Test bench: Mountain bikes

For beginners and pros alike, the most important decision to make is what bike to buy. Although there are “hybrid” bikes that claim to be able to handle limited off-road use as well as remaining comfortable on tarmac roads, a genuine mountain bike is required for anyone who is serious about doing more than occasionally riding on the verge.

Prices for credible mountain bikes start at about £200 and can rise to several thousand pounds (and that is without counting all the bespoke extras, such as slick tyres for road use, and lightweight brakes) so it pays to know precisely what you are looking for before you enter the bike shop.

So how do you intend using your new bike? There is no point in having a £2,000 ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre cycle if all you’re going to do with it is make the occasional gentle weekend sortie alongside the canal. By the same token if you take a less-than-capable mountain bike on demanding off-road routes, you may not live to regret it. There are three elements that make up a good mountain bike: lightness, toughness and the amount of suspension it has. In general you will be able to get two out of these three elements relatively cheaply, but if you want them all it could cost several thousand pounds.

The most important aspect of any bike is its frame. This accounts for the lion’s share of the cost and also defines its character. Some, such as the Giant Anthem, are sleek and lightweight, intended be ridden fast or over long distances. Others are tougher and heavier and designed to be pounded as you clatter down a rocky hillside. Some people advocate buying a frame and cherry-picking the remaining components, and there is merit to this approach. But as bike makers offer superb deals on complete bikes it’s often more cost-effective — and simpler — to buy a ready-built one and upgrade features later.

One of the key decisions you will need to make is on suspension. This is an increasingly common feature on today’s mountain bikes and helps make the negotiation of demanding terrain more comfortable. By the same token it can also turn riding on smooth, flat roads into an irritating experience, with the bike bouncing unnecessarily. Bikes with suspension are also pricier and require more maintenance — particularly during the grimy winter season.

Hardtail models may be a good compromise since they have a suspension fork on only the front wheel — as opposed to being cushioned at both ends — though even full-suspension bikes can feature lock-out forks, which means the suspension can be instantly switched off to give a rigid front end. This tends to add to the cost.

If you’re spending more than £1,000 on a bike, we suggest you try out several models before you commit to buy. You can do so either by renting, or better still, by borrowing one for the day from a shop. Spend less and you may have to settle for a brief spin outside the shop.

The internet abounds with cheap deals, but there is real merit in using a local, independent specialist cycle shop. They have good mechanics to fix mishaps, and will offer free advice and the best servicing. Building a relationship with a local shop will ultimately pay dividends. You can sometimes bag the bits you want online and then pay a dealer to assemble them for you; check out www.chainreactioncycles.com or www.stif.co.uk.

Jargon buster

Hybrid Cross between mountain and road bike, for commuting and gentle cycle paths

Riser bars Upswept handlebars offering greater comfort than flat bars, which are used for racing and are better for climbing

Travel Amount of suspension movement of a front fork or rear shock; most riders want around 80-130mm

V-brake Simple, lightweight brake design that clamps the wheel rims. Disc brakes are more effective, but are also heavier

FEATHERWEIGHT ALL-ROUNDER

Giant Anthem 2 — typically £1,400, www.giant-bicycle.com

Lightweight and fast with full suspension

Although it is only the entry-level model in Giant’s 2007 range, the Anthem 2 is one of the best all-round cycles on the market, especially for this price. This sleek cycle is tailor-made for day-long rides, yet is very nippy over short distances. Its lightweight frame tips the scales at barely 5lb — something of which you will be glad when climbing steep terrain — while the suspension, both at the front and rear, is subtle enough to smooth out tiring trail bumps without introducing too much bouncing. When on flatter ground you can lock out the suspension entirely to stop the bike bobbing unnecessarily and sapping your energy. The Anthem’s brakes and tyres are not best suited to British winters, but of course this is quite easily remedied.

MAGICAL PACKAGE

Merlin Malt 1-07 — typically £575, www.merlincycles.co.uk

Great value bike that can double up for commuting

This 2007 Merlin is proof that buying a complete package rather than cherry-picking choice components can save time and money. Although the frame itself is unexceptional, the high-quality gears, brakes and forks make the Malt better than some rivals costing twice as much. It is agile enough for skilled riders to hurl down the craziest of bike trails, yet also novice-friendly. The Malt is known as a “hardtail”, which means it has a suspension fork only at the front, but this can be locked out on flatter ground.

TOUGH BEGINNER

GT Aggressor — typically £200, www.gtbicycles.com

Modestly priced bike that cuts the right corners

While most low-end mountain bikes are clunky, better suited to the road than challenging terrain, the GT Aggressor is a proper, albeit modest, mountain bike. The correctly shaped frame isn’t jarringly rigid and doesn’t rattle or weigh a ton. The front-only suspension is adept on smaller bumps and the rest of the specs are basic, yet tough. You can confidently corner in mud or pop a wheelie over a log without wrenching your back. As an introduction to pedalling down wet, root-strewn paths, it’s the ideal choice for starters.

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EVEREST PRICE

Scott Ransom Limited — typically £4,400, www.scottusa.com/ransom

A genuine go-anywhere bike at a scarily high price

If your idea of a relaxing Sunday is leaping off refrigerator-sized boulders on a bicycle (and you are prepared to pay for the pleasure), then what’s needed is a rugged “all-mountain” machine. Scott’s Ransom range starts at £2,100, and this limited-edition model is the most expensive. It boasts a carbon fibre frame, but not a particularly light one, at 6.8lb. This is the first time such a frame has been seen on a bike built for more extreme trails, but the manufacturer claims it has been rigorously tested and crash-proofed. Experienced riders will appreciate the innovative touches, one of which is a switch on the handlebar that controls the amount of suspension travel at the front and rear.

SHOCK ABSORBER

Specialized FSR XC — typically £799, www.specialized.com

Well designed and credible full-suspension model

Full-suspension bikes have shock absorbers at each end that make them far more forgiving on tough terrain, which is particularly useful for novices; they’re also more bottom-friendly on longer rides. This hard-wearing FSR XC performs decently, and also boasts “neutral suspension”, which means it won’t bob excessively if you’re pedalling particularly hard. Yet it will still absorb the shock if you, say, clump into a rock. Specialized has wisely designed it with modest yet lightweight components such as V-brakes, which can be upgraded later if necessary, making for a total package that weighs only 29.9lb.

Boost your pedal power

Keen bikers can upgrade their machines but their pockets may need to be as deep as their passion for mountain biking.

Fox F100X Terralogic mountain bike forks
0870 1420 112

www.evanscycles.com £640

Fed up with bobbing up and down? Then you need the thinking man’s suspension. Fox’s patented Terralogic forks are unique because they distinguish between rider and bump-induced loads.

They recognise downward pressure from the rider and automatically lock it out, providing rigidity just when it’s needed. But they also activate the suspension for any upward pressure from uneven ground, and do so for every bump. This gives the Rolls-Royce of rides.

Shimano XTR groupset 2007 
020 8460 4852, price to be confirmed
www.bromleybike.co.uk Chainset about £300

On sale next month is the jewel in the crown of drivechains. The first new XTR groupset from Shimano for three years has been long awaited. The groupset includes chainset, dual-control and rapid-fire shifters. The new chainset itself comprises composite chain-rings — the outer aluminium, the inner two carbon and titanium.

The new rapid-fire system allows multiple gearshifts with one stroke of the lever. American professional racers such as Adam Craig use only one finger of each hand for XTR braking and shifting. It’s all ultra-lightweight with great rigidity.

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