...but, small changes can make a big difference, was my pleasant and surprising discovery.
Frustrated with my unsuitable marathon bike on the trails, I sold a piano to buy an aluminum, middle of the range trail bike.
My first instagram post read like this: "Thor the thunderbolt born today in the #harkerville forest. Weight: not important. Ride: the best one EVER!! #mtb #knysna
And the truth is, at that stage weight did not seem important at all when compared to the superior handling the bike had to my previous marathon machine. I was thrilled with my new steed, but a year down the line I began to feel the strain as I pushed on to do tougher, more technical rides with stronger, more capable riders. There’s nothing like being pinched in the back on a long hard slog to make you browse online for a newer, better, dare I say it…carbon speed machine!
A reality check with my bank balance made me realize that I will have quench my trail blazing thirst in a more creative fashion. And just like a pedicure can make you feel like a supermodel, pimping my bike was a facelift.
Here is how I did it:
1. Shorter stem, wider bars
I started off with a fairly average 725mm aluminum handlebar and a 80mm stem which came stock with the bike.
Going with a shorter stem and wider with a carbon handlebar made the biggest difference of all the tweaks I did. A little further down the line and eager to experiment, I replaced the 80mm with a much shorter 50mm stem. Immediately the steering felt more responsive and my cornering felt precise and controlled. My biggest surprise came during any technical climbing which was much more efficient with the shorter reach on a bike with a relatively long top tube!
Even tall women (I am 6ft on the dot) have a significantly shorter upper body than most men, and I often face the dilemma of having to ride a bigger sized frame to accommodate my long legs, only to have my back stretched like a hammock over the top tube. With these simple tweaks to my cockpit, I had found a solution. Finally my days of a floating front wheel are numbered. I’m so stoked with my new set-up that I’ve also changed my marathon bike with a similar configuration! The latest 35mm handlebar and stem diameter offering from Raceface definitely makes for stiffer handling, especially on the more gnarly descents.
2. Flats instead of cleats
Making this mind shift did not come without resistance. Sceptical by nature, and cleated in for years on my neat lightweight super stiff carbon-soled shoes, why would I try flats? With a little prompt, I decided to give it a go.
I was sold on the first ride.
The sensation of dropping the full weight of my body through the platform of the pinned pedal, was a force I’m unable to resist. That awesome grounded feeling through a corner, and the confidence of knowing that a foot can kick out easily made me try new tricks all the time. Combined with the super grippy stealth rubber on my fiveten shoes, (highly recommended for new riders), gives you a much more grippy and controlled ride than tekkies and horrible commuter pedals or vintage toe clips. Since it teaches you the right technique from the start, it makes your ride safer too.
I have since swopped my heavy secondhand over-used pedals for sleek new lightweight DMR V12 magnesium pedals with pins that could kill a porcupine, and was blown away by the improved stickiness and better rear control with my lighter backside;) The pedalling was also noticeably easier as the lighter pedals minimize the rotational weight, which according to many, is a big factor in overall efficiency.
So.. I’ve ordered some sleek new carbon cranks to match, and I can’t wait to test them with this new set-up, will keep you posted!
3. Wider rims and stickier tyres
A few years ago, if you were a serious mountain biker, you had crest rims, right? Me too! Not so much anymore, especially if wet, slick tree roots cross your path all the time or rocks were rearranged after a flash flood on your favourite downhill. Enter the wider, flatter 28mm internal rims that allows for more knobbly, wider tyres (2,3" and more). Putting the bike down on a corner is finally happening without having that wobbly air bulge in the tyre, which inspires confidence while also making it safer. The most important contact point with the ground is tacky and it sticks. The ride is smooth and fun, as it should be.
4. Dropper Post
Just try it once. Drop your saddle on a technical descent, manually.
Feel the shift in how you control the centre of your gravity and you’ll want one too. The joy of watching the XC boys eat your dust is secondary, not to mention the added bonus of no more thigh bruises.
Now my trusty trail bike has never ridden better. A few adjustments and upgrades and "he" feels like a totally rejuvenated bike. With the correct advice and some research I was able to transform my "average" trail bike into a far more capable and lively ride, without sacrificing my pedicures;)
So, we all want new bikes, but sometimes a little tweak will make you fall in love with your current "Thor" all over again.