The unbearable lightness of biking: new mountain bikes get lighter, smarter.
Bikes that Think?
The type of steed you need is dictated by riding style. On one extreme, strict cross-country riders planning to log maximum miles on mellow trails will still find the lightest hard-tail bikes (no rear suspension) tough to beat, because weight is everything.
At the other extreme are the downhill chargers wearing full motocross gear, along with the freestyle crowd, for whom heavier bikes with flexible suspensions that provide greater stability and control are mandatory. Moab bike shops have perfected the freestyle bikes, built for tricks and cliff drops. Park City and Salt Lake shops are the place to seek out the overbuilt downhill bikes used to bomb ski runs off-season.
The majority of us fall in the in-betweens, on a general-use cross-country bike, and that is where manufacturers have focused development.
A trick new Stable Platform Valve (SPV) front shock shows the biggest gains, eliminating the old tradeoff that for years dictated that riders who wanted cushy suspension for bombing downhill were penalized by energy-eating mushiness when pedaling uphill--as well as excessive weight. Dan Hall at the high-end Wild Rose bike shop in the Avenues has ridden the SPV system bikes and says the difference in how the SPV-shocked bike puts the pedaling energy straight to the ground is dramatic. The valve is a dampener that resists low-speed impact to fight the loss of pedaling force but opens up and softens to blast over obstacles. Bottom line? "It does the thinking for you, adding very little weight," he says. "Now you can just ride hard, keep your hands on the handlebar and pick a tough line--let the shock do the work." Top shock-makers Manitou, Fox and Rock Shox all use the SPV system or close variations.
What You Pay For
Bikes, like photography equipment, fall strongly in that realm of "you get what you pay for." The threshold of good quality for bicycles is around $1,500, Hall says, and Wild Rose builds bikes with the SPV technology starting at around $1,600; Wild Rose carries Jamis and Fisher bikes and specializes in custom bikes on Intense frames. Most used bikes can be retrofitted with an SPV for $450 to $700.
Mike Geraci, a mountain-biking zealot and a spokesman for Kona bicycles, concurs that the industry emphasis is cross-country, general-use trail bikes weighing 28 or so pounds with four or five inches of front travel--a big improvement over past models. "That translates into a plusher ride, more room for error," he says.
The new SPV-type shocks make a world of difference. "When you hammer on it, it will stiffen up for an efficient pedal stroke; then it will soften to absorb all the bumps," Geraci says. Kona offers the Dawg and Kikapu Deluxe to fit that bill, both around $1,500.
Big-wheeled bikes are another new trend and a boon to bigger riders. A 29-inch wheel rolls over larger obstacles easier than the standard 26, but comes with a slight weight disadvantage. Even without a shock, a big-wheeled bike like the Gary Fisher Sugar 292 ($2,500) feels like you have two inches of suspension, Hall says, because it rolls over obstacles so much better. Wild Rose head mechanic Tony Pereira rides up hills "long and hard," says Hall, and has switched to a 29-incher and not looked back.
Kona has tested the big wheel bikes and decided not to build one, Geraci says, with a loud raspberry: "Rotating weight is one of the biggest factors in bike performance. The heavier the wheels, the bigger you're bumming (i.e. the heavier you ride)."
Big wheels may not for sure be the next big thing in fat tiredom, but a retro explosion in single-speed mountain bikes is upon us, Hall says. Much lighter and half as costly, single-speed bikes like the Sass by Bianchi ($779) offer a fun ride free from fickle, tough-to-tune high-tech bikes and their touchy derailleurs. Plus, single-speed riders get respect from their peers ... even if they have to walk uphill at times. "It's so nice--no clunking, no chain slap, just you and the bike," says Hall. "Most serious bikers are buying one."
Skip Knowles is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer.