Is a mountain bike what you need?
A large percentage of bikes sold in the UK are mountain bikes. Before buying one it is worth considering the kind of riding you’ll be doing. If you’re riding on roads or well-paved surfaces a mountain bike will be slower and less practical than what we’re describing as an everyday bike.
However, if you plan to ride on rough tracks or unsurfaced towpaths or railway paths, or you live somewhere where the roads are in a bad state, then a mountain bike might not be a bad choice.
The popularity of mountain bikes mean that entry-level models are often priced below a basic road bike, making them a good budget option.
In the time before the pandemic we had planned to list some good picks for inexpensive mountain bikes, but the truth is that you’re unlikely to find many available.
What to look out for
Price. You can get a really cheap mountain bike from a supermarket or catalogue, but it isn’t to be recommended. It will be heavy, and be fitting with cheap components that won’t be up to the job. You probably need to be thinking of £300-400 for something that will do a decent job off-road, with the possible exception of the basic Decathlon Rockrider bikes, which start from £180 (at time of writing).
If you don’t have that much to spend, then buying secondhand might be your best option. Be wary of bikes that have been heavily-used off-road. On the plus side many mountain bikes are only ever ridden on tarmac, and the popularity of mountain bikes means it is likely there will be some for sale in your local area.
Brand. It’s worth buying from an established brand, rather something that no one has ever heard of. Something by Specialized, Trek, Cube, Cannondale, Boardman, GT, Orbea, Kona, to name a few, would be good choice. If you’re searching for secondhand bikes these are the kinds of brands to look out for too.
Size. Manufacturer websites will have guides, but there’s no substitute for sitting on a bike in a shop. Make sure you are comfortably clear of the top tube when standing over the bike.
Brakes. Often the most basic bikes in a mountain bike range will have rim brakes rather than disc brakes. If you’re serious about off-road riding spending a bit more for cable disc brakes might be worth doing, but for trundling along towpaths rim brakes will be absolutely fine. Hydraulic disc brakes are another step up, but probably won’t feature if you’re looking at budget options.
Suspension. Modern front-suspension forks are better than they used to be, but a rigid bike with no suspension will probably do what you’re looking for, again, unless you have serious off-roading in mind. Full-suspension bikes are definitely to be avoided. You really need to be spending four figures before a full-suspension bike becomes a good choice – cheaper ones will be heavy and badly-engineered.
Wheel sizes. There are various choices these days. 26 inch is traditional for mountain bikes, and many secondhand bikes will have this size. The 29-inch wheel, or ’29er’, is now very popular, the larger wheels helping to smooth out bumps. Many bikes now have 27.5inch wheels, often referred to as 650b, which is somewhere between the two. If you’re looking for an online debate about the best wheel size it shouldn’t take too long to find one.
Places to try
It’s not easy to point to specific bikes at the moment, as many are hard to find in stock. But a couple of recommendations:
- We think Decathlon offer some of the best value mountain bikes around at the moment – see Decathlon mountain bikes under £500.
- The Pinnacle range at Evans Cycles are worth considering, if you can find any in stock.
- The Boardman range from Halfords are very good value – the web pages are here, but the entry-level bikes aren’t in stock at the time of writing. The 2021 bikes will be available fairly soon, but they are sure to be very popular.