With mountain biking season in full swing, it’s tempting to cough up the dough and purchase a fancy ride chock-full of bells and whistles. But if you’re just getting into the sport, a high-end suspension model may not be worth the cost, especially if you only get out every so often.
If you think you need to spend upwards of $1,000 just to get your hands on a quality mountain bike, think again. The beginner or casual mountain biker simply needs a solid model with quality tires and the adaptability to transition from streets and smoother trails to more rugged terrain. Thankfully, there are plenty of quality options on the market that won’t cost you a fortune. Here are our top picks for the best mountain bikes under $500.
Things to consider
The mountain bike you purchase determines how well you travel across uneven, steep, and often unpredictable terrain. Decide in advance the types of trails you plan to ride, whether it includes lots of steep hills and climbing or relatively smoother paths and gravel trails. If you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to plunge down rugged hills, you’ll want to select for different features than a long-distance rider who’s looking for the smoothest ascent. And remember, safety comes first: If you’re new to the sport, make sure you go easy and get some training from experienced riders.
There are roughly five different styles of mountain bikes that vary according to purpose. Trail bikes are your most common, meant for well-trodden trails with plenty of casual climbs and descents. These bikes are great all-around models for the weekend warrior and anyone interested in riding rather than racing. Trail bikes usually provide between 120 and 140 millimeters of suspension travel, which is the amount of movement offered by the bike’s front and rear suspensions.
Cross-country bikes are meant for speed and provide enhanced climbing power, enabling you to whip around turns at a faster pace. These bikes are typically designed to be lightweight and provide between 80 and 100 millimeters of suspension travel, with a greater head tube angle than trail bikes. Fat bikes simply imply oversized tires, which are great for beginners because bigger tires absorb shock and provide extra traction when traveling through snow or sand. The tires measure, on average, between 3.7 inches and more than 5 inches in width.
All-mountain bikes are meant for the more aggressive mountain biker, providing for steeper climbs, faster descents, and more technical features. They are designed to be lightweight and efficient when pedaling uphill. They offer a range of 140 and 170 millimeters of suspension travel. Downhill bikes are an additional style of mountain bike but they’re reserved for experienced riders who take on the most dangerous terrain, primarily at lift-serviced parks and competitions. Meanwhile, mountain bikes like the recently-detailed Diverge from Specialized fall in a category all their own.
There are three different types of mountain bike suspension. The most basic is a rigid suspension, which is essentially no suspension at all. Bikes with rigid suspension are cheaper and require less upkeep, but are not preferable for mountainous terrain due to the lack of shock absorption.
Hardtail bikes are ideal for the average mountain biker on a budget.
Hardtail bikes are far more common, offering a suspension system on the front that provides for impact absorption of the front wheel, while the rear is left rigid. These bikes are also less expensive than full-suspension models and require less maintenance. Additionally, the front suspension can be locked when you’re looking to tackle smoother terrain. Hardtail bikes are ideal for the average mountain biker on a budget.
Full-suspension bikes are on the higher end of things given they offer a suspension fork in the front and the rear, which drastically increases shock absorption and makes for a comfortable ride on the most rugged of trails. Full-suspension bikes usually come with a hefty price tag, though, and tend to require extensive maintenance.
There are three wheel sizes when it comes to mountain bikes: 26 inches, 27.5 inches, and 29 inches. Twenty-six-inch wheels are relatively standard for bikes and are a great option for the casual or beginner rider, as they provide plenty of control. Bikes with 27.5-inch wheels represent a good middle ground between the standard 26-inch bikes and the larger, 29-inch models. These provide greater mobility over mountainous terrain while still maintaining a decent level of control. Twenty-nine-inch wheels are aimed at the more aggressive rider, one looking to maintain momentum and easily tackle obstacles on the trail.
Most mountain bikes are made from aluminum alloy, which makes them light and durable. Higher-end bikes often utilize even lighter aluminum that’s been manufactured precisely to cut frame weight. While steel is tough and inexpensive, it’s mostly too heavy for a mountain bike. Titanium and carbon fiber make for strong, lightweight components but they’re also expensive — check out Le Super Bike, if you need an example. This is why the latter materials are often reserved for higher-end models.
Cannondale Catalyst 4 27.5 ($440)
Take to the trails with ease as Cannondale provides everything you need to start mountain biking in this affordable, high-quality package. The Catalyst 4’s light alloy frame is complemented by a sporty riding position and weighs in at just 31 pounds, 12.8 ounces. The bike also provides for a wide range of gears, comprising 21 in total.
Its SR Suntour fork provides for 75-millimeters of travel supported by quality Shimano shifters and derailleurs. The SmartForm C3 alloy provides for a nimble feel while a flattened seat and shaped chainstays absorb bumps for a smooth ride. Featuring Cannondale’s most upright riding position, the Catalyst 4 ensures comfort and confidence for timid, beginner riders. If you’re looking for a reliable ride that’s built to last, the Catalyst 4 is one of the best options on the market.
The Mongoose TYAX Sport ($435)
Perfect for single-track cross-country riders, the Mongoose TYAX Sport is designed with an aluminum frame that’s stacked with a SRAM X-4/SR Suntour XCM drivetrain. This bike is perfect for everyday use, whether you plan on commuting or hitting the trail. A 27-speed drivetrain system also provides for efficient and precise shifting, while the bike’s 26-inch wheels provide optimum control for beginners. The Mongoose TYAX Sport is more than just a mountain bike — it’s a lifestyle bike.
At just $280, few bikes are as loaded with value at such an affordable price like Nashbar’s 26-inch Disc Mountain Bike. The brand started off by building this triumph around a TIG-welded aluminum frame. Owners may want to upgrade the suspension fork as their skill level progresses but for someone just getting into the sport, the Suntour SF13 fork is a great place to start, offering 80-millimeters of travel. You can find trusted Shimano features all over this bike including the 3×8-speed shifters, derailleurs, and cassette. Tektro mechanical disc brakes ensure just as efficient stopping as there is get-up-and-go. Capable of taking on any terrain without fear, you’ll find the perfect harmony of gear you need in this all-inclusive package.
Giant ATX 2 ($460)
It’s impressive you can purchase a bike made by Giant in this price range — and the Giant ATX gives you a ton of bang for your buck. The ALUXX aluminum frame is engineered to provide comfort on steep climbs and is durable enough to withstand breakneck speeds when bombing downhill. Furthermore, the bike is available with either 26- or 27.5-inch wheels, granting added flexibility when it comes to sizing. This particular model is equipped with a SR Suntour XCT 100mm-travel fork, Giant GX28 alloy double-wall rims with Giant Quickcross tires, and a Shimano 3×7-speed drivetrain with Tektro mechanical disc brakes. These components render it the perfect mountain bike for beginners and intermediate riders looking for solid performance without the hefty price tag. The Giant ATX really is the ultimate budget ride.
The Gravity FSX 2.0 ($399)
The Gravity FSX 2.0 is the best full suspension bike you can get in this price range. The bike offers an advanced aluminum frame featuring CantiBeam SinglePivot Technology. Hydroformed tubes make for an extremely balanced and sturdy feel when tearing it up and down the trail. This dual suspension gem offers Shimano front and rear derailleurs, a 24-speed drivetrain, and a Suntour suspension fork. When you want more than a hardtail and you don’t want to spend a fortune, the Gravity FXS 2.0 is the perfect option.