Does Your Mountain Bike Feel Good? Why Test Riding MTB’s is a Waste of Time!

Does your mountain bike feel good?  Testing riding mtn bikes is a waste of time! Now that I have your attention this post is also about how to test ride a mountain bike and make the most of it.

This is one of the most amusing concepts I have ever come across. So often I hear/read riders talking about how good their bike feels. Sometimes I hear racers talking about how they tuned their suspension until it felt good. Often they talk about how they love their bike (because it feels good) and recommend their exact bike to friends based on their feelings. Sometimes they will put down another bike saying they test rode it (for all of five minutes in a parking lot) and it felt weird, slow, twitchy, tall, etc. and they say stay away from that bike. How knowledgeable on mountain bike handling is your friend? How many bikes has he ridden (for more than an hour) so can he really give a good opinion? Does he ride with proper body position and technique?  Don’t believe the hype!

Why is this amusing? For many reasons! First, you know what feels good? What you are used to. Change always feels weird! If I took your bike and rolled the bars just one degree forward without telling you you would say that your bike suddenly feels weird! If I did that plus added 15 pounds of pressure to the tires, stiffened the rear shock, softened your fork and moved your seat .5 inch forward on the rails you would say your bike feels really weird! So when you test ride a bike with different geometry or that is set up different than your bike (wider/skinner bars, longer/shorter stem, steeper/slacker head angle, higher/lower bars, etc.) it is going to feel weird. Conversely, when you test ride a bike with the same geometry that is set up exactly like yours it is going to feel great.

When the Giant Glory downhill bike first came out I was one of the first people in the US to ride it (a writer from the New York Times writing an article about my camps was loaned one) and it was set up perfect for me (the writer and I weighed the same and were almost the same height). I thought it was a great bike and was surprised eight months later when two of my teammates test rode it at Interbike and said it stunk. I immediately went to the Giant tent to test ride the bike they had demoed to see what was up. Halfway down my first run on Snake Back (one of the same runs I tested the bike on seven months earlier) I was questioning my judgment as the bike wasn’t performing well. The suspension didn’t feel nearly active enough for the rough terrain but the rebound and sag felt about right. I pulled over to adjust the suspension and realized that it was way under-sprung for a large (and it takes a lot of time to switch out a coil spring) so the mechanic had cranked the compression damping on both the rear shock and front fork to stiffen it up for riders my and my teammates’ weight. I turned the compression damping way back on both shocks and rode the next section of Snake Back, and although the suspension was way to soft the bike rode much better. I told my teammates to try it again and they were surprised at what a difference that made. Imagine what we would have thought of the bike if we had the time to put the right spring on the fork and rear shock! Imagine if we had a whole day of tuning it and riding it instead of one run!

Joey Schusler railing a turn at Bootleg Canyon, March 2007 Camp

Weird can often end up being better once you get used to it or understand why/how to use your new setup. A great example of this is “dropper” seat posts. No one can argue that descending with your seat at the height that is perfect for power production when climbing is as good, safe or as efficient as lowering your seat, you simply can not stay in a neutral and balanced position with your seat that high. Despite knowing and understanding this the first time you descend with your seat lowered it feels weird, because you are used to the seat giving you feedback by tapping against your thigh, now it either doesn’t do that or does it in a different spot.

You know what else feels really good? The ride of a Cadillac! Now I wouldn’t want to take a Cadillac off-road or race it on the road, but wow, it feels great. Ever ridden in a high performance car like a Porsche? High performance cars feel really harsh, kind of like riding a fully rigid mountain bike, but boy do they handle well. So feeling “good” doesn’t always translate in to performing well. I want my bike to perform well so I have made changes to my bikes to make them climb, descend and corner at their best (more on this in a future article).

After 24 years of riding mountain bikes, 14 years of studying bike handling and coaching skills to riders from advanced beginners to the best pros in the world and 17 years of racing the pro class I still can’t tell much about a bike from a parking lot test ride (except obvious things like steep head angle or feels short for a large, etc.). Even on trail it is tough for me to really get the feel for a mountain bike, unless I take the time to set it up similarly to my bike. Even then, what if the bike I am testing is revolutionary? A revolutionary bike is going to feel weird, I might not like it…. at first.

Have an open mind when test riding bikes. Set the bike up similar to your bike and really give it some time before passing judgment!

Stay tuned for my article on suspension tuning!

 

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8 replies
  1. Janet says:

    Great blog…thanks. GIven my limited experience (adv beginner), I’ve been questioning whether it’s even worth it to demo as I don’t think I know enough to discern differences – especially whether those differences are due to the frame/bike vs build. Not to mention at my size (5’3”, 125-130) it’s difficult to find demos of the bikes I’m looking at. So, I’ve just been reading/researching and have narrowed it down (I think) to Ibis SLR (or possibly HD) or Pivot 5.7 carbon. While I’ll be relying on help from a good shop, I’d appreciate input on what you’d recommend overall – my goal is to get a bike/build that supports me in being the best all-around rider I can be on a variety of technical terrain…leaning slightly toward preferring that advantage on downhills. I ride/live in the Sierras & plan to keep this bike indefinitely. From what I’ve read here & elsewhere: wide bar, short stem, dropper seatpost, good pedals/shoes, tubeless tires w/tread appropriate for my terrain. And of course a good fit. Any other input on bike / build?.

    Looking forward to taking one of your camps this fall! (looking at Moab or SF Bay Area in Sept). I’m buying my bike soon & don’t want to find out I ‘should have bought this or that’ right after I’ve spent a chunk of $ on my bike :<). Thanks for any recommendations.

    Reply
  2. Gene says:

    Hi Janet,

    Those are both great bikes. I have a couple friends with the Mojo HD and they say it pedals better than my Specialized Enduro but is not quite as fun or plush on the descents. I haven’t ridden the Pivot 5.7 but it has a similar rear suspension to the IBIS and I have heard nothing but good things about Pivot bikes. You nailed it with the short stem (50-80mm) wide bars, at your height 26-29″ wide and dropper post. Go back through our blog and search for the post on the ideal confidence inspiring bike and you can read more of our reasoning.

    Looking forward to seeing you and your son in a camp/s.

    Cheers,

    Gene

    Reply
  3. Jack Sullivan says:

    Another great article about skipping the hype and tuning into one’s own needs as an mtb rider! I am going to start calling you Sensei!
    Janet, my brother just bought a Pivot 5.7 carbon and loves it. He had an mtb pro in Tucson help him set up the suspension for his weight so hopefully you can get some help with that. Good Luck!

    Reply
  4. Tom Conlon says:

    Hi Gene,
    Thanks for the great article. It still leaves me wondering how in the heck I would ever choose a new bike. I know that the guys who write the articles and reviews of mtb’s are more experienced and skilled than I but I think you hit the nail on the head when you described your personal demo experiences – how do I know what fits and rides best for ME? Of course most bike shops around here don’t want me to get the bike dirty while test riding so what’s the point in even taking it out of the shop? I do read mtbr.com which has a wide variety of owner reviews and I read the manufacturer hype and the bike magazines trying to get a feel for what a given bike feels like. Fortunately I now own the best bike ever ;-) so I just hope I don’t trash it so I need a new one!

    Thanks again for your expert insight!
    Tom

    Reply
  5. A. Jelinek says:

    Out here in Northern California, many bike shops do Demo Days. My favorite shop, Tread in Campbell, does them quite often and in agreement with your post, I must admit that they have drastically changed my ability to feel a bike for what it really offers. The more bikes you ride the better you will be able to do this. Demo Days are typically done over an entire weekend, so someone with time…. maybe in the market for a new rig… can ride various different brands over 4 to 6 hours per day on their favorite trails.

    I’ve had the fortune to ride some of the most high end bikes by Scott, Santa Cruz, Specialized and Yeti in one weekend and I was amazed at what I liked and what I didn’t. Preconception can really mess you up so make sure to check that at the parking lot…. Ask your local shop about when they have scheduled a demo day… Great article as always!

    Thanks!
    AJ

    Reply
  6. Dennis Moroney says:

    Thanks Gene. Have an open mind and be patient is the bottom line. I start with a frame that has standover clearance I’m comfortable with. Then I do the basic KOPS fit to get the saddle, shoes and bars set up. After that, I put on a ton of miles before making the next tweak. How I feel during and after the rides usually indicates the next change to make before the next ride. K.I.S.S. by making one adjustment at a time. I have a SS Ti hardtail that rocks street riding now. It may not work out as a trail setup and that’s okay because it’s dialed in for the conditions.

    Reply
  7. jack says:

    trek 3500 and remedy 7 are all i ever pedalled. so I just love them!!.i did get the right size though.im a 18 mo begginer so it was real easy for me to like a good bike.on the other hand, i just flipped my evo link and run shocks against sag meters above factory suggested settings.this softens the fork and stops rear from maxing too easilly. it took time to get use to but i was convinced that i would get use to it quick and i did.now this cool article confirms it all.even run 30 psi tire instead of 35 now.

    Reply
  8. Jack says:

    also i own a trek 3500. i love it. but when i bought the remedy 7 i compared geometry charts and realized the remedy had the handlebars 1/2 ‘” closer. thus my elbow bent is better on the remedy.sure its all changable sort of. but im not knowlage able enough so I did my self a newbie favor and bought the right size bike and one with more beef and suspension travel and wide tires because i will destroy it.never test rode the bike.loved it first 100 feet i rode it.

    Reply

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