Friday, 29 May 2015

The Most Important Bike Related Study In History

Now I'm the first to admit that when it comes to technology I'm generally a total luddite.  I could not give a shit about your latest phone, I have no apps and my TV is still deeper than the screen is wide. I find nothing more tedious than having to listen to 21st century bores extolling the virtues of the shiny and new, except that is when it comes to bikes.  For some reason it's my one weak spot where the latent consumerist tendencies boil up in me and I involuntarily find myself emptying my Paypal account because my stem is 5mm too long or my helmet is the wrong colour.

I've been biking for a loooong time now and it was whilst gathering bits together for a retro project build (disguised as a new bike for my wife to ride) that I realised that nobody in history has done a proper in-depth comparative study between the old school and the modern.  It's probably because the writers of the world are too scared of the evil superpowers of the corporate biking behemoths who'll ruin their lives if they threaten the inevitability of 'progress'.  Or perhaps it's fear of the realisation that they've essentially wasted thousands of pounds on kit that's made them no better riders whilst simultaneously ruining their spousal relationships and denying their kids the chance of a Third Level education.

However, I'm not afraid.  My kids are still young and my wife knows I squander a fortune of our retirement fund.  So I'm going to face into the epic task and produce the World's first definitive bike technology study and answer the question that everyone needs the answer to, 'is new bike technology a bit shit?'  Before I start can I make it clear that this isn't a discussion, everything in this entirely objective piece of work is FACT.  You can disagree but you're wrong, deal with it.

So here goes, wish me luck...

Back when Bontrager wasn't just part of the Trek corporation
Frames - 
So back in the day (you'll hear that at least 100 times in this piece!) frames all looked the same. They were made of steel and had 89 degree head angles and were all welded and had bottle cage mounts and some even had rack mounts for 'touring'.  Some were truly things of beauty (Bontrager, Chas Roberts, Fat Chance etc) but the similar appearances made it too hard for punters to tell that you'd spent a fortune on one which definitely limited your chances to look cool.  Then came titanium, aluminium, magnesium (Kirk Revolution anyone?!) and carbon and everything went mad.  Without even mentioning suspension (until the next section), slacker angles, integrated ISCG mounts, tapered head tubes etc have all incrementally improved the beating hearts of our bikes.  Frankly, if you'd shown me my Nomad C back in 1988 I'd have imploded.  Frames are lighter, better handling and displaying previously unimaginable degrees of versatility and so it's definitely a point for the new school.

EXCEPT...

Back in the nineties you bought a new frame and transferred all your old parts, easy.  Kids these days would laugh at that concept.  'Oh no, my forks have the wrong steerer, my headset isn't integrated, my bottom bracket has threads, my seatpost is a 30.9, my disk mounts are wrong', pass me the pills!! Gone are the delightful days of being able to waste hours in your garage plugging together a new build, replaced by hours of poring over CRC and BikeDiscount.de to save a few quid on extras you'd not budgeted for.  New builds are now a protracted succession of minor disappointments of incompatibility that leave you hating your new frame long before it ever tastes dirt.  The alternative is buying a complete bike but that often means a migraine inducing Euro colour scheme with matching hubs and tyre logos.  No thanks.  So it's actually a point for the old school and if you disagree, one word, 'E-Bike'!!  Or is that two words?

Old School 1-0 Technology

Suspension -
Hmmm, £1,300 you say...
The REAL RS1's
Oh how I lusted after those RockShox RS1's.  Not the £1300 upside down, 29'er only abominations, the beautiful half-inch travel, neon-stickered originals.  Yes, early suspension was terrible until some Italian motorbikers with an excess of orange paint changed the world forever, but its possibilities have always been apparent.  I must admit I was a bit hostile towards full suspension in its early days, the XC racer in me was afraid of being morphed into a big hairy downhiller using terms like 'rad' and 'sketchy' but I wasn't hairy until years later and by then I'd seen the light.  Nowadays I own a 28lb, 160mm travel dream machine that allows me to hit drops and gaps like I actually know what I'm doing.  Surely an easy point for the modernisers?

EXCEPT... (tedious theme developing here)

In the 90's our bikes were so rigid that getting up to any kind of speed involved a rattling that could liquidise your kidneys.  That self regulation meant that although our crashes were regular they were never too serious.  Sure, we broke the odd bone or three but it was normally because we'd drilled holes in our 130g handlebars which then snapped in two when we hopped off a kerb.  Suspension has meant that we can all hit maximum velocity in the nasty stuff and when the talent runs out and the travel can't save us it's a one way trip to the morgue.  So on the one hand suspension makes me look like I know what I'm doing and on the other hand it's exponentially increased our chances of a chat with the reaper.  Only one winner then, suspension.  Did you not hear me right?  It makes it look like I can ride.

Old School 1-1 Technology

Wheels - 
Oh piss off.  If you want to discuss wheel sizes go and read the troll fest at the bottom of any Pinkbike post.  Yes, 29'ers roll faster but they're less fun than 26" and 650b is a total con (they're not 27.5"!!) and frankly any more talk about this will guarantee a change in the laws on 'assisted' suicide spearheaded by me.  I've got a garage full of tyres that'll probably never get used because I had to get bigger wheels.  I've also got the same Chris King hubs I got for my 18th birthday in 1996 and the bearings have never needed changing so hub technology clearly hasn't had to advance at all.  And since when is it ever morally justifiable to charge two grand for a set of carbon wheels that broke in virtually every bike magazine test in 2014?!  The old school not only wins, it's dancing away down a dusty trail into the sunset with its fast accelerating, brilliant in the tight tech 26" glory whilst the twisted faces of the new school glare at their computer screens pouring vitriol on anyone who dares question their supposed superiority.

Old School 2-1 Technology

Headsets and Stems - 
Ok, ok, so the modernisers just took a pounding on the hoops but can they strike back when we look at componentry?  Hands up who remembers threaded headsets?  Keep your hands up if you could tighten one whilst on the trail.  Nah, thought not.  Any component that requires not one, but two huge spanners to tweak it is inherently a bit flawed and they always seemed to work their way loose when you were in the back of beyond.  And as for quill stems, what... the... hell?!  The only surprise is how long it took someone (was it Tange?) to invent something that bolts directly on to the fork steerer. Even minor crashes used to result in the old front wheel between the legs, haul on the bars to straighten routine.  Some fella has just invented a laser guide to get your stem straight.  Back then we were happy if it was within 30 degrees after we near snapped our bar ends off getting the wheel re-aligned!  The other huge improvements have come from the ongoing shortening.  The only people who benefited from our old 150mm stems were chiropractors.  Steering was so slow you had to pre-empt a corner whilst the bike was still in the shed.  Mondraker may be going a bit far, we'll be on negative length stems next like this dude but generally shorter has meant funner, safer and sharper handling.  Better control, allen keys to tension and tighten, a firmer grip between stem and steerer, the modern day wins by a mile.  Now if they could just standardise the sizes of the allen bolts!

It took a lot of paper rounds to afford this 135mm back destroyer!
Old School 2-2 Technology 

Handlebars - 
My old mate Greeny used to have bars so narrow that by the time he'd got his brake levers, XT thumbies and cork grips on there wasn't even room to fit a novelty bell.  That set up was pure lightning... in a straight line.  As soon as he tried to corner the gyroscopic forces involved meant that he needed a physics degree to work out how to not deck it into a tree.  Bars have got wider, swoopier, and thanks to the joys of the black stuff they've got stronger too and it's revolutionised the handling of all our bikes.  I thought bars less than 740mm had been banned under EU law until I went to Lake Garda last year and found that the German tourists there must've bought them all up in the late 90's. To top it all we used to stick bar ends on too, and not just stubby ones, huge cow horns that made our bikes look like Boss Hogg's motor.  So to summarise, we had bars that were far too narrow, made of paper thin aluminium which we then made narrower and stuck bits of metal on the end to maximise leverage and guarantee catastrophic failure.  And then we drilled holes in them to save weight.  In defence of the old school, some kind (but misguided) individual did give me fifty notes on E-Bay for an old set of Pace RC Sub-130's I found in the garage but that's hardly going to sway the verdict.

Old School 2-3 Technology 

Seatposts - 
In the nineties the only time 'bleeding' and 'seatpost' came in the same sentence was when my teammate Nick Mock snapped his USE in half (didn't everyone over 4 stone in weight?) and attempted DIY stomach surgery.  These days that static tube of metal has taken on a whole new life. Now don't get me wrong, most of my bikes have got dropper posts because I'm just so damn ENDURO but really, at what point could we no longer be arsed to flip open a seat QR?  Yes, they're convenient and yes isn't it amazing how often you use them on the trail but £250 for a glorified office chair?! Plus points include not having to swing my leg so high to get on the bike and having the public saying 'oooh, what will they think of next'.  Downsides include more handlebar tat, weight, cost, getting hit in the knackers after you bleed them and forget about the rebound speed, ugly cable routing, annoying 'stealth' routing and trying to persuade an E-Bay seller in Hong Kong to honour the warranty when they inevitably break.  I'd be prepared to forgive all this because they truly are amazing except for one key factor.  Me and my mates used to ride fast to the top of the hill and then take a twenty minute break under the spurious premise of dropping the saddles for the way down. During that time we ate, drank and solved all the World's problems.  Nowadays we push a button and crack on without stopping.  End result, we're hungrier, thirstier and the World is totally screwed.

Old School 3-3 Technology

Bottom Brackets and Chainsets - 
I've got a great idea.  Let's take the set of bearings that are most exposed to the elements, low down near the mud and the mire, feeling the full weight of the lardy arsed rider bobbing away side to side and let's put them on the outside of the frame where they're much more vulnerable.  Whilst we're at it lets get rid of the threads that have worked perfectly for 100 years and make them press-in so they're much harder to replace, oh and did anyone say creeeeeaaaakkkkkkk?  Now the old square tapers and internal BB's weren't perfect.  Sometimes we all had to rob a piece of scaffold pole, stick it on a foot long spanner and get three mates to help remove a seized internal BB, but that was character building and that fella would've probably fallen off next door's scaffold even if it was fully intact.  Imagine a time when you could remove any set of cranks and bottom bracket with the same couple of tools. Granted, those tools weighed more than your bike but they worked.  Then it went all Octalink, ISIS (won't be chasing that breach of copyright), Race Face, BB30, External, Megadrive, Hyperlink, Uberchav, SPAM, Splined, blah, blah.  And what knobber decided to switch from five bolt to four bolt and make my spare chainrings and old cranks obsolete?  Technology peaked at Royce titanium square taper BB's and Bullseye cranks with maybe a nod to the Middleburn RS3's.  Since then it's been a gradual downward spiral towards a hellish mush of incompatible bits and bobs.

Old School 4-3 Technology

Pedals - 
I exposed my fledgling teenage knee joints to the original floatless SPD pedals.  I haven't walked without a limp ever since.  No further questions m'lud...

Yeh, thanks Shimano for not thinking about 'float'!
Old School 4-4 Technology

Gears N' Stuff - 
Everyone used to know that more gears equalled cooler bike.  In 1992 if someone asked me how many gears I had I could proudly say '21' and know that I was instantly rad to the power of sick.  In 2015 my Nomad and my Ibis Tranny only have 20 gears between them, not very impressive!  But wait a minute.  Who the hell actually needs a big ring?  And whilst we're at it who needs a granny ring either? (answer; roadies and people too fond of pies).  I'm running a 30 tooth ring and an 11-36 cassette and it's more than enough for Alpine riding.  I happily scaled the steep sides of the Chamonix valley last year and only span out the 30-11 combo when chasing some Belgian mates down the road to Lake Garda after I'd already been waiting for hours on the techy bits.  Even better, new school ratios have finally canned off the worst of components, the front mech.  Less weight, cleaner lines, less clutter and unhindered suspension designs.  The mech is dead, long die the mech.  I do still very occasionally hanker after the beautiful simplicity of thumbshifters in friction mode when fighting with one of the many bikes that get thrust at me because I'm 'handy with the spanners' but advances have resulted in gears that work stunningly well at all price points.  On top of all that, clutch mechs and narrow wides have made dropped chains a real rarity so we don't even need to shell out a ton to E13 or MRP.  Happy days!

Old School 4-5 Technology

Tyres - 
Aaaah, the Onza Porcupines
Aaahhh, the halcyon days.  Onza Porcupines, Panaracer Smokes, amber walls...  Hang on a minute, halcyon my arse.  Tyres used to be too thin, too flexy and I know the lighter walls are creeping back but boy do they look terrible.  There have been huge advances in compound technology and tread design.  Super Tackys have saved my bacon on plenty of occasions when pushing to the limit on the loose.  The super wide rims on the Nomad have allowed me to safely run pressures as low as 12psi and tubeless technology has changed everything.  Imagine, we used to get punctures!  How prehistoric is that?  On the sizeable flip side, the tyre companies have been totally complicit in this whole wheel size debacle.  They knew what they were doing when they embraced the expanding diameters and I bet the smug gits can't wait until the decent 26" tyres become endangered species and they can shift them from bargain basement to retro item.  I bet I end up handing back that pile of loot I got for selling those hideous elastomer stuffed Rock Shox Judy's to help pay for the last High Rollers in Europe.  My heart rate is doubling and my face burning with the injustice of it all.  Despite all evidence to the contrary I'm handing this one to the old school.

Old School 5-5 Technology

Brakes - 
Disc (why not disk?) brakes - Amazing modulation, brilliant stopping power, can run with buckled rims BUT can't be bled on the trailside.
Cantilever brakes - Just rubbish power, needed 6 hands to get them set up right, still had to be accompanied by a foot on the back wheel to stop in the wet.
Maguras - Who are you?  Hans Rey?
V-Brakes - Great power, super light, easy to set up and fix, Avid levers were pure jewellery.  They needed straight rims to not rub which was a bummer but if your wheels are bent then get fixing!
I know disc brakes are the best but who ever lost a fingertip setting up V's?  Who amongst you has had to suffer the ignominy of never ending squeals because you accidentally got 0.05ml of any chemicals near your pads?  Who is slightly perturbed about having to explain to the in-laws why there are syringes sitting on your draining board?  Don't be blinded by their superb performance and obvious superiority over rim brakes, discs aren't all that and so the V's win.  What do you mean this study is rigged??

Old School 6-5 Technology

Saddles - 
Selle Italia reintroduced the 'classic' Flite Titanium twenty odd years after I refused to run anything else on my bikes, only this time they were quadruple the price.  Ignoring the pointlessness of I-Beam and the 0.6 gram saving of carbon rails they're really just somewhere to park your arse, just like they always were.  This one's a draw.

Old School 7-6 Technology

And so that's the final result!  Undeniable, incontrovertible evidence that whilst some technological advances have definitely been to the benefit of all, the overall balance points towards old school bikes being the pinnacle of MTB creation.  It's a shock to me but you'd struggle to deny the impartiality of this most rigorous of studies.  When this goes viral I'm afraid the ramifications for the wider bike industry could be catastrophic as the enlightened turn their backs on senseless consumerism and start to just enjoy riding their bikes again.  Forum monkeys and trolls will have to reconnect with the real world and some may even eventually talk to someone of the opposite sex (or the same sex, whatever floats their boats).  Corporate greedmongers will cease from attempting to force their lust for change on to a savvy new breed of technophobes.  And as for me, well I've been writing for a long time now and so I'm off for a spin.  I know now that my hydraulically braked and suspended, perfectly indexed, super lightweight, superbly balanced, frictionless bearinged, big wheeled carbon dream machines aren't the answer and so I'll take out my 20 year old steel hardtail instead.


Well I would, but it's just a bit shit isn't it...



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