Off-road Revival, Part I

I’m a bit late with this post. I said I would write about my re-initiation into the world of mountain biking, but I’ve been remiss. I’ve finally gotten around to writing the story about last Sunday’s foray into the sport I forsook years ago.

When I last rode mountain bikes–much less raced them–hardtails still comprised the majority of professional MTB fields, 29ers were a novelty item sold exclusively by Gary Fisher, and 5″ full-suspension bikes weighed more than 30 pounds. That was the year 2003.

The last bike I owned, a beautiful, custom, steel hardtail built by my sponsor at the time, Soulcraft Bicycles, was equipped with lightweight semi-slick 1.85″ tires, a full-carbon Rock Shox SID World Cup, Paul Components V-brakes and levers, and hand built ultralight wheels with Mavic 717 rims on XTR hubs. The bike was worth well over $4000, and it was a truly dependable and wickedly fast racing bike.

bike 011

With a bit of polished finesse and some disregard for safety, this bike could outperform many of the full-suspension bikes at the time, and power transfer was head and shoulders above the contemporary bobbing rear suspension designs. The bike never complained about technical terrain, its abilities limited only by the skill and daring of the rider; it mocked the artless lines chosen by full-suspension riders that depended on mechanical shock absorption to correct their mistakes. I am not one to covet material possessions, but I do believe that I loved this bike.

Alas, my yet-to-be explained departure from mountain biking–coupled with my classic college-dude poverty–caused me to sell this work of art for a paltry $1200. Like many things we do in college, it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, I’ve since come to regret the decision to sell my Soulcraft.

I’ve spent plenty of time off-road with my road bike since that day, but not once have I climbed aboard a mountain bike, nor have I felt any need to do so…until last week, that is.

As I mentioned on Saturday, a friend of mine was kind enough to lend me his “sick” Cannondale Rize, the polar opposite of my Soulcraft in many ways: plush suspension front and rear, tubeless tires, disc brakes, and riser bars. Justin and I arose early Sunday morning to try our luck astride our matching Cannondale “trail bikes,” accompanied by five of our road racing buddies from the East Bay.


The photograph above was taken midway through last Sunday morning’s ride through Camp Tamarancho, a Boy Scout-maintained park with miles of perfectly manicured singletrack. As you can see, it was a perfect day for a mountain bike ride: cool, overcast and dry. It’s impossible to do justice to the quality of the trails, or the jovial nature of the ride without writing a novel; instead, I’ll simply say that I had a great time bombing through the forest, laughing and joking in the company of friends. I wouldn’t choose to spend my Sunday morning anywhere else or with anyone else.

But let’s get back to the technical details, shall we?

I expected to either hate this bike or instantly fall in love with full-suspension. Instead I found myself torn, which in retrospect shouldn’t be surprising.

Never have I so effortlessly navigated rocky sections of trail, or felt a bike to be so forgiving of potentially harmful mistakes. Over flat or downhill terrain, the bike felt as if it was floating on a cushion of air, regardless of rocks, roots, or ruts. At high speed the bike felt directly connected to the loose, rough ground, like a road bike to pavement, and felt particularly suited to high-speed, wide open trails with significant bumps. Of particular note was the bike’s ability to correct for rider error (or stupidity); a poorly chosen line or overcooked corner failed to elicit even a hint of a complaint from the bike, and even the largest of rocks melted like butter under the Cannondale’s 2.3″ knobby tires. Besides a spin or two around a bike shop, I had never truly ridden a disc brake-equipped mountain bike, and I was quite impressed. With nothing more than a flick of a single index finger, I could haul the bike from 25 mph to a crawl, meaning I could pay greater attention to the trail rather than to the fatigue level of my fingers. I fell in love with disc brakes, and cannot fathom how I ever raced mountain bikes without them.

Of course, the former XC geek in me felt slightly disconnected from the ride, as if I was playing a video game; rocks didn’t hurt me and mistakes didn’t cost me. The suspension took away some of the challenge of technical descents, and I found myself missing that challenge. Perhaps I’m just “old-school.”

Finally, while I admit that the Rize’s five inches of rear suspension was entertaining on the downhills, climbing aboard the bike was simply not much fun. The soft suspension, wide tires and ample weight made the bike unwieldy and slow on the climbs. Climbing while seated was sluggish, and standing was counterproductive; only when the terrain became particularly rutted and rocky did the suspension begin to aid upward progress. Yes, I know there are ridiculously-named contraptions like “PushLock” and “ProPedal” levers, but placement of the Rize’s rear lockout lever–underneath the shock body–made frequent application of the device impractical.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed hopping back onto a mountain bike and ripping through the forest with friends…so much, in fact, that it might become a habit. Old habits die hard, and I simply cannot imagine myself purchasing a long-travel trail bike any time soon; my XC and road racing roots require a more rigid–and probably slower-descending–mountain bike.

Something like this, perhaps:


To be continued…

2 responses to “Off-road Revival, Part I

  1. Pingback: Off-road Revival, Part II « Counterattacking Reality

  2. Pingback: Off-road Revival, Part V « Counterattacking Reality

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