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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!

Have Your MTB Upgrades Made it Less Safe and Less Fun?

I am often amazed at the mountain bike setups I see! Great bikes, sometimes with great “upgrades” but the wrong upgrades for that rider or that rider’s purpose that day. Then when I ask why did you switch to those tires/bars/pedals etc. the answers I get crack me up! “Because Bob Bobaliny (the fastest local xc racer) was using these tires at 24  Hours in the Old Pueblo”, “I saw World Champ Greg Minnaar using these tires”, “my friend Scott said they are the best”, “I read on mtbr that these were the lightest bars made”, etc. MTB upgrades and components such as pedals, shoes, handlebars, tires, stem and wheel set can have a huge positive or negative effect on your riding! Choose the components and equipment for you, the conditions and your purpose that day.

Would you use this slick, Hookworm tire in loose conditions?

 

Maxxis Hookworm MTB Tire

Why can copying the World Champion’s setup sometimes do more harm than good? The World Champ had those tires on for a specific purpose (in Greg Minnaar’s case winning a downhill race with the conditions the way they are that hour of race day. The mud spike Greg used in the slick conditions at a rainy wold cup in France would be outright dangerous even in the pouring rain at a rocky hard packed place like Bootleg Canyon (in the Nevada desert). Listening to or mimicking other “experts” (in quotes because they are often not experts) can also have a negative effect on your riding and safety. One, because they might not be experts and two, because their purpose is different than yours. On a technically easy trail like the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course a racer will be concerned more about rolling resistance than control so she runs a semi-slick tire front and rear. The same racer on a more technical course would likely run a knobbier tire that rolled a little slower but gave her more control.

Some things to look out for:

1. Light weight components, light bars, light wheel sets, light tires, light cranks etc.. Our obsession with shaving weight off our bikes needs to end. Yes, given the exact same performance I would rather have a 22 pound bike than a 32 pound bike, but right now that doesn’t exist.

First, what is your purpose? Do want a bike that handles all conditions you may encounter really well or the lightest bike on the market? Often, the two end up being at odds with each other (the lightest bars are narrow, the lightest tires are narrow and have weak sidewalls, light weight seat-posts are not height adjustable on the fly, all compromising control). If you are simply a passionate rider who wants to ride your best, focus on ride quality and control. If you are a cross county or endurance racer you need to really weigh the benefits of weight shaving vs. control, which often means different equipment for different race courses. The more technically challenging the race the more likely you would want to add a dropper post and better tires for more confidence and control. The less technical the course the more you would favor light weight and semi-slick tires.

2. Pedals. Clipless pedals are not an upgrade (see our blog posts on this topic:   http://betterride.net/blog/2010/clipped-in-vs-flat-pedals/ ,  http://betterride.net/blog/2010/interesting-info-on-pedal-stroke-efficiency/) they are simply another way of pedaling. If they cause you to lose ANY confidence on the trail, how can they be an upgrade?!

Clipless shoes, there are two main different styles of clipped in shoes, softer and wider soled shoes for wide clipless pedals (platform pedals with clipless) and super stiff and light xc racing shoes. If you are an xc racer a carbon soled shoe provides amazing power and light weight, tough to beat. If you like to explore when you ride, ride technically challenging trails and want more support and comfort for your foot the softer soled 5.10 type shoe with the platform clip-in is a better bet. For more on each of these pedal types and shoes see Andy’s post: http://betterride.net/blog/2011/betterride-mtb-skills-head-coach-andys-summary-on-pedals-shoes/

3. Seatposts. A light weight non-adjustable seatpost will definitely save a little weight but it isn’t worth it! A  “dropper post” will give you more control and allow you to descend with much more confidence, control and help you to descend faster! You CANNOT get into proper descending body position with your seat at full pedal height! So the 3-6 ounce weight penalty of a dropper post is worth it on trails that have steep descents, fast corners, drops, or technical sections! See my article on dropper posts: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/the-4th-thing-you-can-buy-that-will-instanty-improve-your-bike-handling/

My 6 year old Gravity Dropper

Tires, the sport is called mountain biking for a reason, we ride off-road! So I nice knobby tire will give you much more traction than a semi-slick or tire with minimal tread.

Nice tread for more control!

Figure out the goals for your mountain bike riding and then make sure you aren’t compromising them by using the wrong equipment for your goals! Of course the number one goal is, having fun!