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If you’ve been considering purchasing a mountain bike, there’s no need to take out a second mortgage on the house, but you will need to spend quite a bit more than what you shelled out 10 years ago for the old Schwinn cruiser. For the purposes of this article, we arrived at the price range of $450-$700 as the amount you can expect to spend on a high performance "beginner" mountain bike. There are cheaper bikes out there, but the quality you sacrifice for price isn’t worth it; traversing singletrack trails in the desert requires a certain caliber of vehicle.
When shopping for your first mountain bike, don’t be fooled
by appearances. Many entry-level bicycles are packaged with a "trick" look but actually fall short when it comes to quality and function. It is much better to start off with a bike that will provide a solid core than with one that has trendy tires, a brand name seat, or expensive grips. These are all items that can be added later as you become more involved in the sport.
The main component of a good bicycle is the frame. In the $450-$700 price range, most mountain bike frames are made from aluminum or chrome-moly, a steel alloy. Choosing between the two types of frames is just a matter of personal preference; there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Chrome-moly frames are very durable and can be easily repaired if damaged in a crash. And bicycles made from steel are generally equipped with better components because steel is a less expensive material. The downside to a steel bike is that it is heavier than an aluminum machine.
If you decide on a steel frame, make sure it is "butted." Butted tubes are tapered, thin in the middle and thicker at the joints, making them lighter and more responsive when riding. In this price range, the frame sets are almost always butted; it is only when shopping for a bike that costs less than about $450 that you should go out of your way to find out if the tubes are butted.
Aluminum, the other frame choice, is a much lighter material than steel. It also tends to be significantly stiffer than steel because the diameter of the tubes is much larger. This greater surface area enables aluminum frame bikes to climb better and accelerate more quickly than their steel counterparts.
If you have the opportunity, try out both materials before making your decision. My personal preference when it comes to frames, especially when being used without the aid of a suspension device, is a lightweight steel bike. I just like the way it handles.
Wheels are the second most important component to consider when choosing a mountain bike, but don’t worry, you don’t have to agonize over rims once you’ve entered the $450-plus price range. Alloy rims come as standard equipment on any quality bike; they’re much lighter, stronger and easier to fix than the cheap metal rims found on less expensive models. Keeping the overall weight of a bike as low as possible is always a concern, but it’s especially important when dealing with moving parts like wheels. As a general rule of thumb: strive to save weight on the moving parts of a bike rather than on the stationary components.
Drive Train: The final essential ingredient of a high performance mountain bike is its drive train, which consists of the chain, the front and rear derailleur, the shifters, and the chain rings and cassette. While all parts of the drive train are equally important, shifters have received a great deal of attention lately because of technological advancements. Shifters, the devices that allow the derailleurs to move the chain from one gear to the next, have progressed from simple levers that operated under cable tension to advanced mechanisms that have pre-determined positions. From "click" to "click" these devices are extremely easy to operate and they move the chain with very little error.
The most recent refinement in shifter technology is the advent of the "Grip Shift," which operates on a collar that fits around the handlebar and rotates both forward and backward for gear selection. The real advantage of the Grip Shift over the more prevalent "rapid-fire" shift system is that it has fewer moving parts. The rapid-fire system, although functional and accurate, has been known to fail because of its many small parts. Rapid-fire shifters use paddle-like devices that are either pushed forward or pulled backward to change gears. Personally, I have never had any problems with my bike’s Rapid-fire XTR parts.
Both of these shifter systems provide an added degree of performance and confidence to mountain bike riders of all abilities. Since the Grip Shift and rapid-fire are hands-on devices, your hands are always firmly attached to the handlebar -- where they ought to be.
One final component you should check when evaluating a bike is the chain rings. Does the model you’re interested in have removable chain rings or are they press riveted into place? Cheaper bikes come with the less expensive pressed variety, which don’t allow for any modification. It is a real advantage to be able to replace a bent or worn chain ring. Also, removable chain rings give you the capacity to customize your gear selection.
Keeping the above-mentioned criteria in mind, here’s a look at various mountain bikes that fall into our price range; these models are some of our trail-tested favorites from the top manufacturers.
Specialized, Rock Hopper
Comp A1: The Rock Hopper has long been the industry standard in the mountain bike world. This latest version comes with an aluminum frame and chrome-moly fork, coupled with Shimano STX components and Grip Shift shifters. While this bike is at the top of the price range, it is also at the top in terms of performance. Price: $899.
Ultra: This is the less expensive version in the Rock Hopper line. It has a full chrome-moly, butted tube set and is equipped with Shimano Alivio components. Although slightly heavier than the Comp, this is still a great entry level bike. Price: $499
GT Backwoods: GT is prominent on the mountain bike race circuit and, consequently, the company produces some unique designs. The Backwoods, like all GT fat tire bikes, features what is called a "triple tri-angle" design; the rear stays cross the seat tube, creating an extra-supportive, tri-angle frame construction. The Backwoods is a high performance, aluminum frame bike that comes ready to shred. Price: $652
Timberline: This steel-framed model weighs about a pound more and has fewer trick parts than the Backwoods, but it is also $150 cheaper. Overall, the Timberline is a great value and should prove very durable. Price: $460
6500: In the bike-making business for nearly 20 years, Trek has produced some innovative, top-notch machines over the last two decades. The 6500, one of the latest models, is an aluminum frame bike that features STX derailleurs and Grip Shift shifters. The component package is rounded out with parts from the Alivio series. Weighing less than 25 pounds, this is a trail-worthy companion. Price: $750
930: This model is very similar to the 6500 except that the frame is slightly heavier, made from butted True Temper steel tubing. The component package shares most of the same parts with the 6500 (the shifters are slightly inferior). Price: $650
Ascent: The latest offering from one of the largest mountain bike manufacturers is an excellent value. The Ascent features a full chrome-moly steel frame and fork, and is equipped with Shimano STX components. This is one of the few bikes in our price range using only STX parts, which keeps the quality high and gives you more bang for your buck. Price: $499.
When looking at these and other mountain bikes, remember: there’s a great deal that can’t be determined on the showroom floor. Any reputable bike shop should be willing to let you test ride any model that you’re seriously interested in -- around the parking lot, at the very least. And be prepared to shop around to find the mountain bike that best suits you. The extra time spent can mean the difference between achieving singletrack bliss every weekend and having another expensive toy in your garage that just gathers dust.
Specialized: 15130 Concord Circle, Morgan Hill, CA 95037-5493; phone (408) 779-6229
GT Bicycles, Inc.: 3100 W. Segerstrom Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92704; phone (714) 513-7100
Trek Bicycle Corp.: 801 West Madison Street, Waterloo, WI 53594; phone (414) 478-2191
Diamondback/Western States Imports: 4030 Via Pescador, Camarillo, CA 93012; phone (805) 484-4450