LIKE A THREADBARE Austin Powers riff, the routine was getting old. Each season, for the better part of a decade, mountain-bike makers heralded the arrival of the über-machine: "This beauty combines hardtail-style climbing efficiency with downhill plushness and the total versatility of a freerider!"
Well, they've finally coughed up the goods this year with a spring crop of new frame designs and suspension breakthroughs that deliver what has been elusive for so long: truly "active" suspension that will help you climb and descend like a pro. What changed? First, shock makers ramped up quality: The new generation of air-sprung models have largely overcome the sticky, dead feeling and blown seals that cursed their ancestors.
But it took the discovery of the virtual pivot to really advance fat-tire engineering. After years of searching for the ideal point at which to attach the suspension linkage to a frame, the gearheads concluded that their sweet spot didn't exist. Instead of fixing the pivot in one permanent position, they suspended it within a series of swingarms so that it moves freely in space. The result? A very cushy ride, without the energy-sucking, pedal-powered sproing known as "bob."
On the pages that follow, we present six dualies that demand to be placed at the head of the advanced-suspension class. Cutting-edge perfection doesn't come cheap, however: Our sextet ranges from $1,700 to $4,035. But the all-in-one mountain bike, quite simply, has arrived.
Rocky Mountain ETSX-30 and the Marin Rift Zone
ROCKY MOUNTAIN ETSX-30
Those first three letters stand for Energy Transfer System, which purportedly uses suspension movement to help drive the bike forward when you're pedaling over rough terrain. There aren't any free rides in physics, but what the 29-pound, 12-ounce ETSX does remarkably well is limit unwanted vertical motion when you're using the small and middle chainrings. Stand up and hammer the bike on rolling terrain and the rear end holds stable, yet with 3.5, 4, or 4.5 inches of movement, it still soaks up even small bangs for incredible climbing traction. Tool-free adjustable travel, quality parts from Race Face and Shimano Deore LX, and a reasonable weight make the ETSX-30 a fine all-mountain pick. Where to find it: Rocky Mountain, 604-527-9993, www.bikes.com $2,300
MARIN RIFT ZONE
At first blush, the Rift Zone looks like our venerable friend the single-pivot bikeone of the longest-lived suspension designs but closer inspection reveals two pairs of short links that combine to furnish four inches of vertical movement. Acting together, they amount to a virtual pivot point, but the 27-pound, five-ounce bike still suffers from some bobbing on climbs. That said, it shines on steep descents, and the large-diameter aluminum tubes resist lateral flex while keeping overall weight to a minimum (in our test, bested only by the more expensive Santa Cruz Blur, reviewed on page 104), making it a great value. The Manitou Skareb Elite fork isn't quite as burly as we'd like it to beespecially on descentsbut other bonuses, like the Hayes hydraulic disc brakes, are a hit. $1,700. Where to find it: Marin, 800-222-7557, www.marinbikes.com
Klein Palomino Race and Giant VT One
KLEIN PALOMINO RACE cofounder Paul Turner is the godfather of oil and air. His latest bike, the sexy Maverick ML7featuring Turner's Monolink suspensionis one epic-ready machine, but it's priced like a Porsche. Enter Klein, which licensed the Mav's design and built up a sweet complete bike with a price tag for the rest of us. On climbs, the Monolink takes note of even the smallest jolts without overreacting, and the 27-pound, 13-ounce Palomino Race, with four inches of travel, was one of the most capable descenders we tested. Fox's Float RL100 fork tops the heap for single-crown front suspension, and a smart parts mix (Shimano XT Hollowtech cranks, tubeless-compatible wheels) makes the bike a good buy, if not a bargain. Memo to smaller riders: The sharply angled seat tube could mean fit trouble; raising the saddle scoots it back as well. $2,550. Where to find it: Klein, 920-478-4676, www.kleinbikes.com
GIANT VT ONE
Considering its heft (it's just shy of 31 pounds), the VT One climbs strikingly well. The secret here is Manitou's Swinger rear shock, which offers a new level of rider adjustability: Flip out your 16mm wrench and twiddle the spring-rate progression (how resistant the shock is to bottoming out), or bleed or add air to alter the shock's overall suppleness over smaller bumps. The result is a bike that pedals well enough in the 5.7-inch travel setting, so you end up all but ignoring the five-inch option. RockShox's Psylo Race with remote lockout up front, Hayes disc brakes, and Mavic's excellent CrossMax XL tubeless wheelset round out a juicy parts pick. $3,050. Where to find it: Giant, 805-267-4600, www.giantbikes.com
How To Do The Exercises
Overhead Triceps Press
Flat Bench Press (Narrow Grip)
Lie flat on a bench, feet firmly on floor. Make sure that your head, shoulders, back, and butt are aligned and touching the bench throughout this exercise. Press your shoulders down toward your feet and back into the bench so that your shoulder blades are firmly held in place with your chest elevated. Your arms should be placed straight up with your hands gripping the bar with no more than 14" between them. Unrack the barbell and lower the weight until it touches your chest. Stop the momentum of the bar, and press it back up, maintaining your body alignment. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Overhead Triceps Press
Sitting upright on the end of a bench, grasp a dumbbell with both hands and hold it overhead. Make sure to keep your torso erect, and lower back tight. Bend at the elbow, lowering the weight behind your head, while keeping your elbows pointed toward the ceiling. Squeeze to a stop, then extend your arms and return to the starting position. Do not lock out the elbow. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Approach the bar and position your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Squat down and place your hands on the bar with a grip that is slightly wider than your hips. Keep your back flat and your shoulders above the bar. Squeeze the bar off the floor with your legs, not your back, until the weight clears your knees. Accelerate your hips forward and shrug your shoulders when the bar reaches the middle portion of your thighs. Quickly drop under the bar to catch the weight on your front deltoids and upper chest. Keep the bar close to your body throughout the movement. Finish the lift by standing erect with your elbows high, hands open, and the bar resting on your fingertips and shoulders. Return the bar to the starting position by rolling the bar off your shoulders, and allowing the bar to fall to the floor.
Begin with feet flat beneath bar about shoulder-width apart. Squat down and grasp barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width over handgrip. Keeping chest high and butt low, lift bar by fully extending hips and knees. Pull shoulders back at top of lift. Arms and back should remain straight throughout the movement. Lower barbell to the floor to a full stop. Repeat.
Position your feet slightly less than shoulder width. Squat down and grasp the bar about 6-8 inches wider than your shoulders. Make sure your shoulders are positioned over the bar and your back is flat and tight as you begin squeezing the bar off the floor. Leading with your elbows, explode your hips forward and shrug your shoulders up hard. When the weight reaches mid-thigh level, quickly jump under and catch the bar over head. Your hips should be back and the bar above and slightly behind your head. Complete the lift by extending your legs standing up with the bar overhead.
Lie face down on the floor. Your hands should be in line with your shoulders, feet together. Using your hands and the balls of your feet, push your entire body up until your arms are fully extended, keeping elbows unlocked. Lower your body until your chest is almost touching the floor. Keep your torso tight and don't allow your body to sag in the middle. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Stand erect with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Clasp hands together behind your head, or place them on hips. Keeping the torso vertical, take a step rearward, lowering the body perpendicularly to the floor. The back knee should practically touch the floor. Using your front leg, raise your body back up and return to the start position. Alternate legs and repeat for the desired number of reps per leg.
Seated Bicep Curls
Grasp dumbbells. Sit erect on the end of a bench. Keep back straight, head up, both feet on the floor. Begin curl with palms in until past thighs, and then turn palms up for remainder of curl until dumbbell is at shoulder height. Keep palms up while lowering until past thighs, then turn palms in. Keep upper arms close to sides and concentrate on biceps while lowering and raising.
Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
Place dumbbell on the floor next to a flat bench. Extend left leg to the rear keeping knee firm. Place right knee on bench. Reach down and grasp dumbbell with left hand holding dumbbell off the floor. Keep head and eyes forward. Place right hand on bench, elbow firm. With a sawing motion, pull dumbbell into armpit, keeping arm close to body. Return to starting position using the same path of movement. Repeat for desired number of reps. Switch to other side and repeat for desired number of reps.
Stand erect with feet hip width apart, legs and upper body straight. Keeping the lower back tight, stick the butt out, the chest up, and slowly bend over until your body is parallel to the floor. Grasp a barbell on the floor. Your hands should be slightly less than shoulder width, using an overhand grip. With barbell in hand and squeezing with your hamstrings, raise your body to an upright position. Once at the top, slowly return to the bent over start position. You should maintain your starting body position throughout. If you have the flexibility, you may need to perform this exercise from a platform to achieve a greater range of motion.
Place your hands on a dip bar, fully supporting your body with your arms. You may use two chairs, stools, or any sturdy equipment of equal height. Your trunk should remain upright, tight, and without swinging throughout the exercise. Keep your head and eyes forward. Slowly lower your body until your arms form a 45-degree angle and your chin is near the height of the bar. Keep your elbows parallel to each other. Now push your body upward using your arms, until you are back in the starting position.
Specialized Epic and Santa Cruz Blur
Full marks here for honesty. As billed, the Epic really does climb like a hardtail and descend like a downhill thoroughbred. Credit the new Fox Brain rear shockit elegantly employs an inertia valve (a decades-old innovation used to help stabilize cars) attached to the rear triangle, which dynamically engages 3.5 inches of travel to compensate for the forces pummeling your rear wheel. The Brain greets rocks by automatically opening its spring-loaded lockout valve while ignoring horizontal input from the pedals. The catch? It takes a second for the Brain to read the trail and stiffen up on level terrain, and when locked out, it ignores smaller bumps and can kick in unpredictably. Still, the 29-pound, one-ounce Epic is a brilliant pick for the efficiency-minded cross-country racer. $2,060. Where to find it: Specialized, 408-779-6229, www.specialized.com
SANTA CRUZ BLUR
The virtual pivot point is an old solution to the problem of wasted pedaling energy; fortunately for all, it was rescued from the engineering trash heap and reimagined here in the best all-mountain suspension rig we've straddled in years. The 24-pound, five-ounce Blur soaks up small bumps without bobbing, even in hard out-of-the-saddle climbing, and its 4.5 inches of rear travel don't so much absorb impacts as obliterate them. Shimano's new XTR parts improve on their former incarnation with stiffer hollow-forged cranks and some of the best disc brakes made. If four grand is a bit too much, complete Blurs start at $2,306. $4,035 as tested. Where to find it: Santa Cruz, 831-459-7560, www.santacruzmtb.com