ALL-MOUNTAIN WORKHORSE Jamis Dakar XAM 1.0
PERFECT FOR: Anyone who sees a safe landing where others see an injury waiting to happen.
WHY IT'S COOL: With more than five inches of travel in both the rear and front shocksall for less than two grandthe XAM 1.0 is a high-value all-mountain machine that can get you up hills efficiently and down them very quickly. On Tucson's Milagrosa Trail, it made rocky staircases and four-foot drops feel like little more than speed bumps. The sturdy parts package will hold up through season after season of abuse.
BEFORE YOU BUY: It's hefty, which gooses downhill speed but slows your rate of ascent. 32.2 lbs (M), $1,900; jamisbikes.com
KILLER VALUE Trek Fuel EX 6
PERFECT FOR: Budget buyers who want a frame that won't need replacing once their riding improves.
WHY IT'S COOL: The EX 6 has a high-performance pedigree, with steep angles and forward cross-country positioning borrowed from Trek's pricier Fuel racers. The RockerLink rear-suspension linkage, paired with the five-inch RockShox MC 3.1, stays glued to the ground whether you're wincing uphill or screaming down.
BEFORE YOU BUY: The components are adequate (SRAM X-7, Hayes MX-1, RockShox Tora) but easily outgrown by aggressive riders, who can upgrade to the better-equipped EX 8 for another $770. 30.6 lbs (17.5"), $1,430; trekbikes.com
BIG-WHEEL SPEEDSTER Intense Spider 29
PERFECT FOR: Riders who'd rather spend their time going fast than debating the merits of wheel size.
WHY IT'S COOL: The Spider is a cross-country racer that's as comfortable as an all-day cruiser. Though it has oversize wheels (29 inches versus the standard 26), the aggressive positioning and ample standover make it plenty responsive on tight singletrack. The big wheels bulldoze little stuff, making the four-inch suspension feel like six.
BEFORE YOU BUY: Stop counting grams; bigger wheels add a little fat compared with 26ers in this rarefied class. 26.6 lbs (M), $5,500; intensecycles.com
FUTURE CLASSIC Cannondale Caffeine 29er
PERFECT FOR: Hardtail fans who want a stiff aluminum frame matched with leading-edge big wheels.
WHY IT'S COOL: Contrary to its name, the Caffeine gives you everything but a jolt, thanks to ride-softening 29-inch wheels and relaxed geometry that allows for comfortable positioning. The hardtail climbs like a mountain goat, and the 3.1-inch-travel Lefty front fork is stable and responsive on corners.
BEFORE YOU BUY: Check your riding position. If you like the over-the-handlebar feel of a cross-country racer, this bike will seem too upright. 30 lbs (17"), $1,600; cannondale.com