Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Mtbr’s All-Mountain Brown Friday

Holiday Gift Guide

In honor of dirt–the most essential compound for mountain bike bliss–we hereby declare the day after Thanksgiving as Brown Friday. Amazing how much less apocalyptic a couple shades up the color wheel feels. Nomenclature settled, we’ve put together a list of holiday upgrades for the trail ride and all-mountain rider on your list¬–even if it’s just you.

SRAM have been obsessed with wide-range, single-ring drivetrains for years–Hammerschmidt anyone? But in 2013 they figured out a way to get it done and done very well withtheir innovative XX1 and XO1 kits. Photos by Don Palermini.

Go to 11: Just one more cog, but 1×11 offers so much more

In the past one could argue adding another cog–going from 8-speed to 9-speed, or 9-speed to 10–was no more than a pissing match of planned obsolescence. With SRAM‘s 1×11 drivetrains, however, the addition of one more cog equates to a multi-dimensional leap in performance, and we’re not just talking shifting. Their XX1 and XO1 drivetrains broaden the range of your cassette, yes, but also improve suspension performance, simplify your controls, lighten your bike, quiet the drivetrain, and take shifting to a new level of sublime intuition.

No matter how you slice it, however, all the bits for a 1×11 setup (crankset, chainring, chain, cassette, shifter and derailleur) take a toll on the wallet–about $1,200 for XO1 and $1,500 for XX1. Your rear hub also needs to be convertible to SRAM’s XD Driver cassette body to squeeze in all those cogs–check xddriverbody.com to find out. That said, if you plan on keeping your current bike for a couple more years and its drivetrain is starting to show its age, this upgrade is well worth the effort and expense. If you’re buying a new bike soon make sure it comes 1×11-equipped–it’s that good.

MSRP: XO1 ~$1,200; XX1 ~$1500
More Info: sram.com

Race Face’s direct-mount narrow/wide chainring (top, left) and Wolf Tooth’s 104mm BCD Drop-Stop chanring (bottom, left) each alternate tooth width to correspond with inner and outer chain link gaps as clearly seen in the far right photo¬. This significantly reduces dropped chains, particularly when used in tandem with clutch-style rear derailleurs. Photos by Don Palermini.

Stop the drop: Upgrade your 1x chainring to narrow/wide

If you can’t pony-up for a full 1×11 system, adding a new narrow/wide single-ring to your existing 9- or 10-speed setup will get you close for a lot less money. SRAM, Race Face, Wolf Tooth and Absolute Black each offer aftermarket solutions for converting existing 2x and 3x cranksets to the drop-resistant single-ring configuration. These wünderrings work by alternating the tooth-width to match the corresponding inner (narrow) and outer (wide) chain link gaps, making the chain cling to the ring better and less likely to dislodge.

Pairing a narrow/wide ring with a clutch-style derailleur–Type-2 from SRAM or Shadow+ from Shimano–further ups the effectiveness by keeping more tension on the chain. It also reduces chain-slap noise making for a more peaceful ride.

While you don’t get the granny-gear-like range of the 1×11′s 42-tooth bailout gear, nor quite as buttery shifting, for less than $100 you get most of the other benefits.

Available in a variety of mounting options including the poplar 104-BCD bolt pattern, as well as SRAM spider-less direct mount, the aftermarket manufacturers have moved quickly to make narrow/wide more accessible. Wolf Tooth even makes specific versions for Shimano’s 102-BCD M960, and 88-BCD M985 cranksets.

MSRP: $50-100
More Info: sram.com, raceface.com, wolftoothcycling.com, absoluteblack.cc

Earlier this year, Mike “Luby” Luebesmier brought a couple of our well-worked suspension forks back to life. The shock oil and volume levels–old on top, new on bottom–show how bad our forks got in a little more than six months of use. Rest assured Luby and DirtLabs will be seeing quite a few more forks and rear shocks this winter from the Mtbr crew. Photo by Mike Howse.

Give good squish: Refurbing suspension for better boingage

Because of its complexity and need for specialized tools, suspension work is one of the most universally deferred mountain bike maintenance tasks. And because performance decreases gradually, unless your shocks are spewing oil or clanking like an unbalanced washing machine, you might not even notice how off your suspension really is. Now is the perfect time to get your suspension serviced and there are a number of good options for getting it done.

Factory service on the major brands is generally very good, and we’ve had equally good work from our local shop. In our experience, however, specialists like DirtLabs and Push do an exceptional job of not only the refurb–new seals, oil, small parts, etc.–but tuning the suspension to the user’s riding style and weight. Whichever route you choose, do it now–waiting until the spring rush will only keep you off your bike when you want to ride most.

MSRP: $100-200 per piece
More Info: dirtlabs.com

Over the course of a weekend skills camp, you can get a couple years worth of progression. The Dirt Series camps start with technique drills first (left), then put them into practice on the trails. Photos by Dirt Series.

Upgrade the rider: MTB skills camps supercharge your progression

After a couple years, we all tend to think we’re pretty good on a bike. And while experience and repetition can lead to improvement, it can also reinforce poor technique. That’s just one of many good reasons to periodically jump into a mountain bike clinic and get some feedback from professional instructors. With just a weekend’s worth of training, you can advance your riding by literally years, no matter what your current level of expertise.

For our money it’s hard to beat the Trek Dirt Series mountain bike camps. Run by a badass posse of mostly female instructors for a mostly female clientele, Dirt Series also offers select co-ed camps, meaning both genders get the benefit of their excellent instruction and enthusiasm. Conducted in prime locales across the western United States and Canada, scheduling a mountain bike vacation to follow a weekend camp is a great learn-and-reinforce one-two punch. With stops in places like Whistler, Bend, Park City, and NorCal among other cool spots, you can upgrade your bag of tricks, then use them to knock a premier mountain bike destination off your bucket list in one fell swoop.

MSRP: $340
More Info: dirtseries.com

Conti’s $65 Trail King performed exceptionally well in conditions that ranged from wet to blown-out dry. The large volume casing and grippy yet durable Black Chili tread compound help bring civility to the proceedings when things get rough.

Get a grip: Reconnect to the trail with new tires

New tires and proper air pressure can make a night-and-day difference in the ride quality and performance of your bike. The fact that a good mountain bike tire and an average car tire cost about the same is hard for some riders to swallow. The good news is you only need two, and if your current tires have really gone off, you’d be hard pressed to find more dramatic overall improvement for $120 or so.

When it comes to all-mountain riding, Continental‘s versatile Trail King tops our list of rip-worthy treads. Available in standard, tubeless-ready, and full-UST configurations in 2.2- and 2.4-inch width and all three wheel sizes, these tires just work. Constructed of Conti’s grippy Black Chili tread compound, they boast long life and great traction over a wide variety of conditions and surface types.

MSRP: $65
More Info: www.conti-online.com

Almost every ride we encounter people who just don’t get dropper posts. Trust us–they’re a monumentally huge upgrade to any mountain bike, and the KS LEV (front) and Rock Shox Reverb (rear) are two of the best. Though they use different means to do the job, the end result is the same–safer, more fun riding. Photos by Don Palermini.

Let it drop: Adjustable posts simply make mountain bikes better

After watching the saddle work your man bits like the speedbag in a boxing gym, I had to make the pass. I took the rough line through the rock garden as you crawled along the edge, your brakes squealing in agony. You made the switchbacks, but only just–your inability to get the bike leaned made it an exercise in awkward ugly. Then near the bottom, the seat nearly punted you over the bars when you went for the log booter, but your fork made the save, its O-ring advanced to the hilt.

Still, you insist, dropper posts weigh too much and cost too much. I insist a trip to the emergency room costs more. Probably a lot more than the $399 KS LEV or $429 Rock Shox Reverb, two of the best for saving your ass and helping you have more fun on the bike.

MSRP: KS LEV $399; Rock Shox Reverb $429
More Info: kssuspension.com, rockshox.com

By gradually moving to wider handlebars, our test riders report both better control and trail feedback management. The big bore Easton Havoc 35 Carbon bar and Havoc 35 stem combo stands out due to their light weight, durability and just-right stiffness. Photos: Harooks (top left), Dain Zaffke (bottom left) and Ale Di Lullo (right).

Get your wide on: Better handling through broader bars

Like The Great Wheel Size Debate or fatbikes, handlebar width is one of those topics that can go from zero to Holy War in a matter of seconds. In the spirit of holiday peace, however, let’s keep the guns holstered, don our elbow patch blazers and have a civil discussion, shall we?

Good. Now, if you are an aggressive trail ride/all-mountain-type, you may be pleasantly surprised by the performance advantage of wider bars, provided you make such an increase wisely, modestly and possibly in concert with a shortening of the stem.

What’s moderation? A 40-60mm bump, say from 680 to 700 or 710mm wide, or 710 to 750mm, that kind of thing. The idea is not to make a drastic leap, but a sensible shift. Despite trepidation, each time we’ve done so, better control and leverage over the bike has followed, making it easier to lean and turn, as well as to resist and manage feedback from the trail itself.

Because the arms move outboard, the torso leans forward, sometimes necessitating a shortening of the stem. For the most part, you want keep the body centered over the bike in roughly the same spot it was with the narrower bars, provided it was good positioning to begin with. You may find a slight shift can alleviate back pain and/or help with front wheel traction.

I recently swapped the 710mm bar/70mm stem combo on my all-mountain Santa Cruz Nomad for a 750mm Easton Havoc 35 Carbon bar and 55mm Havoc 35 stem–$160/$100,respectively–to laudable results. The bike feels more stable in wide, high-speed turns, as well as easier to preload and pop for drops and jumps. While I feared the wider bars might feel flexy, Easton’s larger-than-standard 35mm handlebar/stem clamp diameter eliminated any perceptible change, and felt rock solid for transmitting inputs from my hands into the front end.

MSRP: Handlebars $160; Stem $100
More Info: eastoncycling.com

While Giro (top) and Teva (bottom) took different paths to the all-mountain trail, they each produced a leading shoe in the category with the Terraduro and the Pivot, respectively. Photosby Don Palermini, Francis Cebedo.

Clip and rip: New shoes get dialed for the AM

It seems like half the bike industry added shoes to their product line over the last couple years, and while most made “newer, better” claims, much of it seemed pretty samey-samey to us. Fortunately, a couple brands brought a little wheat to the chaff party with gap-filling designs that smartly split-the-difference between ultra-rigid XC shoes and portly DH clogs.

Two of our favorites in 2013–Teva’s $150 Pivot and Giro’s $180 Terraduro–feature clip-in pedaling efficiency but ease-up on the stiffness factor for a more lively trail feel. That bit of flex also comes in handy for hike-a-bikes, as do sticky rubber soles¬–Vibram in the case of Giro, and Teva’s grippy Spider365 tread. While we liked the fit and slightly lighter weight of the Giros, Teva’s skate shoe styling and clever through-the-top-side cleat mounting system has us smitten as well.

The tit-for-tat goes on–Teva tapped pro urban and trail riding honch Jeff Lenosky for design input, while Giro turned to all-around pro Adam Craig. Both companies incubated and iterated their shoes in their respective backyard all-mountain trail systems¬–Giro in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Teva down the coast a few hours near Santa Barbara. They each have cool, low-key intro videos (below) that eschew the hype for a mostly straight-forward, yet still inspiring narrative. And while we wanted to give the edge to Giro for doing a women’s version–the Terradura–Teva’s lower MSRP–and the fact their size range covers women too–cancels that out. So it’s a toss up. But either way, you still win.

MSRP: Teva Pivot $150; Giro Terraduro $180
More Info: giro.com, teva.com

For every trail you’ve ever ridden, there’s somebody who made it happen, which makes paying-it-forward the best gift we mountain bikers could possibly give each other. Photos by Don Palermini.

Join the club: Why you should pay to play

Unlike, say, an incline bench press in a gym, a mountain bike ride in the woods inspires a whole host of physical, psychological and spiritual positives. Sure the hot blonde on the adductor machine inspires some stuff too, but is that really worth $70 a month?

When I think of how much I’ve paid in gym membership fees vs. my actual gym usage over the course of my life, the ROI is abysmal. Alternately, I’ve ridden my bike in no-fee areas for decades to more than my share of gains in both mind and body. Flowing through the woods triggers an endorphin rush that the artifice of the gym can’t touch. And for the most part, it costs nothing. Sure, ya gotta buy a bike, and we pay taxes to funds such places, but outside of resorts and a handful of parks, we pay nothing for something that gives us so much.

As bumper sticker aficionados like to remind us, however, freedom isn’t free. For every trail that’s legal to roll rubber on, there’s a fight to keep it open, either with opposition, or against diminished funding, or the jackasses among us who ruin it for everyone else. Like it or not, the privilege of access is a collective responsibility that requires your effort, your money and your time. Though there’s no attendant at the trailhead scanning your membership card, it is the inherent responsibility of every mountain biker to contribute…to their local trails, to their local clubs, to IMBA. Unlike the rest of the items on the list, this one is not optional–it’s an obligation as well as a gift.

So figure out your membership fees–even after coughing up few bucks and pitching-in for a few hours, mountain biking will still be the best club membership ever, and you may find that when you take a little ownership, the ride gets even better.

MSRP: Whatever you can afford
More Info: imba.com

2013 Mtbr Holiday Gift Guides:

Digital Cameras For Cyclists »
For The Beginner Mountain Biker »
For The Tech Geek Rider »
Gifts for that Special Angry Singlespeeder in Your Life »
Mtbr’s All-Mountain Brown Friday »
POV Video Cameras and Electronics »
Stocking Stuffers for Mountain »

2013 RoadBikeReview Holiday Gift Guides:

Cold Weather Warrior »
Cyclocross Fanatic »
Digital Cameras For Cyclists »
For The Cyclist Who Has (Almost) Everything »
Gear For The Endurance Junkie »
Gear For the Gravel Grinder »
Great Gear For Under $50 »
Presents for the Urban Jungle »
Repurposed Gifts for the Green Cyclist »
The Newbie Road Rider »
Type A Crit Racer »
When Money Is No Object »

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About the author: Don Palermini

Chicago-born editorial director Don Palermini became a cycling-based life-form in the sixth grade after completing a family road bike tour of his home state. Three years later he bought his first mountain bike to help mitigate the city's pothole-strewn streets, and began exploring the region's unpaved roads and trails. Those rides sparked a much larger journey which includes all manner of bike racing, commuting, on- and off-road bike advocacy, and a 20-plus-year marketing career in the cycling industry. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area and pedaling for Mtbr, his four favorite words in the English language are "breakfast served all day," together in that order.


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  • Greg Harris says:

    i like your list . great ideas.great work.
    as for gym vs bike ,i agree, never went to a gym, but riding my bike is a good workout, i push myself everytime and it’s rewarding.better endurance. for xmas, i wish for new xt shifters& xt brakes..one day…

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