Monday, January 4, 2010

Ask an Expert. . .category racer

Well, reader, it is time for a new, hopefully recurring section here on the blog: Ask an Expert . . . category racer. Write us to ask about training, tuning, washing, wrenching, adjusting, maintaining, practicing, strategy, technique, nutrition, equipment, apparel or anything else cycling related or otherwise.

email your questions to

Our first ever question comes from Michael in Charleston, WV.

Michael Asks:

Hey, I saw your profile on and wanted to ask you a mountain bike question from a newbie. I live in Charleston and have been riding my road bike for the past three years around the state, and I think I am ready to make the leap into mountain biking and hopefully one day get into racing. I am a fan of keeping it easy, so I will probably remove all things that can break – so I am thinking about a hardtail – probably a rigid fork, and my question for you is what are your thoughts about a 1X9 set up. I know I do not have the legs for a single speed, but do you think a newbie could enjoy myself with a 1X9 at kanawaha state forest, or should I go up to the granny gears and run a 2 or 3X8 or 9.

Thanks, I appreciate your time and maybe I will see you on a trail next year.

Answer from Robbie:


Thanks for the question. You're right that a hardtail will be lower maintenance than a full suspension, but I think I would stop there with simplifications. Companies have been pouring research and development dollars into suspension technology and as a result, suspension forks--even less expensive ones--have gotten to be very durable. Suspension helps keep your wheels on the ground, and as you might guess it is hard to steer or slow down when your front wheel is bouncing all around. I used to ride rigid quite a bit and trust me, your wrists will thank you. However, the rear suspension does tend to add a lot of weight and complexity (and cost) to a bicycle.

I've done a fair bit of riding at Kanawa State Forest and for that terrain I'd recommend running a triple. Sure, you usually just leave it in the middle ring, but having that granny gear for some of the steeps in KSF, or when your buddies take you out for an hour ride that ends up being 4 hour epic will be worth the extra weight and complexity. Usually shifting problems are much more prevalent in the rear than in the front since there is more of a chance for the derailleur to get knocked out of adjustment or for the cable and housing to become contaminated (or for a stick to rip the derailleur off). Just keeping your drivetrain clean and adjusted will do more to fend off breakages than eliminating the front derailleur and shifter. Plus, almost every bike made now comes with a suspension fork and a triple chainring, which means simplifying might be more expensive anyway.

If you're looking for a new bike to start out with and are on a budget, I'd recommend something like the Cannondale F7, which is around $600. It comes with a very durable parts spec for a bike in its price range and has a lot of good parts that will really make a difference. It has a suspension fork with a lockout, and Avid brand mechanical disc brakes, which are the best when it comes to inexpensive disc brakes.

If you're looking to take a step up in terms of price and performance, something like the Cannondale Trail SL 29er, coming in just under $1,000 (the website publishes a slightly inflated price). I've been riding a 29er for the last three years and have just fallen in love with the way they roll over obstacles. They do a lot to smooth out the trail compared to a traditional 26" wheeled hardtail. They are a little heavier, but the increased stability and traction more than make up for it. This bike has a lot of bang for your buck and is nice enough to last you years of hard riding.

Past that, the more you pay, the more you get, up until around the $3,500 price point. For that price you get almost all the performance of the most expensive models. Above 3,500 you're mostly paying to save weight.

Of course, one of the best ways to get into something like this (or at least make sure you'll like it) is to find a good used bike on the cheap. Ideally you're looking for a bike with disc brakes and front suspension with a lockout. Disc brakes have done more for the overall performance of the mountainbike than any other technological improvement in the last decade.

Have fun in your search and especially on the trail. Mountainbiking is really a pleasure that will also help your road riding. Hope to see you on the trail this year.