Anyone new to mountain biking could be forgiven a little confusion. The sport, approaching its 30th birthday, has fragmented into disparate disciplines, each with specifically designed machines. But the cyclist who is simply interested in cross-country excursions need look no further than these four bikes.
So what is the minimum you should spend? Expect to shell out £500 for a bike that will take a lot of punishment and be sufficiently svelte to make cycling uphill tolerable, if not exactly pleasurable. The Specialized A1FS is particularly good value, although an immediate problem is that the Rockster tyres supplied are chronically inadequate for muddy conditions. The problem is exacerbated by some stingy tyre clearance at the rear, but can at least be cheaply resolved with a pair of genuine 1.85in off-road tyres.
For £150 more the Trek 6500 offers a similar frame but slightly better components. Over the years Trek, the world's largest bicycle company, have bought out many of mountain biking's pioneers, including Keith Bontrager and his expertise. The 6500 has his components everywhere.
Mountain bikes costing more than £1,000 are not uncommon today, and those with deeper pockets should consider a Cannondale. The Wisconsin-based firm's designers are renowned for thinking "outside the box". The first to use oversized aluminium tubing for ultra-rigid, lightweight frames, they continue to invest heavily in research and development. The mid-range F900SL has several notable innovations. Its CAAD5 frame is designed for motorbike-style, hub-mounted disc brakes and is typically responsive, enabling rapid acceleration. So that there's no energy-sapping "travel" on climbs, Cannondale's HeadShok fork can be "locked out", freezing the suspension.
For the boldest suspension designs, turn to a British firm founded by ex-Formula One engineer Jon Whyte, who has spent years tinkering with mountain-bike designs. The PRST-1's complex front-fork system (see picture) is intended to be more stable under braking than a conventional telescopic-suspension fork. At slow speeds and on steep climbs it can be twitchy, but it comes into its own on tough, long-distance cruises. According to Whyte, the bike is more popular with those who ride on a weekly basis rather than highly-skilled bikers who ride every day. It may not be the most beautiful design but, says Whyte, "it flatters riders".
Thanks to Sensible Bike Co, stockists of Specialized, Whyte, and Cannondale: 01730 266 554, www.sensiblebike.co.uk
Specialized Rockhopper A1FS
Below-par mover in mud;otherwise excellent ride.
For stockists: 01372 840800, www.specializeduk.com
The ultimate in cross- country riding.
For stockists: 01424 753 566, www.whytebikes.com
Price: frame and forks from £1,299; complete bike from £1,550
A fantastic frame; light and very responsive. Remember that you are paying for the R&D.
For stockists: 00 31 541 573 580, www.cannondale.com
Nice touches, such as cables routed along top tube, out of mud's way.
For stockists: 01908 282 626, www.trekbikes.com
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