Mountain Bike Meditations

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For the past two years, I’ve been using my Kona hybrid to ride single-track trails. I like the Kona. Granted, it weighs about 100 kilos, and it has no suspension. But, I’ve put cyclocross tires on it, and it’s definitely geared to climb. So I’ve managed to have some fun riding trails with it.

But the prior two trails rides I’ve done, I’ve been acutely aware of the hills I couldn’t climb because of my relatively hard, skinny tires, and the amount of vibration I was absorbing into my wrist, arms, shoulders and neck. So, I found myself considering buying a “real” mountain bike. As luck would have it, I stumbled across an ad on craigslist that looked to be a good fit. The price was reasonable, the size was about right, and it had low miles on it. I decided to check it out.

Test riding the bike was weird. There were all sorts of small issues that made it tough for me to get a feel for the bike. The front fork was dialed to be very soft. The saddle was tilted so far back, it was bruising my perineum. But more than anything else, the geometry just felt really weird to me; very different from what I was used to. I decided to put off the decision for a day, and went to my local bike shop to test ride a few mountain bikes. I quickly decided the geometry differences weren’t unique to the specific used bike I was considering; mountain bikes are just that different from the hybrid I’ve been riding. And the prices tags on new mountain bikes will suck the air right out of your lungs; you can get into four digits without trying hard.

So, I went back to the guy with the used bike and bought it. And I immediately set about tweaking the bike to my tastes. I put new grips on it (I’m a big fan of Ergon GC2 shaped grips). I raised the seat a few inches, and raked it forward considerably. Even with those changes, I still had some doubts. Just tooling around in my moderately steep driveway, it still felt like my Kona climbed way more easily than the new mountain bike. Okay, I know the Kona is geared to climb, but still, a real mountain bike should be able to huff up my driveway without having to stand up in the pedals. And despite the seller’s claims of a recent tuneup, the derailleurs rattled and dragged a lot.

I spent some time online trying to understand bicycle gear ratios (whew, there are more variables to consider than you might think), comparing the gearing of my Kona and the mtb, trying to figure out the difference. After a bunch of obsessing over it, I finally decided to ignore the issue until I got a chance to try the bike on a real trail.

Which brings me to this weekend. Bobo and I headed to the McKenzie River Trail over Labor Day weekend for some riding. We started on the southern end (the easy end) and started making our way up the trail. Almost immediately, I figured out everything.

The mountain bike’s thumb shifters for the rear derailleur are cabled opposite from every other bike I’ve ridden! The index-finger lever shifts down (towards granny gear) and the thumb level shifts up (for flats and downhill). No wonder I thought the mountain bike didn’t want to climb! When I thought I was in granny gear, I was actually in the highest gear on the rear cassette! And no wonder the derailleur was rattling and grinding; I had the chain torqued sideways, in a gear combination you would never use in real life. Once I got my head turned around and started shifting correctly, everything got much, much better.

After roughly 17 miles the first day, I’m pretty happy with the decision I made. I stopped a couple of times to adjust the angles on the grips and the saddle, and I’m sure I’ll want to change the shifters so the Kona and the mtb are consistent. But overall, the mountain bike performed well.

And I’m surprised by how different the riding experience is! The front suspension on the mountain bike really makes life easier on my arms and shoulders! I stiffened the fork a ton and it rode really smoothly. The fat, knobby tires let me grab traction and climb even in fairly soft, loose soil. I’m not doing crazy jumps yet, but for nice green and blue difficulty trails, this bike does the job.

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