If you're after a cheap bike and want to find the best mountain bikes for under £500 available now then look no further. But first, be aware that what you're getting might not be suitable for all types of off-road riding. Here's why:
The good news is that these days sub-£500 mountain bike frames are usually good quality lightweight (for the money) aluminium offerings, which are much better than they were a decade ago.
The gears and brakes usually work efficiently now too, both on and off road – although if you want disc brakes, look for hydraulic models rather than the more maintenance hungry cable-pull offerings.
Weight is one area where the sub-£500 genre suffers. A genuinely off-road-worthy bike built on a low budget needs to carry excess weight in almost all of its component parts to make it resistant to abuse – an unavoidable part of off-road riding. The heavier a bike is, the slower it is to accelerate, and the harder work it is on the climbs.
Our main complaint with most budget mountain bikes is their poor suspension. Three main types of mountain bike are available – rigid (with no suspension), hardtail (with a suspension fork at the front) and full-suspension (with both front and rear shock absorbers). At this pricepoint, we'd always recommend ignoring full-suspension bikes because they're simply too heavy and the suspension doesn't work well enough.
So, are front-suspension-only bikes the best option? Not necessarily. Most new sub-£500 mountain bikes come equipped with a suspension fork. Manufacturers say that's because it's what riders want, and that's partly true. But what a lot of new riders don't realise is that many suspension forks on sub-£500 bikes are so bad that they can make trail riding harder rather than easier.
They're heavier than a rigid fork and most of them suffer from poor rebound damping – that's the way the fork recoils to full extension after it's compressed on a bump. We've tested some sub-£500 mountain bikes where the clunk of the fork rebounding back to full extension is harsh enough to almost knock your hands off the handlebars.
Until forks on sub-£500 bikes improve – and logic dictates that they will in the near future – we're happy to point occasional off-road riders towards the few mountain bikes still available with rigid forks. It's also worth bearing in mind that, with the massive variety of 26in tyres available these days, it's very easy to make a mountain bike style commuter into a trailworthy bike, or vice versa.
Here's a selection of the best currently available 'budget' bikes we've reviewed, for a mix of on and off-road use. All these bikes were available to buy online or in store as of 26 February 2014. If you can afford to spend a little more, check out our Best mountain bikes under £1,000 article.
Best mountain bikes under £500
The Vitus Vee-1 29 is a low cost utility bike that doubles up as a fun off-road option if you fit a smaller chainring. Its simplicity is both its beauty and its downfall. This is a basic bike for urban work and play, with a strong emphasis on play. As it is, it's very capable of tackling anything from going to work, school, shopping or playing on street structures, but it has potential to be a great low-cost single-gear mountain bike too.
This Saracen manages the tricky balancing act of being stable enough to reassure a newcomer but flighty enough to offer some reward when the same novice starts to get the hang of things. The well thought-out and detail-packed frame forms the basis for an agile and confident handling bike.
Carrera Vulcan (2012)
The Carrera Vulcan is a bit on the weighty side but some careful upgrades – tyres and fork, in particular – over time would take care of that. As it stands, it’s a very impressive beginner’s machine, with a solid spec that includes hydraulic disc brakes. If you’re new to riding off-road it’ll likely feel a bit odd to start with but trust us on this – the Vulcan is impeccably well balanced.
There’s a good chance you won’t have heard of Calibre. That’s because they’re an all-new brand belonging to – and available exclusively from – outdoors mega-retailers GO Outdoors. We’ve already given the range-topping Point.50 a decent thrashing and came away impressed. The question is, can the distinctly more budget-minded Two.Two square up to more expensive rivals from established brands? And the answer is yes: Calibre’s Two.Two is a seriously impressive bike for the money, outperforming plenty of the more expensive competition.
Available exclusively from Halfords, the Aizan has – like all Voodoos – been designed by Mountain Bike Hall of Fame racer Joe Murray. If the sloping top tube design looks familiar, that’s because Murray was one of its earliest proponents, back in the late 1980s. Brought bang up to date with 29erwheels, a nine-speed transmission and a 120mm (4.7in) travel fork, the Aizan looks like a great deal on paper. And our conclusion after thoroughly test-riding it: Joe Murray knows how to design a frame – but the weighty wheelset prevents this from shining.
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Comfort and shock absorption are the Kraken’s biggest attributes. It’s well above average for the price, with only the clunky fork lockout detracting from that. But it’s not really meant for steady urban use so you won’t need the lockout much. As a hard-hitting trail machine, we haven’t tested another sub-£500 bike that can touch it.
Islabikes Beinn 29
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When champion off-road racer Isla Rowntree set up the Islabikes brand, she was aiming to create the best kids’ bikes on the market. In her spare time she’s custom-built some superb adults' bikes for herself and a few friends. The Beinn 29 is her ﬁrst off-the-peg adult offering, and it's a great choice for any off-road beginner.
Saracen Mantra (2014)
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Saracen’s budget Mantra hardtail has been a mainstay of the British brand’s range for some time, offering affordable long-travel thrills in a package that’s robust enough to take a few knocks in its stride. The big news for 2014 is that the wallet-friendly trail tamer has had a complete makeover, all in the name of running bigger wheels. The long-travel fork, easygoing geometry and rugged frame build are all still here, but now with 650b hoops. And we're glad to say that those mid-size wheels haven’t taken the fun out of Saracen’s entry-level ride, though the fork is something of a disappointment.
Voodoo Hoodoo (2012)
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At a time when some £500 bikes seem lower specced than a couple of years ago, the Voodoo Hoodoo is a breath of fresh air, and mainly because of the fork. The fact that the frame and its associated kit are good too is a double bonus.
Merida Big.Nine 40
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Merida’s wallet-friendly line of Matts hardtails has offered riders on a budget 26in-wheeled trail fun for several years now. Last year the company’s race team embraced 29ers, but we’ve had to wait until now for the big-wheelers to filter down to mere mortal level. Rather than shoehorn the bigger wheels into a tweaked Matts chassis, Merida’s designers started with a blank sheet of paper. The result is the Big.Nine 40, which is a decent stab at a budget big-wheeler, only lacking one thing: a sense of fun.