I’ve been giving the handling of my mountain bike a lot of thought recently and made some changes to try to improve things. Bikes have changed a lot over the last 7 years or so. Wheels have generally become bigger and tyres wider. Bikes are longer, throwing off their road bike geometry which persisted for a long time. Today I thought I’d ride one of my old bikes to remind me how it used to be.
My Whyte JW 4 is a radical design of bike, made in 2004. Instead of a telescopic fork for the front suspension it has a linkage system providing 100 mm of travel to match the rear suspension, which was one of the first “virtual pivot point” designs. Short linkages give a different axle travel path to change the way the rear suspension responds. I rode to Healey Nab, my local hill, with it’s man made trails and could feel the higher riding position compared to my 2016 Boardman FS Pro. Lower riding positions are now used to give better fore/aft stability. The downside is that the pedals are now more likely to catch on rocks on the ground.
There were plenty of people both walking and riding on the hill, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so busy. I rode to the top and took the main downhill route. I’d noticed on my last ride how I felt I needed to lean so far forwards on the Boardman to balance front and rear wheel grip. You might think that on a higher and shorter bike that this feeling may be exacerbated but that wasn’t what I was feeling. Being shorter a smaller shift in your centre of gravity has a bigger effect so I was able to balance wheel grip without feeling that I was leaning too far forwards. One up for the old bike! The biggest difference on the bumpy surface was that the shorter travel suspension just doesn’t absorb things in the same way. The feeling of jarring and banging grabbed my attention. I rode 3 laps and on the final descent my feet lost contact with the pedals, bruising my ankle. I admit I was chasing a younger rider on a modern bike at the time, so it was entirely my own fault! It’s not as comfortable and definitely harder work on the Whyte. I was much closer to the limit, getting diverted by rocks and almost running off the edge of the trail several times. The smaller wheels, with lower volume tyres, cause the wheels to skip around far more so riding quickly is quite a lot harder and feels much more risky. It’s certainly an exciting bike to ride but how does it compare for speed?
According to the app. Strava my 3 descents were right at the fast end of my many recent performances! The first 2 were a consistent 1 minute 21 seconds. The third, where I injured an ankle and had to grab the brakes took 1 minute 23. Still quick! The real difference is not the speed but how easy it is to achieve the speed. When it comes to climbing a shorter bike, with less suspension travel, is bound to be lighter and so climbs more easily. I wish I had performed the same test which I used to assess tyre drag, recently. Whilst I found that lower tyre pressure didn’t cause drag, within the range I tested, I still think that 26″ tyres may cause less drag than 27.5″ modern tyres. The older bike just feels to roll faster, though this feeling may be compounded by the feeling of being on the limit for more of the time.
My conclusion has to be that it’s possible to ride the older bike just as quickly as a modern one and on a circuit, often a little quicker. It is, however, harder work, more risky and needs more rider commitment. I needed to shift my weight backwards far more for steep downhills to avoid going over the bars. I was in danger from unpredictable slides due to limited suspension travel and lower volume tyres. The Whyte has suspension units which make a terrifying clattering sound. I was, however, richly rewarded by the excitement of the ride. Now, what’s the best treatment for a bruised ankle?
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