The Angry Singlespeeder: The Paradox of Choice

Opinion
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 singlespeeder@consumerreview.com. 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.

The Angry Singlespeeder: The Paradox of Choice Gallery
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About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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  • Dave says:

    “these days there really aren’t any bad mountain bikes”

    I call bullshit.

  • Angry Singlespeeder says:

    Yeah? Well then name a few.

    - ASS

  • Tony says:

    I started riding ten years ago on a $230 diamondback topanga ht with Deore components and now I’m on a double-squish trek fuel ex. Is the trek better? Of course it’s a nicer bike, but it also was $2000 new and has features that the old db never had. Am I having more fun when I ride on the trek? That’s debatable, so I guess I agree with the ASS on this one. There are truly amazing bikes in almost every brand, and every day I find myself lusting over the newest design, wheel size, or frame material, and then I go ride and the dude on the 26″ bike with a “flexy” old SID fork throttles me though the woods. When we get done, everybody is smiling and nobody cares what wheels you’re on or how many features your suspension has.

  • Mike says:

    Great review! So true. There’s no way to compare or know; you never really know until you ride it for a while and begin to love it, or find it to be deficient. And you forget about all the bikes you did not buy. So many bike reivews are stupidly esoteric; they are only suprassed by wine and beer reviews that talk about coco notes or hints of grilled cherries – incomprehensible nonsense. Thanks!

  • bob says:

    Agree; subtle nuances in sizing and feel from the bikes I’ve demoed, but deciding on the type/ price range is the more difficult decision.

  • JB says:

    Tony gets it!

    How about some examples, Dave? Perhaps a Next, I guess.

  • Luther says:

    I have to agree that:
    bad bike + great tires > great bike + bad tires.

    any day

  • Angry Singlespeeder says:

    Luther, I couldn’t agree more. Tires are always the most overlooked performance enhancement. By far the best upgrade for the money. Few people seem to get it. Same thing with sports cars. A great handling sports car with crap tires will get outhandled by an average sedan with insanely good tires.

    - ASS

  • Wade says:

    I must look like a bobblehead, I nodded in agreement so much while reading.
    My personal example, I just bought a Rip9 RDO, literally, a dream bike for me and the nicest thing, bike or otherwise, I have ever owned. No sooner did the frame arrive than I started wondering if I should have test ridden a 650b bike. I avoided three bike demo events in the last six months just to keep myself sane. I obsess over cranksets, I triple check cassette weights vs. price points. I need spring to get here so I can go back to worrying about my meager skills instead.

  • Scotch Hennesy says:

    “I’m not going to be pulling out phrases like “slow through the mid-stroke”! That line made me laugh out loud! I SO get your point with regards to that statement. I set my suspension and forget about it. I’ve been riding and racing since the day I slapped an original Manitou on my Diamondback Ascent back in 1989. My eyeballs used to rattle from my skull on that thing. Now I ride a Carbon, Giant AnthemX, 29er, with XT drivetrain, carbon Control Tech bars, Carbon Easton EC70 Post and Carbon Fizik seat. This bike just plain rides amazing. I’m sure so many other competitors to my Giant ride equally as nice…although, I agree that most higher end bikes probably ride very similar to each other, if spec’d identically. I’m so stoked I didn’t stop riding from the beating I took on that Ascent. I would have never known how badass bikes would become. Great article as always my friend.

  • David Carbonell says:

    Sooooooo, ummmmmm, if you can’t tell the difference between the bikes, and your final summation is “rides like shit” or “rides great” . . . can I have your spot as a reviewer?!?!

    Seems like it is being wasted, and I would love the opportunity! ;-)

    I do agree with your point about mountain bikes being generally ridiculously awesome nowadays. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with any $2000 (or $6000+) bike. But there ARE perceptible differences, and I think that’s what the agonizing is all about. Totally first world problem!

    • comentatorbot_or0234 says:

      So, the 1cm difference in wheel base is perceptible, but will it make a difference?

      No.

      It doesn’t help that the umpteen bikes they are testing all come out of maybe three OEM’s.

      Not sure why so many cyclists have an equipment fetish. Ride lots instead.

  • JB says:

    Maybe these perceptible differences can be figured out with ye ole test ride. You know, you ride 3 bikes and 1 just feels fantastic? Maybe you don’t know why it feels great, and does it really matter? Only if you’re writing about mountain bikes, I suppose.

    Writing about mountain biking is like dancing about architecture. Maybe? ;)

  • scott says:

    I decided to upgrade to a new frame and fork this year, went with a prime and an X-Fusion Trace. Biggest reason was cause I’m not good enough to ride Mammoth, Bootleg and similar trails without FS-and still have fun.

    My friend from Colorado was quite taken aback when he found out that I did so without test riding the bike, and others first. But from everything I’ve read I determined what type of bike I needed-had to have around 5″ of travel and MUST HAVE THREADED BB SHELL-then I waited till I could find one for the price I could (almost) afford. My rationale was that, like ASS states above, bikes are f-cking awesome now, especially in the mid-range. Cheap bikes don’t last and are heavy, expensive bikes are light and don’t last. These “mid-priced” aluminum frames are solid, work really well (especially with todays suspension tech) and all the weird ideas have gone by the waste side.

    I truly believe we are living at the pinnacle of bike design, from here I can only see very minor changes being made, unless carbon fiber prices drop dramatically.

  • Kevin says:

    Nice article ASS. Ditto on the tires. I think tires are the biggest part of a bikes performance (next to riding skills) and the correct ones for your trail conditions makes the biggest of differences.
    $6,500 average cost on bikes tested!! That’s just getting rediculous.
    Kudos on rockin the Spicoli Vans.

  • enduropierogi says:

    Riding MTB for 19 years and nothing has been as big as the improvement in tires. It started with Hutchinson at the 1996 Olympics wide soft high volume tires “Pythons” now the tubeless technology is amazing and improving every year. I’d pick big grippy $200 Tires on 2000 bike vs $150 2.0 hard tires on a 10k bike any day of the week.

  • JD Dallager says:

    ASS has it right in so many ways! Marketing is not only about meeting consumer demand; but perhaps more so about creating consumer demand for items we probably don’t need/want. “Market segmentation and product differentiation” apply to so many things: toothpaste, political parties, religions, golf equipment, soft drinks, MTBs, and just about everything else.

    Get a decent bike, spend some time/money on getting some MTB skills lessons, get a good set of tires for your type riding, and ENJOY RIDING! Brian Lopes could kick most of our butts on a Walmart tricycle…..Jack Nicklaus could play better golf than most golfers with a hockey stick, and very few of us will ever be “performance-limited” by any of the reputable MTB brands.

  • Leonard says:

    As someone else said, bikes right not are at the top of their game. Improvements now are marginal, so pick a decent bike from someone reputable and ride it. That being said, I think there are certain details like pivot bearing/bushing designs that separate the good from bad. Bikes requiring excessive pivot maintenance or overhauls, or pivots that flex too much, or bike flex in general sucks. Beyond that bikes are refined beyond belief compared to not too many years ago. I would also agree, current high volume tires run tubeless are one of the biggest improvements. I still can’t believe how much traction I have. Slackened head angels also are huge so now I don’t feel like I will die bombing hills.

  • Evil E says:

    Great analysis ASS. It really is all about finding something that works for you, and you ultimately have fun on. Both of my full suspension rigs (Titus ti Rockstar and Rip9) were down for repairs, and I had to resort to the full rigid single speed to be able to ride at all. I haven’t had that much fun in a long long time. It really is all realtive.

    p.s.- Good job switching the analogy from toilet paper to toothpaste. You really rubbed that segment of your readership raw (pun intended).

  • R Petersen says:

    I to have been racing and riding since the mid 80′s and have watched the progression of mountain bikes and design.
    I raced on a FS bike for a couple of years back in the day, a Giant NRS Air, it was a great racing bike.
    My next bike after that was a custom IF 29er non-suspension corrected frame and fork built with the components of my choice.
    I rode the IF for the last 11 years.
    I now just built a fancy carbon hardtail.
    So what am I getting at here is that I completely agree about tires being one of the biggest performance factors.
    While all of the bikes I have ridden and raced over the years, the biggest thing I have ever struggled with is finding the right set of tires for a given bike.
    Granted the bikes performance plays a part but it has always been about the tires.
    I spend way to much time trying to find the right tires.
    I am having that same issue with my new carbon hardtail.
    The tires I ran on my IF for so many years worked great on that bike but not so much on the new hardtail, its all about the rubber.

  • sam says:

    Loved the article….bike companies probably don’t! I have found the best cure for analysis paralysis to be 7ft…thank God for Ventana and Bicycle Fabrications!

  • Carl Mega says:

    The best part of this article is he just rationalized away the main thrust of this site: Mountain Bike REVIEW. The people want the minutia!

  • Davalum says:

    Great work ASS.
    Love the one your with I say. Yes there are differences, but my current 29er is just different to my previous 2002 Jekyll in ways that now suit my changed riding style. Too many people just spin their wheels talking about subtleties that make very little difference, apart from confuse would be buyers.
    Keep the bad ass attitude though, i love to read the vehement replies. I can visualize the vein popping out of their necks as i read, too funny.

  • Tyrebyter says:

    You’re losing your touch; hardly pissed anyone off. But you were so right.

  • dave says:

    “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.”

    Wimp. Neither do 9 out of 10 people who post stuff like that on mtbr and it doesn’t stop them.

  • Ozynigma says:

    So true ASS.

    Having just decided on a new FS carbon frame for my next bike build (because I like the manufacturer and colour and all new bikes are awesome) I have spent hours agonising over drivetrain choices.

    I ended up spending 50% extra on SRAM BB30 cranks over Shimano for what will be imperceptible difference.

    Then there are the brakes…. Do I recycle my XT or buy new Magura. Sheesh they all work really well (but Magura has pretty colours that will match my new frame).

  • Eznitram says:

    As I‘m in the looking-for-a-new-bike phase right now, I can 100% relate to the article. Thank you ASS.
    Not only have I spent the last six months looking for the perfect frame, going through countless iterations of “29 will fit you better no 27.5 is the future”, it’s even worse. After I finally made a decision and ordered one, I still find myself wondering if it was the perfect choice. I’m waiting for new announcements, drowning in news and reviews.
    And I didn’t stop there. I obsessed about system wheel set vs. custom build / 2×10 vs. 1×11 / choice of fork / choice of brakes / the color of the cranks…
    The sheer enormity of choice of components can drive one crazy. Maybe I already am.
    So am I going to spend the weekend looking for the perfect flat pedals? Or should go ride my old bike?

  • john says:

    Lots and lots of choices……..Unless of course you are new to the sport. Then, it’s rigid single speed only until you learn you lessons. Right ASS?

  • RM says:

    Last week I had the opportunity to ride my buddy’s Tall Boy LT carbon, It’s a sweet bike with a Gucci build and I was able to get up the hill in record time. I’m not going to buy it though because I prefer the downhill ride on my Remedy. If I was going to race this year I would have bought the bike. MTBR serves the dual purpose of informing us as consumers and giving us the info about bikes so we can talk smack with our friends. Another friend has a carbon Pivot 5.7. He hates 29ers so it was fun dusting him on the hill climb. Even if you can’t ride faster than your friends you can still tell them why your bike is better than theirs! ;) The minutiae adds to the fun

  • Mitch says:

    Don’t you think that you should at least credit the psychologis and author Barry Schwartz in your article? I mean it’s really borderline plagiarism as the title of your article is the same as the title of his book. And your ‘argument’ is just his argument applied to mountain bikes. It’s a valid point and definitely applies to mountain bikes, just give credit where credit is due.

    The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz

    http://amzn.to/1jwS30r

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