TL;DR – A Quick Overview Of The Best Mountain Bike Options Under $1000
- The Best 29’er Trail Bike and All-Arounder – Salsa Timberjack NX1 29
- The Best 27.5″ Trail Bike on a Budget – Kona Blast
- The Best Cross-Country Bike – Merida Big Nine 500
- The Best Bike For A Little More Than 1000 Dollars – Giant Fathom 2
Why is $1000 the benchmark you might ask? There definitely are some good bikes for far below the $1000 mark, but if you are looking for a bike with some decent components and a good frame, $1000 is generally the price such a bike would come in at. Once you go much lower than the $1000 mark, you will need to make some sacrifices somewhere on components, the frame or both.
Mountain bikes don’t come cheap. But flag down just about any cyclist, anywhere, and ask them if their bike was worth the price and the answer will be a resounding, “hell yeah.” But $1000 is a lot of money, why should it be spent on a bicycle?
The quality of bicycles starts to take off after about $1000. You can expect them to be light, built with solid components and, most importantly, last a long time. Below this price point, you either have the cheapest builds from mainstream manufacturers, which probably includes the bike you’re upgrading from, and the bikes sold in mall sports stores. Stay as far away from the mall bikes as possible. They may have flashy paint jobs and rear suspension, but these bikes are heavy, inefficient pedalers, poorly designed in general and, worst of all, almost impossible to maintain in the long term. The true strength of a quality bike is its enduring reliability which you can count on for years and years if properly maintained.
Components on your $1000 Bike – What To Look For When Shopping In This Price Range
The $1000 niche is a very competitive bracket for manufacturers but there actually isn’t a huge selection of components to choose from that bring performance to the table while keeping the cost of the entire bike at the $1000 price point. This is why you’ll see many competing frame manufacturer brands that use many of the same components in this price range. Despite this, the selection you are left with is still quite diverse. Getting a budget bike right is arguably a harder juggle of compromises than building bikes at higher price points. But while the balancing price and performance will always be tough, the quality of entry-level componentry has gotten much better.
This is especially true in the past year or two because of technology from expensive components a component generation or two ago trickling down to entry-level components. There have been huge leaps in bicycle drivetrain technology on higher end bikes in the last 3-4 years and these advances are becoming available on entry-level components. This means that entry-level bikes which have been early adopters of newer componentry are far superior to bikes from other manufacturers who have been slow to update their specifications.
Front Suspension – Coil vs Air
Entry level forks from mainstream manufacturers of front suspension are standard on bikes in the $1000 price bracket. Generally, the better builds will come with an air spring fork and the builds with the lower value will come with a coil spring fork. The value brackets they come in can mislead buyers into thinking that air forks are superior to coil forks when, in reality, they have their own pros and cons.
Air spring forks are significantly lighter than coil forks and are actually easier to set up due to the ability to change the spring rate by increasing or decreasing the air pressure in the air spring. This can generally be done without any disassembly and in minutes. The tradeoff air spring forks make is that an air spring has many more sealed, sliding areas than a coil fork and they will never be able to match the responsiveness to small forces of coil forks.
The end result of this is that air springs will generally ride harsher and absorb less of the chatter than their coil sprung counterparts. Another much less often discussed negative of air spring forks, especially in entry-level models, is that they are much more prone to have performance loss due to quality control issues. Small variations in manufacturing tolerances may cause air spring assemblies to get extremely sticky if you get unlucky with the fork you get.
Factory lubrication has also been a huge issue in the past for almost all manufacturers, even on high-end fork models. It is not uncommon for suspension forks to come from the factory with too little or, in the worst cases, no lubricating oil. This will negatively affect an air spring much more than a coil spring because an air spring has much more sliding surface area that needs lubrication. If you get an air sprung fork and it feels extremely sticky and does slide smoothly through its travel, definitely bring this point up with your local bike shop mechanic.
Coil sprung forks are inherently much simpler and therefore have fewer sliding surfaces that add friction to the forks motion. But with this simplicity, you also lose the adjustability of being able to precisely adjust how hard or how soft the spring is with a shock pump. Adjusting the firmness of a coil spring can be done in two ways, through preload adjustment and changing out the spring. Preload is easily adjusted, usually with a dial on the fork, and can affect the sag of the fork but not the amount of force it absorbs.
Preload adjustment is more of a band-aid fix for the fact that fork spring increments are large and there is only so much you can do if the feel you are looking for is in between firmness increments. The other option is changing out the coil for a harder or softer one. In suspension forks, these are named arbitrarily as “soft, medium, hard, etc.”, unlike in rear shocks that come in specific pound per inch increments.
Which is better? It’s not a clear-cut answer. On lower end bikes I prefer a coil fork since the performance benefits are enough that I won’t miss the weight penalty and I won’t have to change the spring often rate once I find the right setup. While there may be a shift to purely air spring forks in the high-end market due to better and better air spring technology, this has not quite trickled down to entry-level air forks yet.
Another critical, but often overlooked, part of the fork is the axle type. One of the worst things about entry level forks is that they have yet to follow the trend on higher end forks of leaving the 9mm quick release standard behind. It is plain bad. While the 9mm quick release is probably cheaper to have spec’d, the flex that comes with it is a huge drawback to the overall capability of a bike. It results in more deflections of the front end in rough terrain, more fatigue in your hands from trying to tame the flexy fork and it will also result in poorer suspension performance because a flexing fork doesn’t slide as smoothly as a stiff one.
Unfortunately, you’re going to see a lot of $1000 bikes with forks that are still 9mm quick release. It is for this reason that any bike with a fork with a 15mm quick release axle spec’d gets a huge bump in value and performance in my books.
Rear Suspension – Is It A Good Idea or Just a Gimmick?
Bikes with suspension in the front and the rear are very rare in the $1000 price point and for good reason. It’s difficult to get below this price point without a significant compromise in some kind of essential componentry. A full suspension bike that hits the $1000 price point has to compromise componentry because a decent full suspension frame will always be significantly more expensive than even a very well-designed hardtail.
The addition of a full set of bearings, linkage components and most especially the rear shock, not to mention the additional work that has to go into designing a suspension system, makes it downright unheard of for a full suspension bike to hit the same price point as a hardtail without some compromise in another area of the build. Adding rear suspension to a bike doesn’t automatically make it superior to a hardtail either.
The simple hardtail has a lot going for it, lightweight, efficient pedaling, predictable handling, zero frame maintenance and they’re cheap to build. There are a lot of things that have to go right for a full suspension bike to be considered over a hardtail, but these things don’t come at a $1000 price tag. That’s why there isn’t any full suspension bikes on this list and it’s going to take almost another thousand dollars before they even start to outshine hardtails in terms of performance.
The Drivetrain – The Components Most People Are Obsessed With When Shopping For A Bike?
The gold standard for drivetrains at this price point for the past several years has been the Deore drivetrain. It has been for the past few years and has been refined with trickle-down tech from the higher end group sets of Shimano. It is the result of lots of steady refinement with the 10-speed drive train, even though the XT and XTR groupsets have moved on to 11 and 12 speed systems. Shimano has a strong reputation for performance, durability and just generally working as a default.
SRAM, on the other hand, hasn’t had the most stellar reputation when it comes to entry-level drivetrains in the past and has actually been uncompetitive in this market for some time. It has only recently come to the table with an alternative to Shimano, the NX groupset. This is the result of trickle-down tech from their X01 and GX 11-speed drivetrains and it has done a fantastic job of redeeming SRAMs place in the entry-level market. Although it comes in at a higher price than the Deore groupset, it brings with it an 11-speed rear derailleur with the fantastic design of the GX, X01 and XX models, just with more weight. It is still a new player and hasn’t quite challenged Shimano’s market share in the entry-level segment, but if the price comes down in the future, you may see this group set more often.
Regardless of the brand, a significant change that has started catching on with entry level bikes is the elimination of the front derailleur. At higher price points, this is less of a compromise since higher range rear derailleurs and cogs allow riders to have 1 single gear up front while keeping the wide range of gears. At the entry-level, the compromise is still there. In my opinion, it is still worth it.
Depending on what size front ring you chose, you can build your bike to be more prepared for climbs by having a smaller ring or more prepared for pedaling at speed and having a larger ring. The 11-42 cassettes you’ll see at this price bracket still don’t allow you to have the best of both worlds. But the single ring, combined with narrow wide chainring design and clutch derailleurs make the constant dropping of chains a thing of the past.
Dropping the front derailleur and granny gear for the peace of mind of knowing your chain will engage every time you put power to the pedals is an easy trade-off. I am sure that anyone who has ever gotten far too intimate with their stem and top tube due to pedaling with a dropped chain will agree with me.
Brakes – V-Brakes Are Sooooo 1999!
A decent mountain bike at around the 1000 dollars mark will not have v-brakes! When shopping for a bike the only option is disc brakes. This is another area where Shimano is the entry level king. Their “non-series” brakes, listed on specifications as the M315 Hydraulic Disc Brake, is a proven reliable, simple disc brake system. The only other brand you will see in entry-level builds is from Tektro. They don’t match Shimano in performance, reliability and industry presence but they do come in significantly cheaper and still do their job.
A good attribute of the cheap wheelsets used in these entry-level builds is that they use heavier components and are actually more durable than lighter weight counterparts. It’s for this reason that wheelsets are often neither highlights or problem components with these kinds of builds and rather just work without fuss. Some bikes feature tubeless-ready wheelsets which will actually come with tubes pre-installed on all bought bikes.
Even then, a wheelset is only convertible to tubeless with the use of tire sealant, a rim strip and a valve – tubeless ready or not. The tubeless-ready moniker is more of a set of small features that will increase the success of the tubeless conversion. But in my experience, the rate of success is more dependent on how liberal you are with your tire sealant than whether or not a system is branded tubeless-ready.
Cockpit and Other Componentry
The rest of the components on a bike are often specified with frame manufacturer branded components. You’ll often see these on the stem, seat post, handlebars, grips and many other small parts of the bike. For the most part, this is fine. It takes quite a bit more money to get any ride-benefiting optimization out of these components and the ones spec’d on these bikes are often just fine. There are highlights that can be spotted here though, such as dropper posts and wider handlebars.
Bicycle geometry is also something that has drastically changed in the last 3-4 years which has taken the capability of full suspension trail bikes to a whole new level. These changes are less pronounced on entry level hardtails but they definitely are definitely applicable to some extent. Little details like these are the entire reason why some bikes seem to just fit right while others don’t quite have that “love at first sit” feeling when first trying out a bike.
This change has also come with big shifts in sizing standards to match changes in geometry doctrines. This has been going on for quite some time but has only begun to trickle down to entry-level models in the past generation. This can mean that an early adopter’s bike, despite being the same “medium” or “small” size as a competitor’s bike, may fit completely different compared to a bike manufacturer that has been more conservative with adopting new geometry trends. For a closer look at how geometry measurements affect the ride of a bike and how new bikes have changed in this regard, check out this article on bike geometry.
In summary, what we are looking for in a solid mountain bike in the $1000 price range – this is going to be a bike that has been updated with the newest entry-level components available and that has progressively adopted new geometry trends that, I can safely say, is not a fleeting trend but is here to stay. Below are the best three bikes that will get you the most bang for the buck at under $1000.
My Picks for Mountain Bikes Under $1000
Ok, so rather than just list out a couple of bikes that I think are great options, I am going to tell you which bike I think is the bike I would pick for a specific category and I only had roughly $1000 to play with. This list is completely biased and based on what I think. I cannot claim any scientific rigour in complying this list (who can?!). So if you have some thoughts on a bike that you think should be on my list, but is not, please feel free to tell me so in the comments section below. I would love to hear your thoughts!
The Best 29’er Trail Bike and All-Arounder – Salsa Timberjack NX1 29
We did a full review of the Salsa Timberjack NX1 29, which you can read here.
Salsa may sound like generic brand when you first hear the name but they actually have a rich history in the mountain biking industry. They may have not grown to be a household name at bike shops with the likes of Trek or Specialized but they definitely have the heritage to back up their bikes. The Timberjack is proof of that and it justifiably gets a top spot on our list of the best thousand-dollar bikes.
The Timberjack NX1 29 combines progressive geometry with a thoughtful build of components that leaves us with a bike with very few compromises. The Timberjack 29 frame is a stand-out in the category with its sleek, but classic-looking, hydroformed tubes, beefy machined rear dropout, and its bright baby blue paint job. The performance goes the same way as the looks with very progressive geometry figures. It comes with a slack headtube angle at 68.0° and steeper seat tube angle at 73.6°. The sizing is also on point with reach measurements on all sizes corresponding to modern sizing standards that have been adopted by most frame manufacturers. A unique special feature in this bike is the mounting points for luggage racks on the frame. This is rare on a bike meant for trail riding but it’s great to have if ever you get coaxed into a multi-day ride into the backcountry.
The components on the Timberjack NX1 29 continues on the direction that the trail riding oriented frame geometry takes. The noteworthy points of the build begin with the 120mm Manitou Markhor fork that performs surprisingly well for this price point. It is definitely one of the standout forks among the ones you usually find at this price bracket. I did find the use of the 9mm QR to be disappointing, though, as a 15mm QR would make a huge difference in terms of stiffness, especially on a 29’er bike. The brightest highlight on the spec of the NX1 is the drivetrain. It comes with the exemplary, for the price point, NX drivetrain but without the weakest link in NX groupset, the cog set. Instead, a SunRace 11-42t cassette is installed instead of the boat anchor stock NX cog set. The only real components compromise on this build is the choice of Tektro brakes over Shimano brakes. The Tektro’s work fine out of the box and do their stopping duties, but brakes are something Shimano does incredibly well, even on their entry-level models.
The thought that went into designing a frame with modern geometry and coming with a thoughtful component spec that complements that geometry translates to a bike that is very capable. Its stability on trails and rough chatter is no surprise. Though what is surprising how it has remained an excellent long-distance cross-country bike despite its optimization for aptitude on the trails. The slacker head angle and longer modern sizing actually felt more comfortable to pedal with due to the roomier cockpit. The extended front also helped compensate for the slacker headtube which, on its own, might have made the bike more difficult to climb.
The Salsa Timberjack NX1 29 is top of the class when it comes to 29’ers at under $1000. The well-thought-out build leaves very few compromises and the adoption of modern geometry has greatly extended its capability on technical trails compared to bikes that have stuck with steeper head angles and shorter reaches. The extended capability on the technical descents without compromise on the rolling trails and climbs has given this bike unparalleled versatility, especially if you consider the built-in mounting points for baggage racks. All these come together to form a bike that has earned its place as one of the best bikes you can buy for under $1000.
The Best 27.5″ Trail Bike on a Budget – Kona Blast
Kona is not a name that comes up often when looking at budget bikes. They’ve built their reputation for decades as a no-nonsense, durable and down to earth bike company. They’ve taken this philosophy to full effect on the Kona Blast. This is Kona’s 27.5″-wheeled entry into entry-level mountain biking.
I can safely say that the Kona Blast is as close as it comes to a complete package of no-compromise componentry. Up front, it has a RockShox 30 Silver TK Solo Air with 100mm of travel. This is considered an upgrade over the coil version that many other bikes at this price point opt to spec and the air fork is great for beginners who can easily adjust the air pressure in their fork to choose between a harder, more controlled ride or a softer, more comfortable ride. Just like the Timberjack, a lowlight of the fork is it’s 9mm QR axle. A 15mm thru-axle is a massive improvement over the 9mm in terms of stiffness. This isn’t something that beginners will find apparent, but any experienced rider coming back from a fork with a large front axle will tell you just how much loss of stiffness and control you get from going back to a 9mm QR from a 15mm or 20mm thru-axle. A big highlight for the build on the Kona Blast is its full Shimano Deore group set.
Many bikes in this category will cheap out on some less noticeable components, but Kona did not. They have the Shimano Deore groupset on everything from the complete drivetrain to the rear hubs, the convenient center-lock rotors. The only component not included that is part of the Shimano Deore groupset is, what in my opinion, is its weakest link, the cranks. On the Blast, they’ve replaced them with the superior FSA Alpha Drive with a small 28t chainring for those especially brutal climbs. The rest of the build is what you would expect at the thousand-dollar price point, in-house cockpit and miscellaneous componentry with WTB i29 wheels and Trail Boss tires.
The Kona Blast frame is flawless by the numbers. It has up to date geometry, a slack 68.5° head tube angle, and a steep 74° seat tube angle. The reach numbers are right where they should be to match up with the latest sizing standards. The frame also has a lower standover height than almost all other bikes in this niche. This along with the 27.5″, in a category where 29’ers are more common, makes this bike a very good choice for shorter riders, or riders who prefer a nimbler ride. The design of the frame, in my opinion, is one of the best in its class. Entry-level cross-country hardtail usually come in sleek, small tubed and skinny but Kona sticks to its principles and makes the Blast look so rugged you might mistake it for dirt jump or slalom bike. The large, curved downtube, nearly straight line formed by the top tube and the seat stay, along with the slick seat tube mast make it fit right in with many far more expensive bikes.
It’s hard to find any major flaws on the Kona Blast. The in-house Kona componentry might not be exciting but its something that works as intended and also very easy to replace if you decide you want something flashier. The 29’er wheel size is more popular in this price bracket and, in my opinion, superior for the kind of riding this bike is going to see. But at the end of the day, wheel size is down to personal preference and there are a lot of people who have more fun on 27.5″ wheels. This bike sums up what Kona is about – it works and it works well.
It brings this philosophy to a bike in the sub $1000 price point. Which brings me to its greatest strength. It isn’t just sub-$1000, it actually comes in at quite a bit less than $900. I have judged the Blast above as a bike in this bracket but without considering the price as a factor. When it is considered, the choice is almost a no-brainer. You are getting something that is superior to just about every thousand-dollar bike out there for more than a hundred dollars less.
The Best Cross-Country Bike – Merida Big Nine 500
The Merida Big Nine 500 is different from the other top bikes on this list. While the Salsa Timberjack, the Kona Blast, and Giant Fathom all have adopted into the latest and greatest slack-long geometry craze and dropped their front derailleurs for more limited but more reliable single rings setups, the Merida Big Nine 500 sticks to tried and true numbers as well as the dual ring setup. But this setup has endured for a reason: it is designed to excel at cross country riding and climbs and it does exactly that very well. While I am of the opinion that new riders should get the most versatile bike possible to accommodate exposure to many different styles of riding, most mountain bike riders out there will end up riding cross country or already know that they are just fine with sticking with the smoother tracks.
The components on the Big Nine 500 are what has made this bike rise above many other cross-country focused hardtails out there. It has a Manitou Markhor air fork, which helps a lot in keeping the weight down. The drive train is a pure Shimano Deore groupset. I am pleasantly surprised to see them stick with the double ring setup where almost all of the competition is jumping on single ring setups when they can afford to spec the new Deore groupset. I am definitely a fan of the single ring setup, but for this bike and its intended purpose, the double ring makes a lot more sense. If you’re not going to see rough trails but you want to be able to get to where you’re going, whether that be on slow climbs or pedaling down fast fire roads, a double ring setup is the way to go. The components are rounded out by excellent Shimano brakes and a mix and match of Merida in-house components on the wheels and cockpit.
The geometry of the Big Nine frame is the weakest point of this bike. The reach sizing is generally one size smaller than what is standard today. But this can be worked around by simply buying a larger frame than what is recommended, but it will negatively affect you if you prefer the lower standover height you get on the smaller frames. The head angle is steep at 70° but that works well for the intended purpose of this bike. Another strong feature of this frame that complements the intended purpose the bike is its weight. The lightweight tubing of the frame makes it well suited for cross country purposes and puts the bike’s weight at just over 27lbs, one of the lightest in the thousand-dollar bike niche.
While the Merida Big Nine 500 has a flaw that would otherwise be a deal breaker. Its outdated geometry actually works very well with the drivetrain specified on the bike and its low weight. These complement each other to form a perfect entry level purpose-built cross-country bike. I’ve put it on this list because not everyone wants long, slack, trail-shredding machine. There are plenty of riders out there who know they want to ride far on gentle terrain and have the right bike to do it. For under a thousand dollars, this is absolutely the right bike for the job.
What if you went slightly over your $1000 budget, what kind of bike might be a really good buy then? There is a definite winner if you are willing to fork out just a few dollars more, in the form of the Giant Fathom 2. It is the bike I personally bought when I was looking for a hard-tail bike in this price range (and I love the bike! It is an awesome bike!!).
The Best 27.5″ Trail Bike for the Financially Undisciplined – Giant Fathom 2
The Giant Fathom 2 has been demoted to a special mention because cheats on its niche qualifications – it comes in at over $1150. The reason why I’ve included it is that it is absolutely worth the extra $150 and, who knows, you might see it on sale someday. The Fathom is a true hardtail trail bike that has a build and geometry that could compete against the purpose-built all-mountain hardtails.
The Fathom 2 has some hard-hitting specs that are almost unheard of at this price range. Chief of which is the dropper post. It’s not a great dropper post but it works – usually. A dropper post is a luxury item that you would expect to see working into builds at price ranges a thousand dollars above the one we’re looking at. It adds a huge amount of fun factor to trail riding by eliminating all those little stops just to adjust your seat height for descents. To many who haven’t tried it before this might seem like a gimmicky feature, but I haven’t met anyone who has tried it and not seen how much it improves the experience of a trail ride. Another highlight is the Suntour SF19 Raidon, which is a significant step up from forks you usually see in the thousand-dollar bike niche. It finally ditches the cheap looking stanchions on most entry level bikes for the smooth black anodized ones and, much more importantly, it has a 15mm thru-axle.
The bike is driven by the common but excellent Shimano Deore drivetrain. Another treat is the 780mm wide bars, which were once unique to downhill but have since they become common on all bikes that are meant to be ridden on technical terrain. The only disappointment on the build is the Tektro budget brakes. Although they work fine, I would expect to see the more expensive Shimano brakes on a bike this far passed the $1000 mark.
The Fathom frame has a geometry spec that is up to date and then some. It has the right reach number for each size and has a steep seat tube angle but it takes the head tube angle a degree further than the slackest you would usually find other cross-country trail hardtails. It comes in at 67°. The frame is also one of the best looking out there. It comes with a great finish and a, surprisingly rare, good set of paint design options. Giant has also made top-notch hardtails for decades and has the manufacturing process down. This is evident in the Fathom’s light, but stiff, frame.
The Giant Fathom 2 is a true trail bike. That is a rare title to have at this price range, even when it is significantly above the $1000 cut off. The dropper post, excellent geometry, frame design, and solid build make it well worth the extra dough. It would be my personal choice if I was looking for a bike with a thousand-dollar budget. This earns it a special mention on a list it shouldn’t even be qualified for.
I know a lot of people out there will have their own view on what they think the best mountain bike is for around $1000. We all have our distinct preference and requirements. For me, I would go with spending a few dollars more and buy the Giant Fathom 2 (in fact, that is exactly what I did!). So, I would really like to know if you have bought any of the bikes mentioned above and what you thought of it? Which bike that I did not list do you believe is without a doubt the best mountain bike under $1000?
You can leave us a comment in the comment section below and let us know. We would love to hear from you!