This buyer’s guide will run you through everything you need to know about buying the best mountain bike for you. From how much you should spend on a mountain bike to choosing what kind of mountain bike will be best for you, this guide has it all. We’ll also highlight the most important spec features you should look out for on a mountain bike and then point you to our lists of the best buys at each price point.
Picking out the best mountain bike under 500$ can seem like a complicated business. The sheer variety of bike types, not to mention the bewildering array of technology and terminology surrounding them, can be overwhelming.
However, for most people — and especially when starting out — budget is the critical factor when looking at a new bike. How much you’re willing to spend radically affects what’s on offer and it’s easy to look at mountain bikes in a shop or online and be put off by the stupendous price tags attached to many of them.
That said, just because you can spend a lot doesn’t mean you need to. It’s possible to get capable bikes at almost any price point, but there are, of course, basic features you should expect at different levels. It’s possible to get a well made, off-road capable machine from around £400 / €450 / $520 , but there are certain caveats.
At this sort of money, you should steer well, well clear of any full suspension bikes — that’s a bike that’s got suspension at the front and rear wheels.
They’ll be significantly heavier than either front suspension equipped ‘hardtails’ or suspension-free ‘rigid’ bikes, and the cheap and uncontrolled suspension units fitted to them will likely harm rather than improve off-road performance.
While a completely rigid bike might seem basic, the simpler design means that more money will have been spent on the frame and components — potentially making it a better deal in the long run.
That said, there are plenty of bikes fitted with functional front suspension forks at this price, and they may come from unexpected sources.
At this price point, you’re unlikely to get the most up to date components. For example bikes may be fitted with 26-inch (rather than the more modern 25.7 or 29-inch) wheels as well as more basic drivetrain components. That means there isn’t usually a compelling upgrade path for your bike as you wear out components. It does however provide a very accessible way to owning and riding your very first mountain bike.
Whatever you do, look for a frame that’s made from lightweight aluminium rather than heavy steel.You should also look for a bike that comes fitted with disc brakes rather than rim brakes, because they’ll keep working in the wet and provide more consistent power.
If you intend to take the bike off-road, make sure it’s got suitable gearing — many cheaper bikes will be specified with mostly on-road performance in mind and will lack a gear low enough to haul you up hills. Look for a small chainring at the front that has 22 or 24 teeth, paired to a cassette on the rear wheel that has 34 or 36 teeth on its biggest sprocket.
Again, at this price you’ll often encounter double and triple chainsets, rather than a modern 1x drivetrain.As you spend more, you get a bike with a lighter frame and more refined equipment.
At this price range, you should expect hydraulic disc brakes rather than the cable operated variety. They need much less maintenance and tend to be more powerful. It’s not uncommon to find 1x drivetrains — which offer reduced maintenance, complexity and, in many circumstances, improved performance over multi-chainring setups — at this price point.
The tyres fitted should have a pronounced tread profile that’s designed for proper off-road use and should be made from a softer rubber compound than basic tyres, giving better grip in the wet.
A suspension fork with a smooth and controlled action should also be fitted. To test this, give the fork a good bounce and it should compress easily and return smoothly. If it makes nasty noises or returns rapidly — like a pogo stick — give it a wide berth. Again, it’s worth avoiding full suspension bikes at this price, because they’ll be heavy and won’t work well off-road.
It’s at this price that bikes start to become more specialised to suit different kinds of riding. We’ll cover the different kinds of bike later, but you’re guaranteed a hardtail that’ll be able to put up with almost anything you can throw at it.
The frame is likely to still be aluminium, but it’ll use advanced construction and forming techniques to make it both lighter and more comfortable for big days in the saddle. Hydraulic disc brakes from a big-name brand such as Shimano or SRAM are also likely to be fitted.