Mountain bikes are built for riding over rough ground, more often on trails through forests and moorland rather than actual mountains. Their tyres have deep tread lugs for traction in dirt and are fatter to absorb bumps. To improve bike control and comfort, most also have suspension for the front or both wheels. Gears go low to cope with steep climbs, while brakes – often hydraulic discs – are powerful to keep difficult descents in check. Mountain bikes are the 4x4s of the bike world.
Like many 4x4s, lots of mountain bikes rarely stray off tarmac. If you’re looking for a bike for mostly road and only light off-road usage, you might be better off with a do-it-all hybrid, cyclo-cross bike or tourer. These will be more efficient on-road and will accept mudguards and panniers more easily. But if you want one bike for both singletrack trails and city streets, a mountain bike is the best option.
At Cycle to Work prices, a hardtail – no rear suspension – is the best option. Partly that’s because a hardtail will make a better commuter. Mostly it’s because budget full suspension bikes are heavily economised; a hardtail at the same price will have better quality components – including the suspension fork – and will give a lighter, more engaging ride.
Effective suspension isn’t cheap. It requires a spring rate that suits your bodyweight; air shocks are ideal as you can pump them up to your preferred pressure. Suspension should work smoothly, compressing without sticking and extending (i.e. rebounding) in a controlled fashion rather than springing back like a pogo stick. A lever to lockout or limit the suspension is an advantage when climbing hills and/or riding on road, as it stops the bike bobbing up and down and absorbing your pedalling energy.
You’ll have to compromise on the tyres of a bike used on road and off. Tyres with big tread lugs grip well in soft earth but are frustratingly slow on road, whereas slick tyres offer limited grip off-road. You could have two pairs of tyres – slick and knobbly – and switch between them. Alternatively, you could fit a dry conditions tyre to the rear, such as a Kenda Small Block Eight or Halo Twin Rail. The rear tyre accounts for the bulk of the drag on road and isn’t critical to off-road steering like the front. Pump both tyres up hard for road use – the maximum pressure rating that’s stamped on the side of the tyre – and run them soft off-road.
Many hardtails under £1,000 have the frame fittings for a rear pannier rack, if you don’t want to carry your commuter bag on your bag. The rack can stay on the bike off-road. It will add weight but won’t get in the way. Just be sure that the rack leg (and pannier) will clear the disc brake calliper. It’s simplest if the brake calliper is mounted to the chainstay instead of the seatstay, but disc-specific racks are available.
Mudguards are more troublesome. You can fit full-length mudguards to a hardtail, although you may need to improvise with cable ties and clamp-on brackets for the front guard; your local shop can advise. However, full-length mudguards can jam with mud or sticks off-road, possibly causing an accident. Either remove them or use partial MTB guards all the time. These fit to the seatpost and either the down tube or fork crown. They won’t keep you completely clean for commuting, so be prepared to change at work on wet days.
This is only a snapshot of the many mountain bikes available. Other manufacturers offer bikes with similar features.
Charge Cooker Rigid
Less is more: a lighter rigid fork is a valid alternative to the heavy, dull and thumpy suspension forks fitted to many entry-level hardtails. That’s especially true when the bike has 29-inch wheels like this. Bigger wheels roll better over bumps so you don’t miss the suspension as much and they are more efficient on road too. The Cooker Rigid has lightly-tread, easy-rolling Kenda Karma tyres. The frame and fork are steel, and its resilience can slightly improve riding comfort compared to aluminium. Gearing is 24-speed Shimano Altus, while the brakes are less powerful cable discs rather than hydraulics.
Jamis Dragon 29 Sport
Another steel-framed 29er that would slip easily into a dual-purpose role, the Dragon 29 Sport will carry its speed better off-road thanks to its 100mm Manitou Tower Expert fork. This is air sprung so can be set as firm or as soft as you like, and its compression lockout will be handy for road use. Summery Geax Saguaro tyres will spin along the road pretty well, while still offering reasonable all-round grip off-road. Brakes are decent quality Avid Elixir 1 hydraulics, and the 27-speed Sram X7 gears have a good range.
Trek 6300 WSD
Being lighter than men on average, women have more to gain from a fine-tuneable air fork like the Recon Silver TK Solo Air on this Trek 6300 WSD. ‘WSD’ stands for Women’s Specific Design: the bike has a shorter reach and a narrower handlebar than the gent’s version, as well as a different saddle. The frame has pannier rack and mudguard mounts, making the 6300 WSD a viable commuter, and the tyres aren’t too heavily treaded for road use. Gearing is as good as it gets at this price: 30-speed Shimano Deore with an upgraded XT rear derailleur and a cassette that goes all the way to 36, which will really help on hills.
Mongoose Tyax Comp
The Suntour XCM fork fitted to the Tyax Comp is a cut above other coil-sprung forks bearing the same name. It’s the hydraulic lockout version (HLO), which has adjustable compression and fixed damping, so it’s more composed on bumpy trails, much improving the ride. Kenda Small Block Eight tyres roll quickly on tarmac and dry trails, although they can clog with mud easily. The aluminium frame has rack mounts, and the 24-speed Shimano Alivio gearing and entry-level hydraulic disc brakes are par for the course at this price.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
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