I started thinking about getting a new mountain bike a few years ago.
The first mountain bike I ever rode was my sister’s Nishiki Bushwacker. She bought it in around 1984. Riding that bike was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I loved riding it so much, I knew I had to get one.
My First Mountain Bike
I bought my first mountain bike, a Bianchi Super Grizzly in about 1986. It was painted Bianchi’s legendary Celeste Green and had “state of the art at that time” mountain bike components. I’d always dreamed about buying a Bianchi road bike. Of course, when I saw a Bianchi mountain bike, I had to have it.
The Super Grizzly was really a nice bike and I think I paid $1200 for it – not an insignificant amount of money in those days. There was a problem with it though. It was just like a road bike with beefier tubes. It was awesome on the road. There was no suspension and even with knobby tires, most of your power went straight to the rear wheel. However, it wasn’t great off road. Downhills could be really scary because once it got going in a straight line, it wanted to continue in a straight line (maybe I was just a really bad rider).
BMX With Gears
After about a year, some pretty radical bikes from companies like Rocky Mountain and Kona started to appear. The Bianchi was quickly traded in for a Rocky Mountain Avalanche with a radically sloping top tube and high bottom bracket. That bike gobbled up roots and rocks and was kind of like a big bmx bike with gears. The sloping top tube made it much easier to throw the bike around while picking your way down tough slopes or around tight switchbacks. Suspension hadn’t been invented yet but my whole body was one big shock absorber. When Girvin Flexstems appeared on the market, I bought one, although it didn’t really make much of a difference.
After thousands of miles the old Rocky Mountain was just worn out. I bought a new bike in around 1995. It was a Trek with front shocks that had about about 30mm of travel. It was heavier than my old bike and I didn’t really notice much benefit from the Rockshox Indy XC front end. I rode the heck out of that bike and eventually cracked the frame. The good folks at Trek gave me a new frame but by that time, I was getting back into road bikes.
Lately I’ve been feeling a bit bored on the road so I decided to do some mountain biking again. Looking balefully at my almost 25 year old hardtail, I decided that maybe it was time to get something new – something with full suspension.
One Bike for Every Type of Riding
Now, as I discovered, mountain bikes have changed a lot over the last 30 years (I stopped reading Mountain Bike Action years ago so I’d last track of what was happening in the world of mountain biking). My first mountain bike was essentially a road bike with lower gearing, wider tires, and an upright bar. Back then, all mountain bikes were basically the same. They were made out of steel although there were a few aluminum frames around. All bikes had Shimano Deore or Suntour components on them. They had double or triple chainrings and V or U brakes. They didn’t have suspension or if they did, it was very rudimentary. The only real difference between bikes from different makers was colour and maybe frame geometry. When you walked into a bike store, you would have 2 or 3 bikes to choose from. It was very simple – you found the one that felt more right than the others, or you liked the look of (colour schemes could be pretty out there in the 80’s), and you bought it. One bike was used for all types of riding.
These days, walk into a bike store and the choices are astounding.
Modern mountain bikes allow riders to get hurt in ways that we couldn’t imagine 30 years ago. You can ride faster, fly farther and higher, and stay in control at higher speeds over much tougher terrain. The simple bikes of 30 years ago have morphed into technological wonders that pound for pound cost a fraction of what their much simpler ancestors cost.
The Right Bike for the Job
These days mountain bikes are purpose built for specific types of riding. Downhill bikes are different than enduro and trail bikes, which are different than cross country bikes. And, let’s not forget Fat Bikes with their huge tires. They are the true “go anywhere” bikes of the mountain bike world. Snow, soft sand, or mud won’t stop these things. There are also electric assist mountain bikes – a subject for a future article.
There are a lot more companies making bike components these days. Whereas every mountain bike used to have 26″ wheels, 27.5″ and 29″ wheels have been added to the mix. Tires are also a lot fatter now. Each wheel size has pros and cons and is best suited for certain types of riding or riders. Three chain rings have been largely replaced by one or two. Yet another thing that bike shoppers have to think about.
One of the greatest innovations on mountain bikes and now on some road bikes are hydraulic disc brakes. Discs offer better modulation and performance than old school pad on rim brakes, and they work a lot better in wet conditions. You also have a huge range of prices to choose from. While you can get a very usable hardtail for around $800, you can easily spend $8000 on a high end, carbon fiber full suspension mountain bike.
Spend a Little or Spend a Lot – Modern Bikes Are Marvels
I finally pulled the trigger and bought a new mountain bike this past summer. I rode tons of bikes in different price ranges and finally settled on a relatively basic Giant Stance – a decidedly entry level full sus bike. I decided to go cheap because after severely pulling a muscle in my lower bike trying to hop off a curb, I didn’t know how much riding I’d actually end up doing.
The Stance I bought has a beautifully made, hydoformed frame with swoopy, box section tubing. Whereas in the 80’s mountain bikes had short top tubes and long stems, and really narrow bars, modern mountain bikes are long, stems tend to be very short, and bars are wide to compensate for the shorter stems. The longer top tube gives you lots of room to move around, and seems to eliminate some the constant feeling that you’re going to go over the handlebar on steep descents.
The linkage systems on full suspension bikes are mechanical marvels. Years ago a friend had a bike that looked like a motorcycle. It had a plastic fake gas tank and body panels, and full motorcycle suspension. It was heavy as hell but it was a blast to rip around on. Modern mountain bike suspension does a fantastic job of soaking up the rough stuff and it’s getting lighter and lighter all the time. I can remember blasting past guys struggling to climb hills on their full suspension bikes with my hard tail. I didn’t envy them at all. 45 pound full suspension bikes were pretty common. Now there are plenty of sub 30 pound full suspension bikes out there.
The Stance has triple chain rings. Somehow I felt more comfortable with a huge range of gears and the familiarity of three rings. I ride most of the time in the middle ring and drop down to the small ring for steep climbs. It’s a bit heavier than a single (which doesn’t require a front derailleur and those extra rings) but I’m used to it and it works for me. I’ve heard that some new riders find it hard to get used to using front and rear shifters.
Hardtails Still Have a Place in the Modern World
I decided to keep my old hardtail because for some types of riding, you just cannot beat a nice, light hardtail. I did do some upgrades though. I replaced worn out shifters, rebuilt the shocks, and installed a dropper post. Back in the day, some people used a Hite-Rite to lower their seat for descents. When you got to the bottom, you could take your weight off the seat, it would pop back up to the right height, and off you went. Modern dropper posts are highly engineered and when set up and maintained properly work incredibly well. Press a lever on your bars and your seat comes down. Press again and it comes back up. Makes descending safer and a whole lot less scary.
Mountain Biking is Tough!
I did quite a bit of mountain biking this year. I’d forgotten how hard (and fun) it can be. On a road bike, effort isn’t dictated as much by terrain. On a mountain bike, even in your granny gear, you frequently have to react instantly and hit max output just to keep the rear wheel turning. It’s also a fine balancing act between maintaining forward momentum or spinning out. And of course, you have to concentrate a lot more on a mountain bike. If you zone out and start to daydream, you’re liable to hit a rock or root wrong, or choose the wrong line and end up on the ground or picking bark out of your face. Unfamiliar trails also tend to throw the unexpected at you.
Sometimes Simple is Nice
So, did I really need to buy a new mountain bike? Probably not. My old hardtail is still a blast to ride. It’s light and very nimble, and accelerates like a rocket. It’s also very simple to maintain. All of those linkages and other suspension parts on a full sus bike have to be serviced from time to time. I’ve read a lot of articles that say that riding a hardtail will make you a better rider. With a full sus bike, you can take a straight line and ride over just about anything. With a hardtail, you have to choose your line much more carefully and you can’t help but develop really good bike handling skills.
Full Sus is Great for Older Riders
Still, I love full suspension, especially as I get older. Hills look a lot steeper and rocks a lot harder and more jagged now. I’ll keep the hardtrail for riding rail trails and hardpack, and bring out the Stance for the rough stuff.
You can never have too many bikes anyway!