Ride With Pride: Progressive Machines: Mountain Bikes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Ride With Pride: Progressive Machines: Mountain Bikes
By Bob Howells and Gordon Black

Performance in reserve -- that's the theme for this year's mountain bikes, and you don't have to deplete your finances to get it. Examples: Stiff, lightweight aluminum frames at bargain prices. High-performance front-suspension bikes for fewer than seven bills. A good double-sprung bike for $1,000. Of course, there are still trustworthy bikes to be had for less than $500, and outrageously expensive ones that push the technology envelope. We've included both types.

Things are pretty quiet, however, on the component front. That's not a complaint: From the inexpensive STX and Alivio lines to the high-end XT stuff, the ubiquitous Shimano components work beautifully. Generally, more money gets you a little more durability and a nicer finish, but not much in the way of tangible differences. Two noticeable blips on this year's component screen: The lightweight, wrist-twist style GripShift shifting system is being offered on lots of bikes, and Shimano is speccing lower, hill-friendly gears in all its lines.

Trek 850
Unlike a lot of entry-level off-road bikes, the 850 is up for taking on more than a gravel driveway. The frame is made of strong, oversize chrome-moly tubes, and those tubes are set at angles that make for a ride that's quick but not skittish. At a respectable 28 pounds, the 850 is fine for gradual climbs, and the riding position is airy enough that you're not all cramped up on big descents. Trek didn't overlook the small stuff: Room was made in the Alivio drivetrain for an upscale STX rear derailleur, and the rear brake and derailleur cables are mounted on the top tube to keep them out of the mud. The 2.1-inch Big Kahuna tires are indeed big and hence able to damp some trail shock, but we might swap them for treads that provide better traction.

Marin Palisades Trail
Marin offers the Palisades Trail with a rigid fork for a couple hundred dollars less, but we opted for front suspension to make a nice ride more so. The double-butted chrome-moly frame manages to feel both agile in tight corners and stable on wide-open descents, and the Rock Shox Quadra 5 elastomer fork happily soaks up medium-size bumps, though it won't tolerate Tomac imitations through boulder fields. The frame's matte-gray finish is accented with Marin's own blue-anodized brakes, the GripShift SRT400 shifters (wired to Shimano STX derailleurs) work with ease, and the 2.0-inch Quake tires have an admirably strong bite. By the way, we'd have paid $20 more for Marin to spec a stiff STX front hub to go with the suspension fork.

Schwinn S[9 Five].5
The rugged heritage of Schwinn's corporate parent, Scott Mountain Bikes, is certainly evident in the S[9 Five].5: The beefy aluminum frame looks like it's strong enough to haul boxcars. But Schwinn's own engineers put their stamp on this bike, with curving seatstays and grippy, house-brand Moab tires. The Schwinn really shines on the downhill: Those curves in the rear triangle strengthen the braking, and the longish top tube and wheelbase make you feel secure on descents. Plus the frame is designed to accept a suspension fork, should you decide to swap out the steel one. Competent Shimano STX components round out the package.

Pro-Flex 555
Why should folks who can afford to plunk down $2,000 on a dual-suspension machine have all the fun? The Pro-Flex is the proletariat's double-sprung bike, a great option for a grand if you ride a lot of harsh stuff. With simple, forgiving elastomer shocks front and rear, the suspension is always on duty -- you barely notice it as you pedal, but you feel less frappéd at the end of a ride. It also keeps the wheels on the ground for full control on fast fire-road descents and on flat, rough sections. Despite an aluminum frame, the 555 is no lightweight; its 28-pound heft takes a toll on you in tight turns and on grinding climbs. Shimano STX components keep the cost down, but the brakes are still plenty strong, and shifting smoothness equals that of the fancier XT components.

Diamond Back
Vertex TR
We always shake our heads in wonderment at the Vertex TR, because it rides like a custom setup that could cost twice as much. Yes, $1,400 is a lot of dough, but the 25-pound Diamond Back is the tightest-feeling bike in this lineup: Its stiff True Temper steel frame responds to every lean of the shoulders, every tilt of the hips, and it goes quickly when you hit the gas. Uphill, the bike feels almost whippy, the way a 30-ounce bat feels if you're used to swinging a 34. The Manitou 4 elastomer fork easily handles all terrain, and the components are all top-notch -- a mixture of Shimano XT and LX manages the 24 speeds, while Dia Compe brakes provide impressive stopping power.

Ibis Szazbo
You don't buy this bike simply because you want a cushy downhill ride. Any dual-suspension bike will give you that, let alone the Szazbo, which has the best shocks in the business: Rock Shox elastomer Judy SL in front, air/oil Fox in the rear. No, you buy the Szazbo for the way it climbs. We've ridden lighter bikes -- the Szazbo weighs 26 pounds -- but we've yet to experience one that's supple enough to absorb bumps and stiff enough to keep the tire lugs digging harder and harder. How does it work? In simple terms, it has to do with the distribution of ballast. When you're seated, the weight over the rear end activates the rear suspension to effectively neutralize the momentum-robbing obstacles you encounter while ascending. But stand up and the rear end stiffens -- and your pedaling energy makes a beeline for the back wheel. For $3,000 you can have the Szazbo with Shimano LX components; for $1,650 you get just the frame and rear shock -- call it an investment to build on.

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