Monday, November 12, 2018

From where I sit: 2019 bike testing.

Simple fact: Bicycles have never been better than they are today.

As far as categories of bikes for riding off-road, we used to break things into XC, Trials, and DH.  Before that you either had a mountain bike (and used it for, um, everything) or you didn't.  Nowadays there are additional categories for Trail, All Mountain, and Enduro, plus Slopestyle and Dirt Jump.  Where do those fit in, how do they apply to you, and which bike should be chosen for each?  Further muddying the waters there are subcategories such as Downcountry, Cross Stuntry, even (swear to god...) SlopeDuro.

To the end of answering that question for myself I used to attend the annual bike industry trade show every fall.  Or at least once they started to have an on-dirt demo where you could actually ride different bikes, on dirt, and feel the nuances of each.  Eventually that demo became crazy crowded, such that you'd spend more of the day waiting for a specific bike to become available than you would riding.  Sometimes you'd never get a chance to swing a leg over that bike.  Eventually I stopped going because I wasn't getting to actually ride the bikes I was going there to ride.

There are lots of other demo events these days, most of which seem to be afflicted with similar crowding issues, or they're held at places that can handle crowds but you still can't get the bikes you want.  Or you finally get the bike you want but the trails are so milquetoast that you can't learn much about it.  The last demo event I attended featured manufacturer's reps whom insisted on cramming their hastily assembled propaganda ("this layup is unparalleled in it's ability to be laterally stiff yet vertically compliant...") down your throat one-on-one while slooooowly installing your pedals and ostensibly tweaking the suspension to suit you.

For these and other reasons I haven't attended a demo event for a few years.  But an opportunity presented itself this fall -- fell into my lap you might say -- which I simply couldn't refuse.  Outside Magazine holds an annual event where they test and review 50 of the most highly desired bikes (roughly split half road and half mountain) in an effort to pin down some of the nuances, pick their favorites, and then write about the nuances of the favorites so that their readers can better make their own buying (or not) decisions.  This year's test was going to happen in my backyard, on trails that I've been riding and maintaining for better than two decades.  Pretty sweet, right?

It gets better.  The test bikes were shipped to my shop in advance so that I could unbox, assemble, debug, and test ride them before the real test even started.  How many times does an opportunity like that present itself?  Never.  Well, for me, once -- and this was it.  I took full advantage, riding at lunch or after work (sometimes both) for a few weeks straight, to the extent that when the test actually, finally began my legs were already fried.  First world problems!

The results of the testing are not mine to share.  The details on several of the bikes are actually still under embargo for a month or more, so although I wrote individual reviews for 20+ of the mountain bikes, I'm not going to share those now, either.  Maybe later.  Instead, below I've detailed some big picture thoughts on the minutia that made itself apparent as the test proceeded.  Sort of feels like a 2019 'state of the industry', at least from where I sit.

+ + + + + + + + + 

For those of us not racing professionally, for those of us that 'just ride' with our friends, dogs, or solo, it seems the most important metric is not weight, not seat tube angle, not suspension kinematics.  The most important metric for many of us is simply how the bike makes you feel while riding, or when the ride is done.

i can't speak for others but I don't care too much about efficiency or weight on the way up as long as the bike doesn't get in my way when climbing, and as long as it also feels playful on the way back down.  Time needed to complete a loop or section is irrelevant.  I want to get outside for awhile, get some exercise, breathe fresh air, incinerate a few endorphins in a white hot fire, then return to life with a smile on my face.  Riding a lively bike that hops and pops and manuals well is the quickest way to achieve all of the above.  Riding something that's .09162% lighter or more efficient yet sacrifices liveliness and playfulness does not put a smile on my face.

I'm not sure I care about frame material anymore.  Suspension quality and tire casing construction can make a more noticeable difference in subjective feel while being much less expensive to employ.  

I definitely care about wheel size -- 29" and 29+ just roll over ledges, roots, chunk much better.  27.5" is dead to me, except for fat tires.  It was interesting to learn that 90% of the testers were in this same boat.

I definitely care about tire size -- bigger and more aggressive is almost universally better for where I live and how I ride.  Anything smaller than 2.6" collects dust in my garage, and even 2.6" tires feel too small -- too harsh -- for better than half of the year.

29+ has some sort of stigma attached.  Perhaps related to the fatbikes that paved the way for them.  The lone 29+ FS bike in this test was derogatorily (if playfully?) referred to as 'the yoga ball' before anyone had even ridden it.  The metamorphosis from laughingstock to legitimate contender took but a few minutes.  The first few to ride it came back somewhat astonished: "It's *not* heavy" they said.  "It rides really light, actually", they said.  "It is so. effing. smooth!" they said.  "I had so much fun!", they said.  And after a day of this, the next day the feedback morphed to "If that bike was for sale I'd take it home with me.  Now.  Tonight".

One of the testers summed it up perhaps best with "I'm guilty of judging that book by its cover.  I was *so* wrong.  I want one now.  I want one NOW!"

Crazy, stupid, ridiculous, so-low-that-they're-unpedalable-uphill bottom bracket heights persist.  Even on bikes that are ostensibly made to be pedaled up *big* hills.  How does one do it -- climb tech trails that is?  Ratchet uphill for 2 hours straight?  

I can think of no single gear-specific parameter that has had a greater negative effect on our trails than low bottom brackets.  When people repeatedly bash their feet or chainring into rocks and ledges they think not of the welfare of the trail but that of their machine.  Bash a rock enough times and one of two things happens: Either said rock gets dislodged and removed, or if the rock is deeply embedded riders just start to go around it.  Our local trails now feature hundreds upon hundreds of go-arounds -- to the point that many of these trails are no longer singletrack so much as a series of linked figure 8's.  These same trails also now feature hundreds of holes where a rock used to be, but was ultimately dislodged by a barrage of low bottom bracket bikes.

I wasn't sure that anyone in the industry 'got it' until this test, where testers could be frequently heard discussing how some bikes -- bikes that the marketing machines have made people believe are highly desirable for tech riding -- simply could not be pedaled up anything remotely technical.  I fear that it's going to take years and years for the industry to pull its collective head out of its collective ass and slowly start to bring BB's back up into the realm of reasonable.

Shaped headset spacers.  I walked out into the shop just now and noted 4 random road bikes (all from the test) leaning against each other, not one of which could share a stem or headset spacers with any of the others.  The only big-picture benefit that I can see to designing things this way is to keep road riders tethered to a certain shop in the same way that they are tethered to prepared surfaces.  And that same lack of foresight has recently arrived in the mountain bike world, where 2 of the test bikes featured shaped HS spacers, HS bearing covers, and HS top caps.

There were two hardtails in the test.  I rode one of them, twice.  I saw each of them get ridden a total of once after that.   Perhaps this is more a testament to the corrugated, blocky nature of the local trails than anything else, but no one wanted anything to do with them -- regardless of wheel size.  I saw people reach for FS bikes that didn't fit them, or that they'd already ridden several times, rather than ride one of the hardtails.

175mm droppers are stupid.  Your butt hits the tire before your chest hits the saddle, and sometimes your saddle hits the tire as suspension compresses.  I subscribe to the 'if some is good more must be better' credo with lots of things.  Bacon and ice cream immediately come to mind.  I personally don't see much point in droppers beyond 125mm, and could happily live with 100mm.  Perhaps the best evidence for this is that almost no one runs the saddle on their DH bike 7" lower than their fully extended height.  4 to 5" is more like it.

Electronic shifting is silly.  And unreliable.  And a solution in search of a problem, creating problems all it's own.  I like progress, I like to drink kool aid, and I embrace change when it's sensible and demonstrably better than the alternative.  E-shifting simply isn't either.

Boost spacing is nice, in that at least we're all agreeing on *something* finally.  This was the first bike comparo in memory where every MTB used the same hub spacing front and rear.  Wheels were swapped between bikes, quickly and easily, for various reasons.  Different rotor sizes and cassettes/freehubs meant that not every wheelset was truly quick switch, but getting everyone on the same page with both brakes and cassettes is probably asking too much.

Crazy low out of the box cockpits.  I ride -- as do 99% of my riding partners -- with my handlebars a bit above my fully extended saddle height.  Several of the test bikes came with their steerer tubes cut so short that 1.5" to 2" below saddle height was as high as the bars could be set.  Some were so low out of the box that I was unable to test-ride them beyond a quick lap around the parking lot, where I was so uncomfortable I immediately returned the bike to the corral and chose something else.

Bars well below saddle height is a young persons game and sometimes an XC racer's preference.  I rode that way for better than two decades, and I have irreparable nerve damage in my neck and hands as a result.  It hurts NO ONE to leave steerer tubes a little longer on stock bikes.  Those that want a slammed position can still get it.  Those that want a more upright position won't immediately be turned off of a potential candidate.

Gearboxes are coming.  They aren't quite 'there' yet because improvements in shifting ergonomics and reductions in frictional losses still need incremental progress.  But they're already really good.  There's something about being able to take tight lines through chunky right handers without fear of ripping a $300 der off the bike.  If someone could figure out a way to run a gearbox on an FS bike and *not* need an external tensioner, I'd probably jump in right now.

Most high engagement hubs add needless noise and drag.  Easy to feel that drag when coasting -- the bike slows as though the brakes are rubbing.  Impossible not to hear the added racket, and equally impossible to converse over said racket.  I'd love for consumers to see past the marketing and arrive at some sane realization that (for starters) fast engaging hubs don't have to be noisy or draggy.  I'd also love to see people recognize that normal and even slow engaging hubs aren't a limiter in technical riding situations.  The rider is the limiter -- not the hub.

We are so lucky with rims and tires these days. 26, 27.5, 29. Skinny, medium, wide, plus, mid-fat, fat, morbidly obese, and everything in between. Carbon and aluminum. Tubeless ready as standard. Supple, high thread count, and reinforced casings with a dizzying number of tread patterns to choose from.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for within all of those, you are truly a .01%er. 

Maxxis makes fantastic tires and deserves the market domination they currently enjoy.  That said, it was also really nice to see other, smaller brands represented and ripping.

Integrated storage options are taking hold.  Anything is better than a big bulbous pack on our very sweaty backs.  Putting tools into bottle cages (on frames that are finally starting to prioritize fitting them!), pumps alongside, and tubes or tubeless plugs elsewhere is the minimum going forward.  Plus there's a whole slew of good, well designed fanny packs (Hipster satchels? European Carry-alls?!) just hitting the market.  For 5+ hour rides you're always going to need something more than the basics discussed above, but for shorter rides it's nice to ride unencumbered.

+ + + + + + +

I've only been riding bikes on dirt for 40 years, thus I still have a lot to learn.  I'm grateful to this crew for the opportunity to be so deeply immersed into bike-nerddom for a solid month this fall.

Thanks for checkin' in.


  1. Great initial report, looking forward to more! Certainly have to agree about the dropper post travel. The first time I used one in the fully lowered position, the saddle was clanking on the inside of my knees. I am still not sure what all of the hype is about?

  2. Great write up and I agree with almost everything. I might disagree on the gearbox thing for now, only because I saw one on display at the NAHBS and the backlash was ridiculous. I'm not a high engagement hub guy either, but it was unacceptable to me. BTW Onyx hubs sound (pun) like they would be ideal!

    As far as the long droppers go. I have a 160mm dropper, riding 27.5+, and I wouldn't mind a little more drop. Some jumps and bunnyhops have my fully dropped saddle smacking me in the butt when trying to boost for extra air. I realize that is more of a bmx riding style so not really everyone's idea of mountain biking. For steep rollers the 160mm is just fine.

    Everything else you pointed out is spot on!


    1. Tony, I agree with you 100%. 150-170mm droppers are where it's at; for anything except hardcore XC weenies and/or XXS- to XS-sized frames I see absolutely no reason for 100-125mm droppers to exist at all. If you want a bike than can climb and descend with confidence without fiddling, that means getting the extension you need on the climbs and then pushing the saddle completely out of the way for the drop-in and descent. And if the DH is like a typical "Pacific Northwest DH" then you'll need to pop that saddle back up to full extension and climb at least once during the run.

      That's kind of the problem I have with Lenz bikes in general. Due to the bent seat tube dropper insertion is horribly limited, and the actual ST measurement is on the long side for the frame size. I rode a Fatillac for well over a thousand miles and was never able to find a setup that worked comfortably for me. At proper pedal height a 125 dropper didn't drop enough for my liking when the trail pointed steeply down, and the post was literally jammed as far as possible into the ST. You couldn't fit a 150 on a medium unless you were well over six feet, and then you wouldn't be riding the medium to begin with.

      To each his own, but shorter seat tubes with plenty of insertion depth for longer droppers is, IMHO, where it's at and where the industry should be going. Especially if it keeps billing its offerings an equally capable uphill as down. Then again, maybe that's the old DH racer in my blood being highly opinionated. Old habits and all...

    2. In order to get more insertion, you need a less bent seat tube. If you have a less bent seat tube, then you have longer chainstays. No free lunch. Want a bike thats sporty, lively, nimble, and can manual on a nanoseconds notice? You need short chainstays. Compromise.

      I’ll take shorter stays over more dropper every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

    3. Your seat shouldn't be hitting your butt when tucked in a bunnyhop unless your seat is fully extended and you're not hopping that high. Look at any photo of a pro in any hoppy discipline in a bunnyhop and you'll see their butt well behind the seat.

    4. ok. whom said anything about hopping?

    5. @sean, What are you saying? That it's not possible to hit your butt with the seat during a bunnyhop? You can't look at just the photo where the rider is behind the saddle. It's the photo right before the rider is behind the saddle. That's where it's possible to bump the seat if it's not low enough.

      I have a 160mm dropper and can easily fit a 200mm dropper in the frame I have, just to give you an idea how much seatpost I have sticking out, yes I have long legs and ride a Medium frame. So, in my case hitting the seat during some bunnyhops is possible.

    6. Anything is possible. I've hit all sorts of body parts with all sorts of bike parts that wouldn't have interacted if I had used better form. I'm tall, have long legs and rode an 18" frame for a long time because it felt more like the trials and bmx bikes i was used to. I suppose , maybe, if you're controlling while going uphill, with an uphill landing, you'll be sucking the seat up toward your butt. Otherwise, if the post is dropped more than 100mm from xc position, the seat should be well in front of your posterior when it gets high enough to hit it.

  3. Great thoughts! I may not agree with all of them but they as you said are sometimes location specific. I have the makings of a 29+ setup. Been riding big wheels since the Bianchi Project days of the 90s. Looking forward to trying the size

  4. Hmm. I've been riding a Lenz Lunchmoney/Rohloff/Gates for a few years now, (29+ & all) no tensioner :-) Plenty fun :-). The Rohloff itself is 14 years old, been in 4 bikes, worn in nicely..... BB is high enough now for 190mm cranks since I changed the rockers.
    Thanks for the inspiration :-)

  5. This really echos the direction that i have been asking for a long time now. 29x4 is gonna be the perfect all around choice. Even my 29x6" fatbike crys have fallen on deaf ears. Until the manufacturers finally come around to these and people stop scoffing at my demands to get to the next level. Same way i crusaded for 29er bikes/tires/wheels back in the day and riders told me i was out of my mind.....

  6. Mike, Your pre-review is spot on IMHO. I've been bitching about the low BB trend for 8 years now... Going out for a climb means going for a hike with many of the modern "hot" bikes. Why does every bike need to be designed ONLY to descend smooth flow trails? Most of the trails we ride here in Colorado are not smooth flow trails. They are chunky and technical AND we like to climb them just as much as we enjoy the descents. The latest crop of 29x2.6 tires are excellent. Like you, I'm looking forward to bike manufacturers taking a chance and coming out with 29+ on a modern full suspension trail bike. I tested several bikes before opening up my wallet last month. Big S got me with their SWAT system & the ability of the 2019 Stumpy to roll huge tires. The BB height didn't limit me on the climbs, possibly due to the big tires and short-ish chainstay. I can't wait to read the rest of your individual bike reviews! Thanks for taking the time to write and post your thoughts.

    1. One man's huge is another man's barely adequate!

  7. I think the industry hit the jackpot with 29er wheels. Besides smoothing out terrain and increase safety, the main difference was the greater B.B. drop. Easy to handle, good for begginers. Every year the B.B. seems to get lower and lower to suit better the new crop of old and young riders approaching mtbiking. Big brands know pretty well what they are doing. Thanks for the write up.

    1. I'm not sure where this comes from, but I've read it in a few places now. This whole, 29 and 29+ is "great for beginners"

      What the hell does that even mean, and if someone like Mike is riding the snot out of them by personal choice (and is anything but a "beginner") and why does *the industry* feel the need to disparage it as cool for the newbs, but once you grow up you'll realize your mistake and get a "real" wheel and tire size?

      Silliest spin I think I've heard. Not sure why it keeps being echoed.

      Me? Riding dirt since 1988, hard, and you can pry 29+ from my cold dead fingers. I don't race though, so perhaps that's the implication I'm missing? Only real riders, race??

      Big brands know exactly what they're doing. Designing stuff that will be obsolete and unserviceable in 3 years, so you'll have to buy new again, or, at a minimum, be forced back into said big name dealer for their proprietary parts such as the shaped spacers Mike mentioned, or bearings that are ~1 mm different than standard for no reason at all, etc.

      Beyond that, personally? I think they have their heads up their collective keisters. They don't have our backs, or our best interests in mind, (they used to, but not anymore). No, they need to move units, and will do so, by any means necessary....

  8. I am most curious what you made of that Trust fork. Personally, the theory makes perfect sense. I am very envious of the testing opportunity you had there on such a variety of new, high end, hard to actually find to test equipment in actual technical terrain. I'm of the same mindset in what I'm looking for +29 FS tech trail bike. At $3k a frame(or fork, nearly in this case) it's a big leap to do blindly. DG

  9. Hi Mike!

    Thanks for your thoughts! I had a Velocity 29+ rohloff wheel set laced by you and was happy with it for about a year and thought I’d try carbon rims. I think they were a big improvement. To answer your question about getting a geared hub without a rear tensioner, I think the simplest answer is an eccentric BB. I have sliding dropouts but it isn’t as clean and from a production point of view, probably a more expensive to produce.

    1. Full suspension bikes still need a chain tensioner unless they have zero-chain growth -- and ZCG designs have historically been undesirable for geometry and kinematics reasons.

  10. "If someone could figure out a way to run a gearbox on an FS bike and *not* need an external tensioner, I'd probably jump in right now."
    Just saw this video. Could this be a possibility?

    1. My beef with tensioners is that they change the direction of the change a few times. In that directional change friction is introduced. It's not huge, but it's also not zero. So whatever you gain by going to the gearbox you lose by having those directional chain changes. The bike you linked to isn't really am improvement from that perspective.

    2. Got it! Thanks for taking the time to explain.