I used to ride mountain bikes when I was a kid. They were a fun toy that took me places. But man, I never remember them being this much hard work! Looking for a little more adventure, I've been teaching myself to ride them again. This is what I've learned so far.
That photo up top was shot about 8,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. This weekend, I went off-roading and camping with friends using a Ford truck to reach Coyote Flats, one of the very few places where you can drive off-road above 10,000 feet in elevation.
I figured that was as good an opportunity as any for a mountain bike ride. I threw my bike in the bed of the F-150 for the ride up to Bishop and cruised up the mountain in air-conditioned comfort. In the morning, I shed the long underwear and down coat for a pair of shorts and hit the trail. My friends followed slowly behind in the truck, taking care over the difficult terrain and I think at least half convinced they'd find me splattered on rocks at the bottom of a cliff on the way down.
Riding a mountain bike downhill is fun. I won't say it's easier than going up. I mean, it certainly requires less effort, but picking your way — at speed — between rocks and gullies, around turns and down steep hills just isn't an easy thing to do. 5000 vertical feet later, as the track turned from loose rocks to soft sand, I had my first mountain bike crash (or at least first one as an adult), when I tried to slam my way through a silt bed at 20 or 30mph. But hey, that's a lot slower than a motorcycle crash.
From Motorcycles To Mountain Bikes
That's one of the ideas here — no more arse scars — but I also figure a mountain bike will be easier to transport using a normal car and give me access to more trails a bit closer to home. They should do that while providing good exercise and without speeding tickets. I figure my pet dog Wiley will enjoy running alongside too.
For those of you who followed my previous career as a motorcycle journalist, don't fret, I haven't given up dirt bikes, I'm just broadening my horizons here.
And I figure a lot of what I learned on dirt bikes should translate to mountain bikes. Stuff like body position and steering and sliding and choosing a line and separate brakes are pretty universal skills across two wheels. The reason I crashed was simply that I haven't yet figured out how to replace "when in doubt, throttle out" on a contraption powered by a weak human. Horsepower? A fraction of one.
All that time on motorcycle is at least making the fast mountain bike descents pretty straightforward. I can get my weight back, I can maintain a loose grip on the bars, I can comfortably find the limits of the front brake and I can clear big obstacles and land jumps that, at least to me, feel pretty epic. The trouble comes when it's time to climb.
Fitness, Heart Rate And Endurance
This is my single biggest surprise about the sport, just how hard climbing is. I'm a reasonably fit 34 year old guy that lifts weights, doesn't skip leg day and who hikes regularly. All that has helped me hugely in pretty much all other sports, from shooting to motorcycles, but it's apparently netting me very little on a mountain bike.
Here in Los Angeles, pretty much every mountain bike ride starts with a big climb. You park at the bottom of a mountain, pedal your way up for an hour, then ride down it in 10 or 15 minutes. I tried one of those trails my first time out and, holy crap, I only made it halfway up the eight-mile climb.
Right at the beginning of climbs, I pick a granny gear, start twirling the pedals quickly, my heart rate sores and I'm almost immediately fatigued. And to a much greater degree than I anticipated. I'm not sure my technique is right yet — I should be using a more difficult gear for a lower cadence and I don't think I'm getting optimal power from my pedal strokes — and I'm pretty sure I need to lift my seat a little for better leg extension, but I don't want to sound like I'm blaming the bike. This is just something I'm going to have to put a lot more work into than I anticipated. In the meantime, 34 is too young for a heart attack, right?
Starting with quality equipment is the best way to ease entry to any new sport. A friend that used to build and sell mountain bikes recommended this Cannondale Carbon Trigger 2. I guess mountain bikes got hugely specialised over the last two decades, so it's now considered a hot new trend to make one that's good at going both up and down. Cannondale calls the category "Overmountain," and I've seen it described elsewhere as "all mountain" too.
They're able to put both merits — up and down — into one bike thanks to fancy suspension technology that switches travel, damping rates and even geometry on the fly. That's largely thanks to the new Fox Racing DYAD RT2 shock that has independent damping chambers for "elevate" and "flow" modes.
In the first, travel is limited to 85mm and the shock's damping is stiffened. Push a button on the handlebars and you release the full 140mm of travel, drop the bike rearwards a bit to boost its stability and switch onto the other dampener, which has softer settings. Both shock tubes have independent rebound, compression and preload adjustments, requiring the use of a proprietary (but included) shock pump that goes all the way up to 500psi.
Oh, and for your geeks, that shock works in tension, not compression. As the rear wheel hits a pump, the unique, "pivotless" linkage system pulls the shock to stretch it rather than squeeze it down. I don't really understand how it works yet, but you can read as good an explanation as I've found on Pinkbike; the net advantage seems to be a linear spring rate, which is hard to do with an air spring.
Of course, you'll also have noticed by now that the right fork tube is missing. There are advantages to that design — lower parts count and, other things being equal, a lighter weight — but it's mostly there to look neat. That's not to say it isn't a very good fork though, travel is also 140mm and you can just whack the adjuster on its top to switch between stiff-for-climbing and soft-for-descending. There's no penalty to strength or rigidity; the SuperMax design is just that strong while still coming in at a very light 1,850 grams. It will obviously make removing the front tire incredibly easy, too.
With all that easy, on-the-fly adjustability, transitioning between climbs and descents on a rolling trail is seamless and fast. Reach a crest, hit one button on the handlebars to switch over the shock, hit the top of the fork to release it and pull a lever to drop the seat out of your way as you scoot way back and stop pedalling.
Other components are also top-shelf, if less remarkable. Most of the components are Shimano XT, but cranks and bottom bracket are carbon SRAM items. The wheels are tubeless Mavic Crossrocs, which are perhaps of slightly lower quality than the other stuff and a common upgrade. As are the Mavic tires; I need to switch mine out for something grippier in the very near future. The wheel size is 27.5, which is a compromise between the low unsprung weight and easy pedalling of smaller diameters and the obstacle clearance of 29-inch items.
All-up weight is a low 28lbs for this size Large thanks to Cannondale's all-carbon frame. Even the rear triangle and seat stays are carbon, rather than the more-typical aluminium.
Having never before ridden a full-suspension bike, I am stunned at what this bike is capable of, even in my novice hands. I may still suck at climbing, but descents feel just like riding a lightweight motocross bike. The Cannondale just rolls right over any basketball-sized or smaller rock without compromising its stability or tossing you around, allowing you to forget about most of that small stuff and concentrate on optimising your line for speed and traction. What small drops I've hit (probably three feet at most) the bike just rolls right out of and I haven't yet found the stops in its suspension.
I'm most impressed by the stability though. Coming off motorcycles, you'd figure something this light and this short would be wagging its bars all over the place as it encounters different surfaces and obstacles, but I haven't hit anything yet through which it didn't track straight through with no steering input from me whatsoever. But it still steers just as rapidly as you'd expect a bicycle to; that combination is my favourite thing about it.
My only real issue so far is traction. I'm going to experiment with the pressures a bit more, but I think the thing ruining my confidence in fast corners are the Mavic tires themselves. Can anyone recommend something that will maximise grip? Until then, at least all the slides are fun.
Not A Road Bike
Road bicycles were my day-to-day transportation and one of my hobbies in New York, but shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I sold my last one. The streets here are just that much more dangerous and I was convinced a speeding, texting driver was on the verge of swatting me into a palm tree at 70mph every time I tried to ride around Hollywood.
I never had the problems I'm having with climbing now when I was on the road. I guess that's largely down to lighter bikes, higher pressures and lower rolling resistance. But I also think the technique is pretty different. On a road bike, during a really challenging portion of a climb, you can stand up for more power. Do that on a mountain bike and you'll just lose traction and spin your rear tire. And spinning the rear while trying to climb is one of my biggest problems, even while seated.
In return, though, you lose the delicate nature that comes with a road bike's feather weight. This mountain bike is basically a motorcycle with pedals; one that's big and beefy enough to stand up to real abuse. And crashing, which I'll probably be doing a lot more of as I figure all this out.