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 stopping power.
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 bikes or hybrid 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…
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 8th August 2016. 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
Price: £399 (with discount card, £500 otherwise)
- Amazing kit for the money
- Great handling
- Decent, lightweight aluminium frame
There’s a good chance you won’t have heard of Calibre. That’s because it's a 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.
Canyon Grand Canyon AL 3.9
- Great value machine with excellent spec
- Traditionally sharp cross country handling
- 29er wheels help smooth bumps
If you're after a high value bike for taking on traditional cross-country riding rather than more descending focused fun, then the Grand Canyon really hits the spot. The RockShox XC30 forks do a decent job of taming the bumps there's also a bar mounted lockout for the 100mm of travel for climbing duties. A 27spd Shimano transmission is nice and smooth, with plenty of gear range for hauling up hills or bashing out road sections. A tough splined bottom bracket on the cranks is a bonus too.
13 Incline Alpha
- Suntour Raidon forks offers bump taming performance
- Confident inspiring handling
- Classy looking aluminium frame
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.
- Hard hitting trail machine
- 120mm travel Suntour fork
- Slightly wooden feeling brakes
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 seen that many other sub-£500 bikes that can touch it.
Specialized Pitch Sport 650b
- Quality frame with lively handling thanks to the smaller 650b wheels
- SR Suntour fork isn't particularly stiff or well controlled
- Tektro hydraulic disc brakes offer decent enough power but not masses of feel
- 29" wheels help smooth out bumps
- Great aluminium frame and nine-speed transmission
- Weighty wheels are a bit of a drag
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 new mountain bike, check out our buyer's guide to the best mountain bikes.