This is an opinion piece by Reno Toffoli. Reno's opinions don't necessary represent the opinions of Your Group Ride or its advertisers but I always enjoy his rants. If you'd like to write an article for YGR, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Be sure to check out Reno's 10 Tracks place list here: https://goo.gl/f82hoK
I’m not really sure how to start this out so I’ll just jump in. You may have previously seen articles by me scattered across these (web) pages lamenting the various degrees of how the cycling industry and especially the mountain bike side of the industry seemed to be releasing a never ending amount of ‘improvements’ that, in my mind, had questionable merit. On top of this, other seemingly proven items or aspects of bike design were disappearing…fast.
Now this wasn’t the only thing I wrote articles about but it seems that it’s what’s been remembered, at least by El Presidente of YGR who recently asked me to write this follow up. Why a follow up? Well, it happened to come up that I had pretty much adopted all of the things I had previously rallied against or at least was skeptical of. Why would I do this? How could I sell out my retro-grouchiness and quasi-luddite online persona and become just another mindless sheep who bought everything the evil industry produced? The answer is pretty simple: I found a solution to a problem or a need that these new products fulfilled. And let’s not get ahead of ourselves, I haven’t bought in to everything, just most of it, at least most of it that I have tried.
Catching up with the industry has been part legitimate need, part curiosity, and part domino effect. The progression started when I was coaxed over to 29” wheels which allowed me to ride faster over rougher terrain without hanging up. As I rode faster with big wheels, my riding improved and my riding style started to change. One of the things I noticed was that as I adapted to the new wheel size, my cornering technique changed and my descending style changed. This brought up weaknesses in my technique which I worked to correct but it also became apparent that in some situations I was reaching the limits of my equipment.
The problem with reaching the limits of your gear is that to extend those limits, you need new gear and need to experiment to find the new gear that suits you. That’s a potentially expensive proposition because the only real way to find out if it works for you is to buy it and try it. Of course, reading online reviews can help but there’s only so many times I can handle the adjectives ‘playful’ and ‘stiff’ without wanting to puke. The other thing is that online reviews tend to all be of the 5 star ‘best-thing-I-ever-used’ variety and it’s hard to find real objective, fact based reporting.
For me, function is always greater than fashion and everything has advantages and disadvantages. When I am searching out solutions to the shortcomings of my gear, I’m always looking for that balance that ticks the right boxes of function, price, longevity, weight, etc. What inevitably happens is that I notice that the thing I had previously been skeptical of may really fill a need that I just recently discovered I had.
The thing that sometimes holds me back is a previously bad (and expensive) experience with a certain something new. Good examples of this for me were my initial forays into tubeless tire setups and slack head tube angles. Both were disasters. The tubeless thing was an unreliable pain in the ass that constantly let me down on the trail and my slack head tube bike handled like a school bus. That put a bad taste in my mouth for both of those things and it wasn’t until several years later when both had been better sorted by the industry that they actually worked as intended. I think the most important lesson I learned was that it’s better or at least cheaper and less frustrating to have a semi skeptical ‘wait and see’ attitude toward these kind of advancements. I learned that being an early adopter in the cycling industry means that you’re sometimes as much a guinea pig as a customer.
Another thing that tends to turn me off of new trends is the extremes they inevitably get taken to. It seems that if wider bars and shorter stems are good, then suddenly every stem is 30mm and every bar is 810mm. Folks seem to buy the most extreme versions of new products regardless of whether it will benefit them perhaps because some bro-brah somewhere said it was cool. Never mind that the bro-brah in question was 6’4” and actually needed that 810mm wide bar. In my mind, Moderation is the key to everything. Of course the extremes need to be probed a little bit so that we know where the limits are or where the advantages end. When it comes down to it, though, the best returns are usually not found at the extremes.
Anyway, my progression of catching up/ giving in/ selling out went like this: The 29” wheel gave way to appropriately wide bars and a short stem for my size and bike. As I went faster and faster and was really carving corners up, I noticed my saddle was constantly in the way and limiting my descending and cornering ability. Next up was a dropper and holy cow what a game changer it was. It initially felt a little awkward mainly because my legs weren’t used to supporting my full weight for long descents but once my strength increased, all bets were off. I can’t even imagine riding without a dropper now. If I go down any kind of incline without my saddle lowered at least slightly, I feel like I’m about to go over the bars.
With the dropper freeing up even more speed and handling ability, I decided I wanted more travel so I got it. What came with more travel was a frame that was more slack in the head tube but with a steeper seat angle and a shorter rear triangle. This was another game changing moment. The school bus feel of my previous slack frame was gone. The high speed stability was awesome but the short chainstays helped the bike feel agile and the steep seat tube angle helped it climb and put my weight more in the center of the bike; cornering ability also took a big jump forward.
This bike also came with wide rims which really helped my tires reach the volume I wanted. Improvements in tire and rim design meant that tubeless actually worked now and after a lot of research and pouring over gear ratios and weighing all the pluses and minuses I made the switch to a 1x drivetrain.
The domino effect of all of these changes means that the bikes I own today are completely different in appearance and performance than the ones I had just a few years ago. For me, they handle better, descend faster and smoother, corner better, and make my rides more fun. My riding style has changed drastically due to the changes and improvements in my gear. Because my strengths lie in descending and technical riding, these product improvements have played to my strengths as a rider and improved my experience. I could definitely see where for a different style of rider, things could be different.
My most recent epiphany of sorts was ditching my old steep, XC oriented hardtail for a fully up to date long(ish), low(ish), and slack all mountain hardtail. My new hardtail now rides and feels the same way my 160mm travel bike does and that suits me and my style. At least now I don’t have to slow down or risk going OTB when things get burly like I did with the old XC hardtail.
At this point, I’m making fewer giant steps forward in adopting new gear and looking at more subtle changes to setup. Slamming my cleats as far back as possible in my shoes (and having shoes with extended cleat slots) has changed things for the better. I’m now experimenting with more rebound damping than I used to run and also have really been studying fork offset and trail on my bikes to see how they’re different from each other and how that relates to how they handle.
I haven’t bought in to everything. I’m still pretty skeptical about the whole boost thing. My new hardtail frame is boost and I can’t tell any difference in anything other than I needed to buy a new rear wheel and chainring to build the bike. I’ve been running carbon rims but can’t tell if they’re stiff or not. With 160mm of squishy travel on one end and 2.4” of squishy tire on the other, don’t ask me what’s stiff, all I feel is squish. The bike goes where I point it so I guess it’s stiff enough. I like carbon rims because they don’t dent.
I think the lesson in all of this is be skeptical but still be open to change once the benefits of change are evident. Beware that change can be difficult and expensive and requires experimentation. Your experiment may fail which means you’ll have to sell off your failure on Craigslist for pennies on the dollar. Whatever improves the ride for you is worthwhile and that’s what you should do. It’s good to give it all a try if you can and see where it takes you.