We here at MBT are just like you. We get excited over uber-expensive custom boutique bikes and max out credit cards just to feed our single-track addiction. When times get tough, we hang onto bikes and run them into the ground. In fact at last check nothing in our editors’ private stables was newer than 2008.
So when we get emails from readers asking why the press always bags on affordable department store mountain bikes, we understand the appeal. From afar it can difficult, sometimes impossible, to differentiate a department store cheapie from a legitimate mountain bike and when the difference in price can something like $150 for the former to $3,500 for the latter, we are all too familiar with the temptation.
Rather than simply preach that buying a department store bicycle is a bad idea, we decided to put our money where our proverbial mouth is. And since no manufacturer of the big brand bike lines was willing to provide us with a sample bike for testing purpose, we literally had to put up or shut up. We did a little shopping and decided upon the Next Parowan 26” men’s mountain bike for two primary reasons: 1) It was $75 out the door and 2) A lack of suspension should have resulted in less weight (and when it comes to bikes this heavy, every ounce counts).
One of the biggest complaints we hear about department store bicycles is that they are assembled by the same guy who stocks the shelves, works the cash register and collects carts. As such components are often installed incorrectly, to the wrong torque spec, and in worst-case scenarios, destined to fail nearly immediately- we’ve all heard the horror stories!
To eliminate such concerns, we opted for a brand new boxed bike to be assembled by our own mechanics to eliminate one very important variable.
Assembly was surprisingly tricky due in no small part to the fact that many of the technologies found on this bike are quite antiquated when compared to modern bike standards. There isn’t a single quick release to be found and inferior steel results in bolts that round off with minimal torque.
Despite several hours of tinkering we were quite unable to get the front brakes to function properly due to insufficient delta resistance on the side-pull caliper brake.
Suspension or not, this steel bicycle is a behemoth. Our model came in at a hair under 40-pounds despite very lightweight/ low-grade pedals, plastic levers and shifter pods, and absolutely no frills.
A Gisu15-speed drive train (3x5) makes acceleration less of a chore than we suspected given the bike’s weight. Off-road the combination of a portly frame, narrow tires, no suspension and a fairly narrow range of gears to chose from results in a pretty miserable experience. Surprisingly, after a few sessions across a favorite loop, we experienced no equipment failures on the Next though every tester reported feeling absolutely drained in a matter of minutes. Finding flow is extremely difficult with the anchor-like sensation of the bike resisting your every crank rotation.
On pavement the Next faired a bit better. The dead-weight sensation that plagued the bike constantly in the dirt was offset slightly by the ability of the bike to roll over pavement. Getting off the cranks, even for a moment, does result in significant speed reduction but the fairly thin tire contact patch, non aggressive tread pattern and road-bike componentry does seem to favor asphalt over dirt!
However in either condition, flex in the pedals and thin crank arms offsets whatever responsiveness we hoped to gain in selecting a rigid bike.
About the biggest complaint is the lack of adjustability in the size of the bike. While the box claims it is an oversized men’s frame (don’t forget 26” refers only to the bike’s wheel size), the frame is surprisingly stubby and off geometrically. The integrated stem takes bar adjustment out of the equation and despite a full-length seat-stay, the seat tube is extremely short, offering roughly 3-inches of adjustment.
We decided to take our chances to offer a little fuller leg rotation by clamping the seat post a few centimeters below the minimum mounting line but ended up losing the seat after a few quick runs.
In all honesty this test wasn’t the proverbial train-wreck we expected it to be. In very limited paved bike trail/ road use, the Next Parowan could be pressed into duty. The weight of the bike is constant detractor in any conditions but absolutely destroys any real off-road potential (in the event that the rigid frame, non-functioning front brake, and road-bike gearing weren’t deterrents enough).
We were able to extrapolate a tiny bit of charm in remembering that heavy, steel rigids were technically the first mountain bikes to exist and once in a great while, a flat, one-footed slide without the luxury of brakes can really inspire mental images of blasting down Mount Tam on a Klunker.
However, all it takes is a missed shift from the pitiful plastic shifter-lever or a pedal that flexes so badly with each crank rotation that the arch of your foot cramps up even through a cycling shoe, to be reminded that mountain bikes have come a long way in the past 30-years. Nostalgia has its merits but this bike manages to capture only the moments of the pioneering days best left to the recesses of memory.
As we’ve been noticing bending and deformation of the components even with proper use and professional mechanic care, the very prospect of a crash on this bike terrifies us to no end. After three weeks of testing, the entire experience can be summarized in a single word: “Next!”