The 800 Ride of Your Life

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996

The $800 Ride of Your Life
By Gordon Black

As you move up from your entry-level mountain bike, your investment can bring tangible returns. The more money you spend, the lighter and more responsive the frame, the smoother and more reliable the components, and the greater the likelihood that you'll get front suspension. But there's a point of diminishing returns--around $800. As the price climbs beyond eight bills, improvements start to plateau; it's hard for the mere mortal to discern--and harder to justify paying for--the differences between a good $800 bike and a bike costing one and a half or even two times as much.

Thank trickle-down technology. A midrange bike may now feature a lightweight performance frame of aluminum or double-butted chrome-moly steel; aluminum alloy rims that will hold their shape on the roughest trails; proven brakes, derailleurs, brake levers, and shifters from such respected lines as SRAM's Grip Shift and Shimano's LX and STX; 24 speeds; and control-enhancing front suspension from makers such as Rock Shox and Manitou--all in a package weighing under 28 pounds.

Sticking in the midrange, however, does demand compromises. Aggressive technical riders will want to sacrifice some comfort for light weight and performance. Cruisers will have to accept a little weight in return for a softer ride and a more comfortable upright position. Whatever your style, your bike is here, among seven mortally priced machines that feel like the best-bred mountain bikes costing a grand or more.

Jamis Aurora
Traditionalists will admire the clean lines of the Aurora ($869). Its rear triangle of tapered oval chrome-moly tubes is designed short for aggressive riding, and on the steeps all riders will appreciate the Aurora's weight--26 pounds. Its components are a notch above others in this review: Twenty-four gears, based on a Shimano LX drivetrain and Grip Shift SRT-600 shifters, flatten hills, while Shimano STX RC brakes work reliably whether wet or dry. Sun AT 18 rims stay true even after tree-hopping rides, and the WTB Raptor tires are especially good on wet, leafy trails. A Rock Shox Quadra 21R suspension fork rounds out the mix. My only gripe is with the cables, which run along the top tube; when the mud's flying they can gum up, causing frustrating missed shifts. To solve this problem, have your local bike shop retrofit SRAM's bassworm, a neoprene sleeve that keeps mud and grime from sliding down the cable into the derailleur.

Specialized Rockhopper Comp A1 Fs
Straight from the box, the Rockhopper Comp A1 FS ($870) stands out among its midrange peers. It has Specialized's familiar beefy, welded aluminum frame, with a gently sloping top-tube, and it's fitted with some serious components: Araya rims laced to Shimano Acera X hubs and shod with Specialized's proven Ground Control (front) and Grand Master (rear) tires, Shimano CT-90 brakes, Shimano STX derailleurs and Grip Shift shifters, and a Rock Shox Quadra 5 fork. Yet despite its evident off-road pedigree, the Rockhopper Comp is specced with a few parts more suited to cruising city streets: Trail performance is limited by a high-rise stem that makes quick turns more difficult, and the wide saddle may feel comfortable in the shop but may also impede leg motion when you're really pumping. Replace the stem, slip on a narrower saddle, and you can experience the full-off-road potential of this bike.

Diamondback Apex Se
If you like being at one with the contours, you'll love the Apex SE ($739): It makes you feel directly connected to the trail. The chrome-moly frame is surprisingly stiff and responsive enough for even the tightest switchbacks. And while the Manitou Mach 5 suspension fork is a little less forgiving than, say, a Rock Shox Quadra 21R, it provides maximum control by keeping the front wheel on the ground--which is what front suspension is really about. Components are an acceptable m‹lange: The power train marries Shimano STX derailleurs and the lower-end Sugino Impel crankset, a wise move for economy's sake. Stopping power is good--and hand comfort really good--thanks to the flattened contact area on the Dia-Compe brake levers. Grip Shift shifters provide fast on-the-fly gear changes even when grinding uphill, which is where the Tioga Psycho T tires are at their mud-biting best.

Fisher Big Sur
The Gary Fisher Big Sur ($830) is one of those rare mounts that balances frame material, geometry, and components perfectly. Welded from 6061 aluminum, the frame provides room to maneuver steeps or tight turns out of the saddle, but it won't stretch you out when you're sitting, and the soft Bontrager Plus 10 saddle provides added comfort on long grinds. Its light weight--at 26 pounds, it ties with the Jamis Aurora as the lightest bike in this review--and bar-ends help you power up hills with a minimum of effort. The Grip Shift shifter/Shimano STX derailleur combo provides reliable changes, and on descents the Alivio brakes and Dia-Compe levers yield fine results without tiring the hands. Comfort and control are guaranteed by the Rock Shox Quadra 5 fork and trail-biting Tioga Pyscho tires.

GT Ricochet
On technical trails, the Ricochet ($729) feels like a racer. Its oversize-tube aluminum frame is light, stiff, and so responsive that it takes some getting used to. But you won't mind. The Rock Shox Quadra 5 fork absorbs hand-numbing trail rattle and softens even the hardest jolt. And unlike most performance-oriented bikes, the Ricochet doesn't force you to get horizontal to reach the handlebars, so it's easier on the back during long rides. The Shimano Rapidfire-Plus levers are slower than Grip Shift shifters, but they move the bombproof Shimano STX derailleurs into place with a reassuring (and almost nostalgic) click. Mavic rims and WTB Veliciraptor 2.1-inch tires ignore abuse and bite down on mud. Throw on a pair of bar-ends and the Ricochet is a truly great mount.

Softride Husky
If the Ricochet is a snorting Mustang, the Husky ($735) is a mellow Caddie. Purists will quibble over whether it's really a full-suspension bike, but who cares? It feels like one. By positioning the saddle on a cantilevered carbon-fiber suspension beam, Softride eliminates the seatpost--and the jolts that it transmits to your rear. The company's shock-absorbing stem does a similar favor for your hands. But comfort comes at the price of performance. The Shimano Acera X and Altus components, Grip Shift shifters, and Kenda tires are perfectly serviceable but push the Husky's weight to a husky 29.7 pounds. Yet, uphill burden aside, it's a surprisingly nimble bike.

Trek 7000 shx
The Trek 7000 shx ($820) is marked by an attention to detail. The Easton ProGram aluminum frame has the smooth contours of the best custom frames: no unsightly welds here. Add a hard-to-fault selection of components and the result is a light-handling bike that feels comfortable on the tightest single-track. A Rock Shox Quadra 5 suspension fork provides up-front control and comfort. Other component choices make equal sense: Trek's own Matrix rims wired to a System 1 front hub and Shimano's new Silent Clutch rear hub, which won't click while you're coasting, and Grip Shift shifters at the top of a reliable drivetrain that includes Shimano STX derailleurs and crankset. Good braking comes courtesy of Alivio brakes and Dia-Compe levers. Tioga Psycho Tires are up to snuff on mud and loose trails. The Bontrager Plus 10 saddle is comfortable without inhibiting performance.

Gordon Black winters on Washington's Bainbridge Island and spends his summers leading bike trips through Scotland. He reviews bikes frequently for Outside.

See also:
Where to Find It
Buying Right: Function, Fashion, and the Fat Tire

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