In the mid-1970s, when the first fat-tire pioneers took their old clunkers roaring down the fire roads of Mount Tamalpais overlooking the San Francisco Bay, mountain biking was a return to something pure. Cheap thrills, with an emphasis on cheap. Speed. Adrenaline. Excitement. Frills? Nobody had the time, or money, for frills. And the bikes, 20- and 30-year-old Schwinn Excelsiors – paperboy bikes -- that would hardly put a dent in anybody's checking account, reflected that mantra of simplicity.
Now, mountain bikes can cost more than a decent used car. In fact, a well-known badge of the true mountain biker is when the bike on the roof rack costs more than the car transporting it to the rider's favorite trail. Heck, even a top-of-the-line wheel set, such as Mavic's CrossMax UST Tubeless wheels ($849), can cost as much as a nice bike.
There are two big reasons why someone would spend more than $3,000 on what casual observers believe to be a child's toy. First, the very ideal that makes bikes so appealing to youngsters -- the promise of unfettered freedom -- doesn't dull with age. Mountain biking represents a lifetime pursuit that speaks to the adventurer's soul, and the price of a great bicycle is simply the cost of admission. If the sport means enough to you -- and mountain biking is a pastime that inspires the true believers of the alternative sport set -- then the price is easily justified.
For Scot Nicol of Ibis Cycles in Santa Rosa, California, that justification is captured by a single word -- passion.
"Twenty years ago, when I first started, I bought a bike for $1,500, which was a lot of money back then -- my gross income was $3,000," says Nicol. "But I got the bug, and I was passionate about mountain biking."
The second element is a simple rule of economics -- people can afford them. Nicol works with a dealer in Aspen, Colo., who routinely has several customers each year who stop in and announce: "I want the most expensive bike you have." Most people who've earned their money, however, expect value in return. In short, they're willing to pay for the best craftsmanship and technology available. And make no mistake -- today's high-end bikes are technological marvels.
Aside from the basic arrangement of two wheels, a frame, a seat, handlebars, pedals and a chain, these bikes bear scant resemblance to the Schwinn Excelsiors of yesteryear. Frames and component packages -- from 27-speed drivetrains to disc brakes and air/oil shock absorbers -- have evolved tremendously in the past quarter century.
"We have a 'price-be-damned' attitude," says Nicol. "We don't make our bikes to be expensive -- we want to make the best bikes we can."
He should know. Nicol's company produces one of the world's priciest mountain bikes - the Ibis Bow Ti ($3,950 for frame and rear shock, or roughly $7,500 for a bike complete with a top-of-the-line component group -- that many consider an investment on par with a fine motorcycle, complete with a high-performance engine.
"The Bow Ti is a unique product -- there are only a few hundred in the world," says Nicol. "It's functional artwork. People are attracted to its unique look, and very strong engineering. It's a classic example of form following function, yet the form is gorgeous, like a Ferrari."
At the high end of the price scale, you can find mountain bikes of every frame material -- titanium, carbon fiber, aluminum, steel -- and every stripe, from superlight, punch-the-pedal racing rigs to one-of-a-kind collector's items to huge downhill machines that have more cushion, or suspension, than your uncle's La-Z-Boy. Look for these bikes to be outfitted with a start-of-the-art component group and wheels, typically Shimano XTR, or a combination of exceptional boutique brands, such as RaceFace, Salsa or Syncros, and a top-of-the-line front suspension fork from RockShox, Mantiou or Marzocchi. The following six bikes -- three "soft tails" and three full-suspension -- all blend lightweight comfort and convenience, responsiveness and reliability, snap and sex appeal. About the only thing they won't do is pedal themselves. They're fun, fast, and worth every penny.
Moots YBB SL ($5,000; Steamboat Springs, Colo., www.moots.com; 970.879.1676)
The original "soft tail," only lighter, and still one of the best. If it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then today's soft-tail designs all owe a debt to Kent Eriksen and his Moots YBB (Why Be Beat?). A small shop in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Moots is the standard-bearer of titanium elegance -- simplicity coupled with superb handling. The YBB SL offers a pivotless rear shock system with more than an inch of rear travel, supplied by a refined rubber (or elastomer) and coiled-spring shock, to take the edge off a hard day in the saddle. And it does it all with a svelte 3.75-pound frame, or about a half-pound lighter than many comparable frames, that builds up to a complete bike at under 20 pounds. With it's brushed titanium finish and welds that would make any artist's heart swell, the YBB SL looks as good above the living room mantle as it does on the trail. For an extra $50, riders can opt for the new YBB Air, which substitutes an adjustable air shock for a more finely tuned ride. Fans of Cannondale's HeadShok front suspension might prefer the Merlin Metalworks Extra Fat, which uses the Moots rear suspension system combined with a Fatty SL front shock and a showpiece Merlin titanium frame.
Litespeed Tsali ($5,000; www.litespeed.com; Chattanooga, Tenn., 423.238.5530)
Obsession has its rewards. The gang at Tennessee-based Litespeed claims they're obsessed with bikes, and Litespeed owners wouldn't want it any other way. Another minimalist design, the Tsali also features a pivotless rear suspension to take advantage of titanium's inherent flex, but with burly, oversized tubing that makes it look like a Moots on steroids. The new generation of the Tsali incorporates an adjustable rear shock, allowing the rider to finely tune the rear suspension. Riders with a keen eye for detail will also notice that the rear shock and triangle are welded to an exotic front triangle, including a massive ovalized downtube, that improves lateral rigidity and pedaling efficiency. Like it's namesake -- the legendary western North Carolina trail network -- the Tsali just flows underneath the rider. Disc brakes, however, provide whiplash stopping power. Perfect for those who obsess about their rides. The Litespeed Unicoi ($2,000, frame and rear shock) is a bargain alternative, while industry giant Trek Bicycles has married the adjustable rear shock to its space-aged OCLV carbon fiber frame with the STP 300 ($3,000, complete bike).
Ibis Silk Ti ($2,450, frame and rear shock only; www.ibisbicycles.com, Santa Rosa Calif.; 1-800-283-0943)
Always pushing the engineering envelope, Nicol and longtime collaborator and suspension guru John Castellano, who created a huge buzz in the bike biz with their wildly imaginative Bow Ti, have teamed again to produce what may be the ultimate soft tail mountain bike. The Ibis Silk Ti delivers a buttery smooth ride via a proprietary dual-stage elastomer rear shock melded to a unique flat chain stay. The visually striking chainstay provides more vertical travel while enhancing side-to-side stiffness, eliminating the "whippy" feeling found in some other soft tail rigs. The result is almost two inches of rear travel in a bomb-proof bike that only weighs a shade over 22 pounds. In layman's terms, the Silk Ti is a featherweight boxing champ, lighting quick and tough as nails, able to handle most anything you throw at it. The bike's flawless welds and performance-oriented racing geometry is the stuff of which hard-core mountain bikers dream.
Klein Adept Pro ($3,300, www.kleinbikes.com; Waterloo, Wisc., 920.478.2197)
Gary Klein has always followed his singular and eccentric vision for mountain biking, even after his company was swallowed up by the largest bicycle manufacturer in the States, Trek. Sometimes the results have fallen flatter than a punctured inner tube, but most often he's right on the money with cutting-edge designs and frame materials. The Adept Pro is one of his best efforts to date. Similar to its cousins, the Trek Fuel ($3,000) and Fisher Sugar 1 ($3,300), the Adept Pro is a thoroughbred full-suspension bike that features several trademark Klein touches -- internal cable routing, eye-popping paint schemes, and a supple, smile-inducing ride. Klein has shaped his own Gradient aluminum tubing into a neat X-beam stabilizer that prevents lateral slop and gives the bike exceptional straight-ahead speed. An integrated headset provides ultra-precise steering, another hallmark of Klein bikes. To get a true one-of-kind ride, buyers can opt for a custom frame for exact fit and a custom paint scheme.
Santa Cruz Superlight ($3,500; www.santacruzmtb.com; Santa Cruz, Calif.; 831.459.7560)
Never afraid to improve, Santa Cruz engineers tweaked their tried and true Heckler design to create the Superlight, a high-octane rocket that manages to provide 4 inches of rear suspension via a Fox Vanilla RC shock and still weigh in at less than 23 pounds. The secret is in the frame materials. The feathery aluminum tubing used to shave more than a pound and a half off the graceful Heckler frame is actually stiffer for pure point-and-shoot performance. Even the paint was discarded, in favor of an anodized finish, to drop a few precious grams. Clearly, this bike is a product of its environment -- it shines on tight, twisting singletrack similar to the trails surrounding Santa Cruz. The distinctly elevated chainstays are attached at a single pivot with sealed ball bearings, which makes for fewer maintenance headaches (especially in areas where mud is an avoidable part of the terrain). Riders will appreciate the bike's playful side, a combination of deft handling and climb-all-day attitude.
GT I-Drive Team ($4,200; www.gtbicycles.com; Santa Ana, Calif., 714.481.3743)
Racers, start your engines! This innovative company introduced its radical I-Drive system a few years ago, to mixed reviews. At the heart of the bike is the ingenious rotating shell that surrounds the bike's bottom bracket, allowing riders to keep pedaling through bumps in the trail. More efficient, more fun. The earlier models, however, were on the heavy side, better suited for descending and seated pedaling than out-of-the-saddle climbing. The I-Drive Team changes everything. At a hair over 23 pounds, with re-engineered suspension and geometry, this bike shines in all conditions. The I-Drive Team comes with a complete Shimano XTR component kit -- the best in the industry -- and more than 3 inches of rear travel supplied by a Fox Air Float RC rear shock. One caveat -- this is a racing thoroughbred. And just like the horse, you better be prepared for a handful. A quick, lively ride, the I-Drive Team isn't recommended for the weekend warrior.
-- Boston-based freelance writer and cycling nut Brion O'Connor has three mountain bikes of his own, but that doesn't stop him from lusting for more.