TRIED & TESTED / It's the wheel thing: Mountain bikes have universal appeal, but how do you find one suited to your needs - and pocket? Our expert cyclists test seven

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The Independent Culture
THE INSPIRATION behind today's bicycling owes little to John Major's vision (pace George Orwell) of an England where old maids pedal to Holy Communion through the morning mist, and more to the free spirit of 1970s California - the birthplace of the mountain bike. When mountain bikes arrived in Britain in the mid-Eighties, they revolutionised cycling, helping boost sales of all bikes from 1.5 million in 1985 to a record high of 2.5 million in 1989. Sales have tailed off slightly, but mountain bikes still account for two out of three bikes sold and it is estimated there are 6 million in use.

The design of a mountain bike, with its chunky tyres, comfortable saddle and more efficient gears, makes it possible to cycle on almost any terrain. For off- road enthusiasts there are tours across the Peak District or the Pyrenees, trailquests - orienteering by mountain bike - and racing over farmland and woods. In Atlanta in 1996, mountain biking will make its debut as an Olympic sport. It is estimated, though, that half the mountain bike riders in Britain never venture off the road at all.

A mountain bike costs from around pounds 100 to pounds 3,000 or more. At the very bottom of the range, bikes have steel wheel rims, which make them heavier and the braking less efficient. Pay a bit more and you get the higher quality alloy rims. If you want a bike with suspension to absorb shock, you will have to move further upmarket - a reasonable quality bike with front suspension costs from about pounds 400 - but this is only necessary for energetic off-road riders.

The price also partly depends on the material of the frame. Different materials have their pros and cons. Generally speaking, though, the lighter the material the more responsive the bike is, and the more it will cost. The cheapest bikes are made of steel, followed by, in ascending price order, aluminium, carbon fibre, titanium and lastly, the latest in high-tech, metal matrix.

To give you some guidance, we asked four keen mountain bikers to test eight machines. The models ranged from the basic to the state-of-the-art - although you won't need the latter unless you are exceptionally enthusiastic (and rich). They tested the bikes in Epping Forest and at the Eastway Cycle Circuit, Hackney Marshes, east London.

THE PANEL

Graham Berridge, director of the British Mountain Bike Steering Group and university lecturer; Stephen King, laboratory technician; Jenny Copnall, student; Steve Sidley, social worker.

THE TEST

The panel gave the bikes marks for how comfortable they were to ride, how easy they were to control and handle, and for their robustness, weight, speed,

features, looks, style and value for

money. The marks were then converted into a star rating.

**HALFORDS APOLLO

ACTIVE 3200

pounds 149.99

This bike is not for people who want to thrash about over the hills - it didn't come up to the standards of the more expensive bikes for comfort, control and robustness. Nor did it pick up many points for its looks. For commuting or shopping, however, our panel recommended it. 'Classic for first-time buyers,' said Graham Berridge. 'It does the job but you wouldn't want to take it over the Andes.' Jenny Copnall commented: 'Super-cheap, super-heavy, but good enough to wander off down the road on. On a hillside, though, I would rather walk.' The frame is made of steel, and it has alloy wheel rims.

*SPECIALIZED HARDROCK

pounds 279

Although this bike costs over pounds 100 more than the Halfords, its performance was very similar. The dull, dark colour was particularly disliked. 'Horrid-looking, heavy, very much a trundler,' said

Jenny Copnall. The panel did not think it was suitable for anything but the lightest off-road use. 'A cycle fit for towpaths or journeys to the shops,' said Steve Sidley. 'A plus point is the inclusion of Gripshift - you change gear by rotating a ring around the handle bars. Components, however, were rather cheap.' Another criticism was the construction of the frame, leading to

discomfort and handling problems.

**SARACEN ANDES

pounds 425

You can do more with this than pootle along to the shops, and pounds 425 is a low price to pay for a machine with front suspension. This bike, which has a steel frame, is in a higher class than the two cheaper bikes as far as its comfort, handling and features are concerned - though the panel did find it rather heavy. 'Good introductory bike for racing but more appealing to active recreational riders,' said Graham Berridge. Steve Sidley commented: 'Saracen can take credit for including Gripshift, a suspension fork and an Aheadset (a lighter way of clamping the handle bars to the frame) in a package which, though heavy, handled OK on the bumps. Free body-building included for those living on the 3rd or 4th floor . . .'

***DIAMOND BACK

RESPONSE ELITE

pounds 869

Although your average commuter cyclist would probably think more than twice about spending this much money, for enthusiasts like our panellists it was one of the most popular and offered good value. 'Excellent,' said Jenny Copnall. 'Really great fun to ride, very well balanced. I loved the ruby-red colour. The saddle is slightly uncomfortable - the suspension fork made up for that, though.' Steve Sidley added: 'The bike uses a Manitou Sport suspension fork, which has rubber bumpers to absorb the hits. These are easier to service than systems which use springs, air or oil. Overall, the bike felt nimble and manoeuvrable, good over the tricky bits in the woods. Would suit anyone who has been off-roading for a year and wants to upgrade - or anyone in the market for a long-term love affair.'

**KONA KULA

pounds 1,350

Another racer, this bike was one of the best-looking. 'A stunner in gold paint,' said Steve Sidley. It has an aluminium frame, which is lighter than steel but gives it a stiffer feel. As a result, it needs good suspension - and the panel did pick out the suspension fork, which was easily adjustable, for praise: 'The fork is made in Italy so it also looks good,' said Graham Berridge. What the panel didn't like was the old-fashioned style of gear changing - with the thumb instead of the index finger. The testers also thought it was not such good value as the Diamond Back.

**** ORANGE VITAMIN .TX.- T2 LX 8-SPEED

pounds 1,870

For our panel, this bike was the ultimate object of desire. The testers exhausted their supply of superlatives: 'A dream machine. Super-cool looks. Fast, light, beautifully engineered, slick. It floats lighter than a butterfly. As for the sting - there isn't one,' said Graham Berridge. Steve Sidley was similarly effusive: 'It offers a brilliant ride - the inherent flexibility and bounce of the titanium frame means it floats over ruts, roots and nasty stuff. It almost feels alive.' Only Stephen King, slightly less swept off his feet than the others, cautioned that 'What you are paying for is the frame, as a lot of the other components can be found on much cheaper bikes.'

**GT RTS-1

pounds 2,500

Even for our expert panel, this bike was something out of the ordinary. It has not only front but back suspension and is specially designed for downhill racing over bumpy ground. Despite lots of high-tech gadgets, and an astronomical price-tag, the panel didn't rate the performance of this aluminium bike as highly as the Orange. They enjoyed the smoothness of the ride, though. 'Back and front suspension cushions everything. A Slumberland on two wheels for that really uneven tarmac,' said Graham Berridge. Steve Sidley commented: 'Downhill the RTS-1 had me going over things at speeds my collarbones have nightmares about. Lovely feeling of comfort and control. High grin factor. Lots of moving parts to wear out and maintain, though.'

The British Mountain Bike Steering Group (formerly the British Mountain Bike Federation) can be contacted on 0536 412211.

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