The Showroom: The Worthiest Steeds, Circa 1996

Outside magazine, March 1996

The Showroom: The Worthiest Steeds, Circa 1996
By Gordon Black, Alan Coté and Bob Howells

GT Backwoods, $654
The Backwoods may have a low-end price, but don't be fooled: This bike would be regarded a champion climber in any tax bracket. The 7005 aluminum frame has a relatively short and very distinctive rear triangle that helps you over the hills. Shifting, thanks to GT's wise and unusual combo of Shimano's Alivio Rapidfire levers and STX derailleurs, is smooth even when climbing with a heavy load. In fact, it's hard to find fault with any of the component selection: Alivio hubs, Acera-X brakes, Mavic rims, Vetta saddle, and WTB Velociraptor 2.1-inch tires. And considering the lack of both heft and suspension, the Backwoods is remarkably stable on descents, though you might not want to wait too long before adding some suspension for a little extra control.

Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo, $749
It's no fun paying good money for a new bike and then realizing you need to cough up more for add-ons. That's why the Hoo Koo E Koo is such a great bike: Right out of the box, it's ready for trail duty. Included are dirt-worthy components like Fishsticks bar-ends (often omitted entirely from new bikes), a comfy yet slender Bontrager saddle, and an advanced-level Rock Shox Quadra 21R fork. Long climbs just melt away thanks to the bike's nimble geometry and comfortable riding position, aided by a tiny 20-tooth chainring that provides gearing low enough to climb trees with.

Schwinn High Sierra, $469
Brimming with hey-sailor allure, the High Sierra first catches the eye and then delivers on its promise. For beneath its bright blue anodized highlights (brake parts, hubs) and flashy paint job, it has a stalwart heart in its chrome-moly frame, designed with a sloping top tube for plenty of clearance. Of course, there's no suspension--at this price, you wouldn't get much--and it doesn't leap when urged on as a bike of lighter-gauge steel might. But both frame and wheels (Araya double-wall hoops) will stand up to serious off-road abuse. The frame is configured to keep the rider upright, which provides plenty of control in slow, dicey conditions but leaves something to be desired on fast descents. Shifting is smooth via 21-speed Grip Shift shifters and a Shimano STX rear derailleur, an uncommon spec at this price.

Cannondale F600, $1,040
Cannondale, long known for the beefy look of its oversize aluminum tubing, takes its bigger-is-better philosophy to new heights with the F600. Housed in its oversize front end is Cannondale's proprietary HeadShok, an ingeniously simple oil-elastomer shock that does everything that its fork-mounted brethren do, and then some. One particularly handy feature is a control that allows you to turn the suspension on and off while in motion--though the aluminum frame gives such a stiff ride that you may want to leave the shock permanently switched on. Cannondale rounds out the F600 with a good mix of high-end components, including Shimano Deore LX derailleurs, Acera-X hubs, Alivio brakes, and Grip Shift shifters. Two other components--the brake levers and crankset--belong to Cannondale's acclaimed CODA line.

Specialized Ground Control, $869
Yes, it's an amazing price for full suspension, but chugging the Ground Control up a steep hill is the hidden cost. Once you've summited, though, this bike--with its combination of oil-damped, steel-sprung shock in the rear and basic elastomer shock in the front--certainly takes the edge off the descent. Expect inspiring control at high speeds, as well as a comfortable ride, if not top-flight performance, on the flat stretches. Uphill, the weight of the suspension offsets its advantages, and in real rough stuff both shocks tend to bounce back in a compress-and-boing cycle that hinders cornering and low-speed handling. The chrome-moly frame is fine, and it's well served by a mlange of components that includes Alivio brakes and an STX rear derailleur with 21-speed Grip Shift shifters. But near the crest of a climb, the gearing certainly could go a bit lower to compensate for the 29-pound load.

Giant ATX 880, $1,000
Big, thrashing riders will find a new love with the ATX 880, which with its hearty aluminum frame looks strong enough to use as a jack stand. The heftiness makes the frame nearly flexless--on abusive descents and twisty single-track alike, the ATX 880 delivers with point-and-shoot handling. Likewise, the Rock Shox Quadra 21R suspension fork can handle big-time poundings, soaking up little ripples and large potholes with travel to spare. The mainly Shimano STX component package garners no complaints, though the midlevel parts probably can't endure as much as the bombproof frame on which they're mounted.

Litespeed Hiwassee, $1,595
The Hiwassee is one of our favorites because it brings titanium to the people. The Tennessee-built bike offers Ti's legendary ride: The frame feels marvelously supple without being noodley soft, and it's second to none in both weight and durability. The Hiwassee just seems to float up hills with its scant 23 pounds of heft, and while such fab performance usually comes in at well over $2,000, Litespeed keeps the Hiwassee affordable by using a powder-coated finish (instead of polished, nude metal) and slightly less rigid, nontapered tubing. Such a frame is a tough act to follow, but the Shimano LX and STX-RC components and Rock Shox Quadra 21R fork are adequate on trail and do the job of keeping the cost down quite nicely.

Voodoo Canzo, $2,499
At the price of a decent used car, the Canzo better do everything well. It does. Here's full suspension as it was meant to be: smooth, thanks to a Rock Shox Judy XC in front, Fox Alps in back. Both have extra-long travel and deftly modulate rebound--in other words, they give true shock absorption, not a trampoline ride. The chrome-moly steel frame rivals even pricey hard-tail models in weight, and you can still feel its responsiveness amid the oil-damped plushness. The Canzo also comes with 24-speed RapidFire shifting and Shimano's strong yet precise new V-brakes among its Deore XT components. VooDoo will let you spec less-expensive components if you wish, but this frame really deserves the best.

Raleigh MCC8, $1,449
Built around a smoothly contoured carbon frame, the MCC8 is virtually a race-ready machine. With its surefooted IRC Piranhapro tires and trusty Rock Shox Judy XC fork, the MCC8 is more than willing on single-track as well as on long descents, when its elongated geometry allows gravity to all but take over. But therein lies the rub: For more casual riding, the MCC8 is just too much of a stretch, being one to two inches longer from seatpost to stem than most midlevel bikes. Fortunately, it's a lot easier to appreciate such an unyielding attitude while admiring Raleigh's choice of Shimano Deore LX and STX-RC components and Grip Shift shifters to handle the eight-cog rear cluster.

The Civilized Cyclist
Send your old pedals and slightly worn knobbies--or even an entire bike--to a classroom, not the landfill, by donating them to Recycle A Bicycle. The New York City program teaches repair skills to 120 troubled teens, ultimately allowing them to earn their own bikes. Call Transportation Alternatives at 212-475-4600.

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