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!

 

Another Upgrade That Can Help Your MTB Riding!

An upgrade that can help your mtb riding!

I had a fellow mountain biker email me a great question the other day.

“I do have one question. I’m wondering what your opinion is on the importance of a really good rear hub. I tried to find something on the web page but I couldn’t. Personally I find that a quality rear hub is one of the best improvements you can make on a Mtn bike. It might be because I ride trials but I fell there is a huge difference between instant engagement and near instant engagement, weather climbing or descending. I was just curious what your opinion might be. I don’t often get to ask questions of bike experts..

Thanks again,

Jim Loughlin”

The exact Chris King Hub I run

The answer is, yes in many situations.

When climbing a technical climb with lots of rocks and ledges the near instant engagement makes timing of pedal wheelies and weight shifts much easier and precise. These hubs eliminate the “dead spot” when you pedal 10-20 degrees with no engagement. This dead spot can cause your weight to move forward before your bike moves forward often shifting you out of position. Better engagement also allows you to keep your feet more level when ratchet pedaling, requiring less downward movement to achieve the same amount of forward progress.

Even while descending the quick engagement allows you to apply power to the pedals a hair quicker coming out of corners. This leads to a feeling of being more precise and in control.

Hadley Rear Hub

Here is a list of some hubs with quicker engagement and number of points of engagement (I am skills coach not a bike part nerd, I am sure there are quite a few I am leaving out) XT 36pt., DT Swiss 36pt, Hadley 72pt, Chris King 72 pt, Industry 9 120pt, Halo Supa Drive 120pt. For me it feels like the Hadley and Chris King work great with 72 points of engagement which I believe is every 6 degrees and the Industry 9 and Halo are about every 3 degrees. There is also a newer company, Stealth Hubs that claim less than a degree of rotation for engagement but I haven’t heard much about them (which only means I can’t give you my opinion on them). Do your research and find the hubs you like and that fit your budget, some of these hubs cost almost as much as our three day skills progressions!

Personally I am a big fan of both Chris King and Hadley Hubs. I have a Hadley rear Hub on my practice wheel set and it has lasted six years so far. My race wheelset has Chris King hubs and they have lasted two seasons so far and still work great.

 

Mountain Bike Handlebars that Hurt Your Bike Handling!

Your handlebars greatly effect the feel of your bike and how your bike handles. Sometimes bars that are comfortable for long rides aren’t the best for bike handling.

Mountain Bike Handlebars with a lot of back sweep (back sweep is how the handlebars point slightly back towards you, all mtb handlebars have some back sweep but most are between 3 and 9 degrees, these bars are 11 to 37 degrees) hurt your bike handling! I dislike them and they don’t like you! I have seen these handle bars recently on a few students bikes and they are scary and dangerous. I suppose if you have a nagging wrist injury or ride for more than 8 hours at a time they may be comfortable (but they are uncomfortable for me as my wrists have to twist outward to hold them) but comfort at the cost of greatly reduced control and risk of injury?! That doesn’t sound like a good trade off.

Top to bottom: Origin8 Space Off Road II (37 degree bend), Salsa Bend 2 (23degree), Surly (by Nitto) 1×1 Torsion Bar(15 degree bend).

 

I got this photo from an interesting blog focused on bike as transportation and adventure (bike packing and long distance rides) check it out if you are into long rides:

http://www.pushingthepedals.com/2012/01/all-about-the-bend/ he likes the bars and for his purpose they are probably fine, he will be a little more twitchy but if they make him more comfortable that might make long rides more fun.

Have your ever ridden an old 3 speed with bars that bend straight back towards you? They are very twitchy. These new bars are similar. The more back sweep a bar has the more it moves your elbows in, towards your body. This puts you in an nonathletic position (elbows in) where you can not resist side to side bar movement nor can you move quickly or efficiently. This means when you hit a bump that causes the front wheel to swerve (which happens probably once a minute on a mountain bike) the input from the bars will be transferred to your body causing you to swerve. With a more straight bar and arms out from your side more you would; A. be able to resist the bars swerving and B. the movement of your arms would not be transferred to your body so the bump would not cause you to swerve. It is also hard to absorb shock and contour to the terrain as well with elbows in. So if your bike came with these bars switch them out asap! If you were thinking these type bars might be an upgrade, they are not! As we have stated before, look for a wide bar, 720mm to 810mm and a short stem, 30-70mm long and you will have much more control (assuming you understand and ride in proper body position).

Create you most in control ride yet!

Bike “Industy Experts” Sometimes Give Poor Advice!

This is Andy’s take on something that is plaguing mountain biking, bad advice by self appointed experts.

Ok, this may seem a bit harsh, but I’m ready to go to war with ignorant, “industry experts” such as bike shop employees, shop owners, especially “professional bike fitters”, (AND husbands and boyfriends of female students who “…know what’s best for my girl’ ‘cause I’ve been riding for twenty years and use to race!” – I love that one!) that refuse to wake up, educate themselves, and understand what equipment is necessary in order to most effectively ride an MTB — both up and down an incline — in technically challenging terrain and therefore, continue to give riders advice and recommendations on equipment that are just plain wrong.

If you’re a normal-joe, just trying to help out with advice, “well, this is what I use…” or “I heard this works really well…” then, hey, I understand. You’re just trying to help another rider out. (Maybe, throw in a, “I’m no expert, but…” first?). But, it’s the people whose job it is to be an expert on the topic — whom other riders should be able to trust — who are too lazy, close-minded, and/or egotistical (or stocked their shop with the wrong stuff) to figure out what is going on in the bike world (not just right out your front door, on your local trail…got news for you: that’s not ‘the bike world!’) and therefore, not only won’t sell riders what they need in order to ride their bikes more effectively, but bad mouth the equipment and the “True Experts” (ahem…us) that recommend it… those are the ones I’m after!

After every camp I teach, I get emails form students, where the above is the case.

ALMOST every rider that buys a stock MTB, — assuming that their goal is to have the best all-around handling bike (which is the goal of the instruction in our camps – and to be the best all-around rider you can be) — can benefit from wider bars, a shorter stem, and an adjustable height seat post. Control set up, proper tire selection, pedal/shoe combination, a frame with adequate angels… all these things matter, also.

This obviously is not the “bike set-up” portion of a BetterRide Camp, we’re not sitting here discussing things real-time. So, I can’t hit every detail and explanation in this article. However, the following is an email response that I sent to a student that maybe can set a few “experts” straight. If a lot of this stuff is completely foreign to you, get on the ol’ internet and check it out!

Andy Descending

Hey —-,

Sorry to hear about the “opinions” of your local shop owner. Here’s something to consider with bike set up:

Again, we need to know what the goal of our riding is, and what terrain we want to excel on, and set our bikes up accordingly. If I’m racing the Leadville 100 (100 mi’s of dirt road–nothing too technical), or a typical XC race (not very technical, usually not technical at all), then I’m NOT going to use the bike I currently have, which is set up for aggressive trail riding.

However, if I’m riding fun, technically challenging, “expert level” trails, then my current bike set up is exactly what I want. Most campers come to our camp to learn how to ride the latter, and that’s what we focus on with bike set up. And if you can learn to ride this type of riding, and obtain some skills, it will definitely help everywhere else.

I would say that the closest type of MTB racing to the type of riding that I’m talking about above is “super-d” or “enduro” racing (not ENDURANCE racing–different stuff). These are fairly long, primarily downhill races, but also have climbs, flat pedal-y sections, etc. Sometimes, these are multi-day, multi-stage races where as soon as riders finish a stage they immediately have to climb, on trail, to the top of the next course and get there in an allocated amount of time for the next stage. So: fast difficult, technically challenging downhill descents, and large amounts of climbing, sometimes over a few days. You get to use one bike, and, often, your bike is photographed and marked so that you can’t change (most) of the parts.

The idea is that the winner is an all around mountain biker. Endurance, technical skill, proper equipment (a bike that can handle the descents AND climb back to the top–quickly!) is mandatory! True Mountain Biking!

Sound familiar? This is basically what we teach. My bike at the camp is my super-d race bike with few very minor changes. This is the largest growing type of racing because it involves much of why many people ride MTB: scare the shit out of yourself/handle it/have a blast on the way down, but also be fit enough and able enough to crush your competition on the climb. (The races and courses are also kind of unpredictable, forcing riders to be able to adapt — in the true nature of MTB!)

The reason I bring up this type of racing is because — as I said — it is essentially what we teach, and if you look at all the top riders in this type of discipline, their bikes will almost always be set up almost exactly like mine/what we emphasized in camp: the best all-around handling mountain bike you can put together. And, racing isn’t about fashion or what’s cool (when it really comes down to it). It’s about function. As they say, “the clock doesn’t lie”.

Again, I know super-d racing isn’t the goal for all of us, but being a great all around rider is the focus of the camp so that’s also what we focus on with the bike.

DIRT magazine had a feature on a lot of pro bike set ups for this type of racing a couple months ago. Some of these races: Downeville Classic in California, Oregon Super-d Series, Some of the Mega-avalanche stuff in Europe…

And, like I said in camp, a bike-fitter won’t help you out with this, in fact, they’ll take you in the wrong direction. (ask M— how his bike fitter would do a fit on a downhill bike. Downhilling is a big part of the equation, right?)

Unfortunately, M—, like so many other shop owners or “industry experts”, is a bit behind the times…

Andy

In racing, riders use what works. A BetterRide bike is set up to be the best all-around handling bike possible. This type of racing is proof of that set up.

… and, please, don’t tell me that I can’t fit through trees with my wide bars. Take a camp, and we’ll show you how to do that, too.

Gene’s Article on on bar width and stem length: http://betterride.net/?p=486

Gene’s Article on dropper seat posts: http://betterride.net/?p=625

Gene’s Article on tires and tire pressure: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/another-thing-you-can-buy-and-instantly-have-more-bike-control/