Youre right. You dont need a mountain bike. It always kind of slays me to see people thumping around a basically urban environment with a mountain bike, sporting dual suspension and big, knobby tires.
I saw someone on a really cool bike two weeks agoa Jamis Coda Comp ($825; www.jamisbikes.com). It does look sort of like a mountain bike, with an upright seating position, but it has road-style wheels and gearing so its both comfortable and fast. Plus it has slightly fat (700 by 28) tires for better float on rougher terrain. I should think it the perfect bike for squirting around on bike paths and converted rail routes.
That said, cross bikes are extremely useful bicycles for this sort of thing as well. I like their good performance and adaptability (they also make great rain bikes because they have cantilever or disc brakes and room for fenders). Bianchis Axis ($1,400; www.bianchiusa.com) is one of my favorite cross bikes. It has a light, tough aluminum frame, a mix of SRAM and Shimano components, cantilever brakes, and a triple chain ringa very useful thing on big hills oh, wait, youre in Minnesota. Its a comfortable bike, with a setup like any good road bike, but a little slacker than a more typical road racer, so a little less twitchy on corners. I think youd love it. But look at the Jamis, too. I think youll find it an intriguing alternative.
The votes are in: Check out the winners of Outside's 2006 Gear of the Year awards, including the year's hottest road and mountain bikes.