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Finding an affordable mountain bike can be really tricky. After all, you are likely going to take this bike off-road and it is going to need to withstand rocks, washouts, mud, and logs without breaking.
There is nothing more frustrating than having your bike frame snap when you are 5 miles from the trailhead. I should know, I’ve had to carry a bike out before.
Many discount-priced bikes cut too many corners and deliver a “bike imitation” that looks good, but breaks after only a few rides.
My goal is to steer you past these imitators and help you get the best value.
The Best Cheap Mountain Bikes (Comparison)
Name Shock Travel Wheel Size Synopsis Button Diamondback Hard Tail Sun tour XCM 120mm 27.5" Need to keep up with your millionaire friends? This bike will let you race past them on a fraction of the budget. Diamondback Overdrive 29'er SR Suntour XCT 80mm
29″ Over 5'9"? You are going to love the faster speeds and greater control that comes with a 29" wheel. Gravity 29er Suntour XCT 100mm w/ lockout 29″ Well-equipped for off-road use. Upgradeable. Lockout shock makes this bike ideal for urban use. The beefy 160 mm disc brake rotor offers better stopping power than most in this class. s Nashbar AT1 FORK ZOOM 100mm 27.5″ Your wallet won't even notice that you've bought this baby. Your teeth will, as you eat mud weekend after weekend. Wipe that muddy grin and get pedalling. Affordable repairs. Upgradeable. Vilano Ridge 1.0 Vilano 75mm 26″ A well-built bike that leans towards urban use, but will handle the off-road when required. Parts are extremely affordable to replace.
Most of the bikes on this list are going to have double-wall, reinforced wheels to handle the hits and and potholes of off-road mountain biking. Those same attributes that make these bikes Ideal for off-road use translate directly into aggressive urban performance for stair descents and curb jumping.
If you are serious about urban riding, look at investing in less knobby tires, also known as “slicks”. They make you significantly faster on asphalt.
Diamondback Hook Hard Tail Mountain Bike
This isn’t your “cheap” mountain bike. So if that’s what you are here for, you might want to run down to the next one on our list.
However, if VALUE if something that catches your eye, you might want to pull out that credit card and get a closer look at this guy.
Bike companies — like most other companies — exist to make money. So when they design a bike they barter with all of the parts manufacturers to see who will give them a good deal. And, every year, there is at least one model that seems to be a much better deal for the money than all the other bikes.
For 2018, that bike is the Hook Hard Tail
What I love most is the frame. The lines are very sleek and rugged — this machine looks like it’s just raring to go off-road. The extra-large downtube allows them to use a more light-weight metal configurations without sacrificing any frame strength. And the end result is a bike that is perfectly balanced, ascends like an angel and shreds corners like a demon.
The single front sprocket is something we are seeing a lot more of on high-end bikes. It prevents a lot of chain slap, mis-shifts and provides one less opportunity for failure. Plus, it is so much easier to clean after a sticky day of riding. You get 8 gears in the rear and the Sram x3 is one of the fastest-shifting systems I’ve ever ridden in this price range.
No modern mountain bike would be complete without front shocks. The name-brand SunTour shocks with 120 mm ( approx 4.7″) of travel. It’s a brutal setup that you could take anywhere.
Finally, you know what a manic I am about wheelsets. This one is s 27.5″, so that means plenty of speed without sacrificing roll-over ability. But they are also durable for your off-road craziness.
The only thing I wish is that it had hydraulic brakes. The mechanical brakes are good, but there’s something about the stopping power of Hydraulics that are really attractive. However, hydraulics are a lot harder for the average rider to maintain at home. So mechanical brakes will probably save you money in the long run.
Pros: Built for hardcore, off-road riding. Single chainrings allows faster shifting with significantly less maintenance.
Cons: Mechanical instead of hydraulic brakes. Single chainring is limiting for heavy or out-of-shape riders.
Diamondback bikes are consistently some of the top performers out there. They provide value where it is most needed and upgrade the components that are most likely to have problems, thus creating a complete package that has it where it counts.
This 29″ bike is one of my favorites. For the price, you are going to have a hard time finding a better spec. If you like the looks of the Hook Hard tail, but you’d rather have 29″ wheels and don’t want to spend as much, this is going to be your best bet.
Aluminum Frame: The frame on a mountain bike is critical. I’ve seen poorly made frames shear in half due to poor construction. With the Overdrive frame, you are getting top-notch 6061-T6 aluminum which is the best when it comes to lightness, durability, and price. Diamondback knows bike frames, they have a consistent build quality and I like this one.
Double Walled Rims: A lot of the competition tries to get away with bottom-dollar wheelsets. This bike uses a double-walled, reinforced rim. Basically, this is a wheel that has two layers of metal for greater strength. That way you bend your rim on the first curb that you hop. This also helps make the bike more suitable for heavier persons who need reinforced components.
Top-notch gears: This bike setup uses the Shimano Altus. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to go with any lower tiered products for serious riding, and as soon as you get $40 saved up, run down to your local bike shop and by the next level up. But for the price, I’m not going to gripe. The component setup on this bike is going to last you until you decide to wrap yourself around a tree. (Even then, they should take minimal damage). The disc brakes are especially nice to have at this price-point and these are a high enough quality that they won’t be getting bent or causing all those other problems folks hate about discs.
This is the Best Mountain Bike For The Heavy Rider
It’s a shame, but those of us trying to get in shape on a budget keep running into a weight limit on these bikes. If you are over 300 pounds, you should go for the Overdrive. It has enough robust features built into its design that you won’t have to constantly deal with it breaking as you workout.
This bike is designed to go off-road. It’s going to be excellent for single track riding and should even handle some pretty rough riding.
Just act fast, these are going to move quickly during the summer. Diamondback is now shipping all of these bikes as “ReadyRide” which just means that you pretty much slap on the wheels and handlebars, air up the tires, and you are ready to go.
Pros: Affordable 29″ Wheel Bike
Cons: Less travel on the shock than some of the similarly priced models.
Gravity 29er Mountain Bike
This model perfect straddles the line between an urban curb-jumping machine and a hardcore dirt-eater. For our readers with a tight budget, it offers the minimum components needed to start spend every weekend on the trails, exploring the singletrack.
From there, as you fall in love with the sport, you can invest in parts upgrades and slowly work this bike into a being a more rugged machine. Or, you can keep this one as your urban commuting bike, and invest in a dedicated off-road bike.
Either way, this model offers a perfect entry-point for beginner mountain bike riders.
Aluminum Frame: You are pretty used to seeing these bikes with an aluminum frame. This design is a simple, battle-tested design. It won’t cause you any problems. It also has a stellar paint job.
Shimano Ef-1 Shifters: This is one of those aspects that I wish was more rugged. But they had to cut somewhere, and this was a logical choice. I’m glaf that you are still getting “trigger shifters”. The EF-1s are reliable, and if they ever stop working (years down the road), you can normally get them going again by spraying some lube and compressed air into them.
Fork With Lockout: The fork has the lock-out feature which allows you to turn off the “bounce”. On pavement, shocks are unnecessary, and the bouncing shock wastes a lot of your pedaling energy. A lock out shock allows you to turn off this bounce and save your energy. This feature is a huge selling point for me, especially since there are many college students choosing this bike. When you are off-road, this fork offers 100 mm of travel.
Pros: Excellent set of components. This bikes will handle off-road riding!
Cons: only comes in the 17″ and 21″ frame size, so folks under 5’6″ are out of luck.
Nashbar (Wallet Saver)
Nashbar has recognized that there are a lot of people who really need a budget mountain bike that is rock-bottom affordable. So they got creative and did just that.
The frame is durable, even if a little heavier than the Diamondback. (However, it will still be significantly lighter than a department store bike). It uses a very similar 6061 aluminum to that of the Diamondback, so you can see that they aren’t cutting corners on the frame durability.
The components are an excellent blend designed for the value shopper who actually does plan on riding their bike off road. You get 24 speeds to give you enough low gears for that hill climbing you plan to do, and enough high-speed gears to keep you clipping along at a good speed. The entire setup uses Shimano and Sram gears, which are two of the industry leaders.
I just wish the wheels were stronger. The Nashbar 27.5″ uses a single-walled alloy wheel, so if you do hit something wrong, you can knock it out of true — or bend it — relatively easily. It’s just something to be aware of. Replacement wheels that are reinforced (double-walled) like the Diamondback bikes use, run about $70-$90 a piece should you ever need to replace one.
Vilano 1.0 Ridge (recreational)
All right, so we all are in love with the Overdrive. But it might not match your definition of “low-cost”.
For 2018, they Vilano Ridge is just for you. ‘
The Ridge is surprisingly robust for the price. Now, I understand that it doesn’t look that flashy.
But it is so much improved over “Walmart Specials”. The frame is lighter, the parts are better. The frame is still that top-notch 6061-T6 aluminum construction, and the Shimano gears with the easy fire shifters make it really easy to get the right shift every time.
The Vilano Ridge is that mountain bike that you are going to love every time you get on it. The smaller 26″ tire size also makes it easy to fit in the back of your car and is a total hoot whether you are riding through a dry river bed, riding to class, or competing in your first Xterra competition.
The front shock is 75-mm long, offering nearly 3″ of travel, and the SunTour shock brand is considered quite reputable inside the industry.
If you are looking for a mountain bike that is ready for adventure and won’t’ break the bank, this is a great one to go with. This would also be an ideal bike for a 10 to 13-year-old who is getting serious about starting to do some dirt riding (see the sizing table above to get the right size)
Why Should You Invest In Hydraulic Disc Brakes?
DISC BRAKES ARE COOL. But let me ask you, which is more important? Disc brakes? Or Stopping?
Disc brakes are way, way, over-hyped, and frankly, I would prefer to buy a bike that has good-quality linear brakes (like the Sorrento above), instead of a mountain bike that has unreliable disc brakes that are a headache to maintain. The trick is to get good quality discs that don’t flex under braking pressure. Frankly, I don’t know how some of the junk out there passes safety standards.
THAT SAID, our lineup above all has good-quality brakes that I would trust my life to. It is truly amazing how far disc brakes have come even in just the few years that I have been running this blog. The trick is to get good quality discs that don’t flex under braking pressure.
Frankly, I don’t know how some of the junk out there passes safety standards.
The takeaway? Just because a bike has disc brakes doesn’t mean that it of dependable quality.
Where you notice a large difference is with hydraulic disc brakes. Our cars use hydraulic brakes. And the fact that you can get a hydraulic setup on a mountain bike is beyond awesome.
The stopping power of these things is life changing. You squeeze. The bike stops. End of story.
And, while there is a little larger learning curve to working with these brakes (ie. don’t squeeze the hydraulic brake handle when the wheel is not installed), the overall maintenance requirements can be less since it is a sealed system.
It has gotten harder and harder to find affordable mountain bikes. More people are getting into riding off-road, and these bikes are flying off the shelf.
Best Cheap Bike Options With Full Suspension
Full or dual suspension isn’t cheap. Sure, you can get a Mongoose that offers “full suspension” (notice the quotes), but it is much heavier, and more poorly built than the cheapest hard tail that I’ve reviewed above. (that spring on the back of a Mongoose-branded bike is just there for decoration — and to make pedaling more difficult. Sorry to burst that bubble).
Bottom line, if you want one with full suspension, you are going to need to outlay some cash. If you buy some piece of Chinese-made crap that you find at the big department stores, it will not only be heavy and hard to ride, it won’t fit you well, and it will break after 12 months (if you are lucky).
If I were you, I would keep an eye out for mountain bikes that might be on sale. If you are lucky, you can pick up year-end closeout that are worth $2,000 – $3,000 but that only cost $1,000 or less. I consistently see great deals out there — you just have to know where to look.
Full Suspension vs Hardtail bikes
More Springs = Better Bike, right?
I remember the first time we got a full-suspension bike. It was a WalMart special, so we got a great deal on it, and rode the snot out of it (took about 3 months to wear it out riding it around the city.. the crank was hanging out of it)
The advantage with full suspension is that it provides incredible cushioning on an extremely violent terrain. So for those crazy times that you decide to throw yourself face first off of a cliff, the bike can help absorb the impact.
There are two huge downsides. First off, it takes a really well-designed bike frame, and a high-quality rear shock to withstand the impact of the frame. There is a lot of stress, and most of the cheap springs you see out there don’t last very long. All of the cheap bikes that offer full suspension are just introducing more cheap parts that will break on you. (Does it look cool? Yeah. But it rides like poop.)
Secondly, these full suspension frames bend and flex with every pedal stroke, costing you a significant amount of power when you are just riding on the road, or trying to climb a mountain. Unless you buy a bike that has a mid shock that lets you lock it out, you are likely going to consistently find yourself at a tiring disadvantage.
On the other hand, Hardtail bikes tend to be stronger, stiffer and lighter. You can power up hills and down the paved road just fine — but you still have the front shock to help absorb those bumps and rocks and let you carve out some pretty gnarly trails.
Good quality full suspension bikes that I really recommend are going to start off at about $1,000. And, unless you are going to be riding 99% off road on some serious terrain, they may not be the best choice. If you do decide that you need to go full suspension, spend the extra money and do it right.
26″ Wheel Vs 29-ers Vs 27.5
One of the neatest advancements in the sport of mountain biking is all of the new 29″ wheels to hit the market.
The 29-er was first invented nearly 15 years ago, by an enterprising adventurer who noticed that road bikes went faster, thanks, in part, to the taller wheel that road bikes use. So, he built a mountain bike with special tires that let the mountain biker get the speed advantage of taller wheels, with the width of mountain bike tires.
What is neat about a 29-inch tire is that for each pedal stroke, you are going to travel further, faster and with less fatigue. In addition, the bigger wheel rolls over rocks and logs more easily.
HOWEVER, the 29″ can be a little harder to handle if you are under 5′ 11″. I’m right on that cusp, and while I can ride a two-niner, I just don’t enjoy it as much on technical trails.
Thankfully, someone got the cool idea to make a “medium” tire… the 27.5.
Oh yeah, this dog can bark. It’s small enough that you get the faster “roll up” (acceleration) that we love with the 26″ tire, alongside the better handling in corners. But it is that “little bit extra” we always felt like a 26″ needed when rolling over obstacles.
The 27.5 is truly the best of both worlds.
What Size Mountain Bike Should I Get?
All too often, untrained people try to sell you a bike based on its tire size. So you see bikes sold that are 24″ or 26″. This is incorrect.
You need to instead look at the frame height.
The frame is measured from where the crank enters the bike to where the seat post begins. (See The Red Line On The Image On The Right)
Here is your mountain bike sizing chart:
- 4’11″ – 5’3″ = 13 to 15 inches
- 5’3″ – 5’7″ = 15 to 17 inches
- 5’7″ – 5’11″ = 17 to 19 inches
- 6’0″ – 6’2″ = 19 to 21 inches
- 6’2″ – 6’4″ = 21 to 23 inches
- 6’4″ and taller = 23 inches
Why Walmart and Target Cheap Mountain Bikes Are Jank
Here’s the skinny. There are a lot of bikes that look like bikes but are really a pitiful excuse for being a bicycle. Walmart and Target have figured out that there is a huge, uninformed populace that wants to ride, but doesn’t have the money to afford a good quality bike.
So, they import bikes that cost about half as much as a good bike. The downside is that most of these only last a couple of years. In contrast, a good bike will typically ride for about 5 years without any major maintenance (and indefinitely after that with minimal repairs.) Heck, my main commuting bike is about 22 years old. Sure, I’ve spent about $200 maintaining it, but it still rides like a charm. It would have taken me close to $2,000 in replacement Wal-Mart bikes to get the same lifespan.
Heavy: Department store bikes are heavy. They are tiring to lug around.
Poor Construction: Their frames tend to fail more often than the competition.
Poor Components: My biggest complaint is with their cheap wheels and derailleurs and shifters. These parts are made of flimsy metal that bends, flexes and generally doesn’t work well. I’ve seen more than one mountain bike where the rear derailleur flexes under a shift and gets in the spokes of the wheel. The wheel then catches the derailleur and rips it off. Repair cost? About $150. Just because of poor components.
So there, my rant. Maybe it will save you some headache.
Other Bike Buying Guides You Might Like:
- The Best Cheap Mountain Bikes (Comparison)
- Why Should You Invest In Hydraulic Disc Brakes?
- Best Cheap Bike Options With Full Suspension
- Full Suspension vs Hardtail bikes
- 26″ Wheel Vs 29-ers Vs 27.5
- What Size Mountain Bike Should I Get?
- Why Walmart and Target Cheap Mountain Bikes Are Jank