Monday, October 7, 2013

Speed Dating on two wheels

Most people don't need new gear; they want new gear.  But Ashley - after 11 years on her trusty K2 Razorback mountain bike that was ridden a lot and subsequently consistently subjected to the head-scratching maintenance by Ash's terrible mechanic (me) correctly decided that she did indeed NEED a new rig.  The die was finally cast when I took her bike in to the guys at Wasatch Bike Support and told them to "just fix it."  Fix it they did, but when I picked it up, they said:  "Duuude.  We did what we could with'er.  But she's not got much left in her."  It was like the bike had terminal cancer and they gave it the last blast of chemo.

And so began the quest for a new mountain bike, which - if you have haven't been paying much attention to the market for the last 10 years, like we haven't - is a pretty daunting task.  Especially when the annual incremental technology improvements have had ten years to accumulate, the inflation rate on bikes has been extraordinary, and no one in town actually demos bikes so your multiple-thousand dollar purchase is dependent on hopping up and down curbs near the urban bike shops without actually being able to ride on trails, so you are dependent on  reviews by putzheads on The Interweb and shop punks' recital of what little they can remember from the sales reps' marketing-speak.  So wither to get an actual user-experience that will result in an educated purchase of a mountain bicycle?  In a word:  Outerbike.

Ashley Kornblatt, the apparently-fiery owner of Western Spirit bicycle tours in Moab, recognized that there was an increasingly-large disconnect between the bike manufacturers and their consumers.  Yes, there was the annual Interbike show in Vegas, but that is exclusive to the industry, and aside from random trailhead demos by sales reps, there was no actual opportunity for actual people to take actual bikes out on actual trails for actual comparisons to other bikes. So she created "Outerbike"; a multi-day demo adjacent to a variety of trails complete with guided tours, parties, shuttles to other trail systems, and - most importantly - a venue where virtually ALL the mountain bike manufacturers could set up booths and bring bikes for consumers to use (the biggest notable absence:  Trek/Fisher!).  So simple, yet so....previously unheard of!

We were both dreading this event a bit:  spending one of those brilliant fall Utah desert weekends around so many people talking out of their asses about inches of travel and head tube angles between bumblefests on contrived trails sounded like the antithesis of the magnificent desolation of the west desert or even the nearby Moab-area desert environs.  But we adopted the right attitude and Ash was on a mission, so we made the most of it, with great success.

We tried them all:  full suspension, hardtails, aluminum frames, carbon frames, 27.5 inch wheels, 29 inch wheels; etc.
getting ready to check out another bike.  
We tried the big guys and the boutique brands, and we were able to ride something like 10-12 different bikes and take them on some fun, varied singletrack
We realized that Moab has treated it's trail building as very similar to a ski resort:  lots of little fun trails in close proximity to each other, never out of view of the "base", maps at every one of the many intersections, and they use the same green circle/blue square/black diamond rating system (some were blue diamond/black square, and some were black diamond/blue square; perhaps the trail-difficulty equivalent to partly cloudy vs partly sunny)? 

Not surprisingly, the bikes were ALL good; if you are in the mountain bike business and you are making poor bikes, you don't last long.  And for the prices that they are asking for mountain bikes these days, they damn well better be friggin AWESOME!  But the beauty of trying lots of bikes meant that you could start to discern some differences, some of which were easy to identify/articulate, and some of which were more of a nuanced "feel".  On the first day we rode the same few-mile loop nine times on nine different bikes (which actually added up to a decent-day's worth of riding) and Ash began to hone in on her faves.  

Not surprisingly, some of her enthusiasm for any given bike was a function of the customer service that the booth-tenders provided, and generally we were impressed; since they were industry pros versus young shop rats these guys (and they were mostly guys) recognized the need to treat their "customers" with respect, even if they were chicks!  Interestingly, it was only the generally well-respected Santa Cruz who were the token tools:  they were very much "dudes" lounging on a couch drinking their noon beer and jammin' to too-loud metal and helped Ash out only very reluctantly; needless to say, they did not sell a bike to her.  
The demo in the desert
However, the antithesis of this was Ibis, which was mostly-manned by its founder and owner, Scott Nicol.  A boutiquey brand for sure that may not have the economies of scale of the Giants, Specializeds, Cannondales, etc. but he's been making nice bikes for a long time and - as he pointed out - he was the only founder/owner at the event, which he described as "The Best" demo event of the year.  So not only was he able to woo Ash - as a recovering esoteric consumer product retailer herself - but also she found his new Carbon 29" FS "Ripley" to "feel" slightly better than the others she tried, including their 27.5-wheeled bike.  
plunging down a steep slab that she would not have tried on her old bike
I had my eyes opened a bit; riding a rigid singlespeed and not really paying attention to the market means that there's a lot to learn about these new bikes.  And for sure, they are fun: the bwang-bwang of 4-6 inches of travel means that rocky trails feel buffed.  And if indeed making difficult, rocky trails way easier is your goal, the companies have done very well in that regard.    It's very analogous to skis:  the bigger the better, and the bike companies have addressed the bike equivalants of Middle Aged Powder Pussies (MAPPs) very well.   

That said, an outlier that has - I think - had a lot of growth (admittedly from near-zero to a bit more than zero) is the Fat Bike:
This thing only weighed 23 pounds and RIPPED!  
And so, we came away knowing what Ash's new bike is going to be:  she ordered her Ibis today.  We know what we'll be doing a lot of as the riding season wanes!  And even though it's spendy, she will get her money's-worth out of it than most folks who typically trade out their multi-thousand dollar rigs every couple/three years after riding it the requisite 40-50 days/year.  Me?  I might demo a FS bike next time I head into Moab; they are damn fun, and at "only" $60/day it'll take me over a hundred  days of demo-ing to make up the price of many of the bikes that I tried and liked!  Nutty.  

Many thanks to relatively new Moab transplants Laurel and Rodney who not only hosted us at their cool house (which has a finished pump track before the house was finished!):

But Laurel was also largely responsible for the organization of the impressively-run Outerbike event.  
I don't think Laurel meant to look like she was wearing Mickey Mouse ears, but it's a good look!  
Now having participated in Outerbike, I can hardly imagine NOT going there before buying a bike; it's a golden opportunity for us, and we were stoked to have it be so close by and so well-run!


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