The Best Budget Bikes for Road and Trail
Top-end bicycles are higher tech and better than ever. But so are the budget models.
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Bikes are infinitely better than they were a decade ago. They’re also more expensive. But that doesn’t mean you need to spend a ton of money to get a bike you’ll love. While I believe that technological advancements have made the higher price tags for premium models worth it, it’s also true that these advances are making all bikes—not just pricey ones—better.
Bike models get refreshed every two to three years, and often the previous top-of-the-line frames become the current model year’s mid- and low-end options, so you can get the improvements without all the hype and cost. Even the least expensive models are now getting stocked with features once reserved for the costliest bikes, including tubeless-ready rims and tires, adjustable air suspension, and dropper posts. And thanks to trickle-down improvements, third- or even fourth-tier components now shift and brake as well as the top-shelf stuff a few years ago.
Of course, buying an inexpensive bike isn’t going to get you the pinnacle of performance. Frames are generally heavier and less refined; shifting and braking, while good, won’t be as crisp; and you won’t get the latest, greatest tech, such as through-axles, carbon parts, and flat-mount disc brakes. The biggest concession on less expensive bikes is weight—and while I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there’s no appreciable difference between a 21-pound hardtail and a 31-pounder, I will say that in the grand scheme of things, if you're stoked on riding, you’re going to have a great time on either one.
It’s really cool that cyclists can buy the exact same bikes the best professionals in the world ride. Think about that in the context of other sports: a weekend motocross rider who wants the same bike as Eli Tomac would be looking at tens of thousands of dollars, and your average sailor can’t afford to go pick up an America’s Cup ship. You can, on the other hand, ride the same bike Aaron Gwin used to win the Downhill World Cup, or the one that Froome has ridden to Grand Tour victory. But honestly, most people don’t value, don’t need, and may not even take advantage of that sort of tech. For most of us, a good, sturdy, affordable bike is the ticket. Fortunately, there are lots of those out there and they are better than ever.
Best All-Road Bike
Salsa Journeyman Sora 650 ($1,100)
The Salsa Journeyman released about a month ago, and with the all-purpose, big-tired, drop-bar bike, the Minneapolis-based company makes a strong statement of support for the average rider. I tested the Journeyman Sora 650, and the value and ride quality blew me away. The alloy frame looks great and has clearance for huge tires, well more than the 2.1’s that come standard. The bike has mounts for just about everything, including three bottle cages, fenders, utility cages, and even a feed bag on the top tube, which is sadly rare on even the most expensive bikes. The flare bars are nicely shaped, the wheels are tubeless ready (and set up easily), and the Maxxis Nano 2.1 tires are a great and durable tread.
The 2×9 Shimano Sora drivetrain gave me plenty of gear range even for a long dirt-road ride to high altitude, and shifting was surprisingly crisp and accurate. If I had to name a shortcoming, it would be the mechanical disc brakes, which are a bit soft and muddy feeling, but they are also flat-mount and work very well considering the price. At 25.7 pounds, it’s not light, yet it feels surprisingly chipper. I’ve ridden everything from pavement to forest roads and even some singletrack, and this bike has handled it all.
Bottom Line: Nothing about the Journeyman feels like a come-down. It is a great gravel machine, can accept 700c wheels if you spend more time on pavement (there’s also a 700c model), and with all the mounts it would make a great crossover commuter.
Best Road Bike
Specialized Allez Elite ($1,200)
I ride a lot of high-end road bikes, and the truth is, every time I return to the Specialized Allez Elite, I think, “That’s plenty of road bike for me.” Like many of the big manufacturers, Specialized has refined aluminum fabrication, and this bike is smooth and stiff without the harshness associated with old-school alloy. The Shimano 105 group set is nothing short of remarkable, as the shifting feels basically as buttery and accurate as top-line Dura Ace. The Allez has nice turnover when you’re climbing out of the saddle, sprints respectably well, and isn’t nervous or jittery like some race bikes. True, I’d rather have disc brakes than the rim variety here, but that’s partly a question of cost and likely a question of time. For a bit softer ride I’d also prefer slightly fatter tires than its 25c’s, but that’s niggling since you can switch as soon as these wear out.
Bottom Line: A good hard-working roadie and probably about as much bike as most people need. If you switched the wheelset to something light (I have), it makes a great entry-level race bike to boot.
Trek Roscoe 8 ($1,250)
The value proposition represented by the Trek Roscoe 8 is almost mind-boggling. You get a 1×11 SRAM NX drivetrain, decent SunRinglé 27.5 wheels with great all-around 2.8-inch Schwalbe tires, a nice adjustable RockShox Judy fork, and a Bontrager dropper post, all for less than the cost of the suspension fork on many mountain bikes. As with the Allez, the Roscoe uses high-quality hydroformed aluminum for the frame, which isn’t the lightest in this application—full bike weight is 31 pounds—but yields a pleasant ride quality. And I’m a big fan of the plus-size rubber for hardtails, because you get the grip and some of the cushiness of a full-suspension bike without all the complication, weight, and expense. Again, the brakes—hydraulic Shimano M315’s—are the biggest weak spot here: ponderous feeling and not super powerful, though they work just fine. I pedaled this on a handful of trails throughout Santa Fe, which is admittedly not a super technical destination, and each time I rode away thinking, “I could easily and happily ride this as my primary bike here.”
Bottom Line: An excellent, high-value starter bike or a great full-time ride if your local trails aren’t too technical. And let it be said, this bike can rip as hard as you’re willing to.
Best Full-Suspension Mountain Bike
Heller Barghest NX ($3,000)
There are less expensive bikes on the market than the Heller Barghest NX, but none offer so much value in such a capable package. For one, a full-carbon (even the rear triangle) frame at this price is fairly unheard of. (There are lots of great full-suspension alloy bikes that save money without sacrificing performance, such as the Santa Cruz 5010 or the Diamondback Catch 2.) And the Minneapolis-based brand has hit all the frame details right, too, including a long, low geometry for confident handling; 130 millimeters of rear travel, which is a nice sweet spot for all-around trail riding; and clean, internal cable routings. The 27.5+ wheels provide incredible traction and confidence, and the SRAM NX1 drive train performs as well as the good stuff and saves you the hassle of a front derailleur. I personally would have preferred a 28-tooth chainring given the bike’s weight (30.6 pounds), but that’s terrain specific and an easy switch if you so choose. Heller saves money with the Manitou suspension, including 140-millimeter Machete fork (as opposed to Fox or RockShox), and while I found the air shocks a bit tricky to get right and rudimentary feeling compared to high-end stuff, they did the job just fine on some of Tucson’s most rugged rocky trails.
Bottom Line: It would be difficult to find a full-carbon full-suspension mountain bike for less than the Barghest, especially one that rides this well. It’s an ideal all-around trail bike that can hold its own on anything from buttery singletrack to ugly rocks and roots.