Riding a classic mountain bike.

The weather has continued to be gorgeous and the trails are almost bone dry so today was an ideal opportunity to ride one of my 3 classic mountain bikes. I already owned my 2004 Whyte JW4 before I realised that, just like for cars and motorcycles, a classic scene exists. I bought the JW4 as a frame with shock absorbers because I’d owned one from new and had always regretted scrapping it when the many suspension bushes were worn out. Not long afterwards I also bought a higher specification Whyte PRST4 frame with shock absorbers, seat post and rear wheel. It was the PRST4 which I rode today. I built it up with parts I already possessed from bikes which I’d disassembled previously. As with cars and motorcycles many classic MTB owners want to build their bikes using the exact original components but I’m not interested in simply owning an immaculate bike, I want to be able to ride them as you would have done back in the day. If you’re at all interested in classic MTBs I would advise you buy one soon because I feel sure that prices will climb steeply when more mountain bikers start to feel nostalgic about the bikes they used to own or aspire to.

Bikes have changed a lot in the 18 years since the PRST4 was conceived. Suspension travel is longer, wheels are bigger and have a much greater volume of air in them. The wheels are further apart so handlebar stems are correspondingly shorter. Handlebars are greatly wider but on the less favourable side, weights tend to be considerably greater. Yes, a modern bike is easy to ride faster on a challenging downhill but on a climb the extra weight will count against you. You might wonder, since my time to climb hills is of very little interest, why I would want to ride an older bike. I was about to find out.

After my last ride I thought that I should try to start off more gently rather than riding from the start at the pace I felt I could reasonably maintain for a ride of a known distance. The gradients make this difficult and in climbing by a steep route up Healey Nab I had to put the effort in, I had no choice. I had decided to ride 3 laps of the hill and in the process take in a new approach to a jump section which I’d spotted whilst walking the dog up the Nab just this morning. It’s amazing how I find so many potential routes walking which I don’t imagine I’d ever spot on the bike.

Early in the ride I’d noticed the front wheel skipping on a stone as I turned around a corner. With the smaller 26″ wheels of an older bike you have a much smaller air volume due to not only a smaller diameter but also a narrower tyre. To avoid pinching the inner tube against the wheel rim over rocks it’s essential to run the tyres at a higher pressure so the tyre simply can’t absorb stones and roots in the trail nearly so easily. In short you have less grip. On the positive side you also get less drag from the tyres so when pedalling on a trail you may even be able to go faster, this ability being compounded by the lower weight.

I definitely took some speed off on the gravelly trails to compensate for the lower level of grip. Looking at my downhill times on the app. Strava the difference in times is too small to measure accurately and in the very dry conditions today I was always going to be quick. I even achieved a fastest ever time on a segment which starts as a climb then turns down a twisty downhill though I admit that since the segment passes through the trail head I would usually expect to stop part way through so have maybe rarely rode it continuously.

After 2 exciting downhills when I used the same route I returned to the top to try the way I’d found walking the dog this morning. First, though, I chatted to another rider who’d brought his son to the hill for the first time. He was intrigued by the strange looking linkage suspension of the PRST4 which is pictured above. It has 100mm of suspension travel both front and rear. Over one particularly difficult section of bumpy trail I found that the old bike coped very well, though I had taken some speed off. Perhaps the stiffer suspension allows the wheels to skip over the bumps rather than dropping into the dips?

When I tried the new approach to the jump section on my last descent I was quite cautious but it’s certainly an exciting prospect. A steep drop gives you more potential speed than I could fully exploit. I’ll need to practice the segment a good many times to get it perfect.

So were there any advantages, other than easier climbing, to riding an old bike? With less suspension travel and grip I believe the sensation of speed is somewhat greater, and who doesn’t like a bit of speed?

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