They came into the bike shop, bright-eyed and excited. There were three of them, all high schoolers. They had that grungy, outdoor smell of boys enjoying the last years of freedom before adulthood would take over and clean them up into society’s perfect little mold.
They had recently decided to ride the MS150. Not that they knew anyone who had MS… it was that idea of riding 100 miles in one day that had sucked them in.
So much adventure.
Their ride of choice? The GMC Denali.
Which makes sense. Back then you could buy them at Walmart for just over $100 (this was nearly a decade ago, now.) The price point made it an ideal purchase for high schoolers.
The students were having difficulty getting it to shift and wondered if we could give it a quick tune up.
It was my first real experience with the bike.
An Over-Ambitious Bike
The bike was maddening to work with.
To begin with, it was a solid 10 pounds heavier than anything in our bike store. Now weight isn’t something I tend to be snobby about, but 10 lbs (5-ish kilograms) can easily add 10+ minutes to your climb on a hill.
(It also makes it harder to lift the bike into the repair stand. But’s that’s just me whining.)
Immediately after putting the bike on the repair stand we noticed that the brakes were too loose and offered little stopping ability. Typically, we charge for this repair, but when it is a clear safety hazard like brakes, it makes sense to ignore costs and try to increase the rider’s safety.
So we decided to tighten them
The problem was, the brakes would flex under pressure. So if you tightened them too much, they might seize after a hard braking.
The result was that these students went out the door with brakes that were much less safe than any of us would have liked.
And then we worked on their gears.
But, just like the brakes, they were made from lighter-weight metals that flexed. So one moment it might shift perfectly and then horribly the next moment.
We made some improvements, but the bike just wasn’t built well enough to deliver the results we wanted. Furthermore, the bike did not fit them well.
I don’t like to be a bike shop snob, but I encouraged the boys to return the bike and used their money on a used bike.
A Discouraging Bike
The challenge with a bike like this is that the rider quickly outstrips the bike’s ability.
You get a new cyclist who is excited about getting in shape. But this bike has un-reinforced wheels. So the first major pothole they hit bends the wheel.
Now the cyclist feels fat-shamed by their bike.
If the cyclist makes it past their first pothole, then they are going to have to climb a hill. Hills are discouraging. They’ll make veteran riders want to quit. Adding an additional 10 pounds on your bike is counter-productive when it comes to encouraging riders to stay with the sport.
And then you have those brakes and gears. They just seem to never work consistently, no matter how much you adjust them. Which means that they slip and pop and give you fits when need them the most — like when you are climbing a hill.
When you are a new rider, you don’t know that “bad equipment” exists.
So you blame yourself “I’m too old.” “I’m too fat.”
Or you blame the sport “It’s too hard.”
In reality, neither is the case. You just pushed the bike beyond it’s capabilities.
In our bike store, if something goes wrong, you can bring it back and yell at the guy who sold it to you.
With big, impersonal stores, you can just park it at the customer service desk, get a refund and walk away from cycling.
Which I see happen all too frequently.
The Dream Crusher
These boys made it to their first MS150. It was a rainy day of riding which is hard for anyone, but they charged out of the gates, confident and happy.
They passed me around the 60-mile mark in the back of a support pickup. Their sad, rain-soaked faces told a story of frustration and failure. A Denali hung out of the back of the truck with a bent wheel.
It was just too much. At the next rest stop, they loaded onto a shuttle and headed back to the hotel.
What could have been an exciting, life-changing event, turned into a frustrating story of fighting hills and aching backs from a poor bike fit.
At least they’ll have a story to commiserate over as they turn back to video games for their entertainment.
Good Points For The GMC Denali
The price is one of the biggest benefits of the Denali. For the rider trying to get riding while on a tight budget, this bike can mean the difference of riding… or not.
And I’m all for getting people riding!
I have a lot of respect for GMC Denali in this regard. So many of their competitors (including Schwinn!) only offers one bike size.
Last time I checked, we humans come in a wide array of sizing.
Now, based on my research, it looks like they may have ended the manufacturing of the Extra-Large size (and possibly the extra small, also). But they still offer the Small, Medium and Large sizing options.
Here is a down and dirty Sizing chart. (Click here for an in-depth discussion on bike sizing)
- Small – 5’4″ to 5’9″
- Medium – 5’10” to 6’1″
- Large – 6’0″ to 6’4″
Can I put these between “good and bad?” Very mediocre. It’s difficult for me to get them adjusted to where they will shift consistently.
I’ve also had to replace a lot of them.
However, every shifter I have replaced has been over 2 years old. And two years is a pretty good time frame. You can get a lot of riding done in 2 years.
Bad Points For The GMC Denali
I’m probably the only bike review blog that isn’t jumping up and down with happiness. And maybe I’m too cynical.
When you do a Google search for “GMC Denali Bike Replacement”, one of the top suggests is “rear wheel replacement”.
Because this bike only has a single-walled rear wheel, it tends to be a major weak point for this bike. So definitely ride gingerly when going over bumps.
It’s a good habit to get off the seat anytime you go over a bump — no matter what bike you are on. Shifting your weight forward spreads your weight between the wheels. And that can do a lot to protect the wheels.
The good news is, almost any local bike shop carries the replacement wheels (and the specialized tools needed to transfer the gears over).
As I alluded to earlier, this bike is quite heavy. I haven’t weighed a recent model, but I always inwardly groan when I have to lift one of these.
If you do a lot of commuting where you have to get on and off a bus, you’ll likely come to curse the weight.
And the bike will move more slowly when riding.
We often get asked “well can’t I just upgrade the parts on the bike later?”
And I understand the question. I often buy what I can afford and then upgrade as I go along.
The downside with this model is that a lot of the parts are not forward compatible. And, even if you upgrade every single part, you still have a fairly heavy bike frame to work with.
The tires it comes with are pretty low-quality. They work just fine, but if you could upgrade to new tires in the 700x25c size, you’ll find them to be a lot faster.
This one change can make any bike feel better.
I like the 25c width over the 23c width for added puncture resistance. But a lot of people go on down to the 23c to squeeze every bit of speed possible.
This is a fun upgrade. The Shimano A050 thumb shifters are something we are seeing a lot of, and they work extremely well on this type of setup. You’ll mount them on the top of the handlebars very similarly to how the current Revo shifters are mounted.
If you are handy with Youtube, it’s the kind of install you could probably pull off yourself.
In my experience, the A050’s give you a much more positive shifting experience. They click solidly and offer consistent shifting.
Right out of the box, you will likely need to tighten these bad boys. Keep that in mind.. there’s a lot of horror stories of folks going for their first ride and discovering the brakes weren’t adjusted.
By the end of your first season, you will probably be interested in a new pair of brake calipers. If you’ve already adjusted the brake cables once, it shouldn’t be too hard to put new ones on.
Finding double-walled wheels that are compatible with these freewheel gears is actually challenging. So ride these wheels until they get too bent to ride any further.
Your bike shop may be able to “re true” them several times before you get to that point.
Then, talk to your local shop about ordering in a double-walled rim. But, ideally, you will have several seasons of riding under your belt by then and can decide if it might be worth investing in an entire bike upgrade.
How To Adjust The Handlebar
The handlebar that it comes with is one of the modern, non-adjustable types.
The trick with an adjustable stem is two-fold:
- You need to make sure to get it on tight enough. Losing control of your bike at 15 miles per hour sucks something serious (ask me how I know!)
- You need to make sure you don’t stretch any of the cables too tightly. Otherwise, the brakes and shifters don’t work right.
I’m pretty sure that this is a 25.4 mm handlebar diameter. So this 85mm long stem should work pretty well to adjust you upright without stretching the cables too badly
Conclusion: Who The Denali Is Good For
If you are under 200 pounds and plan on riding less than 30 miles a week, this bike could get you around. It’s still an incredibly heavy bicycle, so if you have hills, you might be walking, anyhow.
Keep in mind that repairs can be expensive. It doesn’t take many of those parts to add up and make you wish you had invested in a better ride.
An Excellent, Yet Cheap, Alternative
I get what Denali (or is it GMC?) is trying to do. They seek to meet a price point. I have to applaud that.
However, there are some options that could meet your needs better.
The first thing — as always — is to make sure that they bike you are buying fits you well. Click here for our bike sizing guide (opens in a new window)
My family and I have had excellent success buying local. Once you know your size, Craigslist can be a solid resource for finding these bikes.
At a minimum, you typically pay 60% or less of sticker price. Finding a $600 bike for $300 is not uncommon on the used market. And then you get a lighter machine with parts designed to last a lifetime of riding.
For those of you shopping online, the 21-speed Vilano is an excellent choice.
Also Read: Dave’s Top 5 Best Cheap Road Bikes
Granted it is missing the “integrated shifters” (one of the coolest features of today’s modern road bike), but you are getting everything else you need. But the A050 shifters — in my experience — have less slop in them
The frame is quite light, and the entire bike comes in around the 24-pound mark. While this can still add a little bit of time on your climbs, it should be about 5 minutes faster on longer climbs than a bike that is 5 minutes heavier.
The wheels are double-walled. Which means that even if you need to lose some weight, they may survive if you hit a few potholes on your weight loss journey. Because of the replacement costs of new wheels, this is a tremendous value on your initial purchase.
Finally, these bikes come in 3 sizes (Remember, the GMC Denali does as well!). So you can get one that fits you and hopefully avoids the permanent knee and back pain that can result from riding the wrong size.
The GMC Denali has been around for a long time. It has helped a lot of people start riding.
But I worry that it has discouraged an equal amount of riders.
The Vilano is a newer competitor and seems to offer an excellent alternative.
One More Option…
The Schwinn Phocus 1400 is another excellent beginner road bike model that almost made this list. In fact, I love the Phocus’ brakes much more than I like either this Vilano or the GMC Denali’s model. However the Phocus does not have the reinforced rims of this Vilano model, nor does it have multiple sizing options. However, if you are under 200 pounds and between 5’6″ and 5’11”, it might be another option. You can click here to read my review.