With the exception of a small minority of mountain bike suspension forks (Lauf being an obvious example), nearly everything on sale today relies on telescopic legs to enable the front wheel to travel up and down. But it hasn’t always been this way. One such alternative, known as a Girder Fork in the world of motorbikes, takes its name from the classic structural shape of the girder truss used primarily in bridge or roof construction, which was commonly used to create the fork legs. Back in the 1930s this was a popular choice for motorbike manufacturers, with some still continuing to develop variants of this approach, such as BMW's Duolever arrangement.
When adapted for use with mountain bikes these forks are more commonly referred to as linkage forks, which is probably a more useful description. The most famous example that I’m aware of was seen gracing the front of many Proflex bikes back in the 90’s, going under various names that included Noleen, Girvin and K2. This probably goes a long way to help explain my subsequent fascination with their design, having lusted after them as a teenager. But other examples have been produced by the likes of Amp Research, Look and Leonardi Racing.
Linkage forks have come in various different arrangements over the years. Some have both linkages below the head tube and the shock mounted somewhere between them (such as the Amp Research fork). While this arrangement improves frame compatibility (as the fork isn’t limited to a minimum headtube length), this layout generally has to rely on pretty high shock leverage ratios to achieve anything approaching a useful amount of travel on a mountain bike. However, forks like the Leonardi Racing Alike partly get around this by placing the shock above the linkages. Even so, having both upper and lower linkages below the head tube also limits the forks structural efficiency. For this reason, designs like those found gracing Proflexes all those years ago have the potential to be much stiffer (stiffer even than conventional, single crown telescopic suspension forks) by being supported both below and above the headtube.
Furthermore, linkage forks can be designed in such a way that dive under breaking is significantly reduced, enabling them to use their travel far more efficiently. This has further benefits, such as reducing the need for as much low speed compression damping, enhancing the forks potential sensitivity. Linkage forks also side step the issue of binding, something that becomes increasingly important for telescopic forks as head angles get slacker. This occurs when the entire fork tends to flex along its length rather compress due to friction between the forks lower and upper stanchions.
It is because a linkage fork pivots on bearings that they can be designed to be much more sensitive than a telescopic fork. As a slight segue, my perception is that most mountain bikers who have an opinion on the matter, would always view cartridge bearings as superior to bushings, regardless of the application on their bike. Somehow, cartridge bearings have simply become known as ‘the best’ with bushings normally thought of as something seen on cheaper bikes. But this over-simplifies the situation. While cartridge bearings have a number of positive attributes, these tend to only apply when they spin through full rotations, something that, for example, rear suspension pivots just don’t do. Instead, some rear suspension pivots would be lucky to rotate through just a handful of degrees under normal operation. It is not uncommon for the balls within a cartridge bearing to slide momentarily before they start to rotate within their races. In something like a hub this isn’t an issue, but in a rear suspension pivot these balls may never do anything other than slide backwards and forwards. Not only will this result in the balls ending up with flattened surfaces resulting in premature wear, they also introduce undue friction making suspension less sensitive. Bushings avoid these issues, but the mountain bikers blind lust for cartridge bearings seems unassailable.
Anyhow, given that I’m building my own frame in the New Year, I thought that it might be fun to see if I could design a linkage fork to fit it. Now, this is just me humouring myself at this stage – the bike will be fully rigid, but I like to have something to play around with in my head. I’ve designed the fork around a standard rear shock (200 x 51mm) to produce just over 100mm of travel. The drawing below illustrates what it might look like. My plan is to utilise the long, damp autumn evenings to build a full-size mock-up of the fork out of wood to see if it will actually fit the bike and cycle through its travel in reality. It’ll be pretty rough, but enough to hopefully prove that the idea is viable. Fingers crossed I’ll have something tangible to show for my efforts in the not-too-distant future.
Plans for my new bike, which I will be building early in the New Year
Early next year I'm going to build my dream mountain bike frame and it's time for me to start making some tough decisions about the specification. Whatever it ends up looking like, my number one goal is to build a bicycle that maximises my fun in the woods. The bike must give me the confidence to attack a trail and get loose, to be engaging and involving. To achieve this I believe that a bike must do two fundamental things: it must place the rider in a stable position, enabling them to maintain balance while descending; and it must give the rider the best chance of controlling the bike. Both sound pretty obvious, but I believe that these two attributes are compromised on many modern bikes. Firstly, I shall try to explain why before describing what this all means for the bike I will be building.
If the rider is struggling simply to maintain their balance on the bike or their control of its direction and speed then a rider cannot actively and purposefully push the limits, and it is when you can approach these limits with confidence that the fun really starts. This is not a binary situation – it is not simply a case of a bike providing its rider with stability and control or not. Rather, it is a sliding scale, with every combination of bike, rider and trail sitting somewhere along its length. However, I feel that I have always struggled to sufficiently achieve these two things with my previous bikes.
Fortunately, both rider stability and control are achieved in similar ways. Stability is achieved when a rider can maintain their balance despite external forces doing their best to disrupt them (such as those generated by riding a technical trail at speed). This has the best chance of happening when a rider is supporting all of their weight through their legs in what is known as an Athletic Stance (please see my previous Blog post for more on this).
For best control, a riders hands must be uncorrupted by the donkey work of having to support any significant proportion of their body weight, with the exception of the odd minor adjustment, leaving them free to focus on the relatively delicate job of steering and braking. So, both good stability and good control start when a rider is able to support their weight fully through their legs rather than also having to rely on their arms.
Importantly, this doesn’t mean that a bike that places a rider in a relatively unstable position cannot be ridden impressively quickly. I have a friend whose mountain bike has a 110mm stem, holding a ‘bar with no rise that’s slammed to the headset, about 150mm lower than his saddle. His bike handling skills are so good that he can compensate for the fact that, on pretty much any downhill, a large part of his effort will be given over to trying to maintain his balance on the bike. I’d love to see what he could do if he were freed from the need to constantly stop himself from falling over the ‘bars. If you need proof of the speed that can be achieved by a good rider, despite riding a bike that lacks inherent stability and control when ridden off-road, then just watch the business end of cyclocross race. What those riders can do is often mind-blowing.
Something that is often overlooked or confused is the difference between a stable bike and a stable rider. What the bulk of the mountain bike industry has been doing for the last few years (and probably longer) is creating ever more stable bikes at the expense of rider stability. Longer wheelbases have been achieved, at least in part, by steeper seat tube angles and a longer reach to the 'bars. This tips the rider forwards, requiring their hands to support an ever-increasing proportion of their body weight more of the time. The resulting shift in weight distribution towards the front of the bike also relies increasingly on the front suspension to absorb feedback from the trail in order for the rider to maintain sufficient levels of control. This has created bikes that can now steam-roller through some pretty rough stuff, meaning that bikes have got faster (good for racing and marketing departments), but also less involving. Essentially, so long as you can hold on to the thing, a modern mountain bike should get you to the bottom of a hill in record time. But the trade-off has been that a good deal of the fun, flow and finesse that comes from skilfully piloting a bike down a trail has been lost.
Interestingly, this runs counter to the geometry of a Motocross bike where, despite around 300mm of front suspension travel, the riders body position is more upright and centred over their feet with the fork doing less, relatively speaking, to isolate the rider. If anything, the closest that mountain bikes have ever got to placing a rider in a similar, stable position were the original Klunkers, repurposed from Schwinn beach cruisers in the 1970s.
Based on the thinking described above and covered in my previous Blog posts, the following is an explanation of how I have arrived at the geometry that I will adopt for the frame that I will be building in the New Year.
As a starting point, I suspect that a rider’s hands should be placed no lower than their hips if they want to have good stability and control while riding off-road on challenging terrain (a position that I have always struggled to achieve with stock frames). If a rider's hands get much lower than this, then these hands will have to start regularly supporting a significant amount of the rider's body weight. Because of my particularly long legs it just-so-happens that, for me, this results in a handlebar stack height that is the same as many Motocross bikes. It then seems reasonable to also look to Motocross bikes for the reach measurement. This then fixes my standing position on the bike, one which places me in a far more upright position than a standard mountain bike with my weight supported fully through my legs.
Having fixed the reach and stack measurements, I have simply used a seat tube angle that results in a stretch to the ‘bars when seated that is slightly shorter than my current mountain bike. My thinking is that a more upright riding position won’t require the same stretch to the ‘bars as something where your hands are lower and therefore required to support much more of your body weight more of the time. Rather reassuringly, this seat tube angle also happens to be similar to that used on the original Klunkers.
I’ve chosen a relatively slack head angle based, pretty much entirely, on my own experience, having had mountain bikes with everything from 64 to 70 degrees. I have tried to balance the need to keep things stable, helping to get my hands more ‘behind’ than ‘on-top-of’ the front wheel, whilst retaining some agility. This, combined with the rest of the frame geometry described above, gives me the bikes front-centre.
The chainstay length has been derived as a proportion of the overall wheelbase. Again, I have looked to the world of Motocross, adopting a rear-centre measurement that is the same proportion of the front-centre measurement as a Motocross bike. This should then provide a similar weight distribution. If you ask me, the marketing departments of the big mountain bike manufacturers have done a fantastic job of convincing us all that we need the same, short chainstays regardless of rider height. Quite why someone who is 5’ tall should be riding around with the same chainstay length as someone who is 6’6’’ is beyond me. The front centres on these two bikes will be massively different and so the weight distribution will also be completely different. Bonkers. But I digress.
For the sort of trails that I ride (primarily the Surrey Hills, Swinley Forest and the odd Welsh trail centre) I believe that a bike that provides me with good stability and control can be created without the need for suspension so long as the geometry is right. I’ve chosen 27.5+ wheels as the plus-sized tyres will provide some extra comfort over standard ones (important given the lack of suspension). And while they might still be lacking in this department when compared to 29+ wheels, I think that this is a worthwhile trade-off for the extra zip that they should bring. After all, this is a bike built for fun rather than mile munching. This is complimented by a relatively large bottom bracket drop that will keep the handling nimble at the expense of some ground clearance. But without the need to account for suspension travel constantly changing the effective bottom bracket height, this should be easier to accommodate.
A comparison of modern bike geometry (black - my XL Last Fast Forward) against my new bike (grey)
My current mountain bike is an extra-large Last Fast Forward 29er hardtail, with geometry numbers that are pretty typical of many modern mountain bikes (the black silhouette above). With a seat tube angle of 73.8 degrees and a reach of 475mm the rider is pushed further forwards than on bikes with more traditional geometry, increasing the frequency with which the rider will have to support their weight through their hands. As I've already discussed, while this might reduce the stability of the rider, it increases the stability of the bike as a result of a lengthened wheelbase (particularly when combined with this bikes slack, 64 degree head angle). But while outright speed may be easier to achieve with modern bike geometry, the confidence of the rider to control the bike from a stable body position will be diminished. So, I may not be setting any land speed records on my new bike (the grey silhouette above), but the inherent stability that the bikes geometry should give the rider (by enabling them to support more of their weight through their feet more of the time) should provide the confidence to really attack a trail and therefore have more fun.
The image at the beginning of this post has been pulled, poked and tweaked for more than a year, and is my current best guess at what the finished bike will look like. This will be an experiment in trying to build a bike that handles in a way that I have always wanted, but never found. Time will tell whether I am right or not. As always, I’d love to know what you think.
I may not play a lot of tennis, but the same theory applies - an Athletic Stance ensures great balance and stability
When riding a mountain bike fast downhill what is required, ultimately, is control. As the alternative – being out of control – is often quite painful. It is only once you have control that you can have the confidence to start playing with its limits, which tends to be where the fun really begins! This control is achieved when a rider has both balance and stability.
Although in casual conversation these two terms may be used relatively interchangeably, they actually have quite specific meanings. Balance refers to a person’s ability to remain in a steady state. While stability refers to the ability to maintain balance in the face of external forces. I find that the best way to understand this nuance is with an example where a person is displaying great balance, but not necessarily great stability, such as a person pulling a wheelie. In this example, the rider may be expertly managing the effects of accelerating, braking and gravity to maintain a state of equilibrium in order to remain on their rear wheel, but an external disturbance, such as rough terrain, is likely to destabilise this situation. So, someone pulling a wheelie could be described as displaying good balanced but, potentially, poor stability.
Athletic Stance is a term used to describe the position a person adopts whilst playing a sport – normally the starting position before accelerating or whilst waiting to react to an external factor (to hit or catch a ball, for example). For whatever reason, it tends to be a term more commonly used in America, with little traction here in the UK, but people adopt an Athletic Stance in sports that are played all over the globe. The stance can vary depending on what sport is being played, but a tennis player waiting to receive a serve, a cricket player preparing to catch a ball, a golfer about to tee-off or a weight-lifter preparing to snatch are all examples. It is a position that allows a person to maximise their strength, power or speed in any given direction. This is because an Athletic Stance begins with great inherent balance and stability.
Riding a bike off-road should be no different. If you are out of the saddle attacking a challenging trail then you need to adopt an effective Athletic Stance to enable you to react to the terrain. Where cycling differs from other sports is in the placement of the feet (which in cycling are governed by the pedals, while in other sports they tend to be placed slightly wider apart than the shoulders) and the placement of the hands (which are holding a handlebar rather than preparing to catch, block, hold a racket, etc.) However, like the examples given for other sports, all of a rider’s weight should be supported through their feet (as discussed in my previous two Blog posts).
Therefore, I believe that a good starting point for establishing the correct relationship between a bikes bottom bracket and the handlebars for a given rider is simply to ask them to adopt an Athletic Stance whilst holding their handlebar (no bike required!). It’s actually quite surprising how repeatable this position is. One advantage of adopting this position without the use of an actual bike (just the handlebars) is that it guarantees that there is no body weight being supported through the hands – lean forwards and you will simply topple over! Once the relationship between the bottom bracket and the handlebars has been established, all that remains is to decide upon the correct seat tube angle to provide sufficient length for a comfortable position whilst pedalling seated. A bike frame designed in this way should ensure that the rider is placed in the correct Athletic Stance whilst standing on the pedals, resulting in inherent balance and stability.
I’ll be using the approach described above to help confirm the geometry of my new bike that I will be building early in the New Year. Between now and then I’ll be deciding on the rest of the frame geometry and selecting all of the components that will hang off it. I’ll also be writing about the whole process here in the Blog. As always, I’d love to know what you think.
Your feet are fantastic at supporting your body weight and maintaining balance. While your hands excel at complex tasks that require a delicate touch. This is what they both do day-in, day-out and, respectively, they have evolved to become quite specialised. They certainly aren’t interchangeable. If you need further proof then try walking around on your hands while peeling a banana with your feet. You get the idea. But mountain bike manufacturers often seem to forget this.
If you’ve ever tried riding with as much of your weight supported through your arms as possible (perhaps whilst bored waiting for friends to put their bikes together at a trail centre car park or, more commonly for me, while trying to coax a bike home when it has a slow puncture in the rear tyre) then you will know how little finesse you have over steering inputs when in this position. The way that weight is distributed between your hands and your feet is critical to the level of control you have over a bicycle.
It helps me to use the following car-analogy when thinking about weight distribution on a bicycle… A front wheel drive car is asking these wheels to do a lot. The rear wheels are only really present to keep the back of the car off the ground. The steering and acceleration (and the majority of the braking) are all being done by the front wheels. Often this can mean that they become overloaded and start to spin or slide if driven hard with torque-steer being the bane of many high-powered front-wheel drive cars. Conversely, a rear wheel drive car is spreading the jobs around. The rear wheels are asked to cope with the tough but relatively simple job of driving the car forwards, while the front wheels are left to provide the more subtle but complex job of adjusting the cars direction. Each pair of wheels can be designed to do a specific job very well, much like the way our hands and feet have evolved.
So, a rear wheel drive car is similar to a rider in a neutral, balanced and stable position, with their weight supported through their feet. Their hands can focus on the steering, uncorrupted by the donkey work of supporting their body weight, other than for a little fine tuning. While a rider lent forwards with a significant amount of their weight being supported through their hands is like a front wheel drive car, trying to cope with both the manual labour of supporting their body weight whilst at the same time trying to execute the delicate job of picking the desired line.
Because of the above, it is my opinion that the position of your contact points, and therefore the shape of your bike frame, should be defined by the need to maintain a neutral, balanced and stable body position whilst allowing for your limbs to properly suspend your core. Just like any good suspension system, you want to start with your arms and legs part-way through their range of movement as having them slightly bent whilst riding provides far greater stability. This is something that most public transport commuters are all too aware of. Try to stand on a bus or train with your legs locked out straight and you will spend the journey shuffling around and bumping into people in order to stop yourself from falling over. However, bend your legs slightly and it becomes far easier to absorb these external forces, isolating your bodies core and keeping it stable.
Translating this to the bike, the most obvious scenario is when riding over something such as a rock or root, in which case you will want your limbs to compress to isolate your body from the impact. But equally, if your front wheel drops into a dip or off a ledge then you need your limbs to extend to maintain stability. A common problem is to see a rider knowingly approach a drop-off with their arms fully extended to allow them to get their weight as far back as they can based on the assumption that this will reduce their likelihood of being thrown over the handlebars. But at this point your arms will have lost any ability to react to the bike dropping away from you and therefore the ability to maintain a stable core. If anything, you will be more likely to topple over the front of the bike in this position as the handlebars will pull you forwards as the front end of the bike drops away. Partly, this situation is the result of poor technique, but often it is also because the geometry of so many bikes places too much of a riders weight on their hands and many of these riders, quite understandably, attempt to counteract this.
In many instances riders are having to reach forwards and down too much. This is particularly true for taller riders as most bike manufactures fail to increase their frames’ stack heights in proportion to either their reach or likely saddle height. Trek, for example, maintain exactly the same stack height across four different frame sizes on their 2017 Fuel EX, supposedly covering everyone from 5’1’’ (155cm) to 6’4’’ (193cm). The lines in the graph below should be horizontal if bike manufacturers increased a frames stack height in proportion to its reach. Instead, for all of these bikes the taller you are, the more you are expected to reach down to meet your handlebars.
Stack:Reach ratios across a range of frame sizes for some popular mountain bikes
My view is that current mountain bike geometry tends to place the handlebars too low and too far forwards relative to the bottom bracket, requiring riders to support a significant proportion of their body weight through their hands, reducing the ability to steer accurately or maintain a stable body position. Something that seems to only get worse as riders get taller. It’s time for a change! So, next month I’ll be suggesting what I believe to be the correct relationship between your bottom bracket and your handlebars to ensure that all of you weight is supported through your feet, leaving your hands to focus on steering and braking.
Two separate things have conspired to make me question the modern mountain bike: my slightly odd physical proportions and a nagging sense that bike geometry took a wrong turn sometime in the late 80s.
I have mentioned elsewhere that I have long legs relative to my height. At a little over 6 foot (184cm) I have the legs of someone closer to 6’ 4’’ (192cm). This means that I have a rather lofty saddle height of just over 32’’ (82cm). One of the practical ramifications of being at the extremity of the physical-proportions bell curve is that I have always struggled to achieve a comfortable handlebar height. This is compounded by my poor circulation (probably linked to my lanky limbs) that tends to leave me with numb hands if my handlebars are too low. Therefore, I’ve probably spent far more time thinking about my handlebars than most people.
Coupled with the above is a concern that mountain bike geometry, after a promising start, quickly looked to road bikes for inspiration. And despite subsequent refinements, I suspect that it has been constrained by this fundamental decision ever since. Essentially, it would appear that the mountain bike has charted the following evolutionary path:
So, after a strong start using bikes that just-so-happened to have pretty good geometry for having a laugh in the woods, we seemed to quickly replace these with bikes designed to excel at something that only a relatively small number of people have ever been interested in doing. The intervening years seem to have been spent trying to make comparatively superficial changes to overcome the inherent limitations of a bike designed for XC racing. There’s been plenty of other developments, like rear suspension, 29er’s and disc brakes, but I don’t believe that they are fundamental to this particular discussion. Essentially, I believe that we started with something fun, decided to junk that and instead created something for turning ourselves inside out and have been trying to fix the problem ever since. I would suggest that it might be worth pausing for a moment so that we might look out of the hole that we’ve been busy digging?
As I’ve pointed out before, the likes of Honda, Yamaha, KTM, et al. have far more money to invest in the development of their Motocross bikes than any mountain bike company does in the development of their own products. So maybe we should look over the fence at what they are doing? After all, they like to ride around in the mud just as much as we do, they just can’t be bothered to pedal. Fundamentally then, where does a Motocross bike place the riders contact points relative to the wheel axles and how does this differ from a MTB? Does a Motocross bike tip the rider forwards on to their hands and let the front suspension disguise the inherent issues with the resulting weight distribution as we appear to be doing in the world of mountain bikes?
The first thing to note about a Motocross bike is that its geometry is nothing like that of a road racing motorbike (see my previous blog, Assume the Position). The reach to the handlebars is only around 420mm while the stack height registers a mountainous 800mm or more. This gets the riders weight back and off their hands, despite having a fork with around a foot (300mm) of travel. The resulting position is a long way from that dictated by many current mountain bikes, with a seat angle of about 75 degrees and a handlebar height somewhere around the 660mm mark, a MTB rider is essentially preparing to do a forwards-roll by comparison.
Ah, but what about pedalling efficiency I hear you cry! Well firstly let’s be honest about why we ride mountain bikes. If you’re primarily interested in trying to claim every Strava KOM within a 20 mile radius of your house on you sub-20lb bike then this discussion probably isn’t for you. Stick with the bikes that have geometry perfected in the late 80’s and feel the burn – the best tool for the job is likely to be the equivalent of a road bike with knobbly tyres anyway. For everyone else I believe that there is real merit in finding out where the limits lie in terms of handlebar stack and reach.
This is where my genetic oddity comes into its own (like the worst X-Men ever). I suspect that for the vast majority of people, a handlebar height of 800mm will be too much once you’ve factored in that your pedals will, at some point, be around 170mm lower than the bottom bracket (resulting in a maximum vertical distance from the handlebars to pedals of almost a metre). However, as I’ve already mentioned, my saddle height is 82cm. Admittedly, this isn’t a vertical measurement, but even so, an 800mm stack height to the handlebars suddenly starts to seem quite reasonable.
This means that I can build a frame that puts me in exactly the same position as a Motocross bike safe in the knowledge that, for me at least, it won’t be completely beyond the realms of what is sensible. To borrow a saying from snooker, it would be a shot to nothing (for those not gifted in the ways of the green baize, this just means that I can give it a go without really risking anything). Then all I need to do is line up all of my mates in height order, ask them to throw the bike down some singletrack and find out at which point the inescapable magic starts to wear off! Simple.
Over the next couple of months I want to explore the fundamentals of achieving a good position on a bike – one that provides stability and control for the rider. As it is only once you have these that I believe you can then start to have fun playing with the bike on the limit.
When I got my first ‘proper’ job after graduating University there was a senior colleague who sort of became my Yoda. He wasn’t my boss, but he is someone of huge talent and integrity who, in hindsight, I probably pestered so much that it was easier for him to humour me than try to avoid me! We used to discuss all sorts of things, mainly work related, but plenty of other stuff as well. One such conversation got on to the subject of quality-of-life and a discussion about the things that we really value. He suggested that all we really have is time – it is the ultimate currency – and it is up to each of us to choose what we do with it. You can earn money, learn something new, watch your children grow up, spend time with friends, rest and recuperate or whatever else you fancy. But we only have so much time and so it’s probably best not to squander it. It was one of those conversations that sticks with you.
So, I was wondering the other day “Where does the humble bicycle fit into this?” Does riding my bike justify itself as a worthy use of my precious time? I suppose that there is the obvious stuff. I ride my bike to work, which saves me a chunk of money relative to owning a car or buying a train ticket (so I don’t need to spend so much time earning it or can spend it in other stuff). It keeps me fit, which, in the short term, makes me happier and healthier and, in the long term, actually provides me with a bit more of that ultimate currency if I’m lucky. And in its own small way, it helps everyone else out a bit by reducing pollution and congestion. All-in-all, probably not a bad way to spend my time?
But what about the really frivolous stuff – a quick blast along the North Downs after work or a weekend away to a Welsh trail centre? The indulgent, selfish sort of riding that’s just for cheap thrills rather than saving the planet or my bank balance. Does this stack-up in the ultimate cost-benefit calculation? For me it comes down to two different benefits that are almost polar opposites.
The first is time to think. This is especially true of a solo road ride, but is actually just as relevant to the mountain bike. While I would love to live at the epicentre of miles of exhilarating singletrack, the truth is that every ride from my house includes a bit of fire road climbing, some rather bland bridleways and a road connection or two. At first glance this may seem rather mundane, but over the years I’ve found that I do some of my best thinking whilst riding these sections. Mulling over ideas that haven’t fully fermented, making connections between seemingly unconnected topics, or working through a solution to a tricky problem. I suppose I’ve never really understood how some people can just drift off, clear their mind or meditate – I just don’t seem to be that way. I’m often most happy and excited when I’m on the cusp of fitting all the pieces together. And more often than not, this happens on the bike.
The second big reason for spending time on the bike is the chance to find that magic flow. Apparently, there is a point at which the cognitive load associated with an activity is just enough to fully engage you in the task at hand without overloading the senses. Where you immerse yourself in the here and now, fully focused. Not really thinking, but just doing. It’s these moments on the bike that I live for. For me it’s the combination of a flowing piece of singletrack combined with just enough bike to perfectly challenge your skills and fitness. And this little formula can have a very narrow window of operation. A few weeks off the bike can dull the fitness and skill levels or a few days of rain can slow the trails just enough to turn one week’s perfect ride into the next week’s inelegant staccato. And it’s this illusive nature that makes it all the more special when it does all fall into place.
So, on the one hand my mountain bike provides me with the opportunity to lose myself in my thoughts and on the other it becomes all consuming. Either way it is incredibly restorative and, for me at least, a very worthwhile use of my precious time. I hope that you’re using yours wisely!
I started riding my ‘new’ commuter bike a full 12 months ago, having enjoyed / suffered snow, hail, salted roads and around 6,500 miles (a little over 10,000 kilometres) in the intervening 12 months. I have a relatively long commute into London, a round trip of approximately 45 miles (72km), which I do three times a week. You learn a lot about a bike (and yourself) when you get to the end of a long week of sub-zero temperatures, headwinds, and a heavy ruck sack, and you have to fold yourself back onto your bike. Especially when your new born child has decided that sleeping is for wimps. So, I thought that I’d write down my thoughts on what has worked and which parts of the bike have really delivered, just in case anyone else finds it useful. I should just say that I’m not a bike tester, so I don’t have a massive back catalogue of experience riding lots of other bikes to compare this one with. Therefore I can’t say with any authority that any of my kit is the best, just how well it has served me. Below I have looked at a few key parts that have stood out, for good or bad.
Frame – Pinnacle Arkose SS
Starting with the heart of the bike, the frame has done everything asked of it without fuss. One of my biggest worries about the whole bike was the eccentric bottom bracket. I had read reports about incessant creaky, and never having had one before (just frames with horizontal and sliding dropouts) I was a little apprehensive. I gave it a head start in life by applying a generous helping of marine grease (the sort of stuff normally reserved for the wheel bearings on boat trailers, designed to be submerged in salt water) and it has received no more love than that. However, it turns out that I needn’t have worried as it hasn’t made a peep and has been a doddle to adjust. My only word of warning is that if you are particularly fussy about saddle height then please be aware that it will change ever so slightly ever time you adjust the chain.
The rest of the frame has quietly got on with its thing. The geometry is definitely more steady than racy, but that’s exactly what I want. The paint job has been very hard-wearing and still looks like new with the splatter affect doing a decent job of hiding dirt. The full carbon fork has also helped in keeping the overall weight down. Initially I had some issues trying to mount the front light as the fork doesn’t have the usual hole through the front of the fork (despite the Evans website stating that it does). But other than this minor headache I’ve got no real complaints.
Mudguards – Dia Compe Ene / SKS Chromoplastics
This was one of those decisions that I knew deep down was the wrong one, but I let my heart rule my head and paid the price. They didn’t even make the first ride before I had decided that they had to go. I wanted a set of mudguards that looked sleek and simple, and on that front they met the brief perfectly. But they wobbled and rubbed (no doubt due to the elegant single stays) as well as pinged and rattle with every stone I rode over (as they are made of aluminium). After that initial ride the first thing I did was exactly what I and every seasoned commuter knows I should have done from the outset, and ordered a set of SKS Chromoplastics. They have done they’re thing pretty much perfectly – the only exception being that the plastic end cap on the front mudguard fell off early on.
Saddle – Brooks Cambium C15 Carved
Prior to the C15 I had tried the slightly wider C17. While I found the C17 to be the comfiest saddle I had ever sat on for the first 45 minutes of a ride, past this point I started to get an odd aching on the insides of my upper thighs. No idea why and I’ve never had it with any other saddle, and it was a real shame given the fantastic first impression. For me the C15 starts off just as comfy as the C17 and just stays that way. Anyone that commutes a relatively long way in all weathers with a heavy rucksack (laptop, clothes, tools, etc.) already knows that this can be a tough test for a saddle, but the C15 Carved has been forgettably brilliant. Definitely worth a try if you’re still hunting for your perfect match.
Lighting – SP Dynamo PD-8 Hub & Supernova E3 Lights
This was probably my second biggest worry about the bike. Spinning magnetics, electrical connections and capacitors on a bike ridden all year seemed like a recipe for reliability woes. But I am very happy to report that the lights and hub have performed perfectly. I don’t really need them to see where I’m going as the roads I ride on are well lit. They’re only job is to make sure that I’ve been seen by other road users. For this they seem plenty bright enough (and possibly even sufficient for riding in the pitch black, I just haven’t done it). In fact, I couldn’t imagine ever choosing to go back to batteries. Never having to think about rotating rechargeable batteries is really quite liberating. They’re not even particularly expensive when compared to other top end bike lights and the quality of the Supernova stuff in particular is first rate. Highly recommended.
Rims – H Plus Son Archetype
I’m happy to admit that I’m a bit of a magpie – I’m a sucker for a shiny piece of machined aluminium. So these polished rims were one of the first items on my shopping list when putting the bike together. I was interested to see how they would cope with salty roads and while I can’t fault they’re functionality (they built-up easily into wheels that have stayed resolutely true) they are now showing some blemishes. To some it will be ugly while to others it is the charming patina of age. I fall into the latter camp, but it’s worth being aware of.
Brakes – TRP Hylex
It’s starting to become old news now, but, just in case you’re still not convinced, hydraulic disc brakes are just fantastic for this type of riding. I have recently changed the pads for the first time after a year of riding, I haven’t had to bleed them, the lever feel is still the same as the day I got them, they provide consistent, reliable stopping in all weather and they haven’t ground my rims to dust. TRP have now replaced these brakes in their range with an updated version, but I’ve had no complaints. Obviously, if you are running a derailleur set-up with STI shifters then you’ll need to look elsewhere, but for single speed use or with a bar-end shifter like mine they are a great choice.
Cockpit – Thomson Elite X2 Stem, 3T Ergonova ‘Bars, Widget Grip Wrap Tape & Bike Ribbon Gel Pads
While I can’t grumlbe about the performance of the original Thomson stem, ultimately it was just too long and low for me. I sort of new this before I bought it, but I wanted to give it a go as I think that they are simply a great piece of kit, plus it matches the equally lovely seat post. Unfortunately, after a month of trying to get my aching back to cooperate it was clear that it needed to go. Thomson don’t make a stem in the length and rise that I need so it has been replaced with a less beautiful (but no less functional and far cheaper) item from Planet-X.
As for the bar, bar tape and gel pads, they are a combination that have done the best job yet of keeping the numbness at bay that my hands often suffer from. The egg-shaped tops of the Ergonovas in particular are a very pleasant place to rest your palms.
Rear Hub – Modified Sturmey Archer S-RK3
Finally, to the rear hub. This is the second hub that I’ve had modified – the main reason being that I just don’t get the time to go out on my mountain bike as much as I would like, so this gives me another opportunity to test the hubs robustness. And other than a bit of initial cable adjustment as everything bedded in as well as the steel end of the hub shell and the cheap cable stop corroding, the hub hasn’t been touched and hasn’t missed a beat. My commute is relatively flat, so I only tend to use direct drive and over-drive, but I have ventured into the Surrey Hills on a number of occasions and the gearing has even got me up the 20% gradient of White Down hill (to my legs surprise). I’m now interested to see just how far the hub can go before needing to be touched. The challenge is on!
It’s not long now until Bespoked – the UK’s biggest handmade bike show, held annually in Bristol in early April (www.bespoked.cc). Running since 2011, I’ve been to every one apart from the very first and have always had a good time. I’m still amazed at how approachable all of the frame builders are – just stood next to their creations and happy to answer questions and share their knowledge. I suppose we’re just lucky that cycling is still of a scale that many of the people frequenting the upper echelons of this world are still incredibly accessible.
A stroll around the hall is always a welcome reminder for me of just how elegant the bicycle can be and an inspiration to both ride more and to try to do it with a bit more style. But each year, as I travel back home, I have always been left with a similar, nagging feeling. Much is made of the numerous awards that are on offer, handed out to the best bicycles. They get reported in the magazines and, understandably, the frame builders themselves use them to promote their work. But what do these awards really stand for? The crux of the issue is that no-one handing out these accolades has ever actually ridden any of the bikes. Essentially, it is a competition to see who has the neatest welds and the spangliest paint job. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does seem to rather miss the point in a way that no-one wants to acknowledge out loud.
It reminds me all those gardeners who, each year, try to grow the largest vegetables that they can. For most of us the primary requirement from our vegetables is that they should taste good. But this doesn’t stop a few keen gardeners from trying to grow enormous pumpkins, leeks and tomatoes, and then displaying them at country shows in the hope that they might get a rosette (it might just be a UK thing, if you’re wondering what I’m talking about). The difference is that everyone knows and embraces the aim of the game when it comes to vegetables – no-one goes away thinking that a 30kg marrow or a 50cm long carrot represents the very best that our taste buds could hope for. However, when it comes to handmade bikes, it never gets mentioned that the ‘Best Road/Town/Mountain/CX Bike’ has never actually been ridden by any of the judging panel.
Imagine if you read a group test in a bike magazine or website to find out about this year’s best aero road bike or enduro mountain bike. A dozen bikes get tested, the group is whittled down, a winner is eventually selected and they’re all scored out of 10. What if the basis for this selection was based purely on a visual inspection without a single pedal ever being turned in anger? It would be a pretty ludicrous exercise. In fact, it doesn’t really amount to much more than a glossy version of an internet forum where everyone chips in on how amazing / rubbish a new bike is going to ride based on a quick look at some press photos. I suspect that there must be some pretty frustrated frame builders out there who have agonised over the ride quality of their bikes, only to be overlooked by the judging panel for something that is the bicycle equivalent of a sequinned ball gown.
I understand that the whole point of a bespoke bicycle is that it is tailor-made for an individual. As a result, it’s pretty pointless to criticise a bike if you think that the head angle is too slack, the wheelbase too short or the ride too stiff, if this is exactly what the intended owner wanted. So, trying to evaluate a bespoke bicycle is always going to be difficult. But at the very least we should all acknowledge that this year’s best bikes at Bespoke will only be judged as being the best based on a fairly narrow, subjective and relatively incidental set of criteria.
Having said all that, I’ve got my ticket booked for this year’s event already and I’m really looking forward to it! Hopefully I'll see you there.
I probably should have posted all of this before my blog ‘Motocross vs Mountain Biking’, as it explains much of my thinking behind that earlier post. Better late than never I suppose. Anyhow, many of the recent trends in mountain biking – longer front centres, larger wheels and more sophisticated suspension damping, to name a few – have helped to provide greater stability when riding off-road. A primary aim of these developments has been to increase the speed at which a trail can be ridden. While this all sounds great, there’s a potential pitfall. What if these advancements are covering up a bike that is fundamentally flawed? What if longer front centres, larger wheels and more sophisticated suspension damping are helping to conceal the fact that the geometry numbers behind these bikes aren’t as good as they could be? In evolutionary terms, has the mountain bike travelled down a dead-end in which we are now just tweaking something that, while still being improved upon, needs to start over completely to fully realise its potential? Have we all been focusing, heads down, on the details, when what we really need to do is pause and take a step back?
Firstly, I should just clarify that bicycle geometry can be split into two distinct, but interrelated groups. The first are those angles and measurements that primarily influence how a bike will handle – think head angle or chainstay length. While the second group has more to do with the position a rider adopts on a bike - things like head tube and downtube lengths that are commonly reduced to a stack and reach measurement (a vertical and horizontal measurement from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube). It is this latter set of geometry figures that I’m most interested in here and specifically what impact these have when a rider chooses to stand on the pedals.
Mountain bikes in the early 90s looked to road bikes for inspiration when it came to geometry and rider position. The industries almost obligatory 71/73 head/seat angles were just a small massage of the classic 73/73 found on so many road bikes. We even kept the long stems. So, with this in mind, how far has mountain bike and road bike geometry really developed over the intervening 20-odd years? How has the position adopted by a rider changed to better deal with the unique set of challenges that each discipline presents? For many people, particularly those who only ride either road or mountain bikes rather than both, I suspect the assumption is that there is now a great deal of difference between the position a rider adopts on these two types of bicycle.
Let’s look at two ends of the cycling spectrum to see how much diversification there has really been. To do this, first consider someone who’s about the same height as me, so around 183cm (6 foot) tall. The chances are that such a person, with average proportions, will fit a size large mountain bike frame and a size 58cm road bike frame.
Starting on the road, a Specialized Tarmac road bike is about as racy as they come. Used by two of the UCI World Tour teams (think Tour de France) and ridden by some of the worlds fittest athletes. This is a no-holds-barred, scalpel of a bike designed to convert every watt of energy into forward propulsion in order to ride up the side of a mountain quicker than anything else. In a size 58cm it has a stack to the handlebars of around 630mm and an equivalent reach of about 490mm.
Turning our attention to riding off-road, if you’ve been following the World Enduro Series you’ll be aware that the tracks that are used aren’t far off full-on World Cup Downhill levels of brutal. Steep, rocky and fast, the bikes and their riders take a serious beating. The Specialized Enduro 650b is raced at this highest level. In a size large it has a stack to the handlebars of around 660mm, just 30mm higher than the Tarmac. And with an equivalent reach of about 460mm, that’s also just 30mm off a World Tour road bike. The difference between these two bikes would almost fit on a postage stamp.
And these dimensions become even more similar if you compare a slightly less racy road bike (like a Roubaix) with a less gravity orientated mountain bike (like a Stumpjumper FSR) – just 5mm and 15mm between their respective stack and reach measurements to the handlebars. How can two bikes designed for such completely different purposes end up placing the rider in such similar positions when they stand on the pedals? Surely the answer to the question “What is the optimal body position for a mountain biker when descending a technical trail?” can’t be almost exactly the same as “what is the optimal body position for a road cyclists in a Grand Tour?”
This isn’t a situation unique to Specialized, quite the opposite. I have simply chosen Specialized because they are such a well-known company that are representative of what is currently happening in the world of mountain bikes. The rise of gravel racing / adventure road bikes is a stark reminder of just how close the geometry of road and mountain bikes have remained. Something like Cannondale’s Slate, with a suspension fork and 650b wheels wrapped in knobbly tyres, but retaining dropped handlebars, is an illustration of how easy it is to blur the lines between road bikes and mountain bikes.
Just for fun, let’s compare a couple of motorbikes designed with similarly diverse purposes as the Tarmac and the Enduro. The first is a Yamaha YZF-R6, one of the fastest things that you can ride on the road or a race track. It has a stack to the handlebars of around 485mm and an equivalent reach of about 695mm. Second is a Yamaha YZ250F, designed to be ridden and raced off-road. This has a stack to the handlebars of around 805mm and an equivalent reach of about 425mm. The difference is clear: the off-road bike is 300mm taller and 270mm shorter, placing the rider in a completely different position in order to handle a completely different set of challenges. The Motocross bike puts more of the rider’s weight over their feet rather than their hands, allowing them to better absorb impacts in order to retain greater control over the bikes steering. The idea that you could so easily convert either of these bikes so that a rider might adopt an appropriate position for the other discipline seems slightly ridiculous.
Some of the explanation of why road and mountain bike geometries are so similar to one another is almost certainly down to the need to allow them to be pedalled with some degree of efficiency. However, it is hard to believe that the geometry of a road bike (which is so similar to that of a mountain bike) also happens to place a rider in an optimal position for riding off-road. So, where does this leave mountain bikes? Potentially they are in a very exciting place. For the last two decades it would appear that the position a rider adopts on a mountain bike has been gifted to them from the world of road bikes and this has remained almost completely unchallenged. Only then has anyone tried to increase stability through changes such as lengthening the wheelbase and slackening angles. Just image what all this effort and ingenuity could achieve if it were applied to a bike who’s starting point was a geometry that was designed from the outset to be ridden off-road. I don't know for sure whether a fundamental shift in mountain bike geometry will work, but I at least want to try. I will hopefully be in a position to create such a bike soon…