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!
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!