Rigid forked mountain bikes are rare at £300, and Giant's Escape M2 isn't a full-bore off-road machine but an urban mountain bike. If you look beyond those slick treads however, you'll see a familiar-looking chassis...
XTC'S MY SISTER
There aren't any disc mounts and the reinforcing bulge on the top tube is gone. For all that though, this is essentially the same 6061 aluminium frame as the WMB Bike of the Year 2004: the XTC 4. Same gusset wedge, same wishbone seatstays. It even has a forward-facing seat tube slot, like the off-road bikes.
What's different is the detail. As well as mudguard eyelets, there are braze-ons for luggage racks front and rear - enough capacity, given a full set of panniers, for an expedition load. Or the weekly trip to Tesco.
It remains an off-road beast in street clothing and it's most definitely not a Sunday towpath trundler but a real mountain bike. A long enough reach lets you stretch yourself out a bit, put the power down and move your weight around the bike easily when you're out of the saddle.
We could tell that the Escape wanted to go for a gallop away from the traffic, so we took it off-road anyway - in its street attire. The only tricky part was remembering to reign in the rest of the bike for the sake of the obviously-not-very-good-at-gripping-anything tyres. On road it's a different story, as those Maxxis slicks are smoother and harder (80psi) than any of the other bikes' tyres, and the difference in speed was marked. With a lower bar position, you could even try chasing down roadies.
Running gear is okay. The equipment is mostly Altus-equivalent, although the rear derailleur has been uprated to Acera. Like the Specialized, it uses an 8-speed Freehub rather than a cheaper screw-on 7-speed. While the cassette is a wideranged 11-32, the chainset is a 28-38-48 that's geared for the faster speeds on road - off-road you'll miss that 22 cog on the first real hill.
Bolt-on hubs are way beneath the Giant's price point, so as you'd expect, you get alloy QR (Quick Release) hubs as standard. Each one has 36 spokes apiece rather than 32. For a rigid bike (ridden both off-road or on) this is very good news indeed - as, all other things being equal, the wheels will be that bit stronger. While ours needed truing prior to the test, it's a common complaint that a dealer would happily sort out for you before a sale.
The big, studded Wellgo pedals were our favourites here and were grippy in street shoes or trainers, even in the wet weather. Giant throws in a bottle cage and bottle, which is nice, but we'd have preferred full-length mudguards, or clipons for use on road and off.
SUV, yes, but not the kind for school-run mums. The Escape M2 is a genuinely multi-purpose bike, rather like a budget version of Cannondale's Bad Boy or Marin's Point Reyes. You will need to spend a bit more cash on it - tyres to go off-road, 'guards and rack for road use - but at least it can be easily adapted either way. While there's some serious competition at this price from bikes with functional suspension forks, the rigid Escape is one of the more versatile bikes we've tested. The only spec change we'd make would be a 22-32-42 chainset: 42x11 is big enough on Tarmac, and the extra offroad climbing gears would be most welcome.