Things I Don’t Miss

Racing at Catamount around 1992. (Photo by Brett Batchelder)
Racing in the grass at Catamount around 1992. (Photo by Brett Batchelder)

The bike industry seems to be in a flurry of change lately.  Some people, myself included, are getting a little fatigued with the pace of change along with the potential nightmare of incompatiblity.  There are a lot of things that seem to be in flux with the growing number of “standards” available to choose from.  Axle lengths now vary from the old 100mm front and 135 rear to “Boost”  110mm/148mm,  to the DH 150mm- and that’s without getting into fat bikes.  Three major wheel sizes with their plus permutations add to the confusion.  Bar diameters, bottom bracket widths, headsets and more all seem to be subject to redesign with compatibility off the list of considerations.

I’ve been mountain biking since 1990 and there has always been quite a bit of that change in the industry – many of which have been genuine improvements.  With that thought, here are a few, once common, things that were victims of progress.

StemQuill stems – These did the job fairly well and had the clear advantage of giving you a little bit of height adjustment.  Of course this was of no value if the stem was used as a cable stop for the front cantilever; not an uncommon setup back then.  The down side of these stems was that you’d end up having to straighten out your front end after every significant crash.  We were all well-versed in the technique of holding the front wheel between our knees while pulling on the bars to realign the stem.

Threaded headsets – Paired with a quill stem was the threaded headset.  This was the method for keeping the fork and bearings together for decades.  The situation with the lower headset race was about the same as it is now, but the upper race threaded down and was held in place with a large nut.  Generally a couple of large, thin wrenches were required to tighten the nut against the upper race.  Get things too tight and you’d end up with tight steering and eventually pitted bearing cups and races.  Ultimately, it would lead to pits that would give the feeling that you had indexed steering.  Not fun.  Get it too loose and you’ll find your fork rattling around in the head tube about halfway into a ride.  I have finished numerous rides by hand tightening the headset every half mile or so just to get home.  It also required that manufacturers create forks in specific lengths so the threads would align with the bike’s head tube length.   The modern threadless system is amazing in its simplicity and reliability in comparison.

One inch headsets – Mountain bikes initially borrowed the one inch standard from road bikes.  This was adequate at the time, but looks utterly ridiculous by today’s standards.  There was a lot of force being directed though a pretty small area at a critical location on the bicycle.  I prefer the added strength and security of 1.5″ tapered headsets.

Adjustable cup bottom brackets – The advent of cartridge bearings, whether used in a traditional square-taper bottom bracket or the newer external bearing type, is a massive improvement in reliability.  The old system required pin spanner, a notched wrench-like tool and a large thin wrench.  It was a game of getting the tension on the bearings just right.  If you rode in wet conditions very often they required quite a bit of maintenance.  It was ugly.

IMG_4065Rim brakes – I was going to just mention cantilever brakes here, but all forms of rim brakes are better left in the past, at least for mountain biking.  Cantilever brakes were especially difficult to adjust because the clamping system allowed for free, unlimited adjustment in every plane.  You really needed four hands to do the adjustment correctly.  Even then, it was a challenge to get both brake pads aligned exactly the same.  Once the pads were aligned there was also the challenge of getting the bridge cable adjusted or the positioning of the pull cable hook.  I actually became quite good at adjusting cantilevers so that I could get stopping power at least as good as a set of V-brakes.  V-brakes were a giant leap forward in braking over cantis, but they still had some lesser challenges with pad alignment.  Both systems demanded that the wheel be absolutely true.  A warp or hop of over a millimeter could affect braking.  With disc brakes, I don’t think anyone gives a thought to the adjustment of their rims the way we used to back then.  The worst part was when a spoke broke out on the trail, leaving you with a wheel that would rub the brake pad on at least one side every single rotation.  Do enough damage and the wheel wouldn’t be able to spin at all without releasing the brakes entirely.  Even when everything was working properly, you were still dragging your braking surfaces through every mud hole and stream crossing.  There is no comparison at all in the stopping power we have with modern disc brakes.  This may be the single biggest improvement made since I started riding.

Semi-slick Tires – I don’t know who the genius was that decided that it would be a good idea to make mountain bike tires more like road bikes, but this was stupid if you rode your bike anywhere other than a well-packed race course.  It’s such an unusual coincidence that this useless trend seemed to emerge shortly after NORBA was swallowed up by USA Cycling.  You can connect those dots yourself.  I’m glad to see the trend it toward bigger rubber in general and especially the advent of plus-size wheels.

Narrow bars – This was something of a fad, but it had a pretty long life in the 90s.  It wasn’t enough that bars would come in 23″ lengths; we would pull out the pipe cutters and drop an inch or more off each end.  Sometimes this would leave just enough room for the grips, brakes and shifters on the bar and nothing else.  Not long after this trend took hold, people started clamping bar ends to the ends of their already-too-narrow bars, further crowding the cockpit.  I’m not convinced that 800mm bars are advantageous, but they make a whole lot more sense than going super narrow when you’re riding rugged terrain.

Freewheels – Before cassettes were introduced, your cogs were secured to the hub in a cluster that threaded on.  Every pedal stroke worked to tighten these threads and make the cogs more securely fastened to the hub.  The down side was when things wore out and the cogs had to be removed.  This required astronomical forces to be applied to the freewheel using a little, wimpy pin spanner tool.  It was often very frustrating.

Going fast on 1991 technology.
Going fast on 1991 technology. (Check out those bars!)

Fully rigid frames – This is one I have mixed feelings about.  There’s nothing quite as precise as the steering of a nice steel fork.  I’m also partial to the direct power transfer of a hard-tail.  Even so, there’s little question that both front and rear suspension have provided a huge improvement in the ride quality of modern bikes.  You can always opt to stay rigid, but I wouldn’t want to see the squishy option go away.

Honorable mention – Elastomer suspension, toe clips, four-finger brake levers, and bar ends.

There were many other technologies that have come and gone over the years for one reason or another.  Modern bikes have come a long way from when the sport started.  Many ideas, good and bad, were laid to rest so that better ones could take their place.  These were just the most obvious ones that I could recall.  I’m sure long time shop mechanics and riders could add some more things to this list and might even debate the ones I have here.  What did I miss?

A VAST Perspective

[Originally posted on MTBVT.com]

VAST signIt’s no secret that fat biking has really taken off over the past couple of years, especially for riding in the winter months.   Somehow, this weird little niche has become the fastest growing segment of the bicycle market.  I was immediately hooked the first time I was able to borrow one and pedal around on the snow.  The potential for expanding the riding season to include the long Vermont winters was an extremely enticing prospect.  If you like mountain biking, it’s very difficult to understate the level of pure enjoyment these big, heavy, slow bikes bring.  I now look forward to the winter biking season almost as much as I do summer.

With more people getting out on the snow, there comes the inevitable challenge of finding some trails to ride.  Several groups have stepped up to the task, creating bike specific trails in the winter months – everything from organizations like Kingdom Trails and some Nordic ski centers to the odd groups of individuals that are willing to put in the sweat and effort to pack down single-tracks in the snow using snowshoes or other means.  It’s a situation that has been improving every year, but the available opportunities are still found only in various pockets scattered around the state.

That's some serious coverage.
That’s some serious coverage.

Looming in the background behind all this is an almost irresistible temptation stretching out all over Vermont with around 5000 miles of well- maintained winter trails.  The Vermont Association of Snow Travellers (VAST) has been around for well over 40 years developing and maintaining their trail system with the participation of numerous local clubs.  There’s hardly a town in Vermont where you cannot find access to these trails.

While I’d love to be able to jump into a glowing endorsement for riding on these trails, I can’t.  From all technical perspectives, they more than fit the bill for great winter biking terrain.  Unfortunately, the reality is that, with a very few specific exceptions, we don’t rightfully have permission to ride there.  I know that it’s pretty easy to find a fellow mountain biker who has, at least occasionally, ridden on the VAST trails at one time or another, if you haven’t done so yourself.  It’s one of those somewhat unspoken activities that is often viewed as a bit of a grey area.  I’ve even seen articles in regional publications suggesting biking on local snowmobile trails as an option.  I’m not attempting to take the moral high ground here; I’m guilty of occasionally giving in to this temptation myself.

As our numbers grow, our activities are being noticed more often by snowmobilers.  Just this week I had a co-worker mention that there was some discussion about fat bikes on the trails in Vermont on one of the bigger on-line snowmobile forums.  While it wasn’t really negative, on the whole, it’s an issue that will need to be addressed sooner or later by the biking community before it becomes a real problem.  In some states in the mid-west, there has been quite a bit of hostility between the two user groups.  Thankfully we have managed to avoid that fate, so far.

It’s important to be crystal clear about one thing before going any further with this discussion: these trails are their trail network, not ours.  VAST and its members have invested a lot of time and money to get things where they are today.  Many people do the hard work of clearing trails, putting up signs, creating maps and grooming these trails.  Then there’s the even bigger job of working with government agencies and land owners all over the state to keep them open.  This is done both as a state-wide organization and more directly by each of the individual clubs.  This is much like mountain bikers have done with the various mountain bike clubs and summer trail systems around Vermont.

To put this in perspective, try to see it from their point of view.  Mentally, pick your favorite mountain bike trail system.  Now, how would you feel about another group vying for access to it?  Maybe you helped invest in it’s development by paying membership fees, and possibly even kicked in some sweat and effort on some trail maintenance days.   Would you be okay with hikers trying to get official access to use those trails?  How about horses?  4-wheelers?  To approach the question about whether or not we belong on these trails should be done with some humility and some expectation that we will contribute something that will benefit both groups.

Trail

Personally, I feel that fat bikes could coexist with snow machines without lessening the experience for either group.  With some reasonable guidelines and education many of the potential conflicts between snowmobiles and bikes could be largely eliminated.

I think many winter bikers would gladly pay the regular fees for a VAST pass (TMA) in order to be able to use the trail system, just as we do for summer memberships.  Right now, this is not an option, even for those of us who would like to pay our fair share.  This shouldn’t be viewed as a “pay to play” option as much as it is contributing something back to help with the expenses involved in maintaining these trails.  Even though our low-psi tires and low power output create almost no impact on the trails, groomers still consume a lot of fuel.  Liability insurance isn’t free either.  Enforcement should be handled just like it is for snowmobilers who ride without a TMA.

Some thoughts on what might constitute reasonable guidelines: Bikes should yeild to sleds; Stay to the right side of the trail; Ride single-file.  There are likely others that would need to be considered.  Of course, this would be the bicycle specific guidelines in addition to the code of ethics that VAST expects from its members.  Most of this would be necessary to avoid injury for both the bikers and those riding a snow machine.  There is a big disparity in speed that brings some safety concerns.  Some of the busier trails might not be appropriate for bike use and would need to be unavailable to bikes or limited to off-peak hours.

Ultimately, we are looking for many of the same things in our recreation while enjoying all that the great outdoors in Vermont has to offer.  Contrary to the perception that many get from interacting with bicycles on the roads, most bicyclists have no desire to impede the enjoyment of other trail users.  We’re generally a pretty laid back group and can relate to the enjoyment that other trail users get in their own way.  Nobody wants to create any animosity between fat bikers and snowmobile riders.

As I mentioned earlier, winter fat biking is a rapidly growing activity and could help support the efforts of VAST and local clubs.  We have had our own experiences with gaining trail access and a culture of contributing to see these interests maintained has been developed over the years.  Fat biking could become another significant part of Vermont’s winter tourism opportunities.  Things like organized inn to inn treks could be a real draw and a great experience even for those of us who live here throughout the year.  Vermont has an opportunity to do this right with some careful thought.  I’m aware than VMBA and some other mountain bike organizations have already engaged with the snowmobile groups, at least on some level.  Hopefully, more discussion can occur and we can build some agreement that will avoid the contention over trail use that has become a problem elsewhere.