For that price, you'll usually get a good quality lightweight (for the money) aluminum frame, efficient gears and hydraulic disc brakes, and a suspension fork that's more of a help than a hindrance. Pay less and you risk ending up with a bike that's overweight – and therefore harder work to pedal – and has components that'll rapidly wear out.
We put nine contenders to the test last year — eight hardtails (mountain bikes with front suspension but a rigid rear end) and one full-suspension bike — with the goal of finding a trio of machines that cost $1,000 or less that we'd recommend to our own family and friends.
Who won in 2011?
In the end — due to a rigorous 42-category numeric rating system — we came up with the podium without too much debate: Felt’s Nine Sport in gold, Cannondale’s Trail SL 3 in silver (both with four-star BikeRadar ratings) and the Scott Scale 29 Comp in bronze with 3.5 stars.
Also worthy of mention were the Redline D600 with its well rounded complete package and the Specialized Rockhopper Comp, which came with slider dropouts for easy singlespeed conversions if you're so inclined. Trek’s Mamba had the best suspension fork on test and a decent frame, but this also meant compromises when it came to the accompanying components and overall weight.
2011's top bikes
Felt Nine Sport
The Felt Nine Sport is a 29er – that's to say it's one of the growing number of mountain bikes with 29in wheels rather than standard 26in ones. Like any new development, 29ers have their supporters and their critics — see our article The Truth Behind 29ers for more on this — but the bigger wheels definitely offer some major advantages for beginners. They roll over uneven terrain more easily and offer confidence-boosting stability, for starters.
The Felt may not offer the most impressive spec on paper — it's one of the few bikes in this group with old-fashioned square-taper cranks, for example — but the complete package won us over with its surprisingly capable and entertaining mix of great handling, a properly adjustable and well controlled fork, competent hydraulic disc brakes with a 180mm front rotor, and fantastic tires that were fast rolling yet very grippy, with predictable breakaway characteristics.
Overall weight is decidedly middle-of-the-road, but like all good bikes, it feels lighter than it is on the trail. Also, while there are a few disappointments spec-wise, Felt's product managers have wisely put their money where it'll make more of an impact in the real world. One caveat: we did break the rebound damper on the fork during an admittedly sloppy run through a high-speed rock garden. So why did the Felt still win? We'd rather have a good-performing fork that might need to be repaired if pushed hard (hopefully under warranty) than one that doesn't work well even when at its best.
- Standout features: Best complete 29in-wheeled package on test
- Pros: Fork performance (before it broke); joint best tires on test (WTB Prowler 29, a tie with the Scott’s Schwalbe Rocket Rons); Tektro Draco brakes
- Cons: We broke the fork; soft crank materials may not hold up well over time
- Weight 13.97kg/30.29lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.12kg/11.29lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, cassette, skewers)
Cannondale’s Trail SL 3 would have won the test, hands down, if it had 29in wheels. As it is, 26in wheels are still preferable to some riders and on tighter terrain, and this bike is at the top of its class. The frame's stiff rear end hampered comfort on bumpy terrain, despite use of Cannondale's SAVE technology – basically, the chain- and seatstays have a degree of vertical flex built in to help soak up bumps.
The tyres were also a bit of a letdown for beginner riders: Kenda Small Block 8s roll fast but lack grip. However, the Trail is the second lightest bike in this group and it really has the best overall component package, from a fork that offers working adjustments and a 1.5in alloy steerer, to category-leading Tektro hydraulic disc brakes and a flawless drivetrain with a Shimano Octalink bottom bracket spindle.
- Stand out feature: Best complete 26in-wheeled package
- Pros: Runner-up fork to the Trek’s RockShox Tora; great handlebar and stem; flawless drivetrain (SRAM X5); Tektro Draco brakes
- Cons: Slightly flexy front end; stiff rear end hampered comfort; sketchy tires for beginners
- Weight: 12.89kg/28.43lb. Wheelset: 4.69kg/10.36lb
Scott have done an excellent job of condensing the performance and feel of their top-end race 29ers into the more budget-friendly Scale 29 Comp. The aggressive position is suitable for competition or just heading out for a day on the trails, the handling offers the best mix of stability and agility in this group, and the frame rides well and yet is reassuringly stiff where it needs to be.
Scott have somehow also managed to trim more weight off of the Scale 29 Comp than any other bike in this test despite the big wheels and being the third cheapest in the lot. Toss in the excellent 2.25in-wide Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires, bump-eating wheel size, capable Tektro Draco hydraulic disc brakes with 180mm front rotor, and the excellent geometry, and the Scott easily wins the price-to-fun competition.
In fact, the only major letdown is the Suntour fork, with its overly linear spring rate (ie. the suspension feels the same throughout its travel, rather than stiffening up under bigger hits like on a 'progressive' fork) and easily overwhelmed damping (the control system which affects how quickly the fork compresses when it hits a bump and then returns – rebounds – to full travel).
We frequently bottomed it out (used up all the suspension travel) on fast downhills and lost confidence through rocky corners relative to better controlled forks like the RockShox Dart or Tora. We also knocked the rear wheel out of true – though that could have been caused by a less-than-stellar landing on a small hip jump.
- Standout features: Lightweight; best frame overall in terms of geometry, ride feel and performance; joint best tires on test (Schwalbe Rocket Ron 29x2.25, a tie with WTB Prowler 29); Tektro Draco brakes with 180mm front rotor
- Pros: Great overall 29er package; excellent value; only a fork away from a being a great beginner race bike
- Cons: Fork isn't as good as the rest of the bike; rear spoke tension seems low
- Weight: 12.84kg/28.32lb. Wheelset: 4.83kg/10.66lb
We learned a lot doing this test – not the least of which is that you really can get a legitimate trail bike for that amount of money. However, 2012 brings not only a new year but also a fresh new crop of contenders vying for the top spot including updated versions of some of the bikes we tested in 2011 plus a few additional competitors we've haven't sampled yet.
Here's what we'll be looking at in the coming months:
Cannondale Trail SL3
Last year's Cannondale Trail SL3 was the best-placed bike in our test with 26in wheels. In fact, we stated that that bike probably would have been the hands-down winner had it had 29in wheels instead. Cannondale do make such a beast, but it falls out of our price range so the smaller-wheeled version will make a return visit for 2012.
Cannondale have addressed one of our chief complaints with a switch to grippier-looking Schwalbe Rapid Rob tires, though, and we're also hopeful the Shimano hydraulic disc brakes will offer a better lever feel than the slightly wooden Tektro Dracos from last year.
Diamondback Overdrive Comp 29'er
New to our sub-US$1,000 mountain bike test is the Diamondback Overdrive Comp 29'er and – at least on paper – it's a serious contender for the top spot. The butted aluminum frame sports some promising geometry, but it's the spec that has our mouths watering.
Key standouts include a RockShox XC32 fork with adjustable rebound damping, a 3x10 SRAM X-5 drivetrain with a super wide gear range, Hayes hydraulic disc brakes, double-walled Weinmann rims, and fat 2.2in-wide WTB rubber.
Depending on the frame weight, this could very well be the lightest bike of the test, too, but we'll have to wait until we receive a sample to verify.
Felt Nine Sport
This is essentially the exact same bike as last year's winner but with new paint and graphics, which is fine with us – no sense changing a winning formula. Last year's bike wasn't the lightest on test nor the most appealing on paper but it turned out to be a fantastic complete package and we expect this new version to be no different.
GT Karakoram 2.0
Built around GT's iconic Triple Triangle frame geometry with hydro formed and butted aluminum tubing, the 2012 Karakoram 2.0 also includes a rebound-adjustable RockShox XC28 fork, a Shimano Acera/Alivio/Deore drivetrain with a SRAM nine-speed cassette and FSA crank, and those workhorse Tektro Draco hydraulic disc brakes that so pleasantly surprised us last year.
Geometry is pretty middle of the road with a 70.5-71-degree head tube angle, 58mm of bottom bracket drop, and 445mm-long chain stays so we're not expecting any groundbreaking in terms of handling but we're hopeful for a competent ride out of this one.
Jamis Exile Sport
We were disappointed in the old-school geometry and harsh ride of the Jamis Durango 2 we tested here last year but if we learned anything throughout the experience, it's that larger diameter wheels can make a big difference at this price point and Jamis has an all-new alloy 29er hardtail frame for 2012 that looks promising.
Big jumps in Jamis' pricing structure mean we'll be testing a bike that's appreciably less expensive than average this time, and the parts spec looks to suffer accordingly with cable actuated Hayes disc brakes, an eight-speed Shimano Alivio/Acera drivetrain with square taper cranks, and heavy wheels.
Weight isn't everything, though, and the Exile Sport's fat 2.2in-wide tires, 30mm fork stanchions, and tapered front end could certainly yield a confident ride. We'll find out soon enough.
Just like with the Jamis, Kona don't currently offer a bike with a price that falls right at or below our US$1,000 threshold, but we didn’t want to leave the well-known brand out of the mix for a second year so what we're left with is the Mahuna 29er alloy hardtail.
Spec quality suffers as a result what with the bike's eight-speed SRAM X4 transmission and square taper FSA Comet crankset but Kona's product managers have managed to squeeze in Avid's hydraulic Elixir 1 disc brakes and WTB SpeedDisc All Mountain wheels. The butted frame is also built with 7000-series aluminum instead of the more common 6000-series alloy and there are also a few smart choices like 2.2in-wide tires and a 180mm-diameter front rotor.
Last year's Redline D600 was one of the big surprises of the group with one of the sweetest ride qualities, and a parts package that didn't shine on paper but worked well on the trail—that is, as long as you had the legs to keep up.
Our chief complaint was the very tall gearing, which wasn't very conducive to a beginner mountain biker who perhaps won't have the required fitness to fully enjoy what was otherwise a quality bike. That hasn't changed for 2012 but we still expect the slightly updated version to deliver a noteworthy performance during its second appearance.
Scott Scale 29 Comp
The Scott Scale 29 Comp climbs in price by US$50 but still looks to be one of the best values for 2012 with the same stellar frame, outstanding geometry, and a great parts package that included especially noteworthy tires. The new version will come with a slightly wider bar for better control but unfortunately, still no adjustable rebound damping, which is one of the only key performance items that kept it from the number one spot last year.
Specialized Rockhopper 29
Last year's Rockhopper Comp 29er gets a US$110 price hike this year, which puts it out of contention for our second go-around. Luckily, though, the standard Rockhopper 29, has just a couple of drivetrain downgrades, so we'll see how it holds up once we get our hands on one. Also gone are the sliding dropouts so singlespeed conversions won't be as easy.
Perhaps our biggest letdown from last year's group test was the Trek Mamba, which had the best frame-and-fork combination of the lot by far but was hampered by an overly compromised spec that detracted too much from the overall performance to be ignored.
Trek have stepped up for 2012, however, producing what looks to be a much more worthy and well rounded successor. The fork gets a modest chassis downgrade to the new RockShox XC32 setup from the previous Tora but upgrades from the '11 bike include a nine-speed rear end with more appropriate gearing, Shimano hydraulic disc brakes instead of last year's Avid mechanical setup, wider bars, and faster rolling tires that should help mask whatever heft remains—we have high hopes for this one.
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