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Gear Guide
The Frame Game
Dual suspension has been perfected—but rival designs are challenging the rules

We're now half a decade into mountain biking's dual-suspension dynasty. Today's best bikes combine the benefits of the design—greater traction, control, and comfort—with such technologies as one-legged forks and women-specific frames.

But, despite dual suspension's dominance, some riders, willing to sacrifice comfort for durability and efficiency, still ride the classic steel hardtail. And others, who want a bike for both the singletrack and the tarmac, have turned to a new breed of machine, the versatile cyclo-cross bike. Here, then, are the best of the dual-suspension empire—and two challengers hammering at the gate.

—Ben Hewitt

All prices in U.S. dollars.

Shocking Technology
image: a mountain bikeWith the dual-suspension Cannondale Jekyll 3000 ($3,936; 800 245 3872 [U.S. and Canada only]; www.cannondale.com), the company has managed to push the technology envelope while staying rooted in a solid, no-nonsense design.

In the back, a single massive cartridge pivot delivers four and a half inches [11 centimeters] of travel. Up front, the Lefty fork—which, though dependable, provides a rather unnerving view from the cockpit—is good for four inches [ten centimeters], and, with a push of a button mounted on the handlebar, it locks up for efficient street riding. (The rear suspension can be locked as well.)

The 25-pound [11-kilogram] Jekyll's infinitely adjustable geometry also allows changes to the head angle and bottom-bracket height (steep and tall are best for technical trails; flat and low for high-speed descents), giving the bike a personality to match nearly any trail or rider.

Affirmative Traction
image: a mountain bikeNearly a third of mountain bikers are female, but until recently few manufacturers made women's models. Trek helped change that with the 1998 introduction of its WSD (Women's Specific Design) bikes. This year's Trek Fuel 90 WSD ($1,550; +1 920 478 4678; www.trekbikes.com) finally brings the company's tweaks—narrower bars, shorter top tube, custom-tuned forks—to a dual-suspension bike.

The lightweight aluminum frame is less comfortable over large obstacles than the Jekyll's, but its four-bar-linkage rear suspension (see inset) is wonderfully responsive on smaller bumps. This, plus the racy Rolf wheel set and three inches [eight centimeters] of front and rear travel, puts the 27-pound [12-kilogram] Fuel 90 into the "cross-country" category, meaning it's perfect for riders who prefer to be first to the top as well as to the bottom.

The Fuel 90 is also available in a men's model ($1,550).

Cycling's Cross-Trainer
image: a mountain bikeThanks to the European sport of cyclo-cross—a steeplechase-style bike race involving riding, running, and general suffering in the wet chill of early winter—the bicycle industry has seen the birth of an entirely new animal.

The cyclo-cross bike takes its speedy contours (see inset) from road bikes and its knobby tires from mountain bikes—and it surpasses both in versatility. But prior to production models like the Bianchi Axis ($1,299; www.bianchi.com), if you wanted a 'cross bike you had to purchase the frame and components separately. Not very efficient, or economical.

The 22-pound [10-kilogram] Axis's reasonable sticker price, sturdy aluminum frame, and Shimano drivetrain (including nine-speed integrated shift/brake levers) bring the benefits of the 'cross bike within reach of all of us. For riders who want a bike strong enough for light trails and fast enough for the roadway, the Axis may strike the perfect balance.

Rigid-Tail Redux
image: a mountain bikeAt first glance, the hardtail Rocky Mountain Blizzard ($1,880; +1 604 527 9993; www.bikes.com) appears to be a throwback to the early days of mountain biking: Its plain-looking frame lacks the fat tubes, disk brakes, and rear-shock assembly that characterize today's cutting-edge bikes. But don't be fooled.

The 26.5-pound [12-kilogram] Blizzard is constructed of Reynolds 853 steel tubing, which has a life span two to ten times longer than that of standard-issue aluminum and a strength-to-weight ratio nearing that of titanium—and the material actually gets stronger during welding.

The bike's components, including the three-inch-travel [eight-centimeter-travel] Marzocchi front fork and Shimano XT and XTR derailleurs, are top of the line. And the back end (see inset) is rigid by design.

True, you'll be jolted by every rock, root, and rut that comes across your path. Yet, despite advances in dual-suspension frames, in this price range hardtails still weigh less, pedal more efficiently, and require less maintenance.

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