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  • Posted Apr 7, 2003

You don't necessarily need a $1500 bike to enjoy your local singletrack trails

When I was 12, my family was in a pretty serious car accident. My mom, brother and I spent months recuperating from the damage caused by a drunken driver who ran a red light. I could have been angry with the man who caused my facial scars or my brother's broken ribs. But in the end, my anger faded because after the settlement, my dad bought me the coolest bicycle in the neighborhood. That Schwinn road bike had everything that matters to a 12-year-old: silver-and-maroon racing stripes, an odometer, 10 speeds and a matching water bottle and cage. It was worth a scar or two to have such an excellent piece of machinery. That bike got me into cycling, and I spent hours exploring back roads and even venturing to nearby towns. It was a bicycle beyond our family's budget but an investment that lasted until I went to college — an investment that still is paying off today. "This is like buying health insurance," said Rose Lahti, outreach coordinator and bike expert at REI. "If you get a bike that you like, that you're really going to enjoy riding, then you will get out and ride more. Then you stay more healthy. Then you don't have to go to the doctor as much. That kind of hits people — they can justify spending the extra money." Money is what it takes these days to get a good bike. Top-end outfits can cost several thousand dollars, more than a used economy car. In this month's issue of Mountain Bike there's an entire article on "budget bikes" — those in the $700 to $1,500 range, for Pete's sake! It's as if the industry no longer recognizes the fact that not all of us need a set of wheels capable of allowing us to fling ourselves off a mountain or go Mach speed down a skinny, rock-studded single-track trail. I ride the fence on the issue. Top-end bicycles are great, but do you really need to spend $5,000 on something you use to ride your city's pedestrian trails? No. What about if you want to ride some of the single-track trails at your local park? No. Get involved in Arctic Bicycle Club racing? Well, maybe. Still, a good mountain bike will last a lot longer, thus saving resources as well as money. Higher-end bicycles are, simply, made better by people in the field who test and fine-tune everything that goes on the market. The components are carefully selected and designed. You won't get that at the big-box stores, no matter how attractive that $99 price tag looks. So my conclusion is two-fold: If you're handy with repairs and don't mind not-so-smooth sailing, buy the absolute cheapest piece of junk you can find at a garage sale, thrift store or pawn shop and ride it into the ground. In 10 years, you may go through 20 bikes, but you'll be doing your part for the earth; recycling is good. Or do this: Buy as expensive a bike as you can afford from a bike shop that knows what it's doing. If you can afford $200, spend $250. If you can afford $1,000, spend $1,500. This one solid purchase, along with regular maintenance, will ensure that you have a dependable bike to last as long as those 20 old ones combined. But you don't have to take out a second mortgage. There are some great bikes out there for $300 to $800.
Here's where to start:
"The first thing we do is ask questions," Lahti said. "Like, do you have a current bike, and what kind is it? And, what kind of riding are you going to do?" If your local, mostly paved pedestrian trail is the primary target, chances are a $250 to $400 mountain bike with front suspension will suit most riders just fine. A mountain bike with suspension offers that extra cushion and durability for those occasional cracks and bumps. EXAMPLE: The Trek 800 Sport, 21 speeds, grip shift and Shimano components with no suspension is $249. For $299, the similarly outfitted Trek 820 offers front suspension. (www.trekbikes.com)
Second, make sure the bike fits. No matter how great the deal, if the bike is uncomfortable, it won't be fun to ride. "What I've found is that some people will only size something based on the distance between the top tube and their body," said Rose Austin at Paramount Cycles. "But it's also critical to fit between the seat and the handlebars. For women that's critical because we have shorter torsos." For guys, sometimes it's making sure that when straddling the bike there is enough clearance between the crotch and the top bar. EXAMPLE: For smaller women, try the Raleigh Tara with front suspension, 24 speeds, shorter top tube and all-around smaller frame. (www.raleighbikes.com) It is $439. Or look for the Tassajara Genesister, made by Gary Fisher. It's $599.(www.fisherbikes.com)
Craig Brown, sales manager at The Bicycle Shop, said he insists that potential buyers at least take the bikes for a spin around the parking lot. "That's where a bike shop makes a difference," he said. "When you come into a bicycle shop, an experienced hand can look at you, on and off the saddle, to see the fit. There are a lot of nuances, depending on the brands."
Look for special features, Brown said. Be willing to spend extra money on double-walled rims, which give you extra strength for tough trail rides, or all-metal rear derailleurs, which respond smoothly. Bells and whistles, such as computers, clipless pedals, fancy seats and upgraded components, can be added later or as budgets allow. EXAMPLE: A good entry-level mountain bike for aspiring off-roaders is the Trek 4900, which has front suspension, 24 speeds, double-walled rims and an all-metal rear derailleur ($569). The Specialized Hardrock Uno, with 24 speeds and double-walled rims, has full suspension but not an all-metal derailleur ($769). (www.specialized.com)
Last, think light. The less a bike weighs, the easier it will be to handle over the long haul. Of course, shaving those extra ounces costs money. Aluminum and titanium frames can be more expensive, but sometimes only slightly if you're willing to trade the lighter frame for less-refined components. EXAMPLE: The K2 Zed series offer weight-saving features such as aluminum frames with quality components. The Zed 2.0 is $390 and the 3.0 is $499. (www.k2bikes.com)
Melissa DeVaughn is an Eagle River free-lance writer and member of the Women's Mountain Bike and Tea Society. She has mountain biked for more than 10 years on the East Coast and in Alaska. By Melissa DeVaughn Anchorage Daily News

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