Mountain bikes are a passport to adventure, fitness and thrills but at a price.
For those riders who are considering entry to the wonderful world of off-road and singletrack cycling, or current mountain bikers adhering to strict budgetary discipline, there are some great value hardtail options.
Trickle-down economics work in the mountain biking world. The calibre of technology and features available on budget mountain bikes would have been considered entirely credible for a mid-spec model in 2010.
You can now have hydraulic disc brakes and reliable front suspension on your mountain bike for under £500, not to mention wider handlebars and frames angles that are inspiring to ride. Whereas entry-level mountain bikes were often commuter frames with some additional tube strength to cope with off-road terrain, the modern budget mountain bike has proper geometry to ensure peak rider enjoyment when descending technical terrain.
We already have a guide covering the best mountain bikes under £1000 but what if you want to spend less but still shred the trails. Keep reading for our pick of the best mountain bikes under £500 or skip to the bottom for advice on how to choose.
Alternatively, if your budget can stretch a little further, our guide to the best mountain bikes under £2000 pushes the spec list up another notch, and our guide to the best hardtail mountain bikes sets the benchmark for the sector.
Best mountain bikes under £500
From the Californian cycling brand with a deserved reputation for innovation, comes the Rockhopper. Like most of its rivals, this mountain bike uses Shimano’s Altus drivetrain components, stacked in a 2x9 configuration.
The aluminium frame has a neat appearance with tidy weld points and internal frame routing to ensure a clean aesthetic. Suntour’s XCM coil-sprung fork does duty on all Rockhopper Sports, with the smaller frames running it at 90mm of travel, whilst medium and larger sizes up that to 100mm.
All SR Suntour forks on these Specialized Rockhoppers feature a similar 42mm offset, chosen to work with some very balanced geometry numbers. With a 68.5° head angle Specialized’s Rockhopper is not the slackest budget mountain bike, but you will never feel unbalanced when descending. On a size L frame, the reach number is 445mm, which is about average.
Wheels and tires are what give you the greatest confidence navigating off-road terrain and slippery trails. Tire specification on the Rockhopper is Specialized’s generously sized 29x2.3in Ground Control Sports, seated on relatively broad 25mm internal diameter rims.
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From the world’s largest frame company, comes a very convincing value hardtail. The Talon might be light on price, but it does not sacrifice in terms of construction or components.
The sheer scale of Giant’s business and purchasing leverage allows for some rather nice components on this sub-£500 bike. Tektro TDK hydraulic disc brakes control your momentum out on the trail and there are decently sized Maxxis Ikon 2.2in tires which roll you along.
Steering you into corners is a very generously sized Giant handlebar, which measures 780mm in length, creating very adequate leverage and riding stability in technical terrain. With a slack 67.5° head angle, the Talon will come into its own when navigating down steeper trails.
Good specification and clever geometry are complemented by the Talon’s exceptional range of frame sizes, which total no less than six, available in both the 27.5- and 29-inch wheel sizes.
There is nothing fishy about Trek’s Marlin 5 hardtail mountain bike. The Wisconsin bike brand delivers a broad frame sizing spectrum with its Marlin 5, rolling the XS and S versions on 27.5in wheels, whilst all other sizes benefit from proportionally appropriate 29in wheels.
Shimano’s entry-level Altus and Tourney components blend to form the 3x7 drivetrain. Geometry isn’t quite as daring as some other bikes on our list, but with a 69.5° head angle, the Marlin 5 will make an adept climbing bike and comfortable gravel road tourer.
There are different stem lengths too, corresponding to frame, size, with the smallest Marlins running a 50mm stem and the largest bikes, 90mm. The company’s Blendr stem is also brilliantly adaptable, pairing easily with various head unit mounts for cycling computers, GPS devices or lights.
If you are an adventurous trail rider on a budget, the Mantra is for you. Although it has broadly similar mechanical features to all the other bikes listed, such as a front derailleur enabled drivetrain, Saracen’s Mantra features by far the most progressive geometry.
With a 66° head angle it has a slacker front end than any of its rivals, dramatically improving descending confidence. A slacker head angle will keep you more centrally orientated over the bike, when descending steep terrain, instead of pitching your weight too far forwards. Beyond the relaxed head angle, Saracen’s Mantra is also long, with the size L frame having 465mm of reach, a number which should deliver great high-speed stability, especially when rolling over technical terrain.
Impressive frame geometry can easily be undone by an incorrect handlebar width and oversized stem. Saracen’s product planners have built the Mantra with a 760mm width handlebar, clamped to a compact 50mm stem, allowing for excellent steering leverage in technical terrain. The only issue is that it rolls exclusively on the 27.5in wheelsize, which means that large riders might feel more comfortable on one of the Mantra's 29er rivals.
Germany’s value brand takes aim at the most affordable mountain bike segment with its interpretation of budget 29er.
The Cube Pro Aim presents an interesting geometry set with a class average head angle of 69° but very short reach numbers. For novice riders the shorter reach values will initially feel comforting, creating the illusion of a smaller and more controllable bike, but high-speed stability is the sacrifice.
These Cubes are better purposed as all-terrain touring bikes with front suspension, instead of singletrack capable mountain bikes. The narrow 680mm standard handlebar is a case in point, indicated the cruiser purpose.
Cube has equipped the Pro Aim with a Shimano 3x8 drivetrain which gives it a very generous spread of gearing. No matter what the terrain or cadence requirement, you will not be at a loss for finding the correct gear with this mountain bike.
With a brand history stretching way back into 1977, when it started as a BMX business, Diamondback has been building bikes for a long time.
The company’s entry-level Overdrive 29 1 combines dependable Shimano components with easy riding geometry numbers. Unlike most contemporary mountain bikes, with their slack head angles, this Overdrive 29 1 has a much steeper front end, rated at 71°, which should make it a very efficient climber but awkward descender.
Suntour provides the front fork, which is a 100mm coil-sprung configuration, promising a very low service burden. The Shimano Altus drivetrain features a double-chainring (36/22t) and eight-speed rear cassette, for a total of 16 gears, which should deliver enough pedalling leverage for steep climbs and keeping a tidy cadence on flatter fire roads.
A disappointment in terms of the Diamondback Overdrive 29’s specification is its brakes, which are not hydraulic, but mechanical.
How to choose the best mountain bikes under £500
The angles of your mountain bike frame make all the difference. As mountain bike designers have spent the past four decades transitioning away from the road bike roots of frame design, they have discovered two measurements that have a meaningful impact on your off-road cycling experience: head angles and reach.
By creating longer front triangles, with more relaxed head tubes, your weight distribution and steering influence are better coordinated on challenging trails. A slacker head angle prevents that awful feeling of pitching over the bars as you start descending a particularly steep trail. It compensates for the gradient you are attempting to negotiate and keeps you more confidently in position to steer and guide the bike downhill.
Longer bikes are more stable and at speed, when your tires can be deflected by rocks or roots, the reduced twitchiness of a bike with greater reach, is often the difference between reacting correctly to a terrain input, and crashing.
Good geometry is not complicated. It merely requires considered design, even with a budget bike. Great geometry costs the same as average geometry in terms of engineering and production. It is heartening to see that some of the new budget bikes are bringing much slacker angles and roomier front triangles to market, making for bikes that a lot more confidence inspiring to ride off-road.
2. Rim width
Wider wheels allow for lower tire pressures and a more natural shaping of the casing when inflated.
On premium mountain bikes the standard internal rim width is now between 25- and 30mm, allowing riders to benefit from the increased traction and ride comfort of lower pressures, used in combination with larger volume tires.
Narrow rims in the 20-23mm range constrain the structure of a tire when inflated, creating a lightbulb shape which can roll and squirm through high-speed corners, instead of providing accurate steering feedback and predictable traction.
Wider rims are even more important on budget mountain bikes, because of their axles. Due to cost, entry-level bikes use quick-release skewers, instead of stouter thru-axles, resulting in less overall lateral rigidity and greater flex throughout the frame. This is especially true of a budget mountain bike’s rear axle, which only has a 135mm axle spacing.
By running a wide rim, you can compensate for the issue by having your tires shape larger when inflated, allowing them to absorb more terrain forces as you ride along, reducing flex forced on the frame.
3. Tire size
Mountain biking is deeply addictive and although you might be on a budget, the longing for better components will soon start. By far the most effective upgrade in terms of immediate trail riding reward is better tires.
Your contact pact with terrain has an enormous influence on steering and braking performance, especially when rolling over loose, muddy or technical terrain. The trend is towards larger tire volumes, with a 2.25in width casing now considering the minimum. Larger tires in the 2.3-2.4in range add marginal rotating mass, but the benefit they deliver in terms of ride quality and traction are immense.
Consider running different tread patterns front and rear. When descending, your mountain bike’s steering dynamics and braking are facilitated by the front tire and it makes a great deal more sense to run something with larger tread blocks at the front. Your rear tire is transferring power to drive the bike forwards on flat fire roads or climbs, and there you can save energy and lower the rolling resistance by running a tire with less aggressive tread blocks.