A blast from the past.

My last mountain bike ride was the biggest I’ve done for many years, not just in terms of distance but more importantly the massive amount of tough climbing, often on rough, rocky surfaces. I rode it on my Whyte JW4 2004 vintage full suspension bike. You can read about my adventure here…..The Mary Towneley Loop, ridden and reviewed.

How do you follow that up? I decided how this morning, 2 days after the big one. I’d ride an even older full suspension bike, the 1996 Proflex Attack LE, which is from a particularly important time in the development of full suspension and so of mountain biking in general. In ’96 manufacturers were hastily developing rear suspension to complement the suspension forks which were becoming more common and Proflex were at the cutting edge. By the following year it appeared that designers were finally starting to get it with quite a few capable bikes reaching the market. Proflex didn’t progress quickly enough and by the millennium had sold out to K2, most famous in the world of surfing. In ’97 I bought my first full suspension bike, a Marin Rift Zone, which was in a different league to my 24 year old Proflex. So what’s the point in owning and riding an ancient bike? It partly about nostalgia for and celebration of the early days of suspension, when I kept a keen eye on the developments. It’s also about the excitement of riding a bike which is just plain harder to ride and in addition it’s something which can be best expressed in French, “Vive la difference”!

The Proflex has an elastomer rear suspension unit which is just a squidgy block of rubbery substance. The front fork I built myself in the style of a Girvin Vector which was an option on high end Proflex bikes. I used a modern air shock absorber.

Today I wanted a short, relatively easy ride so chose to ride my local hill, Healey Nab. I don’t intend to work such an old bike as hard as I would a new one so was even prepared to slow down in places to give the bike an easier time. I felt differences as soon as I got on the Proflex. The handlebars are 560mm wide where 800mm is becoming the norm, even though it’s a bit too wide in my opinion. I’d be likely to cut a bar down to around 740mm to avoid catching the ends on trees etc. The rear suspension feels almost rigid on the road, though I think the elastomer, which has been replaced, may be a little too stiff. The front suspension only gives a maximum of 75mm of movement compared to 100mm on the Whyte JW4 which I used last time out and 140mm on my more modern Boardman FS Pro. The lowest gear is not especially low despite having 3 chainrings at the front but it was fine for climbing to the top of the hill. I briefly met a young rider on a new bike at the trailhead and set off with more caution than normal. The rear suspension has no damping except for that inherent in the elastomer and springs back so quickly after a bigger compression that the back wheel feels as if it’s going to bounce off the ground. My home built fork performs far better though it’s limited travel is often apparent. Over a particularly bumpy section of the red graded descent the bike was a bit of a handful so it’s best not to try to set any speed records. The tyres were coping well enough but at 1 minute 26 my ride was right at the slow end of recent attempts, if only by 5-10 seconds. Certainly I could have shaved some time off but I’d done enough for today so continued down the open field, slowing for the roughest part, which has developed some tricky bumps this summer. I started to realise that I was learning something. With less suspension travel I started to use my bent arms and legs far more to absorb the trail. This is something I’ll give more thought to on my modern bike. I could double the effective suspension travel by not just relying on the springs! This is something I’ve long been aware of but it’s good to get a reminder.

I enjoyed my jaunt on a truly old school bike and will ride again on Friday. My legs felt OK despite having done the big ride 2 days before. This surprised me because I’d expected that I’d be crippled by such a long time on the bike but honestly I could have managed a ride yesterday. Maybe I’d underestimated my stamina and taken it easier than I’d actually needed to?

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