Two Wheels - Six Strings

Random news and thoughts about various two-wheeled projects and music, especially my band, Skull Full Of Blues.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hey, Jon ... Why Don't You Have a Suspension Fork?

There's a question I hear more than a few times a year. And, I understand why.

The current State Of The Art in mountain bikes includes not only a long-travel suspension fork on the front, but equally long travel on the rear end of the bike. According to the pundits, you simply must have the springs if you are a "serious" mountain biker.

So, I guess the easy answer to the question of why no "sproinger" for Jon would be that I am not a serious mountain biker. The problem with that is that I do, oddly enough, consider myself serious about mountain biking. What I am not serious about is mountain bike racing.

 How serious am I about racing? This is the bike I used for the Golden Giddyup Enduro, last year...

Regardless of what the bicycling industry and press might lead you to believe, suspension components are not a necessity for enjoying a mountain bike on the trail. They are only necessary to stay competitive in racing.

But, you say, suspension allows you to ride farther with less fatigue. And, that is somewhat true. I personally think that subtracting the added weight of the suspension components, on climbs, removes a bit of fatigue from the ride, as well. Fatigue is part of riding off-road. If your riding partners are suspended, and wearing you out, then you are back into the racing mentality of keeping up with others. At that point, yeah, you need to buy some plushness. Or, maybe, ride with other people...

I know that a lot of my old group no longer even considers inviting me along for rides, since I don't have a "serious" bike. They feel that I won't be able to keep up with their rigs. The truth is, I wouldn't keep up with a lot of them, on any bike, just because I have slowed down quite a bit, these last few years. 

As I tell people, my brake levers slow me down a lot more than my rigid fork does. I just don't have the desire to experience (or ability to recover from) high-speed crashes on the downhills, any longer. My collar bone has been broken enough for one lifetime ... or two.

That's why bikes like this appeal to me so much, nowadays. This bike is all about getting away from pavement and enjoying the ride, not about getting somewhere in the shortest time possible. The big tires allow me to ride though conditions that would leave me pushing the bike with 2.3" tires, and they also take up a lot of the small shocks you encounter on the trail, alleviating a little of the fatigue. (Of course, they add back the weight I lost by eschewing suspension. But, you can't have everything.)

If I want to ride (relatively) fast, this is the bike I reach for, currently:

Actual upright bars! Speedy 650bx2.3" tires!  Chromoly steel frame and fork!

You have to realize that when I started mountain biking, in the late 1980s, there were no commercially-available suspension forks available, and we rode our bikes off-road just as seriously then as now. It amuses me when people comment that my rigid bike is probably just fine for the more mellow trails. I wonder where they think it is that all of the "serious" trails came from. The majority of the trails in Moab and Crested Butte and any other long-term mtb destination site you can think of were built by guys on rigid bikes, with 15 or 18 speeds and crappy brakes.

 When I started working in a bike shop, in 1993, we all would sit around and debate the need, or lack thereof, for suspension forks. I maintained then, as now, that you only "needed" suspension if everyone else had it and you wanted to compete with them. That got me labelled as a "Retro Grouch" by the group.
I wonder what they would all call me now!

During my tenure working in shops, however, I did run suspension; at first on the front, then on both ends of the bike. I was, at that point, fairly serious about racing, even though I knew I would never win a race. Still, I wanted to be competitive. Plus, as a shop employee, I needed to promote the products we were selling.
It's somewhat telling that, toward the end of my time working in shops, I mostly rode my cyclocross bike on mountain bike rides, with 700x35c tires. That was about the time that I started realizing that I enjoyed "under-biking" more than I enjoyed keeping up with the mtb arms race that was ramping up, even then.

I graduated to Monstercross, eventually (700cx2.0" or bigger tires, with drop bars on a rigid bike). Nowadays, Monstercross has morphed into, simply, drop-bar mountain bike, since 29er (700c) wheels are now the norm for mountain bikes. Most of my bikes, now, fall into that old Monstercross setup, but are now what we call, simply, drop-bar mountain bikes. Twenty-nine-inch tires have become the norm for mtb, so 700x50-60c (2.0-2.3") tires are no longer considered large cross tires but, rather, normal mtb tires. And, old-school 26" and 650b/27.5" tires work just as well with the drop-bar setup, for me.
Budgetary constraints come into play, as well, of course. The cost of a decent suspension fork, on the aftermarket, nowadays is more than the cost of any of the bikes I currently own. The only way to affordably get a decent fork is to invest in a new bike, which would cost at least 150 to 200% of my current most-expensive bike. Even if I wanted to add the complexity and maintenance to my ride, I really don't feel like it's a good investment, anyway.

So, why do I not not have a suspension fork? Basically it just boils down to not wanting/needing one enough to spend the money and time it takes to buy one and set it up.  For those of you who do run them, rock on! Build up and ride the bike that works for you, and I'll do the same.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Perfection Is An Elusive Moving Target, and I have Just Fired Yet Another Shot At It

 Recently, Chris at the Pondero blog built up a new bike, which he referred to as related to his vision of the perfect bike, which he had formed in the 1970s, and Adventure Bike. Read his post, and check out his bike here.

Over the years, I have had more than one distinct vision of what would make the perfect bicycle. When I was 10, I wanted a bike with 26" wheels and a basket. I t was my understanding that big wheels would be more efficient than the 20" wheels on my Sears Spyder Bike Stingray clone. The basket would allow me to carry some food and water for all-day excursions. I got that bike, and it was perfect ... for awhile. Then, I started feeling the need for variable speeds, and better brakes, and the ability to ride through the woods and on gravel roads. The 10-speed road bikes of the day would not suit for that. Basically, I wanted a mountain bike.

But, in 1971, there was no such thing, on a commercial scale. Oh, sure, there were a few outside-the-box thinkers around the world who had married Schwinn 3-speeds and cantilever brakes into "woodsie" bikes, and such. And, the buffalo soldiers made their famous cross country trek in 1896, but there was nothing remotely like a purpose-built mountain bike available in the early 1970s.

John Finley Scott's "Woodsie Bike" from 1953

Eventually, bicycles took a backseat to motorcycles, in my world, and I only returned to pedaling through riding a 10-speed Triumph bicycle in college. Then, one day in 1985, my wife and i were at a book store when I spied the cover of  The Mountain Bike Book, by Rob Van der Plas:

The bike on the front cover of that book spoke volumes to me. It looked like human-powered dirt bike, to my moto-centric way of thinking. The mountain bike looked like the perfect bike, to me, at that point.

Not long after, I had my first mtb under me. It was an inexpensive Motiv, from Sam's club, and i loved it. From it, I moved to a Cannondale SM800 Beast Of The East, thence to a Specialized M2 Stumpjumper, with a Manitou 2 fork on it. Perfection was morphing from a standard, rigid fork and frame mtb, to suspension fork, then full-suspension, equipped machines.

In the late 1990s, my image of perfection took an odd turn toward the cyclocross bike. Drop bars and 35c tires on wide 700c wheels suited me just fine. This setup was a lot more efficient on the road, and still allowed me ride off-road and on gravel. The "perfect" combination of attributes for a bike.

Then came the 29er revolution, and the advent of drop-bar "monster-cross" bikes; essentially 29" mtb's with lower bottom brackets and off-road-oriented drops or variations on the mustache bar. They were not quite as easy to ride on the road (if you ran knobbies), but the ease of off-roading was greatly improved over that of the cyclocross bike.

In 2010, I was approached by my friend Darryl Funk, a custom bike builder, about what I thought would be the the "only bike", the one bike someone could own and not need another. In other words, the Perfect Bike. My list of attributes:

Titanium, due to its longevity more than any weight consideration. 
Disc brake equipped for easier wheel-size swapping
Clearance for fat 650b tires, 29" mtb tires (and the ability to run cross or road tires, of course)
Late-1980s mtb geometry with a road bike bottom bracket height
Loads of rack and fender eyelets, just in case

In exchange for drawing up a design, Darryl agreed to sell me the prototype frame at a fraction of the retail cost. So, I drew it up, and he built it:

 The Funk Bicycles "Daily Grind" prototype frame

I made a slight miscalculation on the bottom bracket drop, which resulted in the bottom bracket sitting about an inch lower than I had intended, so I run 165mm cranks on this bike in order to avoid pedal strike. I honestly think it adds to the "perfection" of the ride, but plans were made to raise the bb height up for production. However, no more examples were ever built, and I ended up with the only one of these in existence.

This bike maintained its "perfect" status for a number of years, I rode paved Century rides, gravel Centuries, raced 24-hour solo mtb events, took it to Fruita and Moab for desert fun, commuted and ran errands on it.

Now, it is slightly less than "perfect" due the advent of Plus-sized tires: 27.5 x 3" to be precise. It doesn't have the clearance for these oversized tires, and that limits it, somewhat, at this juncture, when it comes to being the do-everything bike I want it to be. (I dismiss the lack of 4" tire clearance, as I think of that style of bike as being a bit too specialized to be included in the " all-rounder" category).

 This brings us back, at long last, to Pondero's Adventure Bike. He is running 27.5 x 2.8" tires on a sorta-drop-bar set-up. Some of you may recall that I have been experimenting with that size, trying to use an existing frame to create my own Adventure Bike. But, I have consistently been stymied by the lack of adequate clearance for a 2.8 to 3" (my preference) tire between the chainstays.

Chris solved this problem by commissioning a custom frame, sized to those wheels and tires. Unfortunately, I can not afford to go that route, hence the reason I have been trying to modify 29er frames to work for me.

So, I went in a slightly different (180 degrees "slightly different") route and ordered an alloy Plus-sized bike from the infamous Bikes Direct web store. Many people look down upon the BD bikes but, for me, they make a good inexpensive starting platform from which to build what I want. My first 29er frame, which I still have, was a BD frame, and it has served me well for close to 10 years, now.

Here is the bike, as pictured on the website:

Alloy frame, chromoly fork, hideously cheap and crappy bottom bracket and crank ... but it has the bones of what I want: 27.5 x 3.25" tires and room for 26 x 4", if I decide I decide I also need a full-on fatbike, once again. It's basically the BD fatbike, with the now-obsolete 170x135 hub spacing and 100mm bottom bracket, which has been fitted with the 27.5Plus wheels and tires.

Once I received the bike, the modifications began:

The first things to go were the crappy Suntour bottom bracket and crank, along with a really flexible front derailleur. In their place, an LX derailleur ($6.35 on closeout!), and a SRAM X-5 external bearing bottom bracket/crankset. Plus, some cool VP pedals. (I have used this model pedal on a couple of bikes, and I really like them.)
A new 40-degree rise/80mm stem holds one of my Surly Open Bars, with Ergon grips. I left the stock shifters in place, to see if they work out. I've not used below the bar click-shifters on any of my bikes, in the past, but these SRAM shifters seem kind of nice. The brake levers will go as soon as I happen upon some nicer levers at an affordable price.

My old Syncros seat post went in, topped by my Brooks C-17. The bag I already had.

So, there it is, almost complete. I have a tubeless conversion kit I am going to try out on these wheels, and a SRAM X-9 rear derailleur to replace the X-5 which is currently on there. I also want a nicer cogset, but again am waiting to find a decent deal on what I want.

Total outlay, thus far, is less than $800. If I actually ride this bike enough to justify it, I may eventually buy a nicer CrMo frame and swap the parts over, but not this year. That would, at the very least, double my financial investment in the bike.

So, it it "perfect"? Not by a long shot. But, it is serviceable. And, after all, as the ancient Persian rug makers used to say, "Perfection is the realm of Allah."