Welcome to T3's guide to the best cheap mountain bikes under £500. Bike sales have gone through the roof this year as quieter roads encouraged more of us than ever to discover the healthy pleasures of taking in the world on two wheels. If you really want to get away from it all though, exploring the trails on a mountain bike is one of the best ways to experience the wilder places out there and take in truly fresh air.
If you're new to bikes or are making your first bike purchase in a long time, look to budget for around £500 on a mountain bike. This will get you a steed that's rugged enough to handle the vast majority of off-road trails – without destroying both rider and bike in the process.
Should you have a bigger budget, many of the models featured here are also available as higher specced versions built around the same frame, but usually with lighter wheels, a superior fork and better components. We've also got a guide on the best mountain bike overall, so make sure you check that out as well. And if you're hazy on what kind of bike you actually need, our road bike vs mountain bike explainer will shed some light on the difference between the two.
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The best cheap mountain bike: buying tips
Even at the entry level prices we're looking at here, modern mountain bikes are highly evolved machines that can happily hoover up thousands of miles of single-track and anything you might encounter on a blue run at your local trail centre without complaint.
Modern frame geometry has evolved from short and upright to longer, lower and more relaxed. The vast majority of new bikes have slacker head angles, lower bottom bracket heights and longer wheelbases that give a much more stable and confidence boosting ride.
Changes in componentry have also helped make mountain bikes easier to ride and simpler to use. Wider rims and tyres give improved grip and help remove trail buzz (particularly when set-up tubeless and then run at lower pressures), while wider bars and shorter stems allow for more precise piloting control.
The front mech is almost a thing of the past on the modern trail bike which simplifies gear selection, results in a lighter bike and makes gear indexing far easier to get right. You can get exactly the same range from a gear system with a single front ring and widely spaced 10 or 11-speed cassette as you could with a traditional triple or double front ring and a narrower, 8 or 9-speed cassette. The only real negative is bigger jumps between gears.
At the prices we're looking at here, frames will be constructed with either steel or aluminium alloys. Aluminium frames tend to be lighter, but are also slightly more expensive, so you will likely see lower spec components on aluminium bikes. We've never come across a carbon fibre bike anywhere near the £500 mark, but if such a thing is out there somewhere, it's sure to have cut a lot of corners in its construction, so you'd be wise to give it a very wide berth.
Similarly, while there are plenty of decent bikes equipped with suspension forks at this price, there are also a few fairly horrible full-suspension bikes, so give them the swerve too. Most forks found on £500 bikes are of the heavier and less tunable coil-spring variety, but there are some superior air-sprung fork equipped bikes out there, so keep your eyes peeled for them.
Being way more powerful than their rim-based equivalents, disc brakes are now standard equipment on mountain bikes and they basically come in two forms. Hydraulically controlled disc brakes are the ones to look out for as they provide superior power as well as near-instantaneous control. That said, the stopping power of cable-pull disc brakes vastly improves on anything you'd find on most rim brakes too.
The best mountain bike under £500
The Nucleus from Vitus has been picking up best entry-level mountain bike awards for a number of years now and this updated model is our top choice for 2021. This latest Nucleus is the first to feature 1x gearing consisting of a single 32t chainring up front and a 11-40t cassette at the rear. While a single shifter makes the bike simpler to use and the small, single chainring gives extra clearance over obstacles, the wide-ranging cassette is only 8-speed, so the gaps between gears are fairly large.
Also new this year is a Suntour air-sprung fork with 20mm more travel than the previous model, which allows the Nucleus to soak up heftier hits. While this boosts the bike's capabilities on tougher trails, it's a shame the new fork is not of the wider and more predictable Boost variety found on the 2020 Nucleus. Despite a couple of small spec compromises, the latest Nucleus is still a confidence inspiring and highly capable bike at a seriously competitive price. It comes in four frame sizes, 27.5 and 29 wheel options, a female-specific model and also a VRS version with fancier components for those with deeper pockets.
Calibre has a long-standing reputation of building bikes than ride incredibly well at a price that not many other manufacturers can come close to. While previous versions of the Two Cubed had lower price tags, making them proper bargains, creeping costs means while the 2021 incarnation is still an excellent bike, it can now only be described as 'decent value'.
A long wheelbase gives a super-stable ride and the 760mm wide handlebars combined with a 60mm stem allow for precise piloting that helps to instil rider confidence. The coil sprung, 100mm RockShox fork is standard issue at this price, but it's still a solid and reliable performer. Likewise, the hydraulic Tektro disc brakes (with a 180mm rotor up front) do a decent job when you need to throw the anchors on. Last year's 3x9 Shimano gearing has been replaced by a 2x9 version which is a touch lighter and gives more clearance over obstacles. While it's a shame that the Two Cubed is no longer the absolute steal it once was, it is still one of the best entry-level bikes available and well worth the money.
While Merida's entry-level 29er may be not quite as capable as some of the other bikes here on gnarlier trails. With more cross-country orientated geometry and bigger wheels, it's definitely the one to go for if you want to hoon it around less threatening trails at serious warp speeds. The 100mm coil-sprung Suntour fork does a good job of smoothing out small trail bumps and isn't bad at handling bigger hits either. The component highlight though is the pair of Shimano hydraulic disk brakes that do a better job than the Tektro equivalents found on many of the Big Nine 15's price rivals. The brakes are nicely matched with a chainset and 2x8-speed gearing which completes a full Shimano groupset. The narrow rims and 2.2in tyres are both Merida branded and like the frame itself, geared towards maximum speed as opposed to tons of stability and grip.
Evans' in-house bike brand, Pinnacle, is renowned for producing great bikes that are serious value for money. The Kapur 2 is a shining example of this and punches well above its price tag, boasting spec well above similarly priced big brand rivals. The frame's double and triple butting helps reduce unnecessary weight and improves rider comfort. A relatively relaxed headtube angle and low bottom bracket height mean the Kapur's trail-orientated geometry is ideal for hurtling around non-threatening terrain with confidence. The reach is a little on the short side though, so you may want to check out the bikes in one of Evans stores before deciding which size suits you best. While the Suntour XCR32 fork may be coil-sprung and pretty basic, it is surprising well controlled. If you've got an extra £100 or so though, take a look at the Kapur 3 which comes with a vastly superior air-sprung RockShox Recon RL fork and host of other upgrades.
Marin's shapeshifting Bobcat Trail 3 is a versatile all-rounder that's ideal for longer days out trail exploring. It comes in four sizes, with the small and medium rolling on 27.5-inch wheels, while the large and XL sized bikes sport 29-inch wheels which is great to see. The aluminium frame features modern and well-balanced geometry that's equally at home on undulating trails as it is on steep climbs. The 120mm coil-sprung fork does its job well enough in the 27.5-inch version, but can get a bit squirrelly when pushing the 29-inch incarnation hard.
The hydraulic Tektro brakes provide more than enough stopping power for the needs of the Bobcat. However, with only an 8-speed cassette, the gaps between gears are fairly large and shifting is a tad clunky. The 25mm Marin rims are built upon unbranded hubs and shod with unbranded tyres. While the low-profile tyres have a rapid rolling speed, they can be a handful on wet trails.
Plus-sized tyres don't generally come cheap, so you might expect the rest of the Wazoo’s components to be below par to make up for the chunky rubber hoops. Well, think again: somehow Voodoo has sourced decent spec all round. You get Shimano Acera 2x9 gears, a Suntour chainset, Clarks M1 brakes – legendary for punching way above their price point – and more besides. Plus bikes live or die by the performance of their tyres and happily the 3-inch Kenda Havoc Sports are great all-rounders, giving plenty of grip and shock absorption when run at optimal plus-tyre pressures of 15 to 20 psi. They also do a great job of making any fork feel plusher than it actually is, and the combo of plus-tyres with the 130mm Suntour fork mean you can take decent sized hits in your stride.
One word of warning: while the tyres mean you’ll be able to get the Wazoo up to some proper warp speeds on flat or downward trails, you’re definitely going to be feeling it on the climbs, as you've got almost 16kg of bike to heave uphill. It'll help burn those calories, that's for sure.