Lets establish something right off the bat --> I am a gear nut. Just ask Jonathan when he worked at Greenstreet Cycles how much effort I put into building up my road bike (which turned out pretty fantastic by the way). I love to break apart what makes up a particular bike so much, that most folks (including my loving and patient wife) get sick of talking to me about it.
So I know road bike gear really well - spent a year demoing bikes and products to figure out what I wanted in my road bike. Now it is time to figure out mountain bike gear. I have recently got into mountain bike racing a bit, and am already hooked. Something about the atmosphere (holy hell...ever try and spell atmosphere while drinking?!) and camaraderie around a mountain bike race is hard to replace (well maybe gravel racing could overtake it).
Currently I race with a 2009 Trek 69er hardtail. For years I felt like this was one of my best bikes until I actually realized how fast some folks go around singletrack courses. Sure my 69er did pretty good at a couple of gravel races, but the demands there are not even remotely close to the demands of a singletrack race. So now that I have found that I love MTB marathon racing, and may want to do some longer courses before I turn 40, it is time to figure out what MTB would be best for such a pursuit.
|Trek 69er before 1X9 conversion|
So do you want a hardtail, fully rigid, full suspension, far bike, mid-fat, or yellow bike? - uh who in the hell knows right? One person will tell you that "Around these parts you only need 5mm of travel from your tires" and another person will tell you "You're racing over 3 hours? You need 200mm of travel at least." So who is right and who is a freaking moron? The answer lies somewhere in the "what do YOU really like about a MTB mister reader?" For me it started with what I don't like about my current bike.
My current MTB is skittishly frisky with an overabundance of "stiffer is better!" applied to the frame. You go down a twisty-turny singletrack descent and you better have your senses tuned to 11 to be sure you navigate everything perfectly. On top of that it is such a short-chainstay "trek-type" bike that the front end wants to come off the ground at the hint of a steep ascent with the drop of a hat (even with a 12cm stem). On top of all of that the frame has only a single place for a bottle holder which is a bummer for those of us that do NOT want to use a hydration pack during a race (makes me look fater than normal - ooooo look some Pizza Rolls!).
Did I miss a "that's what she said" somewhere in that last paragraph? Crap, well use your imagination please.
So what I am trying to figure out is:
1) Do I need full suspension
2) Can I get away with a modern full 29er hardtail?
3) Will those seductively looking "plus" tire bikes be the best of all worlds (to eventually dominate with the Oreo Overlords?)
The lovely folks at Dundee Cycles in Omaha NE hosted Niner bikes in a demo day out at Jewel Park, to which I said "Yes please!". Jewel park is a very small loop of single track that is packed with as much steep climbing and roller coaster descending as you can handle. Pretty much the perfect place to figure out what I want in the future, with the exception that I have very little knowledge of the trail and mother nature decided to grow all sorts of tall grass so you can't see where you are going.
Seriously though, big thanks to the folks at Niner Bikes and Dundee cycles for helping folks like me get out on many types of bikes.
|JET 9 RDO|
So the first bike I take out is a JET 9 RDO built up with SRAM X0 2X10 drivetrain, Rockshox Pike 120mm fork and some sort of Avid brakes. This is the cross country full suspension bike from Niner which has been praised for many things.
- Quick insert here: I have NO experience with full suspension bikes on an actual trail -
I almost wrecked TWICE, once where the front end of the bike washed out and I had to grab a handful of brake to keep from running into a ditch (which put the saddle square into my back). The bike wallowed when you were seated and riding the trail, and ultimately just felt out of control. I ended that ride pretty disappointed and expressed that to the guys at the tent (Rob asked me if I wanted some cheese with that wine".
|JET 9 RDO|
I hopped on the ROS 9+ bike next which is a 29er plus bike (30+mm rim with 3" tires) that is fully rigid. I immediately felt at home on the bike. I have no other way to describe this thing - it just felt right. The grip going around corners and up and over roots was just superb. My preconceived notions about the bike were that it would feel sluggish much like my fat bike (Salsa Mukluk which I love...screw you if you don't like it - OK, I'm sorry let's be friends again). This bike was nowhere near what a fat bike feels like out on singletrack. It was nimble, frisky (yet stable), full of grip, and just plain grin-inducing. This was a STARK contrast to what I had felt previously on the JET 9 RDO, and frankly made me a bit of a short term Preacher for the bike to anyone that would listen.
|ONE 9 RDO|
I next asked for an Air 9 but was instead treated to a One 9 RDO setup so choice that I frankly was a bit taken aback. Full carbon frame, carbon wheels, XTR brakes, SID carbon fork, XX1 drivetrain, and all carbon cockpit. In short a XC riders wet dream hardtail. That bike reminded me of everything I both love and hate about my 69er. It was overly frisky with a skittish behavior that I was "so over" before I was even half way through the lap. I would imagine that racers weighing 30lbs less than me, and not wanting to race more than an hour or two, would be totally happy with it. My fatass endurance focused self was just plain over it. Gorgeous super lightweight and wet dream bike for many turned me right off.
|ONE 9 RDO|
At this point I was feeling a little worn down, so I was excited to hop back on the Jet 9 to see if a full suspension bike could help out as you got more tired. Rob had just come off of the bike and had the rear shock in some sort of pro pedal mode, so I decided to stick with that and see if it made me swoon. About a mile in I switched the rear shock to full open and let it rip. Turns out the bike felt out of control the first lap because I was going that much faster. You have to think about your turns so much quicker with a bike like this. Once I got used to this the bike transformed into something I was much happier with. The thing that surprised me the most was how well the bike climbed out of the saddle....felt like the One 9 RDO hardtail but with more traction.
I briefly hopped on a WFO (150mm travel) to see what that was like, and quickly realized I did not BRAAP enough to justify it...plus how in the hell do you traverse a tight switchback uphill on that bike?!
So what did I learn from my demos?
- A hardtail 29er in some sort of carbon hi-zoot guise is going to piss me off as much as my current 69er does.
- A full suspension bike can be a LOT of fun and really fast
- A "plus" tire sized bike could RULE THEM ALL with the right configuration
In my mind the upcoming Specialized Fuse at a 27.5+ build with a 120mm fork and dropper post just got that much more sexay. Really I see no advantage to a full suspensions traction going uphill that a plus sized tire can't match. When you turn downhill the plus sized tired works wonders in soaking up any bumps. For me the plus sized hardtail makes the most sense right now.....totally willing to be proven wrong if you want me to try your S-Works EPIC or Stumpy :).
Alright folks, that is it for part 1 of my MTB self discovery series. Questions or comments just post them below for me to ignore (not really, I watch that section like it will give me a promotion at work). Seriously though, thanks for reading!