Best Mountain Bikes Under $500 (Year 2018)
The wildly popular sport of mountain biking might be owed, in part, to how versatile it is: whether riders prefer rough and muddy mountainsides, quiet park trails, or any number of activities in between, mountain bikes can help make it happen. Another selling point is how easy it is to start mountain biking, no matter your fitness or skill level, preferences—or budget.
Our buyer’s guide will answer some questions from first-time mountain bike buyers, as well as feature some of our top picks—all under $500.
What is mountain biking, exactly?
Invented in the 1800s, mountain biking got its start in the military: soldiers in need of off-road vehicles modified their existing bikes to handle rough terrain. This grew into a popular endurance exercise known as cyclo-cross, which became its own sport, while mountain biking as we know it today seemed to die down.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the sport picked up speed. Californian riders modified cruiser-style bikes with more gears, different handlebars, and thicker tires. They would then take these modified bikes down mountainsides and nature trails—but they didn’t call it mountain biking, just yet.
A few years later, some companies began to manufacture dedicated off-road bikes, but these didn’t enjoy mainstream popularity until the 1990s, with the rise of BMX and motocross. Mountain biking quickly grew to encompass a wide range of activities, from easy trails through parks, to endurance rides on rough mountainsides.
Perhaps the best part about this sport is its versatility. No matter your skill or fitness level, there are mountain biking forms for any rider, in any area.
What features should I look for in a mountain bike?
Most mountain bikes have standard features you’ll find in other bikes: thick tires, flat or bullhorn handlebars, front suspension—but the specific details that can make a bike go from “good” to “great” are highly individualized.
Consider the kind of riding you’ll be doing most often, and where you’ll be doing it. Fixed-gear models, full-suspension, hard-tails, free-ride bikes for skate-park tricks…there are tons of specialized features a mountain bike can come with, so deciding what you’ll need it for most is crucial.
For beginners, many seasoned riders recommend a hardtail model; it has front suspension only, and requires riders to better predict the routes in front of them and brace themselves for impact. In short, it makes for a more immersive riding experience. Generally, hardtail models are lighter and cheaper, too.
Buyers should also think about the following factors they might need from a bike:
- Whether the frame should be steel, aluminum, or carbon. Most mountain bikes are aluminum, because it’s strong yet inexpensive. Steel, though stronger and cheaper, is prone to rust; it’s also very heavy, which makes it difficult to pedal uphill/over tough terrain. Carbon is both incredibly strong and lightweight, but comes at a much higher cost than steel or aluminum.
- If you’ll need any accessories like lights, carrier racks, mudguards, etc.
- Quality tires and rims. Make sure your tires are thick enough, wide enough, and knobby enough to provide the traction and stability you’ll need.
- Dual disc brakes for muddy/slick/inclined surfaces where you’ll need to stop quickly and reliably. Some mountain bikes come with disc brakes in the front and back; some come with just one. Rarely, a mountain bike will have linear-pull brakes, the kind you’d find on road/touring/commuter, etc. bikes. These are fine—but will work best on fairly level, dry trails and gravel roads—not rugged, muddy trails.
- A comfortable riding position and proper frame fit for your height and preferences.
I live nowhere near a mountain. Should I still get a mountain bike?
This is another answer that, ultimately, comes down to the consumer. Only you know your particular area, what kind of riding you’d prefer to do (and whether or not your area is suited to that), and how often you’d be able to take your bike out to a more rugged area.
For example, some people buy mountain bikes for just a few trips a year—and that’s totally fine! Others, however, don’t want to spend the money unless they know they can use it every weekend.
Remember the sport’s versatility: you don’t have to live in a “mountain town” to mountain bike. Park trails, skate parks, and patches of wilderness exist in most cities, in some form. You can also get to know other cyclists in your area (in person or online) and ask them where they ride.
Can I use a mountain bike in the city for errands, commuting, casual use, etc.?
Overall, yes—especially if you live or work in an area with mixed terrain (for example, if you cut across a lawn or park, then resume riding on asphalt). That said, we don’t recommend using a mountain bike for casual or city use if you also need it for regular mountain biking, since you’ll wear down your tires faster. A mountaintop in the middle of nowhere is the last place you want insufficient tread!
For commuters, this is a personal preference, too: mountain bikes tend to be heavy, and might be tough when it comes time to carry it in and out of your apartment or office building. They’re also rarely allowed on public transport, due to their weight and size.
Another option, although it’s not the cheapest (or possible for everyone), is to purchase two bikes: one for city riding and commuting, and another for off-roading.
What’s the difference between men’s mountain bikes and women’s mountain bikes?
You’ll notice more differences between the two in other bike categories, such as cruisers (where women’s models often have “step through” designs with deeply curved top bars). In mountain bikes, however, some designs can look identical; unisex options aren’t uncommon.
However, there are some key differences you might notice between men and women’s bikes, once you know to look for them. Women’s bikes usually have slanted top bars (the bar between the seat post and handlebars, which runs between your legs). Men’s, by contrast, are usually level with the ground or angled less severely. Women’s top bars are also shorter, because most women have shorter torsos and longer legs in relation to their heights.
Women’s bikes often have wider seats than men’s, to accommodate the differences in pelvic bone structure. Handlebars on women’s bikes are shorter by a few inches due to narrow shoulders.
All of these differences might sound minimal and arbitrary, but they’re chosen to make bikes as comfortable as possible for men and women of typical builds, with average measurements.
Unisex bikes are “happy mediums” between all these measurements and design differences; the result is a bike that’s moderately comfortable for men or women, which is ideal for male-female couples who share the bike, or individuals who find they don’t quite fit within the “typical” measurement standards, for one reason or another.
Rest assured, you don’t have to buy the bike “meant” for your gender. None of us are identical, so what’ s uncomfortable to one rider might be a heavenly bike for you! If you find a bike that fits, performs well, and helps you ride with comfort and confidence, go for it.
Top 4 Best Mountain Bikes Under $500 Reviews
1. 2017 Gravity FSX 1.0 Review
Full adjustable suspension, dual disc braking system, and 24 speeds—it doesn’t sound like there’s much, if anything, the Gravity FSX 1.0 can’t do. Its frame is made of a sleek and strong hydro-formed aluminum, and it features front and rear derailleurs for precise shifting at any speed.
To top it off, it has a cushy seat with an adjustable post and riser handlebars, so riders can sit in the position best suited for them.
We could stop the guide right here (don’t worry; we wont!), because this model has basically everything a mountain biker could look for—and a fair price, to top it all off. While it can perform beautifully on rough mountains or more level terrain, trail riders might be disappointed there’s no carrier rack on this model (full-suspension mountain bikes tend to forgo carriers, which can become loose and fall off with so much jostling). If you don’t mind leaving your gear in a backpack or your car, though, the Gravity FSX 1.0 is worth considering.
2. Schwinn Protocol 1.0, Men’s Review
Another full-suspension option, the Schwinn Protocol features knobby tires for excellent traction. It also has 24 speeds, like the Gravity FSX 1.0—but, unlike that model, this one only has front disc brakes.
The question of whether or not this affects performance is up for debate, but luckily, its rear V-brake comes from a reputable brand that knows this business well.
Fans of the popular brand Schwinn: this one’s for you. This bike is affordable, sturdy, and well-equipped to handle rough trails and pits. The trigger shifters are a nice touch, allowing for quick and simple shifting—even while flying down a mountainside. Our only criticism, in fact, is that this isn’t available in a women’s option (or more colors).
3. Diamondback Sorrento Hard Tail Review
With front-only suspension, the Diamondback Sorrento is a hardtail option that could appeal to beginners and pros alike.
Its seat and low-riser style handlebars are adjustable, allowing riders to pick the position that’s just right for them; the extra-thick tires have impressive stability and tread, whether you’re charting out new trails or tearing through some old favorites.
The Sorrento from Diamondback Bicycles is best for riders who want a rugged trail bike, but don’t need intense speeds nor the powerful braking of disc systems. In other words, if you plan on hitting rocky trails at a moderate pace in dry weather, this model will do great.
4. GMC Topkick Review
The Topkick from GMC has something you won’t find on just any bike, let alone one in this price range: a floating beam suspension in the rear, which means riders will feel less bumps and ruts—and less banged-up when the ride is over.
GMC is a quality brand from Kent International, Inc., a company that knows its customers and what they want most in their mountain bike—and the Topkick certainly delivers. We think this will be a good, affordable option for mountain bikers of all skill levels and inclinations.
Quality mountain bikes can be had for far less than you might expect; the models shown here are all below the $500 threshold, yet boast some features you’d find in $1,000+ models. We hope our buyer’s guide has been helpful to shoppers looking for a great mountain bike on a reasonable budget.