With so many different brands and models of mountain bikes to choose from these days, how crucial is it really that you find the ‘perfect’ bike?
Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at firstname.lastname@example.org. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.
This past week I spent three days in the Santa Cruz Mountains getting radical on nearly a dozen different mountain bikes that I’ll probably never be able to afford. With an average retail cost of approximately $6,500, the bikes in this year’s Mtbr Enduro Compare-O featured some of the most advanced mountain bike technology in existence.
Over the next several weeks, you’ll be reading all about these bikes and what we thought of them. First looks, in-depth reviews, detailed photographs; they’ll all come together in order to inform you the reader of which bikes stood out from the rest. As much work as it is to compile this information and present it to the Mtbr community, by far the hardest job will be burdened by you, the consumer.
As a potential new bike buyer, you will have to sort through pages of reviews, hundreds of photographs and endless feature sheets, trying to figure out which bike will be perfect between your legs. I don’t envy you. With so much choice, so much advanced technology and so many different features, draining your bank account has never before been such a daunting task.
Gone are the days of black or white, Ford or Chevy and regular or decaf. Modern consumer culture is riddled with choice. Never before has the consumer been more empowered and discouraged all at the same time. What used to be a simple chore of buying toothpaste has now become a mind-bending mission to find exactly the right toothpaste for your needs. Not only are there a dozen different brands of toothpaste, but also within those dozen brands there are at least six different types. It’s no longer about finding the perfect toothpaste; it’s about finding the perfect toothpastes.
When there are only a couple choices, the thought of making the wrong decision doesn’t enter the mind because there aren’t 10 other brands to make you think you might be missing out on an essential feature. The more choice a consumer has, the more of a chance they think a bad decision could be made, forcing them into what’s called “analysis paralysis”. All that choice ends up making the consumer more unsure than when they started knowing absolutely nothing. The term “ignorance is bliss” is true. What you don’t know is sometimes good for you.
It’s the same way with mountain bikes. There’s so much choice these days that making a decision on which is the ‘perfect’ bike can cause undue stress, loss of sleep and even strained relations with your spouse. Hours and hours of research on which suspension system is more efficient, which drivetrain is more durable, which component spec is the best value and which wheel size is optimal leads many to frustration and indecision – the exact opposite effect choice is supposed to create.
But here’s the reality of the situation. Unlike 20 years ago when the mountain bike industry was in it’s infancy, R&D budgets were tiny and the end consumer was the guinea pig for product development, these days there really aren’t any bad mountain bikes. The industry has matured so much and has become so competitive that if you make a bad bike you won’t stay in business very long – especially with the undeniable power and speed of social media. If your bike sucks, everyone will know it.
The more choices we have as consumers, the more subtle differences that exist between each product. As these subtle differences multiply, their perceived importance increases, when in reality the products are virtually identical. Because there are distinctions between the bikes we rode, it’s natural to assume that the differences matter, but the assumption is wrong.
Virtually every bike we tested in the Enduro Compare-O was a good bike compared to the others in a given price range. So divide all the bikes into three price categories: low, mid-range and high, and it really comes down to three things: your specific budget, your riding style and what color do you like?
Splitting hairs between millimeters of travel, the type of rear suspension system, component spec and wheel size really doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme. All these bikes work well. Yes, some work better than others, but given the price range they’re in, they’ll all deliver years of incredible fun and exhilaration. You can’t go wrong with any of them. Besides, the majority of people who buy these bikes will never push them to the limits they were designed to operate.
I fully admit that I am not the best bike tester, because I can’t – and don’t want to – analyze ten ways to Sunday why a bike works or doesn’t work. That’s primarily why I ride a hardtail singlespeed. It’s stripped down, simple and inexpensive. It either works or it doesn’t. I’m not going to be pulling out phrases like “slow through the mid-stroke”, because honestly, I don’t know what that feels like. All I know is whether a bike rides well or if it sucks canal water, and all the minutiae around why it rides well can be left to other reviewers.
If it were up to the ASS, my bike reviews would be summed up in one of three sentences: “Rides great”, “Rides okay” or “Rides like shit”. But that kind of review isn’t good for page views and advertisers. Of the dozen bikes I rode last week, all of them were in the great or okay category. There wasn’t a single bike that rode like shit. All of them were good for the right type of rider.
So if you’re not the analytical type and would rather spend your time riding instead of endlessly scouring the internet, make friends with a total geek who knows everything about mountain bikes. Tell him or her your price range and your style of riding. Chances are they already know the perfect couple of bikes for you, so all you need to do is go ride them and make a decision.
Pick one you like that’s in your price range, suits your riding style and is the color you like. It will work killer and you will be happy. And don’t lust after what your buddy has, because in all reality, given the same price range, it probably doesn’t work that much better than what you have.
And if you’re really concerned about performance, then invest your money in a skills class, learning from somebody who knows how to shred some serious gnar. That and a killer set of tires at the right pressure will make more of a difference in performance than any suspension system, wheel size or component spec.
What were my favorite bikes in the Enduro Compare-O? Well, I’ll save the details for the reviews, but I will say this; my three favorites were all 29ers. That’s right. It was a surprise to me. I went into the test convinced 27.5-inch wheels would rule all. I was proven wrong. It just goes to show a well-designed bike is good no matter what the wheel size.
Photos by Mtbr and Tyler Frasca.