| Outside magazine, March 1998|
Review: Bicycles Built for One
Amid the infinity of selections, eight very particular breeds for very particular cyclists
By Alan Coté
BICYCLES BUILT FOR ONE | AND WHILE YOU'RE AT IT ... | BOOKS
It's not so much the distinctions between top-pull and bottom-pull derailleurs, the nuances of tire durometers, or even mastering the benefits of various suspension-fork mechanisms that can make buying a bicycle seem so overwhelming these days. Rather, it's sifting through niche within niche of two-wheelers themselves, which have become infinitely specialized. Though potentially suffocating, such variety means there's a bike perfect for every type of cycling. Of course, you still have to decide where and how you prefer to pedal.
Such diversity means that the ubiquitous mountain bike is no longer the automatic choice. There's no shame in preferring the whisper-glide of pavement, but it's best covered on a smooth-rolling road bike. Among the skinny-tire mounts we reviewed, you can choose between versions for loaded long-distance tours or fast rides closer to home. Modern road bikes pamper riders with intuitive shifters and a wider range of gears, and they remain the lightest and quickest of machines. For those who do take to the dirt, the selection has never been better: Suspension (front and rear) is more supple and less expensive, brakes are more powerful, and deluxe features have trickled down to sub-$1,000 models.
Regardless of the sort of bike you're considering, start by finding a good shop. So what's a good shop? One that will help you find the right frame size, let you test-ride the bike, and happily swap out components to fine-tune the fit. To help you along, we've selected five mountain bikes with various fortes, two road bikes, and another that's not so easily defined.
Jamis Dakar Expert, $1,300
Settling on a dual-suspension design presents an entirely separate abyss of specialization, which is why we like the Dakar Expert: versatility. Unlike the current cult of decidedly heavy dualies suited for bulldozing downhill, the Dakar Expert (previous page) has a four-bar linkage system that delivers a balanced, all-around ride. A relatively light Fox Vanilla rear shock with 3.5 inches of travel, combined with the Manitou XVert front shock with 3.1 inches of travel, smooths over the rockiest of trails. There's a nice harmony between front and rear, since both shocks use an air-oil mixture to dissipate jolts. Pedaling doesn't make the rear suspension bounce much, a hallmark of efficiency for those who enjoy riding up hills as well. The bike weighs nearly 29 pounds, but such mass isn't unreasonable for a dual-sprung rig at this price.
Diamondback Voyager II, $530
With a distinctively styled frame that's reminiscent of a beach cruiser, the Voyager II stands apart from so many $500 drones. Diamondback curved the bike's aluminum tubes and added an extra one for no other reason than to make it look snazzy — a commendable touch at a price where performance runs fairly equal. Sure, it has a distinctly upright riding position that will be best appreciated by casual riders, and you can't flick its 28.8 pounds over every last trail divot. Yet hammering along washed-out dirt roads, it quickly becomes apparent that the good-looking Voyager II is as ready for rough riding as any of its peers. The RockShox Indy S elastomer fork provides less than two inches of compression — not quite enough to absorb big impacts, so if that's what you want, you might go for something a little less stylish.
Schwinn Moab 2, $799
If you're the sort who buys your athletic socks in 16-pair value packs, the Moab 2 should suit your thrifty sensibility. It's not so uncommon to find niceties like 24 speeds and lightweight alloy bar-ends on an $800 model, but throw in a RockShox Judy T2 fork — typically found on bikes in the four-figure price range — and the Moab 2 is a jaw-dropping value. The fork combines the stiff body of RockShox's higher-performance Judy with the undamped workings of the entry-level Indy models. Consequently, it goes exactly where you point it, which is good, since you may need such precision to steer clear of the bigger ruts while streaking down fast descents. As for the frame, Schwinn offers a well-designed chrome-moly number that also serves as the foundation for the $1,000 Moab 1, which means the bike is primed for upgrading. It'd be a great first bike for an athletic person who maybe is just becoming enthralled with riding singletrack.
Fisher Paragon, $999
After following similar blueprints for ten years, Gary Fisher reworked several frame dimensions in the interest of cheating an unflinching law of physics: Should your center of mass pass the vertical plane of your front axle — however slightly — you fly over the bars. To combat the endo, many 1998 Fishers got a longer top tube, a shorter stem, and a tighter rear triangle. The idea (called Genesis Geometry) is to get the rider farther behind the front wheel. Itcan be a boon to handling: Shooting over steep embankments, you feel much less prone to a sudden flip of fate. The aluminum-framed Paragon, with mostly Shimano LX parts, accommodates aggressive riding anyway — we're only talking a few centimeters here — although the change does make it harder to keep your front wheel planted on steep climbs. A reasonable sacrifice, to be sure.
VooDoo Cycles Bizango, $1,899
The Bizango is no custom bike, but it feels a little like one. VooDoo starts with premium Reynolds 853 steel tubing that's hardened so it can be used in thinner sections to achieve the same strength. Details like light, strong Ritchey dropouts for easy rear-wheel removal underscore the commitment to craftsmanship. Darting along tight singletrack and thunking over tree roots makes you appreciate the responsive, supple ride of this ferrous rig: Itabsorbs a degree of trail vibration so your keister doesn't have to. Affirming the preeminence of the frame in any bike purchase, VooDoo sells its bikes Ç la carte, allowing the buyer to adjust costs with parts choices. We went with the Shimano LX/XT mix and the velvety Marzocchi Z3 fork, a coil-sprung, oil-damped device that simply glides over high-speed crossings of mucky ditches. Certainly a bike that's race-ready, but really much more.
Bianchi Eros, $1,060
You might not expect Italians to take pointers from Americans on bike design, a pursuit they're as passionate about as l'amore, but the Bianchi Eros represents just such a meeting of minds. Made exclusively for the States, the Eros combines the best of classic, Old World bicycle traditions — such as artistically joining steel tubing with lugs — with such Yankee conveniences as a mountain-bike-like triple chainring. Traditionalists may scoff at a road bike with 24 speeds, but the extra tier of gears is just the thing you'll want to get over that last hill on a century ride. Or on a long day of touring, for that matter — the Eros has rack mounts to secure panniers. The Italian Campagnolo Mirage ErgoPower shifters are housed in the brake levers and allow for shifting with just a flick of a finger, neat and quick. We prefer the bike rendered in celeste green, Bianchi's trademark hue for nearly 100 years, but the Eros also comes in pearl white.
Litespeed Natchez, $2,550
A flyweight titanium spirit for a couple thousand dollars ismore bicycle than most of us really need. But let's talk wants. For the price, you get that unlikely nexusof light weight (19 pounds) and unrivaled durability — titanium will never corrode, it's as tough as boiled owl, and it has no paint to chip. The bike rides like a dream machine should, damping road vibrations, tracking intuitively, and springing forth when you leap out of the saddle. Adding to the Natchez's allure is the appointment of Shimano Ultegra components, revamped with an extra gear and a pound less weight. Click into that new ninth cog and float the Natchez over a hill — or just give it a hoist — and you'll find a way to need it. And if that doesn't work, remember that the Natchez is Litespeed's least expensive model.
Kona Jake the Snake, $1,000
If you're feeling hemmed in by having to choose between roads and trails, consider Kona's aluminum Jake the Snake. At first glance, it resembles a lightweight road bike. Then you notice a few details: knobbies on the skinny tires that dig into dirt, cantilever brakes that allow generous mud clearance, and a low gear ratio to master steeps. Thank the creeping popularity of cyclocross, an arcane discipline combining elements of road and mountain biking, for delivering a such a diverse steed. The road bars let you tuck and cover pavement quickly, yet they're set high so that you can sit upright on dicey dirt roads. It has no suspension, but its range engenders a realsense of exploration. Now instead of driving, you can pedal to the woods enjoying the bike's smooth pavement manners and then veer unflinchingly onto the singletrack.
| Where To Find It|
|Bianchi, 510-264-1001; Diamondback, 805-484-4450; Fisher, 800-688-4324; Jamis, 800-222-0570; Kona, 800-566-2872; Litespeed, 423-238-5530; Schwinn, 800-724-9466; VooDoo Cycles, 800-495-7046|
Alan Cotë races on- and off-road and has been writing about cycling for seven years.
Photographs by Clay Ellis