Halfway between the gutter and the stars there lies some wonderful MTBs. They simply do the job: no fuss, no overblown marketing jargon, and no infl ated price tags. Here's four complete steals at £650-£850
Iron Horse Sachem 3.0: A hefty 'All Mountain' offering from Iron Horse's excellent 2007 range. It won't suit the racing snakes but it does offer the sort of slam dunk ability that would make a XC lightweight wince.
BREAD AND BUTTER BIKES
For every superstar attracting worldwide adoration and glory there are countless unsung heroes who rarely get noticed, and it's the same in the bike world. The unsung hero bike, the relatively anonymous workhorse that rolls us happily around the woods dishing up the thrills, the spills and all that pleasure of escapism that keeps mountain bikers fi t and sane, is the bread and butter of the bike industry.
These unsung hero bikes are the ones we recommend to our cost-conscious mates, the tough hardtails that are still carving a carefree path through the winter crud while the spangly full suss superbikes are languishing; too precious to be subjected to such punishment.
In WMB66's £1000 'Grand Day Out' bike test we took a look at bikes that are willing - and also theoretically able - to dish out as much performance as you'll ever need for a great day out among the hills and dales. Of course, there are countless more costly status-greedy bikes available too - as well as a whole load of cheaper bikes - than those around the strangely seductive £1000 watershed, and we all know that you can score a superb ride on any of them given the right mood, good terrain and good company.
We also know that £1000 is just a little too much money to spend on a bike for a lot of people we ride with. For all sorts of reasons, it's a lot easier to justify buying yourself a new bike if the price tag only has three fi gures involved. So this month we're going to take a look at the price bracket where the unsung heroes hang out - £650 to £850.
What to expect
There's a good cross section of hardtails in this price category, as well as the beginnings of serious full sussers. But we'll be testing 'budget' full sussers and as well as more costly ones in the next few months, so we're going to focus on hardtails here.
A few years ago, most hardtails in this price category tried hard to mimic the raceworthy hardtails in the higher price categories, but these days there's much more choice - including lightweights with short travel forks to bombproof 'roll through anything' rigs with longer travel forks and all sorts of frame and component reinforcements.
Most riders already know what sort of bike they want and/or need. If you don't, have a good think about your ride abilities and your aspirations. If you're not the sort of rider to take risks and you shy away from diffi cult technical terrain, concentrate on the light and lively bikes. If, on the other hand, you see every trail obstacle as a challenge to be overcome and you don't mind hauling extra weight up the hills and throwing caution to the wind on the way down, look at the heavier duty bikes with long travel forks.
Focal on the local
The good news is this: we can almost guarantee that bikes at both extremes of the ability and weight range are equally suitable for 'local' trails - and everyone will have their own defi nition of local. Obviously not all trails are created equal, but as a rule, if you have to work harder to get a bike up the hills, it'll be more fun coming down the other side. So it all equals out. Oh, and you'll get fi tter on a heavy bike, despite the fact that it's nice to be able to keep up on the climbs on a lighter one. It's swings and roundabouts, however you look at it.
IRON HORSE SACHEM 3.0
It can take a beating, but is all the heft really worthwhile?
Most of us round here ride XC trails hard and fast, and sometimes throw caution to the wind on descents. But it's rare that we opt for a hardtail that tips the scales at much over 30lb. Iron Horse makes a selection of lightweight hardtails, but it also produce this 'All Mountain' hardtail. If you don't know what 'All Mountain' means, think all-day cross country rides with a hint of freeride. If you don't know what freeride means then join the majority of riders. It's a marketing tag meant to conjure up carefree off-trail riding of the more radical variety.
New York-based Iron Horse Bikes has been making top end MTBs since 1987. It built its reputation through sponsoring mainly downhill riders but its comprehensive new bike range, and the new UK distributor, now covers all the bases.
The 35.8lb Sachem is obviously built to take punishment. It'll suit those who ride outside the nerve, fi nesse and safety limits of the average XC trail rider, and there are plenty of riders like that. A massively reinforced selection of frame tubes boost strength, heft and rigidity, but this has been achieved through heavy duty internal butting rather than gussetry. The taper-walled top and down tubes use the biggest weld contact area possible into the reinforced head tube.
The super-fat seat stays and box sectioned chain stays offer massive rigidity and loads of mud room, and the neutral geometry implies that Iron Horse has designed the Sachem 3 to be ridden hard with the full 130mm of the travel-adjustable RockShox Tora wound out. We've seen better forks but the Tora is a good choice for those who like to hammer. You can dial it in to 85mm for steady rides, and doing so doesn't create nervy handling.
The rebound damping is pretty effi cient and factory-set compression damping seems to suit most riders. This is undoubtedly a bike that can take lots of abuse, and the componentry is chosen to match up to those expectations.
Inevitably, for XC riders of average weight, average ability and average expectations, the Sachem is overkill. It steamrollers along very nicely provided the trail is relatively fl at or downhill, and the fork performs a fi ne job of bump taming at the sort of speed that would get short travel forks fl ustered. But when the terrain rises, the Sachem's excessive heft makes it really hard work for you, which isn't quite so welcome. It'll defi nitely get you there eventually, but it lumbers, and there are times when you'll be wishing there was a lock out lever on the fork, because you won't want to be constantly winding the travel down.
You'll have confi dence to hit stuff harder with the Sachem than you would on a light bike, but most of us (and we admit here to being wimps when it comes to pushing the boundaries) found that we were riding the lighter Saracen just as hard, with less of a weight penalty. Of course, the Saracen doesn't have as much heft for those really heavy landings. It's only really the heavyweights, the clumsy or the truly hardcore riders who need that sort of heft. You'll probably know if you're one of them.
The WTB Dual Duty rimmed wheels and Intense 2.35in Downhill tyres on the Sachem are responsible for a big lump of the bike's overall heft, but they're as heavy-landing resistant as the frame and fork, and those tyres will carve their way safely through almost any type of terrain in pretty much any conditions. The drivetrain's eight speed Shimano Alivio based, and that's not great on a £799 bike, but we like the rock ring on the FSA crankset and we had no reason to moan about shifting performance. The rest of the kit is super-strong but fairly basic stuff, and we'd like to have seen hydraulic disc brakes rather than the Avid cable pulls that were fitted.
However, when we made the cost versus ability comparisons, we realised that the Sachem doesn't seem very well equipped for the price. But of course, this depends on how much you value the frame, fork and wheelset - all of which are very suitable for the task at hand. It's a well-built frame, but so are those on the other bikes, and in two cases they're better equipped for less cash.
If you feel you need a bike this bombproof you won't be considering the sub-30lb XC options. The Sachem 3 is a hardcore bike for those who relish the diffi cult downs and don't mind working their asses off on the ups. It does the job nicely, but we really wish Iron Horse had managed a nine speed drivetrain and hydraulic discs. It would have made the bike a lot more future-proof and a much more attractive proposition.
The long and the short of it
Fork travel can be a bit confusing, as on medium priced hardtails you're likely to fi nd forks ranging from 80mm to 130mm of travel.
Go for a shorter option if you're a cross country pootler, but if you don't want to slow down for anything, think longer. Either way - particularly on the longer travel options - consider looking for a fork with a lockout option. If there isn't one, at least look for good compression and rebound damping. This will make the bike feel more stable on climbs or sprints.
Most lockout options come in the form of a lever or dial on the top of the right-hand leg. Whack it open as you're about to enter any technical sections or you're sizing up a descent, then let the longer travel suspension soak up the shocks and rocks, leaving you to enjoy the freedom and speed.
Merida Matts 700D £650
0845 600 8218 www.mukshop.com
The £650 700D is a good choice if you're looking for
something racey at a reasonable price.