The Best New Mountain Bikes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Cycling Special, March 1997

The Best New Mountain Bikes
By Reid Flemming

When it comes to buying a mountain bike, an old aphorism gets turned on its ear. He who hesitates gains. With innovation focused exclusively on the high end, last year's best equipment is now showing up on midrange bikes. Case in point: Shimano's ultrapowerful V-brake, a revolutionary design that at first came only with the company's most elite gruppos, is now part of its LX line--three tiers down. But despite the continuing more-for-less trend, you still need to be a discriminating shopper. While a given manufacturer might provide a fantastic bargain in one price range, it might offer a less than desirable buy at another. That's why we've scouted the terrain for five of the year's best values. You'll notice a conspicuous absence of dual-suspension steeds, for one simple reason: You get more for your money when buying a bike with a rigid rear end. At least until next year.

GT Karakoram, $699

With a suspension-free design and GT's signature "triple-triangle" frame (in which the rear triangle overlaps the front for added strength), the chrome-moly Karakoram is for merciless riders, as sturdy a bike as you could hope to find--as well as one of the least forgiving. But thanks to the rigid fork and steep, short geometry, the Karakoram is also noticeably responsive, offering an engaging ride that lets you feel each contour in the trail. Outfitted with Shimano's LX gruppo, which includes the coveted V-brakes, and topped off with Mavic 238 rims and a WTB saddle, the Karakoram offers a good way to get aggressive for well under a grand.

Giant Iguana SE, $470

While others in the under-$500 market fumble around with off-brand suspension and lower-grade frames, Giant has risen to the top by splurging where it counts and economizing elsewhere. Adding nicely to the Iguana's bottom line are its butted chrome-moly frame and RockShox Quadra 5 suspension fork, which make it sturdy yet supple enough to soak up most ruts. As you'd expect, the Iguana comes mostly with Shimano's low-end Alivio parts, the exceptions being an STX rear derailleur and shifters--a thoughtful upgrade. And though the rise stem provides an upright riding position, it remains steady and sure on fast descents.

Schwinn Moab 1, $899
The Moab 1 has been cleverly designed to accentuate the virtues of its chrome-moly frame. The hourglass-shaped seatstays provide a compliant ride, while the oversize tubes in the front triangle keep the Moab 1 tracking true on demanding terrain. It's also a proficient climber, though at more than 26 pounds it doesn't sing on the uphills quite like similarly priced aluminum. The midlevel RockShox Indy XC fork uses both steel springs and elastomers to mimic more sophisticated models, but it doesn't have adjustable damping, which means you can't fine-tune it to account for varying conditions. But these are minor quibbles. With Shimano LX components and Scott clipless pedals, the Moab 1 needs nary an upgrade.

Klein Pulse Pro, $1,299

A pioneer of oversize-aluminum-tube frames, Klein now offers a level of rigidity previously unavailable in a bike priced under $1,500. The key to this sub-24-pound sprinter's dream is its huge, butted-aluminum tubing, tapered at the joints for even more stiffness. Klein has paired these monstrous pipes with steep geometry, as well as Grip Shift ESP 9.0 shifters and rear derailleur to provide crisp shifting with minimal bulk. The result is a responsive, fast-accelerating bike that'll have you dreaming of your World Cup debut.

Specialized Stumpjumper M2 Pro, $1,625
Considering the generous array of components on the M2, you may wonder whether the price includes the frame. Shifting doesn't get any better than with the Shimano XTR rear derailleur, the XT parts elsewhere are sufficient even for professional racers, and the Judy XC fork is only a half-step below RockShox's best. But parts aside, the M2's frame--aluminum enhanced with ceramic particles to boost its life expectancy--delivers a pleasantly aggressive ride. It has an extra-long top tube to provide stability on descents, yet its relatively steep head angle makes its handling surprisingly quick. Granted, the M2's price makes it a serious commitment, but short of ponying up $3,000-plus for a fully outfitted titanium model, it's hard to imagine a safer two-wheeled investment.

Myth: Never use your front brake.

Reality: Yes, we're aware that there's a good reason for this advice: Many a novice has squeezed his left hand too forcefully, earning a one-way ticket over the handlebars and into the accompanying dirt smorgasbord. But that second lever isn't just for show. Your front brake, twice as powerful as the one in back, is essential to stopping on the steeps. The key lies in how you use them: If you apply light, steady pressure to both levers, you'll slow yourself faster than any amount of rear-brake ratcheting; if you clamp down too hard...well, bon appïtit!

Myth: Dual suspension is best.

Reality: Sure, if you're planning to win the Kamikaze downhill. But if you prefer providing your own momentum to relying on gravity, dual suspension can be more hindrance than help, since the boing-boing in the rear robs a good bit of the energy you pump into the pedals.

T h e   T o y   D e p a r t m e n t

As mountain biking has matured, so too have gearhead gewgaws. It seems the purveyors of fat-tire accessories have come to realize that there's more to life than $200 brake levers and titanium replacement bolts. Thus, in a joyous nod to nonessentials, here are a few items that may not impress your technogeek friends but most certainly will add some spice to your time on the trail.

What better way to distinguish yourself from those who take the sport too seriously than this jersey-cum-luau-shirt, the Gila Five-O, from Mimbres Man ($50; 800-646-2737). The side-zip back pocket makes this cotton top bona fide bikewear, while its fluorescent flamboyance boldly declares your nonconformist outlook.

So diminutive is the Canon Elph APS camera ($420; 800-828-4040) that you won't mind toting it in your jersey pocket. The Elph features a built-in zoom, pop-up flash, and a self timer--all in a package the size of a Clif Bar.

If you've decided to spurn dual-suspension but still want a little cush for your tush, the Thudbuster Quadra-Pivot seatpost ($189; 800-256-6240) may be just the middle ground you're looking for. Utilizing a simple elastomer design, the Thudbuster provides three inches of travel but doesn't steal any of your pedaling power.

Since your hands typically take more than their fair share of abuse, perhaps you should consider pampering them a bit. TWP's moldable grips ($18; 714-453-8977) become pliable when heated with a hair dryer and can then be customized to fit.

--Dan Wildhirt

Photographs by Clay Ellis; Illustration by Mick Aarestrup

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