If you're after a cheap bike and want to find the best mountain bikes for under £500 available now then look no further. It’s totally possible to get a bike that’s up to the task of proper off-road riding without breaking the bank, but there’s a big difference in how durable and enjoyable the best on the market are compared to the also-rans. Happily, we test hundreds of bikes every year, so we’re ideally placed to let you know which cut the mustard.
What should I look for?
The heart of any bike is the frame. At this sort of money you’ll generally want to be looking for a frame made of aluminium rather than heavier and cheaper steel.
The next thing you need to think about is the kit that makes it stop and go. The number of gears the bike has isn’t the be all and end all, but a higher number of gears often means smaller steps between shifts and a wider total range, which can be really important when you’re hauling up a big hill. At £500 or under, having nine gears at the back paired to a crank with three rings up front is ideal, but cheaper bikes may have just eight at the rear.
Getting going is useless unless you can stop and happily most bikes at this price now come with motorcycle-style disc brakes, which offer much better all-conditions performance than brakes that use the rim of the wheel to stop. Brakes that use hydraulic fluid rather than cables are a big plus as they require less maintenance and give more consistent bite.
When it comes to tyres, it’s worth deciding just how much time you’re likely to be spending actually riding the bike off-road. If you just fancy a bike for getting to work or very occasional off-road use but don’t fancy the looks or riding position of road or hybrid-style bikes then a mountain bike is a good choice, but knobbly, proper off-road tyres will make the going hard. It’s worth asking if the shop doesn’t mind switching the tyres to slicks or hybrid tyres that have a mix of knobbly tread for cornering grip on the edge and a flatter centre for pedalling speed.
Suspension forks are a big plus when it comes to control and comfort off-road, but because many forks can cost £500 (or double that) just on their own, the units fitted at this price can vary wildly in performance and longevity, as well as the adjustment control on offer. While it seems like a downgrade, a rigid (non suspension) fork can be a good choice on a lower priced bike as the money saved can be used on other areas of the bike that may have a bigger impact on performance.
What should I avoid?
At this sort of money, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to get a full suspension bike that’s any good. Quite simply, it’s going to be significantly heavier and it’s likely to offer very little advantage in comfort or control - in fact, quite the opposite as many will lack any form of damping control. Imagine riding a heavy pogo stick with wheels and you’ll pretty much have the experience summed up.
Weight is an inevitable side product of lower-cost bikes, something doubly true for mountain bikes as they need to be able to take a beating. Our reviews will list the weight and the effect it has, but cheaper bikes inevitably take a bit more effort to get up the hills than more expensive machines. It’s not all bad though – just think of how much fitter and faster you’ll be getting…
Okay, show me what’s best!
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 16 December 2015. If you can afford to spend a little more, check out our Best mountain bikes under £1,000 article.
The best mountain bikes under £500
There’s a good chance you won’t have heard of Calibre. That’s because it's an newish 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.
13 Incline Alpha
While it might come right up against the £500 price limit, it’s all money well spent with the 13, so much so that it’s definitely an unlucky number for most of its rivals. The aluminium frame has smoothed welds, which help it look really classy, while the Suntour Raidon fork really delivers thanks to stiff 32mm legs and an air spring that’s adjustable to rider weight. The fat WTB Trail Boss tyres give really great grip too, allowing you to push harder. It’s an ‘all the bike you really need’ bargain that’s brilliant, no-limits-fun on the trail.
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 many other sub-£500 bikes that can touch it.
Saracen Tufftrax Comp Disc
With a highly manipulated hydroformed aluminium frame with trail-friendly angles and reasonably well-controlled SR Suntour fork, the Tufftrax encourages you to push harder with an enjoyably responsive and well balanced feel. Other high points include the nine-speed Shimano Altus gearing with stiff, forged alloy one-piece crank and spider with replaceable rings, while the 720mm wide bar and 80mm stem help boost control. We also found the WTB Nano tyres worked well in all but the deepest mud, though while the rest of the bike encouraged speed, the ProMax Solve hydraulic discs sometimes struggled to get rid of it. It won’t always seal the deal on more challenging trails, but you’ll certainly enjoy yourself while having a go.
Specialized has done a decent job with the amount of cash its had to splash, and the result is a reasonably responsive and controlled bike that could certainly be much worse. The aluminium frame can feel punishing on rough trails and we’d rather have a eight rather than nine gears at the back, but the EZ-Fire shifters are intuitive to use and the wheels are usefully light, helping to give a keen and responsive feel. We did struggle to get more than 70mm of travel from the claimed 100mm on offer and the cable disc brakes do need more adjustment than the hydraulic units found on other bikes.
Saracen Mantra (2014 edition)
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 wallet-friendly trail tamer got a complete makeover in 2014, 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 up-to-date 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.
Merida Big.Nine 40
Merida’s wallet-friendly line of Matts hardtails offered riders on a budget 26in-wheeled trail fun for a good few years. When the time came to embrace 29ers, 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 real sense of fun.
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. Updated with 29er wheels, 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 holds it back.
Don’t forget that the UK's Cycle To Work Scheme allows you to buy a bike worth up to £1000, so it may be worth checking out our roundup of the best mountain bikes under £1000.
For more information on buying a sub-£500 mountain bike, check out our buyer's guide.