Trek Top Fuel 69er
Best for: Cross country trail riding. While the 69er is dual suspension — both wheels can absorb impacts using air-sprung shock absorbers — it’s built lightweight with an aggressive rider position, allowing it to climb efficiently and absorb fast descents with equal aptitude.
The Lowdown: For about the last hundred years, bicycles have rolled around on two similar 26-inch wheels. But more recently, mountain bikers began experimenting with 29-inch wheels — and the buzz about them keeps growing. Why? The bigger the wheel, the more easily it rolls over rocks and roots, and the more momentum it gives the moving rider. The problem: bigger wheels means sluggish handling and slower acceleration. The folks at Trek believe they’ve found a solution: a bike with a big 29-inch wheel up front, and a traditional 26-inch wheel in the back. But that’s not all; each of those wheels is mated to highly complex suspension systems that use air springs andoil dampening to make impossibly rough rides a little smoother — and at maximum efficiency.
Special design features: While the 69er uses the same basic design as other Trek Fuel bikes with two regular 26-inch wheels, the measurements of the frame had to be carefully re-calibrated to accommodate the larger front wheel. On mountain bikes, even the smallest tweaks in frame geometry can dramatically alter the way a bike handles, so Trek engineers had to take special care to preserve the correct angles and relative measurements when adding the larger front wheel.
The bike’s frame is made of hydroformed aluminum, which makes it light weight and torsionally stiff for the best possible pedaling efficiency. That word — efficiency — is the raison d’etre for this bike, because cross country bikes are bred to be as fast as possible, without sacrificing ride quality. Adding dual suspension to a mountain bike makes the ride smoother and more controllable (meaning you can go faster without losing control), but the shocks also have the potential to absorb some of the rider’s pedaling energy, a phenomenon known to bikers as "bobbing." A bike that bobs badly can rob a rider of precious energy and speed, and thousands of hours of R&D in the mountain bike industry have been devoted to curing the problem.
To combat the specter of pedal-bob, the rear end of the Fuel bikes are designed so that the rider’s downward pedaling motion actually pulls on the shock, instead of compressing it. In theory, only pushing the wheel up (as a bump might) should activate the rear shock. In practice, it’s not a perfect system, which is why the Top Fuel comes with a oil-dampened rear shock specially valved to resist pedal input while retaining sensitivity to ground input. All that makes for a fast ride — hence the hydraulic disc brakes the bike uses for stopping power.
Price: $2,640 (complete bike)
Best for: Downhill riding and racing. They may not look like it, but downhill bikes are more than motorcyles sans engine. Downhill riders have to be able to carve down the side of a mountain the way a snowboarder might, while maintaining enough control to thread themselves between trees and around sharp corners. That means light-but-strong componentry and a very calculated rider position.
The Lowdown: Gravity is a beautiful thing, and some bikes are built solely in its honor. They’re big, heavy, and inefficient to pedal, but downhill bikes can fly down the side of a mountain and suck up the biggest of obstacles with ease. They’re called "downhill" because you actually never pedal them up anything; if you’re riding one of these, you’re taking a chairlift to the top of a local ski mountain and letting physics do its thing.
But the pro’s know that to be at top speed all the time, you have to pedal when possible — even screaming down a mountain. On bikes like the Top Fuel (above), pedaling extends the rear suspension instead of compressing it, making the bike efficient to pedal but less supple when sucking up bumps. The holy grail of downhill biking is a bike like the Intense M6 that can use its full travel — 10.5 inches, more than most motorcycles — and not lose it when the rider puts pressure on the pedals.
To that end, several bike companies have come up with rear suspension designs that use a "virtual pivot" to maintain plush suspension, even while the rider is pedaling. Don’t let the word "virtual" boggle you too much — in this case, it means "constantly changing." Think about a wheel attached to a pivoting point; when the wheel moves up and down, the axle moves in an arc around the pivot. But what if there are two pivots linked together? When the wheel moves up and down, it makes more of an "S" movement than a simple "C" — in other words, the wheel moves up and back, relative to the pivot, instead of up and towards it. On downhill bikes, that "S" is a very important letter, and Intense arguably uses it better than anyone.
Special Design Features: At high speeds, small characteristics on any bike can be a big deal. That’s why the shocks on downhill bikes are the focus of infinite amounts of attention and care. The M6 uses a rear shock with a monstrous 10.5 inches of travel called the Double Barrel, made by North Carolina-based suspension company,Cane Creek. The folks at Cane Creek get lots of input from nearby Ohlins, which makes high-performance suspension for motorcycles and cars, and the collaboration has brought incredible advances to bike suspension technology. The Double Barrel shock is a prime example of those advances; it uses a titanium spring and has four separate adjustments to tune the shock’s compression rate — the speed at which the shock absorbs bumps — and the rebound rate — the speed at which the shock returns to normal length after a bump. The shock is personally tuned to your body weight from the factory, before being mated to Intense’s super-strong hydroformed aluminum frame. All in the name of staying under control at top speed.
Price: $4,000+ (frame only - estimated)
Kona CoilAir Deluxe
Best for: All-mountain riding. All-mountain combines the pedaling and varying terrain of cross-country with more aggressive terrain and bigger obstacles.
The Lowdown: One of the biggest problems facing mountain bike designers is how to engineer a bike that will excel on an array of terrain. On downhill bikes and cross-country bikes, it’s okay if the bike is specialized for a specific type of riding. But what about all-around mountain bikes, which are meant to be pedaled efficiently and bombed down rocky descents?
Plenty of bike manufacturers think that one bike should be able to do both, and their solution is usually some kind of "variabl travel" dual-suspension bike. That designation means that you can dial down the amount of suspension travel on your front and rear shocks to suit the terrain. Riding cross-country terrain today? Dial down your shocks’ travel so you can pedal efficiently without pedal bob. Hitting the bigger, gnarlier terrain? Dial up to more travel, so you can soak up bigger obstacles.
But who wants to be fiddling with dials when they could be riding? And what if the terrain changes as you’re riding? Kona Bikes has an innovative idea that might allow the bike to do the thinking for you. The CoilAir Deluxe automatically adjusts the amount of travel it has depending on the conditions. It does this with a little doohickey Kona calls the Magic Link.
Special Design Features: The bike’s mechanical brain: Magic Link. Kona’s new system allows the bike to "know" when it’s being pedaled uphill and when it’s being bombed down a descent by reacting to the forces put upon the bike. When the rider is leaning forward during a climb, the bike shortens up its travel, making itself more efficient to pedal. When it senses big impacts are coming — ie, when the brakes are applied, and the rider’s bodyweight moves towards the rear of the bike — the Magic Link moves the position of the rear shock to give it more travel with which to suck up bumps. To see how it works, click here.
If that animation doesn’t totally make sense to you, you’re not alone. Because the bike debuted as a prototype just last fall, few people — industry insiders or not — have been able to ride and test it, leaving most bike junkies to pore over this very animation. So far, a healthy mix of fascination and confusion still reigns in the bike community. One reader on a popular bike message board asked simply, "Does anyone actually get how this works?" In the end, it doesn’t really matter how it works, as long as it does; and that remains to be seen.
Price: $2,000 (complete bike)
Specialized S-Works Ruby SL
Best for: Expert and Professional-level road riding and racing. This bike would not be entirely out of place at the Tour de France — except for the woman riding it.
The Lowdown: It took bike companies a while to figure out that men’s bodies are made a little differently than women’s. Specialized was one of the first bike makers to get the message. Its line of lady bikes is designed with women’s proportions in mind, to make long, crushing road rides — often 100+ miles — more comfortable for female riders. To do that, they lengthened some parts of the frame while shortening others, essentially adapting their road bikes for people with longer legs and shorter arms and torsos.
Special Design Features: In road racing, it’s all about the carbon fiber — and this bike has as much of the superlight, superstiff stuff as a Ferrari. Almost every square inch of the frame is carbon, including all the tubes, joints and reinforced areas, but it doesn’t stop there. The whole front fork — even the section that extends into the bike and attaches to the handlebars — is carbon fiber, as are the hubs, the bed of the seat, the handlebars, seatpost and parts of the drivetrain. Where metal must be used, it’s usually titanium, chosen for its superlight strength and its ability to dampen road vibrations. Speaking of road vibrations: while carbon fiber is light and strong, its biggest benefit over tradition frame building materials isn’t weight savings — its the stuff’s ability to absorb road chatter. Not all pavements are fresh-laid, seam-free asphalt, and over hundreds of miles, every bump and rattle can become excruciating. With carbon on almost every square inch of this bike, very little of the road’s abrasive surface makes it to your aching hands and feet.
To make things even more comfortable, Specialized puts rubber inserts into crucial areas of vibration absorption to help defray the roughness of the road. The clear rubber chunks — called "Zerts" — are visible in the tubes behind the seat, in the seatpost itself, and in the front fork. They also wrap the pedal arms — called cranks — in carbon to nip road roughness in the bud. Chances are, if you’re riding this bike, you’re also using carbon-soled cycling shoes like Specialized’s Body Geometry shoes, which makes for the ultimate alliance between (wo)man and machine.
Price: $6,300 (complete bike)
Calfee Bamboo Bike
Best for: Expert and Professional-level road riding and racing. While it’s just as much a piece of artistry as a piece of machinery, the bamboo bike doesn’t have to be treated specially, and can be ridden like any other high-end bike.
The Lowdown: Carbon fiber isn’t the only way to make a light, stiff and vibration-absorbent road bike. In fact, there’s another material that works equally well: bamboo. That’s right: do business with California-based Calfee, and you can have yourself an ultra-high end road bike made out of panda food. Believe it or not, bamboo is an exceedingly strong and stiff building material. That’s why Calfee offers a 10-year breakage warranty with each of its bamboo frames. (They also use bamboo in one of their high-end mountain bikes.)
Special Design Features: All natural frame materials. At Calfee, each bike can be custom made, so the frame builders use your weight, height and inseam measurements when choosing the individual bamboo chutes to use. Once they’re chosen, they’re smoked and heat-treated to prevent splitting, and mated to each other using either carbon fiber joints, or hemp ones for the all-natural look. Once the frame is constructed, it’s coated in Tung oil and fitted with high-end components.
Price: $3,200 (Frame only) $6,000+ (Complete bike)
Best for: Time-trial road racing, in which riders race against the clock instead of head-to-head. Since the fastest time wins in TT racing and every millisecond counts, riders are outfitted with aerodynamic helmets and shoes and race in a tucked-down position.
The Lowdown: Few pieces of man-made machinery look as if they’ve been left behind by aliens (the early iBooks, perhaps) but the Ordu definitely qualifies. From the side, it looks strangely flattened, but get close and you realize that each section of the bike is specially shaped to produce as little aerodynamic drag as possible. Using wind-tunnel testing and professional rider feedback, more and more bike manufacturers like Spain-based Orbea are using precise engineering and computer-aided testing to make their bikes exponentially stiffer, faster and lighter than they were even a few years ago.
Special Design Features: All that special shaping and shaving for the sake of aerodynamics means that some areas of the bike (like the downtube, where you see the Orbea name) are in a teardrop shape in cross-section, while other areas are shaped like — no kidding — rhomboids. Orbea claims this cuts down on drag by 40 percent over last year’s model of the Ordu. The headtube, the area below the handlebars, is shaped like a pointed airfoil, maximizing stiffness while minimizing air resistance and giving the bike an aggressive front end. Even the details are made with airplane-precision: the seat binder, which clamps the seatpost in place on the frame, is shaped to minimize the turbulence created by the riders legs, and all the cables for brakes and shifting and routed within the frame instead of on the outside. Add in a pair of carbon fiber Zipp wheels and other ultralight hardware, and you have one absurdly fast bicycle.
Price: $3,000 (Frame only) $6,000+ (Complete Bike)