Are today’s bikes really that much better than they were a dozen years back? Do you really need the latest and greatest to have a great ride and top-line fun?
Sure enough I’m slowly but surely working towards my “grumpy old git” diploma, and expect to graduate with honours, although I do have something of a backstory to back up my whines and memoirs.
Being a couple or three notches to the wrong side of mid life I’ve been riding and racing bikes of every kind all over the world since I was 12 years old, which was way back in the transitional days between sequinned disco flared strides and punk rock piercings and pogo dancing. That was a fair while before mountain biking was even invented – or rather before it was officially tagged, as most of us had been riding klunker like contraptions offroad and over pallet board jumps since we were old enough to eat chocolate.
So, yes – I do have that often scorned at and jaded “roadie’ label branded and grit engrained into my scarred knees, hips and elbows. It’s really strange from my perch, as roadies often refer to me as a mountain biker” huh – as far as know I’m just a cyclist.
Two wheels and a saddle and I’m all good to go. The shape of the bars and width of the tyres really don’t bother me, although getting dusty while the whites of my eyes burst out and grasp at the cutting line of a knives edge twister of a singletrack has always been my preferred place to be when out for a ride.
Anybody of a certain age who started out riding young did so before the “dayglo dawn” of the “all terrain bicycle”. After some time spent road racing in Europe I took a couple of years out from the competitive arena due to inevitable life enforcements. I came back to riding seriously in my mid 20’s, just as mountain biking started to take off, and I’ve been dusting my way through life on with the brakes off and on a sketchy line ever since.
During the 90’s I branded myself by taking on extreme feats, setting oddball records and generally doing the previously undone on a mountain bike; ah, the glory days of a brand new sport. This in turn led me to scribbling down my ramblings and tales for magazines, taking pictures, and travelling all over planet dirt in search of dirty adventures.
For much of that time I was sponsored by various bike manufacturers, hence have accumulated collection of my old rides, some if which I still own and use daily, and still travel the world with; even if it is at a much less-seat of yer pants pace than it was a few years back.
My bike room is pretty crammed still, although the mountain bikes that I ride have not changed much in around 13/14 year. They are still in essence the same bikes that rode just after the dawn of the new century, which I guess is somewhat unheard of for somebody who still cuts his living from writing and photographing bikes for a living (and who still appears in many of his own images).
So why am I riding what could new be considered legacy-retro classic bikes, beasts from a bygone era? Well, there’s a combination of reasons; first being that they still work, almost as well as they did back in the day. Secondly, splashing out $5,000 upwards on a new Santa Clauz or similar is somewhat beyond my budget and reasoning. Thirdly; I now live in a remote region of Southeast Asia, getting “man-sized “ bikes and favourable deals on something I actually want to acquire is not an easy option for me these days (they tend to be full on xc race or downhill bikes on sale, at premium rates and mostly in small sizes). Finally; although I’m not particularly sentimental I have grown to be very attached to one particular bike in my collection, and come broken crank or fork the bike has travelled to the far reaches of the planet with me over the years, and we’ve become close to inseparable.
The afore-mentioned bike is a Litespeed Lookout Mountain, which despite its’ awful yellow name transfers (I always hated them, and will find a way to remove them – one day) still rides as well as it ever did, even if I can’t (and don’t) push it quite as far as I did in it’s heyday.
I did run rigid forks on it for may years, but got too many groans and creaks from magazine editors at my retro styling, so now I use a pair of (also retro) Rockshox Reba forks (which are mostly locked out).
The drivetrain is mostly XTR, which came off of a full suspension Diamondabck XR8 (from around 2004, which I also own), while the wheels are 26 inch tubeless XTR from the same era (with tubes inside).
Ironically I really didn’t like the frame when I first got it. I found the top tube too short for my (then) road adapted long-reach racing position, and I was also not happy that it came without cantilever brake mounts.
Oh how times have changed since then; although many still consider my 10cm stem long, it’s 3cm shorter than it once was. The original bar ends have gone and I currently run riser bars (which I will change in a few weeks – to wider and flatter bars I just bought).
A few years ago I found myself back in the UK re-united with my old mid 1990’s Raleigh M-Trax, a titanium bonded frame with rigid forks, a 28 tooth bottom gear, rim brakes and a very long reach. I took it out for a ride or three, but could not handle the reach or rigidity. Maybe it’s just old age on my tail, and although I could climb on it okay, I just could not handle the riding position, so put it back in the shed to mature for a few more years.
Needless to say things have come along at a rapid pace in bike and kit development terms in the past decade; but just how much of it is really for the better and how much of that development is industry driven in an attempt to steal away your hard earned cash in a fateful and fruitless quest to find and master the ever shifting holy trail?
First off, on some of my travels I do end up being handed a rental or test bike to ride – often brand spanning new models with gadgets and gizmo’s that confuse the hell out of me, although some do or have grown on me.
Wheel size does lead the way here. I’m nailed to my 26-inch hoops for now, but being a 6-footer I do much prefer the ride sensation of bigger wheels, whatever size they may be. I never actually saw the logic in smaller wheels, although they do still run fine, even if finding tyres is becoming tougher hunting unicorns.
Suspension, umm well – this is a tough one. I always rode rigid, or on a rough day ran 1-inch travel forks, and was pretty good on technical ground too. These days I rarely face really technical trails (I wish I had them more readily available), and so mostly still run locked out or 80mm hard-set front forks on rough ground.
That said, the man-made trails and bike park routes these days are far more demanding technically than they were a few years back, and luckily when I have encountered them I’ve had decent rear and longer front travel to help me out, although I do still generally prefer the hardtail sensation on all but the most extreme trails. This is a personal preference and not a statement of discontent with the bounce out there. I would love a newer full suspension bike, but it just would not fit with most of my riding during travels.
Dropper posts; these are a real gift on technical and steep ground, but once again for most of what I ride I don’t need one. If I had a bike that was purely for riding technical ground and that didn’t need to be carted around the globe then it would have a dropper, for sure.
Okay, let’s grind a few teethe. I still run a triple, which is slightly warped and wonky but still works (much like myself). The 1x system, well – what can I say, a stroke of genius – by the bike industry marketing guys. I’ve used them several times. They may look neater, save a few grams (unless you add a chain tensioner), but from a practicality point of view I’d much rather have the range of a triple, especially when on fast moving gravel and road sections – which we all encounter.
A couple of years back I found myself handed a decent all-mountain bike and was sent out on an enduro based technical ride with 2 guides. Wow, I really struggled, partly from not being used to the bike, and partly from the weight penalty. The following day I took my own ride out, and hung just as well with them on the downhill and left them in clouds of steam on the climbs.
Sure, this is partly due to being used to my own ride, but also – years down the line and my old titanium (and even more so my 14 year old Giant XTC carbon) is still a few bunches of big bananas lighter than many day modern bikes. It even gains envious and bewildered gazes from young riders, who have never seen such classics from the past. Let alone have one whip their butts.
In all honesty I’ve never been much of a gear guy, so it doesn’t worry me that I don’t have the latest and greatest (apart from for my self photography that is). If money was no object I would probably buy myself a titanium 27.5 bike with short travel front forks, rear damping, a double crankset and (naturally enough) with through axels front and rear. Meantime I’m all good with my long standing partner in grime.
Would $6,000 spent on a new bike make me faster, allow me to handle super technical trails, or leave me with a long lasting and wider grin? The technical bit; yes, probably, but I rarely ride such trails now. The rest – I very much doubt it.
Talking turkey and the trimmings, keeping an older ride in order can be painstaking and even a tad costly – as newer bike shops no longer seem to have draws full of dusty old components, springs and bolts, let alone be prepared to spend time cutting and filing parts to fit.
Plus, manufacturers now turn kit around so fast that a entire system can be obsolete within a couple or three years, which is a problem for all bikes –and even more so with an older model. Don’t expect to run with the same componentry forever, it’s not worth it, as you can usually find never parts much easier and cheaper, even if it means upgrading them.
What’s the message here? Or is there any message at all? I guess I’m saying that you don’t need to break the bank and toast the plastic to get out there and have fun and enjoy the ride. Those trails of 20 years ago that were once thrashed by hardtails are still the same, even if some of us may be a little older and not so bold as we were. You can still go out and ice it on those old iron horses, although be prepared for a jarring experience if you take on a modern day XC racetrack or trail centre black run.
Footnote, due to unforeseen circumstances me and my Litespeed are currently separated, but as soon as I get chance we will be reunited.