Mountain Biking, More About the Equipment than the Ride?

Mountain Biking, More About the Equipment than the Ride?

When I got my first mountain bike it was all about fun and freedom. Wheelies, riding up and down the stairs on campus, exploring area trails, riding the local BMX track, man that bike was fun! It had a sweet straight fork that transferred the impact of every bump directly to my hands (most rigid forks have a bend in them that flexes a bit to absorb some of the impact when the wheel hits a bump), the brakes had gigantic levers that you used three fingers on to squeeze those awesome rims brakes and slow you down and it had no suspension. Heck the bike lasted four years with zero maintenance except for lubing the chain. Then I sold it for about half what I paid for it. For all I know it is still being ridden, original wheels and all. After all it was a mountain bike, my sturdy, trusted friend, oh the fun we had! We met other riders too and they showed us their favorite trails, regaled us with stories of near death experiences and travel to exotic places like Moab. We shared adventures, ate by campfires together and enjoyed ourselves. Our conversations were fun and diverse, where are you from, do you snowboard, have you ridden the Two Peaks trail, ever bonk on ride? this one time in Moab …, wow, is there good camping in Hurricane? Great times, great friends and great memories!

Then a few years ago at a campsite in Fruita, “Is that a free-ride bike or an all-mountain bike?” my reply, “I’m not sure I just ride it. It is a fun bike!” “Wow, is that an X9 derailleur? Does it shift way better than X7? I’m thinking of buying ….”, all night, equipment questions, my bike is better than your bike statements, that bike is good for this but not good for that, my derailleur is better… It was one of the longest, most annoying campfire evenings of my life.

Bikes can cost over $10,000 today! I’m not saying there haven’t been some amazing improvements to braking, suspension, geometry, wheel size, tire tread, etc. and many of those improvements have definitely added to the fun, but they don’t make the fun, you make the fun! A $2,500 mtb today is better than a top of the line titanium, all XTR bike was in 2000.

Stop worrying so much about your equipment and enjoy the moment, enjoy the scenery, enjoy the company of your riding buddies and simply be in the moment on your bike! Nothing wrong with nice bike stuff but I know so many people with $7,000-$10,000 bikes and really nice cars/trucks with cool aftermarket rims that constantly tell me how lucky I am to be able to ride so much! Well, if they didn’t spend every penny on new shinny parts (that they post photos of on facebook) they could afford more riding time!

Bikes are made to ridden and enjoyed!

PS The day after writing this my $1,500 carbon wheel set (traded to me for a spot in one of our skills progressions) blew up the rear hub on it’s eighth ride! I had to walk out 2-3 miles (all usually fun downhill) because a wheel set that costs 2.5 times what that first bike cost pooped bearings all over the trail!

The Final Say on Mountain Bike Wheel Size!

The Final Say on Mountain Bike Wheel Size! All you need to know about wheel sizes and what size is right for you.

All this might get you thinking about test riding a bike so read this article to get the most out of your test ride:

http://betterride.net/?p=2885

First ask yourself honestly how many mtbs you want at any given time. Can you afford one mountain bike, two bikes (a downhill bike and an xc bike), or three bikes, (a xc bike, an enduro/all mtn bike and a downhill bike), four bikes (a xc bike, an enduro/all mtn bike, a dirt jumper and a downhill bike) or five bikes, (a fat bike, xc bike, an enduro/all mtn bike, a dirt jumper and a downhill bike)? Sadly, a friend of mine owns all five of those bikes but he has never invested in is own riding so he rides all of those bikes not nearly as well as he could (slightly out of balance, slightly out of control, entering corners fast and coming out slow, etc.) so don’t be a fool and spend all your money on your bikes, spend some on you!

Then ask yourself what you want to do on each bike as your answer/s will differ greatly if you can afford multiple bikes.

How tall are you? Height is a big factor as you reach a point where 29r’s and even 650b/27.5 bikes will simply be too big (not necessarily too big to ride but too big to ride in control, in balance and efficiently)  if you are vertically challenged. Saying you are tall enough to ride a 29r is the same as saying I am tall enough to ride a 36r, which I am but just because I can do it doesn’t mean it is good. If you are below 5’5″ 29r’s start to become pretty cumbersome (I know people that are 5′ even and love their 29r but if they had a chance to spend a week on a 650 or even a 26r they would probably find the smaller wheeled bike more fun). If you are 4’10” or shorter 650b/27.5 bikes may be a bit cumbersome, definitely thoroughly test similar 27.5″ and 26″ bikes to figure out which fits you best.

If you want one bike that will do it all well you will want a 27.5 with 5″ of travel and a 66-68 degree head angle.

 

Norco 650b all mountain bike

Norco has imbraced the 650b wheel for most of their mtb line

If your over riding goal is to win xc races your will want a 29r, there is simply nothing quite as efficient a weapon for xc racing as a 29r.

Orbea 29r race bike

If you like all mountain riding and/or enduro racing you will want a 650b/27.5″ wheeled bike with 5-7″ of travel. The 27.5″ tires are the perfect compromise between the rolling ease of a 29r and maneuverability of a 26r. Most medium priced and above non-xc race mountain bikes will be 650b by 2015.

ibis 650 mountain bike

Ibis Mojo 650B is a good looking mountain bike!

Dirt Jumpers, slopestyle and 4 cross bikes will stay 26″ as other than possibly rolling a little faster there is no real benefit to bigger wheels for this style of riding (and one big downside, weaker, more flexy wheels). If this is the kind of bike you are looking for stick with 26″ wheels!

For downhill you will eventually want a 650b but until all the companies (especially fork companies) get the geometry dialed in you may end up waiting a year or two to get one.

 

KHS has their 650b DH machine dialed!

As for me, I have three mountain bikes a Canfield Jedi Downhill bike (26r), a 26″ wheeled dirt jumper and Specialized Evo 29r. I had been waiting for 68 degree head tube angle 29r for over a year and finally got the EVO this spring.  I have been riding the EVO all summer and though it is very efficient it isn’t fun to ride like my old 26r or the 650b bikes I have ridden (it goes straight great and is like cheating going up rock ledges and technical climbs but doesn’t like cornering and switchbacks. It is cumbersome, slow and awkward to throw around). The Evo 29r will be for sale soon and replaced with a 650b. The dirt jumper is great for pumptracks and jumping so it will stay! The Jedi will hopefully be replaced by a 650b wheeled DH bike from Canfield Brothers but that might not be until 2015.

 

Gene Hamilton Canfield Jedi Mountain Bike

My all-time favorite downhill bike, my Canfield Jedi!

MTB Tires Really Effect Your Ride, Control and Confidence!

Wow, I have posted on the importance of good tires before, but after a weekend on a rental bike with tires very similar to the ones used by many of our xc racing students I have to discuss this again! I had not been on tires like this in years so I forgot how bad they really are! Is lower rolling resistance worth losing 25-50% of your control? On fast, non-technical race courses it may be, but at the Jungle Habit and Ringwood, NJ trails this weekend it was not worth it.

These WTB Tires rolled fast but did not get much grip!

The small (in height and thickness) knobs provided little rolling resistance, but squirmed on rocks (because they flexed, a lot) and didn’t climb or corner well. I would only use these tires on a bike path (or maybe an easy xc race trail involving no skill).

If you are looking for a confidence inspiring tire that will hook up, study what the best downhill racers are using in your area and buy similar tires (if you are worried about weight get the single ply versions, if you hate flatting, like increased control and don’t mind extra weight (double the tire weight) use downhill, double ply tires.  Tall knobs work well on softer surfaces like the loomy trails in the Pacific Northwest and in mud. The more hard packed the surface (as in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and much of California) a medium to low height knob with a lot of surface area (blocky knobs instead of skinny knobs) as these tires will put more rubber on the ground (as the surface is too hard for the knobs to push into the ground) and the big surface area keeps the knobs from flexing (flexing makes the tires squirm). My personal favorite tire for Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California is the Maxxis High Roller.

 

The High Roller!

Notice how thick the knobs are! These tires are also Greg Minnaar’s favorite tires. Greg says that they roll fast for an aggressive tire and they are very predictable. Specialized, Kenda and Schwalbe all make excellent tires, do your research and find the ones made for your trail conditions.

Tires also come in different rubber hardness, the harder the rubber the faster they roll and the longer they last. The softer the rubber the better traction they have but they roll slower and where quicker. Many manufacturers offer dual and triple compound tires where the center, rolling knobs that get the most wear are a harder compound than the cornering knobs (which get less use but are vital to cornering control). Tire hardness is measured in Durometer, the higher the number the harder the rubber. Most tires range in Durometer from 42 to 70. 70 durometer tires feel almost like plastic and slide easily, but roll fast. 42 durometer tires are favored by downhill racers but wear really quickly and roll slow, most tires will fall in between. Better, more expensive tires often will have a dual compound of around 55 for the center knobs and 45 for the side. Dual and triple compound tires are my favorite for xc use as they hook up almost as well as a downhill tire, but roll a little faster and last longer.

Tire pressure also greatly effects your ride. Lower pressure hooks up better, smooths out the trail a bit and rolls faster than higher pressure so go lower. For more info on tires check out my older post on this:

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!