As bike technology has improved and components have become more high performance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that pretty much any bike these days will offer a decent ride. I was starting to think so, too, until, at a recent trade show, I was reminded that some bike manufacturers are still building highly questionable machines. I rode what I can only describe as the worst bike I have ridden in over five years.
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It started off quite innocently, because hey, it had two wheels, a handlebar, and was bike shaped, so it had my interest. Sure it was a brand I'd never seen or even heard of before, but curiosity rarely lets me down, it's typically a good thing.
Look closely at this bike and you’d think it was designed by a USA company, mostly because they’re engaging in the fine American tradition of doing whatever the hell they want. Rohloff instead of a derailleur? Yep. Gates belt drive rather than a chain? You know it. Rear tire rubbing the stays? Sure enough. Falling rate rear suspension? All day, every day.
A ride worth forgetting
Initial set up of the suspension, seat height, and tire pressures went pretty normal, there was nothing noteworthy to give me any clues to what was about to happen. And what did happen was an eye-opening crappy ride.
With a pile of spacers under the stem, the front end sure popped right up. But man, being that far away from the ground was a bit disconcerting, especially when leaning the bike over from waaaay uppp hereeee. I couldn’t even wrap my head around whether or not the frame was as stiff as a used band aid or if it was actually tracking, I was just trying to keep upright and off the deck. I thought about changing the stem height, but I was just trying to limp this dog home.
Suspension action felt as though the rear shock had a blown seal, which I don't think it had. The pedal platform was OK, but as soon as the pace picked up the back-end began to wallow. I checked the rebound setting, double checked the compression lever, but every g-out, every medium size and bigger hit found the shock working overtime. Could it be a falling rate suspension? Didn't that backwards leverage ratio die out with cantilever brakes in the '90s?
The rear end length of this 27.5in wheeled machine wasn’t exorbitant at around 430mm, but just looked the part — likely due to the sliding dropouts. What was annoying, and not just visual, was the lack of rear tire clearance. The rear tire rubbed the chainstays when stomping on the pedals, leaning hard into corners, and more or less anytime you shifted trajectory. The rear tire wasn't plus-size, but it did have a big volume. Did the quick release rear drops cause the flexing? Maybe the sliding dropouts?
Onto the Rohloff. It’s been a solid five or more years since I’ve ridden a Rohloff. Surely in half a decade they’ve improved. Nope, not the one I rode at least. “Are the brakes rubbing? Like a lot?” It felt so slow, there was so much noise, and the shifting, or lack thereof, made me actually cuss out loud.
I was told I could force the gear changes, that it’d be okay and nothing would go wrong. Guess that didn’t account for me not having the grip of Thor pulling on his hammer. Wimpy, small hands are something I don’t have, but for the life of me I couldn’t change gears on the Rohloff while I soft pedaled on a relatively flat trail. What the hell was going on? Rohloff Speedhubs supposedly get smoother as they wear in. I doubt I have the patience to find out.
Frustration was setting in. Other parts started pissing me off. The Magura disc brakes felt completely wooden and vague. And annoyingly flexy at the lever, which didn’t pull far enough or have a discernible braking point. Not that it mattered much, it wasn’t like they were going to slow me down with any authority. The bars felt too narrow, and the bend and sweep wasn't to my liking either.
It came as a surprise
Riding a bike like this actually came as a surprise. Bikes and gear are so good nowadays it’s easy to think bike reviews are fluff, that all that gets written is glowing, positive praise. There's some truth to that because we're riding in an era where bikes and kit are so thoroughly refined, so painstakingly designed, they are truly incredible. But occasionally bikes like this find their way through and they're a harsh reminder of how far we’ve come.
Ten years ago would I have sung the praises of not having any derailleurs hanging down, clanking around? Yeah, maybe, but I still would've been bummed on the ride. Times and technology have changed, and I for one am extremely thankful.
Yes, bike tech has moved on, but there are still some real lemons out there, so do a bit of research before you buy — read reviews, look at and participate in forums, and definitely go for lots of test rides.
Riding a bike that fits you and works for your style and terrain is utterly amazing, it truly can change your life. And remember, while it's thankfully pretty rare, it's still perfectly possible to get burned if you buy on looks or spec alone.