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Sweet Rides:
The Lowdown on Five Race-Ready Mountain Bikes

By Joe Lindsey

A new bike isn’t going to suddenly transform you into Ned Overend or Roland Green. But if you haven’t looked at new bikes in the past few years, you’re missing a lot of innovation that can improve your race times and enjoyment.

Full suspension for racing is here, and that’s not hype. Recent advances in shock technology and frame design have produced bikes that balance the bump-eating benefits of a full-boinger with the efficiency of a good hardtail.

Air shocks have improved dramatically in durability and feel, while cleverly designed linkages top out the suspension under full pedaling power. The newest frontier: smart shocks that can distinguish bumps in the trail from pedal input.

If you’re still beholden to hardtails, never fear. The good old HT is still, on all but the bumpiest courses, one of the fastest machines out there. You also get a lighter, more portageable bike and a better value on parts; dual suspension bikes cost $200-$1,000 more than comparably equipped hardtails. But on longer, rougher courses, you’ll get more fatigued; and while a suspension bike might not turn the fastest lap times, neither will you if your back seizes up from the abuse.

The five bikes gathered here represent some of the best designs on the market for adventure racing and off-road multi-sport events. The question you have to ask yourself in deciding between a hardtail and a fullie is simple: is light weight more important than staying fresh?

Specialized S-Works Epic FSR Specialized S-Works Epic FSR
Weight: 24.75 pounds
(408) 779-6229; www.specialized.com

On paper, Specialized’s Epic appears unbeatable, as the inertia valve on the revolutionary Brain shock automatically locks out pedal input to the suspension. The end result: the bike is impervious to energy-sapping suspension bob, but soaks up rough terrain with 3.5 inches of travel. The most amazing thing? It works exactly as advertised.

The suspension reacts quickly enough to partially absorb the initial shock-activating impact, then locks out quickly if no more jolts are coming. The left-seatstay shock position also preserves the main triangle for easy portaging. Make no mistake: this is not a cushy suspension — it works well but had the harshest feel of the three suspension bikes in this test.

The component spec — mostly XTR and quality accessories from Thomson and Rock Shox — is solid, but there are better bike values if your biggest goal is saving money. There are a few nagging concerns: the shock can activate unpredictably, small bumps are ignored, and it gets confused in big-gear pedaling in rough terrain. Overall, Specialized has scored big with the Epic, but as with any race bike, you’ll compromise comfort for efficiency.

Giant NRS 1Giant NRS 1

Weight: 26.81 pounds
(805) 267-4600; www.giant-bicycles.com

Like the Epic, the NRS is a racer’s bike; it’s about efficiency, not comfort. The original automatic-lockout bike, Giant’s NRS design pits bumps and drivetrain as opposing forces: hard pedaling extends the linkage to lock out the shock, which in theory remains open to bumps. The bike uses all of its 3.75 inches of travel on descents, but rear-wheel traction suffers when hammering as it takes a bigger bump to overcome pedal forces.

It’s also about value. The ALUXX SL aluminum frame is the same found on the ultralight $4,200 NRS Air, and the components — Shimano XT drivetrain, Hayes disc brakes, Rock Shox SID Team fork with remote lockout and Hutchinson Python tubeless tires — are winners, if not the flashiest parts.

Remote fork lockout is a great feature, as is the frame’s Fluidforming, a hydraulic tube shaping process that creates strengthening gussets without welds. The bike’s relatively heavy weight is the cost borne for an affordable race bike. Then again, $1,900 (the difference between the NRS 1 and the NRS Air) buys a lot of race entry fees.

Trek Fuel 98 Trek Fuel 98
Weight: 26.5 pounds
(920) 478-4678; www.trekbikes.com

With a new carbon fiber frame throughout, Trek’s World Cup-winning Fuel 98 is one of the most laterally stiff and efficient full-suspension bikes available — three inches of bump-eating wheel travel out back with front and rear lockout for fire roads and smooth climbs.

The components are a mixed bag, with hits on the Shimano drivetrain, Avid SD5 brakes and Rock Shox SID Race fork, and misses on the flexy house-brand Bontrager crankset (Shimano Deore would be an upgrade) and the Bontrager Race Lite tubeless wheels —our rear rim refused to hold pressures past 20psi, so we threw a tube in the tire, negating the benefit of tubeless. Trek will properly warranty faulty wheels, but we hope this isn’t a recurring problem.

The bike has great trail manners, with confident descending and a comfortable position for all-day efforts. The rear suspension also had the best trail feel in the test. If you want an efficient, comfortable fullie for racing and everyday rides, the Fuel is very hard to beat.

Nike ACG Toketee Mid Gary Fisher Supercaliber
Weight: 26.63 pounds
(920) 478-2191; www.fisherbikes.com

The Supercal puts the 29-inch wheel phenomenon front and center. The theory of 29ers is simple: bigger wheels roll faster (the standard 26-inch wheel was the default size found on the original converted fat-tire cruisers ridden by mountain bike pioneers like Gary Fisher).

In practice, results mixed. Big wheels have less rolling resistance, so the Supercal rolls fast, like a road bike. And the larger diameter rolls over obstacles and floats in loose soil. But the front wheel flops more in slow, technical situations, bigger wheels are slightly heavier (in this case, five ounces more than a comparable 26-inch version) and 29er-compatible parts selection is limited.

The Marzocchi Marathon SL fork has a sticky feel and recalcitrant rebound adjustment, but other than that, and the Bontrager crank, the parts mix is excellent (no leaks on these wheels). The ZR9000 alloy frame and Genesis geometry (which moves your center of gravity back on the bike) are the real deal; this is a great bike for fast courses.

Simon River Sports Shark 5-piece Paddle Jamis Dragon
Weight: 22.56 pounds
(800) 222-0570; www.jamisbikes.com

Little-known Jamis has long been making some of the best-value mountain bikes available, however quietly. The Dragon is a fine example. A sturdy TIG-welded Reynolds 853 air-hardened steel frame puts up with whatever abuse you might dish out. And Jamis doesn’t cut corners when picking parts; The Dragon features the absolute best stuff out there; full Shimano XTR, Mavic Crossmax SL tubeless wheels, Thomson stem and seatpost, Manitou Skareb Super suspension fork with lockout, and Time ATAC clipless pedals.

The Dragon is what a hardtail should be: fast, agile and efficient. You can flick it into a corner and trust that when you drop the hammer, your power turns into forward motion, not frame flex. And the sublime feel of steel is hard to beat.

If you’ve never had the experience of a good steel bike, the Dragon is an excellent place to start; what Jamis lacks in cachet it makes up for by building solid bikes.

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