With the tide of hype receding from Las Vegas and Interbike, legions of engineering geeks return to workstations, scheming ways to improve the ride for marketing departments to create come-hither message to suck money out of your bank account. Spreadsheet programs likely creak under the demands to statistically prove handling dynamics and ride characteristics. Backed by the right paint job, it almost becomes irresistible for the Civilian Cyclist.
Yet for all the science backing these sometimes wondrous developments, nothing beats the real world feedback provided by race testing on a course that is largely unchanged in 25 years. Technology hits and misses have shown themselves quite quickly at the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40, billed as one of North America's largest mountain bike races. Annually 1,700 competitors charge out the small town of Hayward, Wisconsin and pilot bikes of all types across rocky, rolling, rutted and, ultimately, exhaustingly punishing trails to Cable. This year, in fact, the winner rode a fully rigid 29'er single speed to the top of the podium, defeating fully geared pros with an average speed approaching 20 miles per hour!
For me, the beta test on this magical course began back in 1989 with the first pedal stroke of a Specialized Stumpjumper, ironically enough a fully rigid 35-plus pound beast and featured an "amazing" gearing selection provided by a 6-speed cassette. Over the muddy course that day, curses sailed heavenward at the mud-collecting capability of the cantilever brakes, which basically rendered the bike perhaps the world's first single-speed (with no brakes!). Frequent endos wrenched legs and ankles thanks to the leather toe straps securing everything nice and tight. Crossing the finish line released pains up and down, including what felt like a bruised spleen and arms in serious need of a 12 ounce bottle of "Lumberjack Aspirin."
Perhaps influenced by a strong surge of ESP flowing from the northwoods, engineers introduced suspension systems and clipless pedals over the years. One year I equipped the Stumpjumper with a Girvin Flexstem and wore Lycra gloves (versus the leather/cotton option). The stem seemed to work wonders - for the first 15 miles. Then as the bumper "loosened up," handling became highly sketchy over the increasingly rugged trails that quickly taxed the 1/4" travel. And the pedals? A definite improvement, provided no "dabs" occurred along the trail. One errant touch in a mud puddle basically cemented the shoe into the pedal.
With the introduction of aluminum as a viable frame material, an obvious "upgrade" presented itself. The Stumpjumper headed into retirement for a Gitane straight-gauge hardtail tricked out with a RockShox Quadra 10 and GripShift twist shifting. The exotic French bike drew covetous gazes in the starting paddock but quickly reached Stumpjumper status out on the trails. The brutally rigid frame and 3/4" travel of the fork quickly produced a dungeon of pain. I'd forgotten about the spleen! The twist shifting worked well...until nature intervened into the cables relegating the then 21-speed into something like a 5-1/2 speed.
Somewhere along the line, steel became real again. Bontrager obliged my whims with its Santa Cruz, CA fillet-brazed "West Coast" bike. Fitted with 26 x 1.75 tires to pre-empt inevitable mud clogging seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, while they shed much of the detritus along the way, the skinny treads proved no match for the rocks and ruts, casting me about like the SS Minnow.
The subsequent years saw some notable introductions (beyond packing more gears onto the rear wheel). Michelin's tubeless tires have allowed me to finish with all internal organs intact and unbruised. They gallop down the trail unconcerned with conditions and distractions. Time pedals show their value every year, properly ejecting rider from ride and dealing with mud and other things in wondrous fashion. And of course suspension technology is otherworldly compared to the Girvin years. The RockShox Reba does what the early visionary "smoother outers" had in mind... the downside being that it takes a degree in hydraulic technology to properly tune them. But, even adjusted "incorrectly", it's easy to appreciate the technology-preserving ride.
The race will continue into its next 25 years and the upgrades will follow. In fact, a full suspension ride is in the cards for the '08 edition along with disc brakes. With the tents recently rolled up from Interbike, it leaves me hungrily searching web sites and catalog pages for ways to spend more money to make that 40-mile race from Hayward to Cable faster and more enjoyable - and leaving those "unpleasant" memories of the Stumpjumper farther behind in my rear view mirror.
Steve Smith lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is in constant pursuit of the Next Great Ride.
© BikeRadar 2007