Finding a Good, Affordable Mountain Bike
Since the late 1970s, mountain bikes have been a force in the cycling industry. They have an enduring popularity, and for good reason: they are fun to ride, go almost everywhere, and they're extremely durable. Finding one for under $500 is a big challenge, mostly because there's a lot of smoke and mirrors in the industry and the average person has no idea what's worth investing in.
There are a lot of factors at play in a good, cheap one, and people will offer varying opinions on what the 'must have' features are. With a budget of $500 or less, yours will have limitations in certain areas to be sure. That said, there are a handful of amazing bargains and killer deals that defy their low price tag.
This is an article written to help the average person find a good quality, budget mountain bike for a decent price point. We'll look at a number of factors, including the brand, accessories and components included, as well as what other customers have to say about them. I'll be taking a look at three options that I consider to be great choices and that are readily available.
I'll also provide a list of what you should expect in this price range, and what you shouldn't. Let's get started.
Stuff to Avoid:
I can understand the urge to hunt for the best bargain available, but definitely be cautious when buying a vehicle like this. Remember what's at stake!
Here are a few things to avoid on a cheaper mountain bike:
- Don't go brandless. A brand gives you someone to go to in case you have an issue.
- Avoid plastic. Plastic components don't last. Some plastic is inevitable, but it should only be a cosmetic factor, not for primary construction.
- Ignore stylized frames. Some brands try to disguise a bike by giving it a 'cool' looking frame, which is really unnecessary and just serves to increase the weight. Simple frames are always a better choice.
1) Diamondback Overdrive: A cheap yet durable ride
The Overdrive V by Diamondback is an example of the great value that can be found by sticking with a well known brand. I'm a huge Diamondback fan because their bikes tend to last a lot longer than those of competitors.
This is a fantastic choice for someone who wants to get off the concrete and onto some trails. It has clearance and rugged capability that other bikes can only dream of. It has 29-inch wheels, which gives a higher top end speed and more ability to clear rocks and debris. The rims are double walled Weinmann brand, very strong, with huge Wolverine tires that can carry you across just about anything.
The frame is all 6061 aluminum, and the tubing is oversized for added strength. There are Suntour shocks on the front, which provide around 4 inches of travel (100mm). The V model provides Promax linear pull brakes that stop very well. You can go up to the Overdrive Sport if you want mechanical disc brakes, but they're more expensive.
I really enjoy the gearing too, and there are 21 speeds to choose from, paired to a Shimano rapid fire shifter for quick changes.
Overall the bike looks great, and it's pretty light too. For well below $500 and with above average components, I'm pretty surprised it costs so little.
If you're interested in a full suspension version of this bike, consider the Recoil.
2) Nashbar AT1: A Budget-Priced, "Stealthy" Mountain Bike
Nashbar has been one of my favourite brands for a while because they consistently produce an excellent product. Also, they eschew all the 'bells and whistles' that add cost but mean nothing to a rider (think vinyl stickers). I refer to this unbranded look as "stealthy." The AT1 is a bike with 29-inch wheels that looks amazing, is fun to ride, and will last you for years on end.
It has a beautiful 'stealth' look without a lot of stickers. The frame shape is classic and gorgeous, and it's made of 6061 aluminum alloy. It's light and well built, so it doesn't transmit very much in the way of vibration (as aluminum typically does). There is a Suntour front spring fork, which provides about 80mm of travel, and it's alloy as well.
The gearing is outstanding, and the whole bike is tuned to be agile and well planted on a variety of terrains. There are 21 gears total, and the derailleurs are Shimano. You'll find the whole drivetrain is smooth to shift, and it's very quick off the starting block.
You have plenty of grip and clearance with the 29-inch wheels and the included 2.1" Evolution mountain tires. The rims are double walled alloy Weinmann rims, and they're light (as mountain tires go) and tough. Linear pull v-brakes on the front and rear top off a high-value option.
This bike is definitely an excellent choice, and something you should take a close look at.
3) Vilano Blackjack: An Inexpensive "29er" Bike
You may not be familiar with Vilano as a brand, since they are typically only found online and fairly new to the game. However, they're making a bit of a splash and they have an exciting range of budget priced options available. They have a few great models at around this price range, but I wanted to review the Vilano Blackjack because it has a good combination of features and overall it's a great 29er for under $500.
The Blackjack comes in (you guessed it) black, and it has a full butted 6061 aluminum hardtail frame, paired with an alloy front fork with 80mm of travel. It comes with a Shimano front and rear derailleurs, and there are 21 speeds to choose between. It's also got some nice features usually not found on entry-level mountain bikes, such as a sealed cartridge bottom bracket and a Promax aluminum alloy handlebars and seat post.
It has front and rear mechanical disc brakes that provide excellent stopping power when tuned properly. The brake lever and shifter are integrated.
The ride quality is great for people who prefer an all-around stance, and for travelling on a wide variety of surfaces. It's agile and easy to ride with its riser bars and tall adjustable seat post. It's not the lightest, but the weight is quite reasonable. Most importantly, it's a lot of fun to zip around on, and I think just about any rider would enjoy its qualities. For well under our $500 price point, this 29er is good-looking and fun.
What About Specialty Styles?
Frankly, if you're interested in getting into riding as more than just a simple hobby, you probably need to consider investing more than $500 into your ride.
There are a lot of sub-genres and specialty bikes being put together these days, such as downhill bikes. These are built for a specific role, and they're understandably more expensive. A downhill bike, for example, needs powerful brakes to stop you quickly, and oversized front forks to absorb more of the decline, which ups the cost.
Looking for a specific style? Please leave a comment and I can let you know what you should expect to spend, and point you towards a few good brands. Thanks for reading!
What to Expect (and What Not)
If you're looking to buy a good mountain bike for under $500, you've got fairly limited prospects. A quick trip to any bike shop will let you know that most of the higher end options are out of the question. Even so, you can still get a quality ride as long as you manage your expectations and go into it understanding what's available.
Here are a few things that should be expected on a bike of this quality level.
The average mountain bicycle in this price range will probably come with some suspension components, most likely in the form of spring shocks. That might mean a front suspension fork with around 100mm of travel, or a rear suspension shock, or a combination of the two.
Suspension components are the 'ooh and ahh' parts. They definitely make them look cool, and they certainly have some utility. With that being said, don't be fooled by cheap shocks. Sometimes they're as heavy as a brick and provide little tangible benefit. (In fact, at this price point, I don't usually recommend full suspension.) They're typically too heavy with little riding benefit.
I know that hydraulic brakes are all the rage, but for your price points, you just won't get them. That's not a huge issue, because a nicely tuned mechanical disc or linear pull brake system can stop you quite well.
You'll just want to ensure that your brakes are well tuned and preferably of a name brand variety. If you're not confident in tuning brakes, let a bike shop do it for you.
Aluminum or Chromoly Frame:
You won't find a carbon fiber frame at this range, and even if you did, you shouldn't buy it! The best material you'll find is either aluminum or chromoly. Both are very strong and decently light, and they're a fine choice for frame material all in all.
The frame isn't nearly the most heavy part of the bike, however, and there are other factors to consider too. Which leads us into our next point...
For the price you want, it isn't going to be light as a feather. In fact, most bikes in this range will be quite heavy. It's just a matter of engineering: if you want a bike to be strong and durable, there has to be some weight added.
The heaviest parts tend to be the frame, the wheels and tires, and the suspension components. To be honest, I wouldn't worry about the weight all that much. It's not like you'll be carrying it very often, and all the bikes I'll be reviewing are quite decent in that department.
Questions or Ideas? Brands that I missed?
Jay Ren on February 08, 2016:
Casey on June 17, 2015:
I got the Nashbar AT29 after reading this article (and many others). I ride it as if it were an All-Mountain bike and it takes the abuse quite well. Great bike, great proce. I love it and highly recommend it.
Jason c on June 10, 2015:
I am wanting a decent bike for all around use. I can't pay for a high end bike but i don't want a walmart bike either. I am 6'4" tall and weigh 280. I think it'll be difficult at best to find a good bike for me for well under 500.00 so i may just have to stick with hiking.
Harper from Seabrook, New Hampshire on March 25, 2015:
very informative . :)
sithgenard on June 05, 2014:
Nicely done.. Got huge information from this article
Jack Quick from Las Vegas, NV on December 04, 2013:
This is a great hub. I've been looking for a cheaper bike so I don't have to ride my Santa Cruz Tallboy around town. Thanks for the info!
shooozz on August 20, 2013:
informative. it's hard to imagine riding a hard tail bike after ridig dual suspended bike.
Agnes on July 06, 2013:
Great tips, very useful - fantastic for somebody who is looking to purchase a bike!