re going to need to cut the steerer tube to the proper length for your bike.

Wheels

A new set of wheels can totally transform your bike. They’ll be lighter – and therefore faster – so you’ll be able to ride faster, over longer distances, instantly. Your bike may feel more maneuverable on tricky trails, too.

The bearings will spin smoother for improved ride quality, and the wheels are probably more durable, despite being lighter.

Wheels aren’t cheap though. Most aftermarket wheelsets cost at least $300.

So what you need to do is look for sales, closeouts, extras, things like that. The times when stores will sell wheels for their wholesale cost. You can find a quality wheelset for $150-250.

Sometimes you might even find a package deal with wheels, tires, and tubes!

Here are a couple on Amazon right now:

This wheelset for under $200.

This wheelset for under $170.

(There are quite a few wheelsets to choose from in this price range.)

 

Decide which parts are important for your bike and start making those upgrades!

It will be lighter, faster, and more comfortable before you know it. And you’ll be hooked on mountain biking.

(But first… if you haven’t given your bike a tune-up that included fresh grease and chain lube, do that right away.)

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