“Know thyself,” mountain biker. Sage advice as you upgrade from pawn shop clunker to trail-worthy steed. If you’re uncertain how your riding style or plans might evolve, have no fear. Active Junky’s picks give you upside potential, so you can tackle longer rides and more difficult terrain in coming months and years. And don’t forget to sign up for Active Junky for exclusive deals and cashback on your gear purchases.
The Chameleon is back again—the affordable, capable beast in Santa Cruz’s hardtail lineup. While lacking the comfort of a full suspension ride, this Santa Cruz hardtail is going to be significantly more rugged than most full suspension rigs in this price range—ultimately meaning longevity and less mechanical issues on the trail. Many riders will end up customizing this bike: the 130 mm RockShox fork can be swapped with compatible forks in the 110-150 range, while the included 11-36 t Shimano SLX cassette is often switched out for a single speed setup. Hence, ladies and gentlemen, the name “Chameleon.” Wild as it may be, this beast isn’t for riders in search of a camouflage option—it’s for burly (albeit clean) lines and boosting off packed dirt.
Key Attribute: Customizability
Best For: A secondary hardtail setup; a first serious mountain bike for those who don’t want to break the bank and like to ride fast
Most of Santa Cruz frames alone cost as much as the Superlight D. So why so cheap? Opting for simplicity and sturdiness, the Superlight is, ironically enough, far from the lightest rig in the Santa Cruz lineup. The aluminum frame handles bumps and bails, while the 100mm fork is enough for trail-tackling riders who aren’t looking for the A-line. An equally sturdy and simple Shimano drivetrain keeps things whirring, making this a smart buy that should last entry-level bikers a few years at the least. Note: smaller sizes rely on 27.5s; large and extra-large frames are complemented by 29 inch tires.
Key Attribute: Durability
Best For: Upgrading to a full suspension trail bike; 100mm of travel in a reliable package.
Known for their budget-conscious builds and fashion-driven design, Giant gives buyers great value. Their new Stance 27.5 rings in at just below $2K, all while providing 120mm of Single Pivot travel paired with air suspension and a 2x10 drivetrain. If it’s an entry-level full suspension rig you’re after, the Stance offers an excellent package with all the latest technology while undercutting our $2,000 threshold.
Key Attribute: Functionality
Best For: Trail lovers looking to benefit from new technology without much hype.
Opting to forgo rear suspension, riders are treated to a nice buildout with the Rockhopper Pro Evo. Its capable and versatile geometry, paired with a dropper post, makes Rockhopper a jack-of-all trades for very few Benjamins. Out back, a SRAM 2x10 drivetrain with Type 2 Clutch rear derailleur, Tektro Hydraulic disc brakes and RockShox XC32 120mm fork deliver a nice mix of contemporary technology; we like this kind of function that sheds the ostentatious in favor of pure value.
Key Attribute: Components
Best For: Aggressive, budget-oriented riders
Born in the mountains of the northwest, Kona integrates down to earth functionality with thoughtful builds. The Kona Taro is a trail-oriented hardtail with slack angles, short chainstays and big wheels. This combo allows you to maneuver this steed with confidence and playfulness. A 1x10 drivetrain perfected with a RaceFace narrow-wide chainring and Shimano SLX Clutch derailleur captures a new build mentality in a stock bike. This build is one many seasoned riders prefer for its confidence-inspiring geometry (approx. $1,399).
Key Attribute: Geometry
Best For: Bigger riders testing their technical skills without breaking parts in the process
This 120mm 29er features one of the most versatile options on the market. Designed as a do-it-all rig, the Fuel EX is a great choice for riders out to challenge themselves with longer rides while exploring technical terrain. Trek’s G2 geometry creates a maneuverable 29er while the Active Braking Pivot (ABP) allows the rear wheel’s suspension to remaining active even under hard braking. This combo paired with excellent tunability creates an adaptable machine with great bang for the buck – though just over our 2K limit.
Key Attribute: Suspension Technology
Best For: Beginner to intermediate primed to go far, fast and technical
Ladies looking to enjoy more terrain will find the Rumor a great reasonably priced women’s-specific rig. With 110mm of FSR suspension travel coupled with 29” wheels, this bike transforms the ride experience in many ways. Not only will big wheels navigate up and over features, but also the Rumor offers a more relaxed and balanced position. Obvious features aside, air suspension, a 2x10 drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes make the Rumor an excellent – and serious – choice for $2000.
Key Attribute: Women’s specific full suspension
Best For: Beginner/intermediate women hunting for a world of challenges
Images via Jordan Carr