The Wheel Deal
Thanks to advances in cycling technology, what was cutting-edge in 2000 is now standard. The result: amazing bikes at prices that won't leave you flat.
(MONEY Magazine) – Unlike skiing, golfing and most other outdoor activities, riding a bicycle requires no additional money for many years once you buy the bike itself. No lift ticket or greens fee--just an open road and a Saturday afternoon. In other words, the only big financial decision you need to make is to pick the right bike.
As it happens, now is a remarkably good time to choose. The steady downward trickle of cycling technology means that today's bikes are as good as (or better than) the bikes that were twice the price just a few years ago. I typically test as many as 50 bikes a year for a host of cycling magazines, and I'm amazed at the technology and features now available to the serious amateur.
Before the snow piled up this winter, I rode more than 20 of this year's best on- and off-road offerings through the mountain trails and winding back roads of northeast Vermont. I searched for the best values in two price ranges: what I call getting started, for everyday folks who ride regularly, and getting serious, for those who ride hard enough and often enough to warrant the investment in sturdier materials and high-performance design. In total I picked six winners--two for the road, two for the mountains and two for the kids.
NOVARA Big Buzz $799 rei.com
• LOWDOWN Usually, better handling means less speed. The Novara's quick, pothole-dodging handling makes it far more comfortable than a traditional road bike, but the high-pressure tires move fast so little speed is lost.
• BEST FOR Anyone for whom the mere sight of the hard-to-reach, downward-curving handlebars on most road bikes is enough to cause lower back spasms.
• KEY FEATURE The flat bar keeps your head up and your back intact.
Novara is the house brand of Seattle outdoor retailer REI, and the price of this bike undercuts most comparable road bikes'.
LEMOND Croix de Fer $1,350 lemondbikes.com
• LOWDOWN Designer and three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond chose a frame of steel, long prized for its supple ride. (Most competitors use aluminum, which is lighter and works for most people but does little to absorb road vibration.)
• BEST FOR Bikers seeking a smooth, fast ride on all types of terrain.
• KEY FEATURE You shift the Shimano 105-series gears using easy-to-reach handlebar-mounted brake/shift levers, a revelation whether you're racing across France or to the next doughnut shop.
The bike seemed to hover over frost-cracked pavement. After 40 miles, my upper body felt fresher than it would have after a comparable ride on my own bike--which cost four times as much.
MARIN Northside Trail $590 rei.com
• LOWDOWN Designed to suffer years of abuse, the Marin is built more solidly than bikes twice its price.
• BEST FOR All riders. Full-suspension bikes (with front and rear shocks) have infiltrated this price range, but such complexity usually means some sacrifices--cheaper gears, less durable tires. Not on this one.
• KEY FEATURE The front-suspension fork delivers a full five inches of give, complementing the powerful Hayes disk brakes.
The budget Northside Trail is trickle-down done right: Five years ago you would have spent twice as much to get this sort of trail-eating ride.
CANNONDALE Prophet 600 $1,600 cannondale.com
• LOWDOWN It's designed for freeriding, the mountain biking trend that entails gut-churning jumps and rock-strewn descents.
• BEST FOR Aggressive riders. Nearly six inches of bounce, or suspension travel, in both the front and the rear of the bike provide ample cushion on any terrain, and the bike's Avid disk brakes stop on a dime (or a twig).
• KEY FEATURE The acclaimed one-legged Lefty fork (the front fork stays on one side of the front tire instead of straddling it) weighs far less than conventional frames. Wins style points too.
The Prophet is the most expensive bike I tested, but it feels indestructible and offers a truly superior ride.
GIANT MTX 225 giantbicycles.com $220
• LOWDOWN It has a lightweight aluminum frame, 21 gears to help developing legs grind up hills, and powerful direct-pull brakes to help keep youthful enthusiasm in check on steep descents.
• BEST FOR Both boys and girls. The drop-tube frame is designed to be unisex.
• KEY FEATURE Giant wisely offers the bike in two shades of blue, one for each gender.
It's pricier than mass-market department store bikes, which are typically constructed of low-grade steel.
KONA Hula konaworld.com $325
• LOWDOWN A loyal steed for kids who like dirt, it's built to be ridden hard and hung up wet at the end of the day.
• BEST FOR Off-roaders. The lightweight yet nearly indestructible aluminum frame won't bog down young riders on steep climbs.
• KEY FEATURE A trailworthy suspension fork separates this mini mountain bike from the pretenders.
The slightly higher price tag on this bike is more than justified by its suspension fork.