Top Flight Trail Bikes, Down To Earth Prices

Mountain biking is quickly becoming a sport that requires a glossary. "Screamers" are people who love cruising down steep slopes. "Hard tails" are bikes without a shock absorber built into the frame. "Table top" is the art of pulling the frame horizontal to the ground while "catching air" off a jump.

Anyone who dishes out lingo such as that had better have the wheels to back it up. To check out some of the latest models, I spent an afternoon riding these multigeared, shock-absorbing two-wheelers on the Olympic mountain-biking course outside Atlanta. Together with two dedicated mountain bikers, I tested a variety of bikes--a "full suspension" Diamondback V-Link with a shock absorber in the frame, another Diamondback made of light carbon-fiber material, one by the well-known frame maker Klein Bicycles, and a couple of hard tails from GT and Trek.

KILLER "B'S". The technology of mountain biking has advanced and the prices have retreated enough that for about $1,000, it's easy to find a bike with all the modern necessities: front-wheel shock absorbers, an easy-shifting 24-gear setup, a lightweight frame, and dependable wheels--maybe even a full-suspension frame. Sure, that's more money and more gear than we used to spend on a Huffy that could handle the neighborhood newspaper route. But hitting the backwoods isn't kid's play, and I wanted to avoid the killer "B's" of mountain biking: a blistered behind, burning thighs, and broken bones.

I needed everything the bikes could give and more to work my way through the Olympic course. This is the first year mountain biking is an Olympic sport, and the designers have built a course up to the challenge. The six-mile trail has a profile that looks like an electrocardiogram, weaving around and across the equestrian cross-country course at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, Ga. There are steep uphill climbs and sharp downhills punctuated by surprise jumps; grueling long, steady inclines; and descents through tightly spaced trees. The circuit's signature feature: bone-jarring open runs across choppy granite outcroppings.

The best of the bikes we tested was the Diamondback WCF 6.0. This racy bike has a frame made of carbon fiber, which is extremely lightweight and sturdy--yet compliant enough to absorb bumps on the course's granite section. "The bike doesn't beat you up," says Chris Hovatter, a racer from the Cycleworks bike shop located outside of Atlanta. "Carbon fiber is definitely the material of the future." Although pricey--$1,600--the 24-pound WCF offers high-end componentry: a Manitou Mach 5 front shock absorber, Grip Shift's X-Ray gear shifters, and Ritchey clipless pedals. The same frame with lesser components can be had for $1,000. Its light weight makes it a good climber and quick accelerator.

LABELS FOR LESS. The Klein Pulse offers one extremely attractive element: the Klein frame, which features unique fat tubes of very thin aluminum and a sharply angled cross tube. Kleins typically cost $2,000-plus for the frame alone. But this bike is affordable-- $1,100--because Klein has turned to quality Shimano parts for components such as the head set and bottom bracket, which are custom-made on higher-end models. "It may not have all the things that make a Klein a Klein, but the main thing is they're bringing the name down to a price where someone buying their first good mountain bike can afford it," says Elliott Hardin of Free-Flite bike shop in Marietta, Ga. The Klein was the best climber I rode, because its stiff frame transfers power directly to the drive train.

The one full-suspension model I tried, Diamondback's $1,400 V-Link 3.0, offered an exceptionally smooth ride, thanks to the shock absorber under the seat. The V-Link is designed to eliminate the bobbing action that plagued earlier full-suspension bikes, but at 27 pounds, this version of the technology is heavy, making the bike a lug climbing hills. The Trek 8000 offers a sleek-looking bonded aluminum frame that's light but a little too stiff on the bumps. The Trek comes with standard handlebar ends that give an extra hand position for cruising and affords better leverage for climbing.

The GT Ricochet, the least expensive bike I tested at $790, offers the higher-end Shimano Allevia derailleurs, a small frame that handles well, and, at 26 pounds, a lightweight feel. The frame's compact geometry makes it especially good for cornering through tight twisting trails and also improves climbing efficiency. It's a good choice for someone who can't see making the $1,000 hurdle. But if you ever get on the Olympic bike course, that could well prove to be the easiest hurdle you'll have to handle.

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