Many budget mountain bikes are hardtails, meaning there is suspension only in the front and not in the rear. In general, experts say hardtail bikes are a good choice for beginners because they are less expensive and require fewer adjustments than full-suspension mountain bikes.
For beginners looking to venture to trails, reviewers say the Trek 4300 (MSRP: $570) is a good first bike -- and it won't break the bank. Trek combines an aluminum hardtail frame with 4 inches of travel with a Shimano Altus front derailleur and a Shimano Alivio in the rear. Other components include a Spinner 300 fork, Tektro linear-pull V brakes, Bontrager Camino rims and Bontrager LT3 tires. The frame is available in seven sizes, and it is covered by a lifetime warranty.
Owners say the Trek 4300 mountain bike is a good choice for those new to mountain biking. The frame is durable and well built, and many owners report that the bike survives crashes and falls and keeps on ticking. "I have crashed it, ploughed into rock gardens and fallen down 10-foot
slopes -- and it never fails," says one owner at SingleTracks.com. The bike handles well on most trails, but it's also well suited to urban commuting or riding around town. "This is a fantastic bike and fun to ride," says another rider at Buzzillions.com. Although it is relatively inexpensive, the Trek 4300 is more durable and performs better than cheap, sub-$500 mountain bikes available at big-box stores, according to reviews.
Trek doesn't publish weights for any of its bikes, but several owners at sites like Buzzillions.com and MTBR.com complain that the frame is heavy compared to more expensive mountain bikes. The stock components are far from top-of-the-line, so users say serious riders may want to upgrade as their skills improve. In particular, the tires could use more traction, so that should be one of your first upgrades, according to reviews. Others say the stock saddle is rather hard and uncomfortable.
If you have a little more to spend, reviewers also recommend the Trek 4300 Disc (MSRP: $690), which is identical to the Trek 4300 save for Promax hydraulic disc brakes and Bontrager XR2 tires. Disc brakes offer better stopping power than the cheaper V-style brakes found on the Trek 4300, especially in wet or muddy conditions.
More than 100 users rate the Trek 4300 Disc at Buzzillions.com, where the bike earns above average ratings. Reviewers say the mountain bike handles well on smooth dirt and pavement, and the brakes have good stopping power, even on muddy trails. Shifting is smooth and the bike climbs well -- a traditional area of weakness for budget mountain bikes due to their heft. "I have about 200 miles on the bike so far and it has been a very enjoyable bike to ride and is half the weight of my old bike," writes one owner. BikeRadar.com says the fork is "one of the best we've tested at this price." Although the tires have been upgraded from the 2010 model, we still see complaints that they don't provide enough traction in slippery conditions. As with the Trek 4300, many reviewers say the saddle is uncomfortable.
Trek also gets high marks for the Trek Marlin (MSRP:$640), which is part of Trek's new Gary Fisher collection. Gary Fisher is one of the pioneers of mountain biking, and while he used to manufacture his own line of mountain bikes, that line was recently purchased by Trek. The Trek Marlin is a 29-inch mountain bike (more commonly known as a 29er). Many reviewers say 29ers offer better traction, more control and a smoother ride than their 26-inch counterparts. They are heavier, however. In addition to Bontrager rims and tires, the aluminum-framed Trek Marlin comes with a SR Suntour fork with 4 inches of travel, a SRAM X.4 rear derailleur and Tektro Novela mechanical disc brakes. The frame is available in five sizes and is covered by a lifetime warranty.
Men's Fitness says the Trek Marlin is a good entry-level 29er for beginners. "Mechanical disc brakes, a lightweight aluminum frame, and a SR Suntour fork with 100mm suspension of travel that you can lock out for a stiffer, faster ride make the Marlin a great way for a trail-riding newbie to test his mettle on a 29er," the editors write. Initial user reviews are also positive. Riders say the Trek Marlin performs well on climbs and descents, but it also transitions well to road riding or commuting. "I got this bike as something I could go out and play on with friends during the weekend and still use it to comfortably commute. This bike does exactly that and much more," says one owner at Buzzillions.com. The disc brakes have good stopping power, and riders say the bike handles well on a variety of terrain. Value is also a high point. "You can't find a faster bike for less dough," says another owner.
Users at Buzzillions.com have a few complaints about the stock Wellgo ATB pedals, mainly that they feel small. Others say the shifter is loud and can skip gears. We also saw a few complaints that the decals on the frame peel off easily.
It is a little more expensive than the bikes above, but reviewers say the Specialized Rockhopper (MSRP: $720) is a good value. The alloy hardtail frame comes in six sizes, and the bike has a good mix of components for the price, including Avid BB5 mechanical disc brakes, a SRAM X.5 rear derailleur, a SR Suntour fork and Alex RHD 26-inch rims. The frame is covered by a lifetime warranty, while all other components are covered for one year.
BikeRadar.com says the Specialized Rockhopper is a solid entry-level bike that can grow with you as your skills improve. "A great frame and competitive price make it a budget bargain," says Seb Rogers. The Specialized Rockhopper can hold its own against mountain bikes costing much more, according to Rogers, and the stock components are suitable for most beginners. The 2011 model has been upgraded with Specialized The Captain Sport tires, which reviewers say offer better grip -- even in mud -- than the Fast Trak tires used on the previous model. The aluminum frame is durable and lightweight, experts say. Users at SingleTracks.com agree, saying the bike offers a smooth ride and comfortable suspension. However, we did see a few complaints at MTBR.com that the bike sometimes slips gears, especially when climbing.
The Specialized Hardrock Sport Disc (MSRP: $600) is another good choice for riders on a budget. Like the mountain bikes discussed above, the components aren't the best, but owners say the frame is durable. The Specialized Hardrock combines an aluminum hardtail frame (available in six sizes) with a Shimano Altus derailleur in the front and a SRAM X.4 in the rear. The SR Suntour fork has 3.15 inches of travel. Other features include SRAM X.4 trigger shifters and Avid BB5 disc brakes. The frame is covered by a limited lifetime warranty. This bike is also available in a bare-bones model, the Specialized Hardrock (MSRP: $420) with linear-pull V brakes and some cheaper components.
As with most budget mountain bikes, user reviews are the best source of information on the Specialized Hardrock Sport Disc. More than 120 owners review the mountain bike at MTBR.com, giving it a high overall rating. Reviewers are especially impressed with the frame, saying it's durable and can be upgraded with better components down the road. Users also say the Specialized Hardrock Sport Disc is a good pick for entry-level riders. "This bike [handled] like a champ in all riding conditions," says one owner. However, some say the mountain bike feels heavier than some of its competitors.
BikeRadar.com reviews an earlier model year (with very similar components), and editors praise the value and easily upgradeable frame. However, they think the SR Suntour fork diminishes the riding experience, since it feels "clunky" when the suspension tops out. Even so, the Specialized Hardrock Sport Disc earns a positive review overall. "Despite a compromised fork, this bike is still a lot of fun to ride and is well worth upgrading as the low budget parts wear out and your riding expectations and skills evolve further," says Steve Worland.
On the lower end, the Trek 3500 (MSRP: $400) earns good user ratings. The aluminum hardtail frame comes in six sizes and is paired with a SR Suntour M-2025 fork with 2.5 inches of travel. The entry-level components include Shimano EF51 shifters, a Shimano TX31 rear derailleur, Tektro linear-pull brakes and Bontrager LT3 tires. The mountain bike's frame is covered by a lifetime warranty.
The Trek 3500 gets high ratings in nearly 70 reviews compiled by Buzzillions.com. Most users are happy with the bike, especially those who ride on pavement or groomed trails. The Trek 3500 offers little suspension, so the ride is much harsher on rough trails than bikes that offer 4 or 5 inches of travel. Even so, reviewers say this affordable mountain bike is still a step-up from cheap big-box bikes. "It's a great quality bike for a great price and it definitely exceeded my expectations," says one owner. However, a number of users say the chain slips when changing gears. "When it works, it's an awesome bike, but I am afraid to venture more than a mile from my house for fear it will throw me off again when dechaining and I'll have to limp (myself and the bike) home," says one frustrated rider.
Most experts discourage new riders from buying mountain bikes under $200; they can be exceptionally heavy -- more than 40 pounds in some cases -- and may hamper your enjoyment of the sport. Instead, experts recommend saving up for a more expensive mountain bike or scouring bike shops for previous years' models. Budget mountain bikes at chain stores like Wal-Mart can be a decent option if you only plan on occasional riding around town or on smooth trails. However, nearly every expert advises shopping at a dedicated bike shop to get the best fit and service.
There are some cheap mountain bikes that earn relatively high ratings at Walmart.com, but they come with their fair share of downsides, including no-name components, cheap frames and short warranties. Bikes sold at big-box stores can also be improperly assembled, and they don't come in multiple frame sizes, which may make it difficult to get a precise fit.
The Genesis V2100 Dual-Suspension Bicycle (MSRP: $150) is one cheap mountain bike that earns relatively high ratings at Walmart.com. The 26-inch, dual-suspension bike has Shimano gearing, a front disc brake and a V brake in the rear. It is covered by a six-month warranty.
Of the nearly 100 owners who review the mountain bike, 84 percent say they would recommend the Genesis V2100 to a friend. Users say most of the basic components work well, including the shifters. "The shifting system makes it very easy to change gears accurately and quietly. Also, I haven't had any issues with the brakes or suspension -- both seem to work great," says one owner. Others say the bike works well for casual riding. However, many users say the seat is uncomfortable and the plastic pedals are cheap and break easily. Other reviewers comment that the brakes are weak and don't provide good stopping power. The Genesis V2100 is also heavy; although the weight is not published, one owner says it weighs in at roughly 38 pounds.
For women, reviewers at Walmart.com seem to like the Ladies Mongoose XR-75 (MSRP: $120). This full-suspension bike has an aluminum frame, 21-speed SRAM grip shifters and linear-pull brakes. A one-year warranty is available for $10. It currently enjoys a 4-star rating (out of 5) from nearly 40 reviewers. Most users say they are pleased with the Ladies Mongoose XR-75 mountain bike, but it should be noted that most of these riders use the bike for leisurely riding around the neighborhood or on smooth trails. "For someone who is a hard-core biker, I wouldn't recommend this bike, but for me to ride on a daily basis around the block, I think it's great," says one owner. For easy riding, reviewers say the Ladies Mongoose XR-75 generally meets expectations.
However, many owners say some components require frequent adjustment and tightening. We also saw several reports that the bike arrived damaged. "I had to spend an extra $100 to get things fixed that were flawed," says one rider.
There are also numerous cheap mountain bikes that get lower ratings. The Power X Men's Bike (MSRP: $100) attracts some positive feedback, but many owners report that the bike arrived with damage or defects, as one user describes: "We bought this bike online and found the bike defective. The front wheel was totally bent and could not rotate. Also the brakes did not function properly." Even when the bike arrives in good condition, the pedals, shifters or brakes can break easily with light use.
The Huffy DS-7 mountain bike (MSRP: $130) attracts far fewer comments, but those available are largely negative. The few users who review it at Walmart.com say the bike arrives with defects that make it practically worthless, such as misaligned brakes or bent rims. Even after taking the bike to a local bike shop for adjustments, one owner says, it still doesn't ride properly.