Bike prices have surged in recent years but it’s still possible to get a good quality commuter on a tight budget. Here are some of the best options
After walking, cycling is the most . But there’s no denying that persistent inflation has pushed up bike and equipment prices significantly. It used to be easy to buy a good quality bike for less than £500. These days, not so much. One silver lining is that you’ll still save at least 23% on RRP if you get your bike through Cyclescheme. So your £500 will go a lot further.
Good quality bikes under £500 are generally either hybrids or single speeds. There are some good enough mountain bikes, road bikes and folding bikes at this price but most of them are dearer due to the costs of worthwhile suspension, integrated drop-bar shifters or dependable folding mechanisms. As for e-bikes, forget it. Less is more with budget bikes when it comes to technology because the manufacturer won’t have to cut as many corners to hit the price point.
In-house brands account for more than half of the bikes on this top 10 list. Direct-sale retailers can operate on smaller margins as there’s no middleman in the form of an independent bike shop. Bigger retailers like Decathlon also enjoy better economies of scale. Nevertheless, there are also some great budget bikes available from more mainstream brands.
The Bobbin Shadowplay is a simple steel single speed. Unlike most such bikes it has V-brakes rather than short-drop sidepulls. These are more powerful and also provide much bigger clearances, so there’s room for wider, more comfortable tyres and mudguards – although you’ll need to add the latter. A sensible-sized chainring (42 teeth) means Shadowplay’s single gear is manageable, although it’s still better suited to flatter cities. There’s not much to go wrong with a bike like this, and it’ll be cheap to fix if anything does.
Proof that sub-£500 road bikes do exist. The Brand X Road Bike has integrated brake and gear shifters, 2x7 Shimano Tourney units that work surprisingly well and account for more than 25% of the value of the bike. The aluminium frame and steel fork have fittings for a rear rack and mudguards, although there isn’t really room to squeeze the latter under the short-drop brakes so it would be better to fit . Wheels and tyres are understandably basic but overall this bike is well worth £350. Wiggle is now in administration but is still trading. Cycle to Work purchases are paused but will be reinstated “towards the start of 2024”.
Cheap folding bikes tend to be heavy and ride poorly, due to flex in the frame and stem. This Btwin from Decathlon is fine. It will comfortably handle short hops to and from train stations. It’s no Brompton but then it’s a third of the price. Measuring 78x66x44cm when folded, it’s small enough for an end-of-carriage luggage rack, and at 12.9kg it’s easy enough to carry there. It comes with mudguards, a kickstand and battery lights; a cover is an optional extra, as is a rear rack that would work with a trunk bag. The riding position is short and upright, which will suit the average height and shorter riders better. There’s an even if you’re happy to forgo gears.
Marin’s entry-level hybrid is a spartan but sensibly designed all-rounder. It doesn’t come with commuting essentials like mudguards and a rack but the aluminium frame and steel fork have fittings for them; you can even fit a front rack. Gearing is 3x7 Shimano Tourney, which is basic but functional and has the benefit of a wide range if you do load up the bike or live somewhere hilly. The Tektro mechanical disc brakes aren’t any more powerful than V-brakes but should work better in the wet. Tyres are 35mm, which is wide enough for comfort on gravel towpaths as well as tarmac.
Like most budget mountain bikes, Cube’s Aim comes with a fairly mediocre suspension fork. With skinny stanchions and a steel spring that’s adjustable for preload only, this SR Suntour XCE fork will do a better job at soaking up unseen potholes than improving control on technical singletrack. But the Aim’s Clark’s Clout hydraulic disc brakes are surprisingly good, and the 2x8 Shimano Tourney drivetrain has a good range. The bike has mounts for Cube’s own-brand mudguards, semi-integrated rear rack and kickstand, so it’s easy to turn the Aim into a rufty-tufty commuter and bridleway-based leisure bike.
Vitus is an in-house brand of Wiggle/Chain Reaction, so the comments about the Brand X Road Bike also apply here. Like the Bobbin Shadowplay, the Mach 1 VR keeps costs down by keeping it simple: there’s only one gear. It’s an urban mountain bike – a robust commuter with chunky 1.95in tyres with a tarmac-friendly tread. Potholes won’t trouble it at all, and it will readily tackle easier singletrack trails on a dry day. The aluminium frame and steel fork have fittings for mudguards and a rear rack. Brakes are entry-level mechanical discs.
Trek’s city bike, which is also available in a step-through version, is very well-equipped for the price. It has a weatherproof 7-speed Shimano Nexus hub gear and hub-dynamo-powered lighting. It also has mudguards, a partial chainguard to keep your trousers clean, and a rear pannier rack. The brakes are ‘only’ side-pull callipers, which lack the stopping power of good disc brakes, but their reach is long enough to accommodate both mudguards and 32mm tyres. A tall quill stem and backswept handlebar provide an upright riding position, and a wide, sprung saddle keeps your bum comfortable. A thoroughly practical commuter.
Raleigh’s Strada City is more versatile than most hybrids, thanks to 47mm-wide slick tyres that are efficient on tarmac and both comfortable and capable on unsurfaced tracks. The frame and fork are aluminium, which helps keep the weight down to 12kg. As such, the ride is fairly sporty. The drivetrain is a 2x8 mix of Shimano Tourney and Acera components, with a low enough bottom gear (30/34) for most urban hills. Brakes are inexpensive but effective hydraulic discs. The Strada City comes fitted with mudguards and can be equipped with a rear rack. It’s also available as a step-through model, and both designs come in wide range of sizes.
This Dutch-style city bike is another one from Decathlon. It’s heavier but even better equipped than the Trek Loft. It too has a 7-speed Shimano hub gear, dynohub lighting, mudguards and a rear rack. Additionally, there’s a front basket, a kickstand, and a full chain case. The brakes are V-brakes, which are more powerful and have clearance for bigger tyres – in this case, 44mm street tyres that will shrug off most potholes. The fork has a steering damper, making the front wheel less likely to flop sideways when there’s weight in the front basket. Being a heavy bike, it’s better suited to flatter towns and cities despite its 7-speed hub.
Pinnacle is the in-house brand of Evans Cycles. The Californium is the sort of city bike you see more often in English-speaking countries than Northern Europe. It has derailleur gears (1x7 Shimano Tourney) and rim brakes rather than a hub gear and drum brakes, and it lacks some equipment such as a rear rack. It is, however, significantly lighter, being only about two-thirds the weight of the 19-20kg Elops 540. That gives it a sportier ride and makes it easier to lift up steps. It does have mudguards, a kickstand and a tidy front basket, as well as a pleasantly upright riding position.