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Best mountain bikes under £500: buyer's guide

Joseph Delves
30 Nov 2020

Cyclist helps you locate the best mountain bikes costing less than £500

I’ll confess that on being sent out to round up the best mountain bikes under £500 I was apprehensive of what I might discover. However, each of the bikes listed here managed to impress with kit lists and a level of performance that well exceed their budget pricing.

For a start, each arrives with a light aluminium frame, serviceable suspension fork and disc brakes. Building on this, some also manage to find funds for modern gearing standards, lighter wheels and fast-rolling tyres.

Allowing you to deal with pretty much anything that might be thrown up by the average trail centre or cross-country loop, each would make for a great first foray into off-road riding. So read on for the lowdown on our seven favourite mountain bikes for under £500...

The best mountain bikes under £500

1. The best trail mountain bike for under £500: Trek Marlin 5

Buy now from Trek for £440

Taking cues from Trek’s posher trail bikes, the Marlin 5 both looks and rides like a far more expensive machine. With internal cabling, subtle mounts for racks and mudguards, plus a metallic paint job it’s very likeable. Unlike some other bikes at this price, its capabilities aren’t stymied by a lack of suspension travel either, with the SR Suntour XCE fork providing a generous 100mm of bump-absorbing goodness.

Being able to call on in-house component brand Bontrager means the Marlin 5 is also extremely well outfitted. Often overlooked items like the saddle, seatpost, bars and grips are all excellent. As are more important areas, like the wheels and tyres.

It also manages hydraulic discs – in fact, about the only thing we’d like to see changed is the slightly outdated 3x7-speed drivetrain. Still, given its price, the Trek Marlin remains an exceptionally capable trail bike.

Frame: Alpha Silver Aluminium Fork: SR Suntour XCE (100mm) Gears: Shimano Tourney 3x7 Brakes: Tektro hydraulic  Tyre size: Bontrager XR2 Comp 29 x 2.20-inch Additional features: N/a

Buy now from Trek for £440

2. The best XC mountain bike for under £500: Cube Aim Race

Buy now from Wiggle for £499

Leaving you a quid for a post-ride Mars bar, the Cube Aim Race is as fast as its name suggests. As speedy a bike as you’ll find at this price, it’s ideal for quick blasts, and could even serve as an entry-level XC racer.

Along with a fairly low and lean chassis, fast 29-inch wheels and rapid Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres help the Aim make efficient use of its rider’s efforts. The all-Shimano 3x8-speed gearing uses a quality Acera derailleur to shunt the chain.

However, despite the wide-range it provides, our personal preference would be for a simpler single-ring setup for ease of maintenance – something that would also have improved the look of the already very attractive Aim Race.

Frame: Aluminium Lite Fork: SR Suntour XCM (100mm) Gears: Shimano Acera 3x8-speed Brakes: Shimano hydraulic disc Tyre size: Schwalbe Smart Sam 29 x 2.1-inch Additional features: N/a

Buy now from Wiggle for £499

3. The best aggressive mountain bike for under £500: Specialized Rockhopper 27.5

Buy now from Leisurelakes for £449

This little hooligan of a hardtail from Specialized is more than ready to pop a wheelie or huck a jump. With an emphasis on fun and manoeuvrability, it uses more compact 27.5-inch wheels rather than the larger 29-inch standard. Wrapped up in beefy Ground Control Sport tyres, the result is a bike that’s always up for playing out.

Matching the bike to its rider, the Suntour XCE fork is tuned to the bike’s size and provides a custom level of both pre-load and travel from 80-100mm. A mix of Shimano and Microshift components make up its basic but on-trend 2x8-speed drivetrain.

Cable rather than hydraulic disc brakes are another slight concession to price. Still, the Rockhopper is a more-than-capable machine for all-day riding – or a superb place to spend an hour reprising just the most fun bits.

Frame: Premium A1 Aluminum Fork: SR Suntour XCE Gears: 2x8-speed Brakes: Radius CX7 mechanical disc Tyre size: Ground Control Sport 27.5 x 2.3-inch Additional features: N/A

Buy now from Leisurelakes for £449

4. The best-balanced mountain bike for under £500: Orbea MX 50

Buy now from Tredz for £449

It’s very hard to find a weak link on Orbea’s well-rounded MX 50. Quality throughout, Shimano supplies both its 2x8-speed drivetrain and its excellent MT200 hydraulic disc brakes. With 100mm of suspension travel, wide 720mm bars and 2.35-inch Kenda tyres, the MX 50 is a capable machine on rougher terrain.

However, with a decent reach and moderate overall weight, it’s not a drag on less technical trails. The frame itself is relatively light, routes its cables internally and features unobtrusive mounts for a rack and fenders should you wish to fit them. Finally, little touches like the Selle Royal saddle and stout twin-bolt seatpost also do nothing to let the side down.

The result is a versatile and well-built bike that nevertheless manages to come in 10% under our budget cap.

Frame: Orbea MX Alloy Fork: SR Suntour XCE 28 (100mm) Gears: Shimano Acera 2x8-speed Brakes: Shimano hydraulic disc Tyre size: Kenda K 29x x 2.35-inch Additional features: N/A

Buy now from Tredz for £449

5. The best mountain bike under £500 for smaller riders: Giant Talon 3

Buy now from Tredz for £449

The adaptive Giant Talon 3 changes both the diameter of its wheels and the depth of its suspension depending on its frame size. Allowing it to provide the best ride possible, this will be particularly welcomed by riders at the lower end of the height spectrum.

Seeing either 27.5 or 29-inch wheels matched to a corresponding degree of suspension travel, at the heart of the bike is a light and very nicely designed aluminium frame that’s suited to all forms of general off-road use.

The kit hanging off it is generally good quality too. However, while managing Tektro hydraulic disc brakes the Shimano 2x7-speed gearing relies on a more basic screw-on freewheel as opposed to a cassette system. It gives away a little weight, but this can easily be overlooked given the price.

Frame: ALUXX aluminium Fork: SR Suntour XCE (100mm) Gears: Shimano 2x7-speed Brakes: Tektro hydraulic disc Tyre size: Maxxis Ikon 2.2-inch Additional features: Size-specific wheels and suspension

Buy now from Tredz for £449

6. The best cheap and aggressive mountain bike under £500: GT Aggressor Expert

Buy now from Tredz for £430

Sporting the brand’s famous triple-triangle frame design, the GT Aggressor Expert is as aggro as its name would suggest. With a relaxed trail geometry, decent length wheelbase and plentiful stand-over, it’s ready to be chucked about the trail.

Of course, any bike rolls on its wheels and the GT’s excellent WTB SX19 rims and Ranger Comp tyres do nothing to slow the GT down. Providing decent acceleration and plenty of grip, the tyre’s increased volume also helps keep things smooth – a good job as the 80mm of suspension travel lags slightly behind what some rivals offer.

Down the budget end of our list, the Microshift 3x8-speed gearing is competent but a bit clunky. More pleasing are the powerful hydraulic Tektro disc brakes. All in, a good value mountain bike with manners that make the most of the fun bits.

Frame: 6061 T6 Aluminum Fork: SR Suntour XCM-DS (80mm) Gears: Microshift 3x8-speed Brakes: Tektro hydraulic disc Tyre size: WTB Ranger Comp 29 x 2.25-inch Additional features: N/A

Buy now from Tredz for £430

7. The best budget mountain bike for under £500: Cannondale Trail 8

Buy now from Rutland for £420

A crazy amount of bike for the money, the Trail 8 provides both the well-recognised Cannondale name along with a frame worthy of bearing it. Light, neat and eminently upgradeable, the rest of the bike isn’t bad either.

The SR Suntour fork is reliable and provides an only slightly limited amount of suspension. Ditto the Tektro brakes, which are cable rather than hydraulic, yet still do the job well. The simplified 2x7-speed Microshift gearing works well and is tolerant of lazy maintenance.

Complementing the frame’s modern geometry, the medium length stem and wide bars help the pilot keep a steady course. Also aiding the handling, the Trail 8’s wheel size changes as the frame grows, seeing smaller riders get 27.5-wheels, while the larger sizes get better matched 29-inch wheels. Regardless of which you end up on, they’ll come wrapped in WTB’s excellent high-volume and fast-rolling Ranger tyres.

Frame: SmartForm C3 Alloy Fork: SR Suntour M3030 (75mm) Gears: Microshift 2x7 Brakes: Tektro cable disc Tyre size: WTB Ranger Comp 2.25-inch Additional features: Size-specific wheels

Buy now from Rutland for £420

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