The Frame Game
We're now half a decade into mountain
biking's dual-suspension dynasty. Today's best bikes
combine the benefits of the designgreater traction,
control, and comfortwith 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 empireand two
challengers hammering at the gate.
All prices in U.S. dollars.
With 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 forkwhich, though dependable, provides a
rather unnerving view from the cockpitis 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.
Nearly 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 tweaksnarrower bars, shorter top tube,
custom-tuned forksto 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).
Thanks to the European sport of cyclo-crossa
steeplechase-style bike race involving riding, running, and
general suffering in the wet chill of early winterthe
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
bikesand 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.
At 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 titaniumand
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.