The panel who tested both bikes and locks was made up of five regular and enthusiastic city cyclists: Suzanne Jansen, 36, who cycles at least seven miles a day and is a member of the London Cycling Campaign Management Committee; Emma Nash, 22, who commutes by bike, six miles a day; Andrew Campbell, 28, and Joe Davies, 34, who both do five miles a day; and Mike Sherman, 38, who recently took up cycling again for the first time since childhood and, with the evangelical passion of the born-again cyclist, now pedals five to 10 miles a day commuting to work, and also takes the occasional weekend country excursion.
Each bike was assessed for comfort, riding over both rough and even ground; the ergonomics of its design; its weight when being carried up stairs (a daily chore for many flat-dwelling cyclists), pushed or cycled; and, of course, for its looks. The price of each bike was only revealed to the panel after they had considered all other aspects of the cycle, so that the bikes could be judged fairly in terms of value for money, and the panellists could, if they wished, revise their comments. With one exception, all the bikes tested were "city bikes" ("hybrids"), that is a cross between the road bikes favoured by Tour de France cyclists and chunkier mountain bikes (MTBs), chosen by off-road cyclists. The hybrid has a comfortable upright riding position because of its MTB-like frame but the manoeuvrability offered by thinner tyres on larger wheels. The exception was a novelty: Raleigh's electric bike, offering a motor to supplement pedal power.
**MUDDY FOX TRAILBLAZER SPORT
The chief novelty on this was the saddle, which had a red light built into the back. The light could be set to flash back and forth across its five LEDs, or to shine constantly. Either way, it was an impressive and simple way to attach lights to a cycle - although wearing a long coat when riding would render it useless. The colour of the saddle, however, is "a disgusting shade of caramel", said Emma Nash. "It's comfortable," said Joe Davies, "but it looks so cheap." The bike as a whole, according to Andrew Campbell, "looks like something that should be standard Boy Scout issue. Or maybe Cubs." But he conceded that the price "makes it a good starter bike, if you can put up with the weight." Mike Sherman found it "too gimmicky for its own good", and Suzanne Jansen said it was "a comfortable ride, but maybe not for long distances."
GT's bikes have a unique triple-triangle frame which is meant to add stiffness and strength to the bike's back end, although the real effect of the design for the panel was that it attracted attention because it looked different. Andrew Campbell felt it was a "no-frills bike with a gimmicky frame", and Emma Nash said, "It looks as though it is aimed at younger cyclists." The panel unanimously agreed with Emma that "It is a fast mover, not least because it feels so light." Meanwhile, Joe Davies thought the bike had a "stylish and professional look, and the handlebars are particularly comfortable". Both Joe and Mike Sherman commented on the "enjoyably comfortable" riding position, while Suzanne Jansen said the handlebars were too straight to be easily managed. Overall the bike was well liked.
****GARY FISHER NIRVANA
The Nirvana is equipped with curved handlebars, as opposed to the straight bars favoured by MTBs and hybrids. These offer a more relaxed and easier position for the hands, and were praised by the panel. The compactness of the frame appealed to Joe Davies, but Mike Sherman thought, "It looks out of proportion - the wheels look too small." The Nirvana does have smaller wheels (like an MTB) than the other bikes on test. Andrew Campbell and Emma Nash both called the bike's pale blue colour "wishy-washy", but Emma also felt it looked "well-designed, like it's for a serious cyclist". "Mind you, it's got a hard saddle," she sighed, a complaint endorsed by Andrew and Joe. Despite being damned by Andrew as looking like "the sort of sensible bike bought by parents for sensible children", it was felt by Suzanne to be "very responsive", and was universally commended for its lightness and easy portability. Emma singled it out as being "definitely good value".
*PEUGEOT OUTDOOR 200
The Peugeot's styling includes not the usual optional "bar-ends" - short, straight extensions which fit at 90 degrees to the ends of the handlebars to allow an alternative hand position for cycling uphill - but handlebars that curve up and back on themselves. Emma Nash described these as "ridiculous, and totally unnecessary". Mike Sherman thought they made the Peugeot "look like a racing bike. They almost form a complete circle," he complained. Suzanne Jansen thought this shape "very comfy, and good for easy grip adjustment". Mike also thought the gear levers "seemed too close to the centre of the handlebars", and that the black front forks on an otherwise chrome bike "seem out of place". Joe Davies noted that the saddle labelled "Eversoft" was "as hard as a rock", and this lack of comfort was also noted by Emma, Andrew Campbell and Suzanne. Andrew considered the design "excellent for boys and teenagers into gadgets", but, like Emma, disliked the weight - "It's a lot heavier than it looks."
The Real Eco comes with mudguards and rack as standard - a bonus as you usually have to buy them separately. The testers were surprised that this bike is exclusive to Halfords, a store which has perhaps unfairly been branded as having an uncaring, pile-'em-high, sell-'em cheap philosophy. Joe Davies felt the Halfords connection explained why it was such good value. However, he was mystified by the presence of two water bottle holders: "Are they really necessary in town, and anyway, wouldn't one be enough? This bike is schizophrenic." Mike Sherman agreed the bike's retro styling looked odd: "It's a bit like someone found some old bits of bike lying around and cobbled them together." Suzanne Jansen thought it looked ugly, and Emma Nash decided it was fussy. The bike's real champion was Andrew Campbell. He admired its looks - "not too flashy, not dull", as well as its sprung saddle and its lightness, concluding: "It's the perfect commuter cycle - I think I'm in love."
***RALEIGH PIONEER TRAIL 21 ALIVIO
Raleigh's Pioneer range comes in models suited to all pockets and demands. The one tested is just above mid-range, and takes its name from the Shimano Alivio gears. Suzanne Jansen admired its "elegant" looks, but felt it was let down by "cheap bits, like the grip-shift gears" - these are gearshifts controlled by twisting a rubber grip on the handlebars rather than flicking levers. Andrew Campbell, however, loved the "great throttle shifters", as he called them, and thought the chrome frame with pastel yellow lettering "a great colour scheme - it's very high tech and serious-looking". Emma Nash praised the bike's looks apart from the brake levers, which were "so shiny they look like cheap plastic", while Joe Davies thought this was a case of "style over performance". Mike Sherman concurred: "It's a fantastic-looking bike, but I'm left with a faint feeling of mutton dressed as lamb."
*RALEIGH SELECT ELECTRIC
This just-launched bike from Raleigh comes with its own built-in, battery- driven motor and has to be recharged from the mains. When cycling, the motor produces an amount of energy equal to what the cyclist puts in. The theory is that any journey will only require half the pedal power, making any hill a doddle. So far, so good. But when you factor in the weight of the bike itself, and the fact that the motor is limited to a maximum of 24kmph - which can easily be exceeded, even in town - the silver lining becomes cloudy. Suzanne Jansen described it as "a butch Fifties moped", and felt the motorised power "wasn't remotely discernible". Andrew Campbell, however, said, "I love the way it lurches forward at the start of the ride. It's brilliant for hills even in high gears." But he also said, "It's so heavy there's no way you could have it if you lived in an upstairs flat. I wouldn't be seen dead on it. It looks like something my granny would ride to the shops." Joe Davies and Mike Sherman agreed, as did Emma Nash who said she felt it would turn heads, though "You'd wish it wouldn't." The price was another offputting factor, but it was recognised that technology doesn't come cheap.
Although known primarily for their mountain bikes, American company Marin also caters for the hybrid market, apparently very successfully. Even when the price was revealed (pounds 190 more than all its rivals in the test apart from Raleigh's electric model) the Redwood still easily attracted many more votes than the other bikes tested. It is fitted with new and cunningly designed brakes, called V-brakes, which deliver the sort of remarkably sharp braking power normally associated with higher-priced systems. These have three adjustable settings, translated by Mike Sherman as "good, bloody good and over-the-handlebars". Another well liked feature was the Datatag, a tiny built-in electronic transponder (which can be bought separately for any bike for pounds 25). It transmits a signal which identifies the owner to police or customs officials with the appropriate scanner. Andrew Campbell described the bike as "a chrome-lover's dream, tops for head-turning looks", and marvelled, "I've never felt a bike so light!" Emma Nash's commentary concluded passionately: "I want one!"
For the nearest stockist, call: GT, 01454 201700; Gary Fisher, 0181 954 7798; Marin, 01424 753566; Peugeot, 01234 217707; Raleigh, 0115 942 0202; Muddy Fox, 0181 998 8711. The Real Eco is available only from branches of Halfords, 01527 517601.
The locks were considered for their looks, whether their weight allowed them to be easily portable, ease of locking and of fitting to the bike. In the case of U-locks, attention was paid to the size of the shackle (the "U"-shaped part) as this defined the size of the object to which the lock could be attached.
This straightforward U-lock at the budget end of the market was praised because "it looks strong", as Emma Nash said. Its relative lightness meant "You could even leave it to bounce on the handlebars," decided Mike Sherman. And the lock mechanism which requires you to twist the bar through 90 degrees was seen as a plus point, as it made the lock more secure.
***ABUS STEEL O FLEX 1000
This thick cable lock with an armoured steel outer layer was generally admired as being easy to lock to a large post, and for its strength. Andrew Campbell felt that "It wouldn't look that great mounted on the bike, and it might not be that easy to attach." It was heavier than the other locks, except the Kryptonite New York Chain, and this ultimately counted against it.
*****KRYPTONITE NEW YORK
The makers of this small-shackled U-lock boast that it's the only lock tough enough to be guaranteed in New York. Emma Nash didn't like the shackle size. However, security experts advise that it's important to make sure that every inch of the shackle space is filled to make it harder for thieves to insert lock-breaking tools. And its small size would make it a doddle to fit to the bike. Well liked for its bright yellow bar too.
Joe Davies considered this medium thickness U-lock, which comes with a supplied bracket, "clumsy-looking", and although its strength wasn't questioned, panel members felt that the bracket was impractical - "You couldn't easily use it if your bike had a fat frame," said Mike Sherman. With a slimmer-framed bike, though, Andrew Campbell commented, "at least it looks easy to fit".
**KRYPTONITE NEW YORK CHAIN
This lock comprised a tough, thick chain lock in a light but strong sleeve. The lock is a small disc lock, just big enough for the chain links, making it hard for would-be thieves to get into. Despite the high price, the only real disadvantage commented on by the panel was its heaviness (more than 2kg). Everyone agreed that the chain felt very secure. Joe Davies: "You couldn't break through that without a crowd gathering." The gleaming links in the chain were admired, but, "If you wore this round your neck while you were cycling, it'd probably cut off the blood supply," was the general feeling about its weight.
Paramount and 104 cable lock, pounds 31.99
This two-lock set (one slim cable lock, one strong U-lock from security-conscious manufacturers Squire) was deemed to be excellent value and hugely versatile. The same key accesses both locks, considered a sensible move by the testers. Both locks were praised for their rigidity, and Joe Davies particularly liked the shackle on the Paramount which, although slim, still seemed very strong. The size of the U-lock was such that it should easily fit any part of the frame, and the cable lock should tuck in neatly, it was thought. These locks won hands down.
****TRELOCK TITAN LITE
The chief attraction of the Titan Lite U-lock was its long, slender, light shackle, allowing it to be fitted round a post leaving room for a quick-release front wheel to be tucked in too. Mike Sherman thought it looked elegant, and Andrew Campbell felt the locking mechanism was neat and secure. Emma Nash felt that its slimness belied its evident strength, but wondered if carrying it on the bike might offer fewer options: "When it's this big, there might be less choice as to where it could fit in the frame."
All locks widely available.