10 Best MTB, Road & Gravel Budget Bikes
So you want to upgrade?
Okay. You wanted to know what this cycling thing was all about (and get healthier and happier in the process), so you went and bought a real budget banger for your first bike: a hand-me-down, a classifieds bargain – or even something new and shiny off the floor, for the right price. After the first few rides, the bug’s bitten, and you’re addicted – cycling is the best thing since… since everything.
But now there’s a problem: your budget buy doesn’t quite fit your cycling aspirations. And you’ve grown an appreciation for better gear, and you’re looking at bigger events on a more reliable machine that will match your newly-found athleticism. You’re now an ‘enthusiast’. But you’re still budget-sensitive about blowing silly money on pro-level gear. Your first bike was R10k; a new machine shouldn’t be more than R15k, and you need it to provide a platform for accessing some proper sporting events without lacking in the tech department.
So, what do you buy?
At R15k, you’re getting into a blend of higher-spec and entry-level drivetrain components, while most cockpit parts and wheelsets will be from an in-house alloy brand. An aluminium frame is almost guaranteed. This isn’t a bad thing; there’s a lot be said for many inhouse components, and a good alu frame, hydroformed and butted (Google it!), will outdo an entry-level carbon frame any day of the week. Bear in mind that most road bikes will come with a carbon fork in any case; and mountain bikes will at least offer a decent fork, and tubeless-ready wheelsets. Gravel bikes are still a new area, and there are very few that come close to R15k. We’ve included some models just above that because they offer exceptional value.
All prices are recommended retail price.
1. Gravel Greatness: Momsen GP300
A value-driven alloy version of its big carbon sibling, the GP300 doesn’t pull any punches, with a tasteful satin-silver paint job and black/red graphics for a bit of flash. Chunky, neat welds keep the frame businesslike. While the frame angles and geometry look harsh at first, the fork is relaxed enough for stable handling at speed over the rough stuff, and the hydroformed tube shaping softens the look of the overall stance.
Though the spec may seem basic at first, it’s chosen with reliability and comfort in mind, and at a price that won’t break the bank and/or your significant other’s understanding temperament.
The 1×11 Sram Apex groupset on its own would come in at close to half the price of the GP300 – plus the Sphyre cable discs can easily be upgraded to Apex’s full hydraulic set, should you want better feel and modulation. That aside, braking feel is still smooth and predictable in most environments, and a better all-round option for varying weather conditions than traditional callipers.
Pro Tip: Lightly scuff your pads and discs with emery paper for better braking grip. Ask your LBS if you’re unsure.
Spec highlights: 1×11 Sram, thru-axle, tapered head tube, Internal cable routing, 650b-plus gravel tyres.
Bottom line: The GP300 offers punchy value for money, in a solid, versatile bike that’s ready to rock gravel, road riding, and the odd commute. The 650b wheels are good for comfort and rougher gravel; but throw on a set of 700c wheels, with a decent-volume tyre, and you’re good for tar rides and smoother dirt roads.
PRICE: R17 500
GET IT NOW: momsenbikes.com
2. Best For Beginners: Giant Fathom 29er 2
This Fathom is fun! That’s what first comes to mind when checking out Giant’s Fathom 2.
The paint job is smooth high-quality gloss with green and blue detail, giving the Fathom a notably high-end feel. The ALUXX alloy frame with internal cable routing is distinctly relaxed up front, with 780mm bars – and a Giant Contact dropper post. Yep, a dropper post on a bike under R15k! Not to mention the Contact has a reputation for being more than a little robust.
The set-up and frame geometry are more than capable of taking on more technically challenging trails – particularly when tackling obstacles on steeper gradients. Tyre clearance is generous enough for mud, or to size up to a 2.3- or 2.35-inch tyre width for a bit more cushioning. But the stock 2.2 tubeless-ready Maxxis Ikons are more than capable, and feature EXO protection.
The Shimano M315 brakes, with 160mm rear and 180mm front rotor, offer braking performance beyond their price, on par with many premium-level brands. A mix of Shimano’s Deore Shadow derailleur and Alivio shifters keeps things honest with a 2×9 set-up, while the FSA Comet crankset is a nice touch. And the Suntour Raidon shock is very consistent under most conditions.
Spec highlights: Suntour Raidon air fork, Giant Contact dropper post, 780mm bars, thru-axle on front fork, FSA Comet crankset.
Bottom line: The Fathom is clearly a cross-country-flavoured machine aimed at fun trail riding, but it’s capable of handling some tenacious hard charging when required. Slam the bar/stem set-up to your fit, and you have a stable bike that will rock normal cross-country missions with confidence; while the dropper is a keeper for all-round riding.
PRICE: R14 559
GET IT NOW: giant-bicycles.com
3. Heritage Quality: Specialized Rockhopper Expert
Few bikes offer the kind of ‘brand heritage’ Specialized’s Rockhopper does. For close to 40 years the Rockhopper has been synonymous with riders who want to saddle up and launch an offensive on their first race or ‘serious’ event.
A butted A1 alloy frame and internal cable routing make for clean lines, and a starting-line stance that means business. There are a couple of colour options available, and geometry tweaks across the sizing curve – important, as it means no awkward set-up sacrifices to riding style for the sake of just being able to fit on the bike. For example, the fork travel can range from 80 to 100mm from small to extra-large.
The drivetrain is fairly basic, with a 3×9 mix of Shimano Deore, Acera, Altus and Sunrace. That’s a pretty robust set-up, though; and while maintenance is low-cost, these are all wear components that can be upgraded when you replace them. And a 3×9 gearing will take you literally anywhere, up or down.
The Suntour XCR fork is a solid performer, and has an adjustable rebound air coil with a remote lockout. The cockpit and wheels are a blend of Specialized’s in-house components.
Spec highlights: Air fork, full internal cable routing, remote fork lockout lever, butted tubing throughout the frame, assorted colour options.
Bottom Line: The Rockhopper Expert has a quality frame that will last a good few upgrades over time, and give you access to the more competitive cross-country events. But it’s also great for just cruising with mates.
PRICE: R13 000
GET IT NOW: specialized.com
4. Plus-Size Fun: Trek Roscoe 7
Trek are quite insistent on going big with the Plus size, and the Roscoe range is indicative of that, with wider rims and tyres than standard set-ups. The Alpha Gold alloy frame has G2 geometry, built for ease of use and durability.
Paired with a 120mm fork, the Roscoe is ready for trail duty. (Though it’s a coil fork, it’s a decent performer, and the coil means lower service cost.) The charcoal paint job with dark teal graphics gives it a distinctly stealthy look.
Rolling on Plus-sized rubber will keep confidence high for newer riders, while experienced shredders will still be able to push the boundaries a bit. Bontrager-level spec is quality stuff, and keeps the value factor high.
Thanks to Deore, shifting is hassle-free across the range. The 1×10 requires a bit more commitment in terms of leg power, though, as the weight of the bike makes it slightly meaty.
The shorter stem and wider bar provide stable and responsive steering, in line with the trail focus of the Roscoe. But you could just as easily throw on a set of narrower tyres and set your sights on a marathon or two, if that’s your thing.
Spec highlights: Schwalbe tyres, Formula boost hubs, dropper post cable routing, 120mm-suspension travel fork, extended sizing range
Bottom Line: Fun and control, in a great-handling package – on a versatile bike with a little more bias towards the trail-shredding side.
PRICE: R15 099
GET IT NOW: trekbikes.com/za
5. Trail Slayer: Silverback Slade Expert
Silverback’s trail-driven Slade has seen a number of different design iterations over the years, but it seems the South African company, now based in Germany, has found the perfect groove with its latest offering.
Butted aluminium frame, dressed up in subtle grey with black and orange graphics, mated to a set of Sun Ringle 27.5+ wheels and an in-house dropper post – it all points towards the Slade’s trail preference. Other than the dropper post, full-length external cabling is easily accessible, keeping maintenance fuss-free.
The slack head angle (68.5°) and 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekons make for a sled that can be confidently cranked in turns and downs. Throw in a 740mm bar and that dropper post, and this bike is a confidence-boosting berm railer. At the same time, a hardtail frame mated to 2×10 gearing makes climbing a cinch.
The gearing is Deore with an XT Shadow rear derailleur, and a Race Face crankset – decent-spec, branded components. Dependable Shimano M315 brakes keep the stopping power consistent and controlled, though bigger or ‘faster’ riders may prefer to swop out the rear 160mm rotor for a 180mm, to match the front end.
Spec highlights: 120mm fork, thru-axle dropouts, dropper post, Sun Ringle wide rims, Shimano XT Shadow rear derailleur.
Bottom Line: Boatloads of traction and good dirty fun, thanks to plus-size tyres and a dropper post. And there’s less maintenance on a hardtail, while bigger tyres help with comfort and control over rougher trail terrain.
PRICE: R14 299
GET IT NOW: silverbacklab.com
6. Race-Ready Value: Momsen AL429
At a shade under R15k Momsen’s AL429 is a slick ’n stylish package, with a hydroformed aluminium frame in a suitably subtle matte-black finish and contrasting high-gloss black graphics, while the yellow/grey accents give it a ‘factory appeal’ that won’t leave you feeling you’re constrained by budget.
And that translates to the component spec as well, with 2×11 SLX drivetrain, a 100mm RockShox 30 silver air fork, and tubeless-ready tyres – a no-nonsense set-up for anyone with a competitive streak. The rest of the in-house Momsen Designs ensemble blends in with matching graphics, and is thoughtfully specced for reliability and ease of maintenance.
A 720mm handlebar offers good fit and control for most riders, and stays true to the thinking behind Momsen’s LSG (Long Slack Geometry) design mantra, with a good measure of stability and responsive steering. The shifting range (36/26t up front and 11-42t at the rear) will keep you upright and maintaining forward momentum through all manner of trail obstacles and terrain – outside of user error, at least!
2.1-inch may be a little on the narrow side, but with a slightly rounded profile and tread pattern the 72tpi Vee Tyres offer good traction and rolling speed, and they’re tubeless-ready. An inclusive touch is the mounting holes on the top tube – found across the whole range, including the race-orientated Vipa models – for the Momsen Designs Top Box, a storage compartment for spares and a tube.
Swing a leg over the AL429, and it shows a willingness to be pushed on the trail; point it down, and the smiles grow bigger, as the stable handling inspires a confidence that belies its price point.
Spec highlights: 2×11 SLX, air fork, internal cable routing, tubeless-ready wheels and tyres.
Bottom Line: The AL429 handles well – a competent performer in most situations, at a marginal weight penalty; a bang-for-buck performer that punches well above its class. All in all, a faithful weekend warrior for events and trail fun.
PRICE: R14 250
GET IT NOW: momsenbikes.com
7. Legacy Quality: GT Zaskar Comp
Many riders have fond memories (going back to the early 90s) and/or an emotional connection to GT and its historic Zaskar – the triple-triangle framesets were a favourite among privateer types, held in high esteem. Omnico, SA’s importers for GT, have kept up the tradition by speccing their entire Zaskar range with air forks – from the entry-level R9k models all the way up to (and beyond) the Zaskar Comp.
A RockShox 30 solo air fork, with remote poplock lockout and adjustable rebound, mates up to a double-butted alloy frame in a way that could be termed ‘racy, but tasteful’. All this is specced with a race-ready 1×11 mix of Shimano’s SLX and XT; a solid FSA crankset comes standard, with a 34T chainring.
2.2-inch WTB Nineline tyres keep the package race-ready, on WTB tubeless rims laced to centre-lock disc hubs. The Nineline tyres are specced at 27tpi, so they should be pretty robust – as well as fast rolling, with minimal tread pattern and a rounded profile.
Spec highlights: RockShox 30 air fork, remote lockout, Shimano 1×11 XT/SLX
Bottom Line: The Zaskar Comp is as close to R15k as a race-ready machine can be at this high a spec level. It speaks to the competitive rider starting out on a budget.
PRICE: R16 995
GET IT NOW: omnico.co.za
8. Classic Value: Specialized Allez Sport
With earlier models dating back to the late 1970s, the Allez continues to stand the test of time as a springboard for many riders starting out on the road.
The 2018 version has updated frame geometry that’s less aggressive than in previous years. Specialized call this their ‘wide range geometry’, and sourced set-up info from Retul to plug into the design hours spent refining the Allez, as well as shedding nearly half a kilo in weight.
The seat stays now flow into the seat tube below the top tube junction, resulting in a tighter and stiffer rear (something we all want!). That results in better climbing performance and compliance, while limiting vibration transfer to the top tube and bars.
Up front is a Fact carbon fork, to ease in some performance and smoother handling. (However, note that Specialized did issue a recall on forks earlier this year, so make sure – with your LBS, or with the rider care programme – that you have the upgrade.)
The overall look is classy – a pearly white with a slight metallic sheen, complemented by black graphics. For the rider who likes a bit of customisation, this is a frame that can be dressed up or down. An unusual feature is the rack and mudguard mounts, which are useful for wet-weather riding or commuting.
Shimano Sora STI keeps shifting smooth and crisp without any fuss, and is generally easy on the maintenance budget. The 9-speed Praxis and Sunrace 11/32 to 34/50 gearing is perfect for those personal bests, up or down.
Equally, the Axis wheelset and Tektro brakes are a solid combo for a confident feel. The 25c Espoir tyres hold their own, and there’s plenty of wiggle room for tyres up to 28c.
Spec highlights: E5 alloy frameset, internal cable routing, Specialized’s Fact monocoque carbon fork, updated geometry.
Bottom line: The Allez Sport has a quality frame and feel that will last a good few upgrades over time, and it flies on fast club rides, races and quick city commutes. A comfortable bike, that won’t lack in the performance department at your favourite century ride.
PRICE: R14 000
GET IT NOW: specialized.com
9. The Great-Value All-Rounder: Giant Contend SL2
Giant is one of the world’s largest bike manufacturers; the Contend is a safe bet for riders wanting to access the cycling world and looking for a brand they feel they can trust.
Thanks to Giant’s design background and alu expertise, the Contend’s butted ALUXX frame is well proportioned – with clean lines, thanks to internal cable routing, double pass welds, a high-gloss paint job and comfortable geometry.
You get a slightly more upright position, while the shorter stays ensure the bike handles nimbly enough without being unpredictable. A nice touch is the neat seatpost clamp and rubber seal, mated to a composite seatpost to help smooth out the ride.
A full Shimano Tiagra set-up with 11/32 to 34/50 gearing ensures you can put in all the big miles you
like. Giant’s in-house-manufactured wheelset and tyres, with Tektro brakes, provide the finishing touches to a reliable and hassle-free build that will see you through many an endurance ride or sporting event.
Spec highlights: ALUXX framset, Giant D-Fuse composite seatpost, composite fork.
Bottom Line: Giant’s Contend is a contender, up there among the best of them with its high-level aluminium frame. A solid balance between value, performance and comfort, with great back-up service.
PRICE: R14 390
GET IT NOW: giant-bicycles.com/za
10. Road Domination: Silverback Strela Expert Disc
Since Eurobike 2012, through the flagship Scalera, Silverback have been disrupting their road models with trickle-down tech. The Strela Expert Disc is a bold example of this – perhaps not so much in physical appearance, but in pulling off a bike at just over R16K with a full Shimano 105 groupset and hydraulic disc brakes.
All this is strapped onto a butted aluminium frame with slightly racy geometry, formed stays, internal cable routing, a carbon fork, and thru-axles front and rear. While the stays are formed with narrow tubing for compliance, the rest of the frame is ovalised along the top and down tubes, making for a stiff and responsive ride that may sacrifice some comfort. But your sportive sprints will yield better acceleration.
The paint job hasn’t been ignored either: semi-matte dark-grey stealth and gloss-black graphics, offset by neon-yellow detail around the frame and components, and two-tone bar tape. While the welds are chunky and raw in appearance, they are neatly beaded; whether the aesthetic appeals or not will come down to personal preference.
The full spec of Shimano 105 and hydraulic discs is a boon. 105 is known for its reliability and performance, while the hydraulic brakes speak for themselves at this price point. Thru-axles front and rear add to frame stiffness, while a colour-matched carbon fork takes advantage of that stiffness for precise handling on the Vittoria Sanfrino tyres.
Spec highlights: Hydraulic disc brakes, thru-axles front and rear, full Shimano 105, carbon fork
Bottom line: This is such great value, we had to double-check the price. Great spec on a solid frame, and the hydraulic discs are a bonus at this price point.
PRICE: R16 799
GET IT NOW: silverbacklab.com