Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Pivot Mach 429 (2010)

I had every intention of spending the 2015 mountain biking season with a hardtail. I'd never even ridden a bike with any suspension at all, and thought it would be wise to start in the front and work my way back over time. 

Then I went to St. George, Utah, and rented a Specialized Camber Comp for a week, and had more fun than I'd ever had on a mountain bike. Within three days, I could ride things I never thought possible. When I got back to dear ol’ New England, I broke out the laptop and began shopping for a full-suspension bike. 

I looked at every brand on the market. They were all delicious, and ridiculously expensive. So, I turned to the last refuge of the limited budget: eBay. There I tripped over the Pivot, a company I’d barely heard of. I did some research on company guru Chris Cocalis, a bit of a Steve Jobs figure in the MTB world. He knows a lot about a lot: fabrication, engineering, drivetrain parts, framebuilding, you name it, he’s done it. He co-founded Titus, a once-fabled brand that put out highly-respected machines for the cognescenti. When he left and started Pivot, he got players like Shimano and Dave Weagle (suspension engineer extrarodnaire) to develop parts specific to Pivot's bikes. His designs have the reputation of being painstakingly crafted. The 2010 Mach 429— the bike I saw on eBay—got rave reviews everywhere I looked. 

Sensing a total-package opportunity at bargain-basement prices, I pressed "go" on PayPal, and in a week, I was drooling all over the electric blue paint job and matching spokes (and headset spacers, and hubs, and valve covers; Pivot sweats the details).

Right out of the box, the bike was exciting: gorgeous, well-balanced, responsive. 

Beyond that, it took a while to get the Pivot dialed in. All the bells and whistles on the suspension (especially the adjustable 95 to 120 mm Fox TALAS fork) were a bit much at the start. After a few weeks of fiddling, I got close enough on all counts that the bike began to feel like “home.” Since then, I've fallen more in love with the bike with every ride. My other bikes are feeling very neglected.

Pivot especially prides itself on the lateral stiffness of its machines, thanks in large part to their custom DW Link pivot (bearing Dave Weagle’s initials, of course). The bike is, indeed, stiff as a board laterally. I rode fully rigid all last year, and I know how responsive a mountain bike can feel; locked out, this bike nearly equals that feeling. It seems like all of my effort goes directly into the wheels.

Yet the suspension and overall ride is sublime. Dialed in, it gives me confidence in turns and reasonable comfort over tough obstacles. It has simply intuitive response, and rarely breaks away when I don't want it to, but I can flick the bike more or less as I wish. As an old roadie, I appreciate a suspension system that disappears underneath me, leaving me feeling confident and absorbed in the ride.

Of course, no suspension system is perfect, and I have a few niggles. The TALAS has a reputation for being harsh in small-bump scenarios, and I’ve found that many one-inch roots in rapid succession do yield harshness. In an ideal world, I'd have a straight-up 120 mm Fox fork. I only use the 95 mm setting for long climbs with lots of tight squeezes. Combined with the steep head tube angle, I find steep descents at that setting too dicey. I generally leave it at 120, where it's easy to loft the front wheel over obstacles, yet isn't hard to keep grounded on the steeps. What with the generally short climbs in the Northeast, I don't like reaching down to the fork crown to change the suspension every time the trail turns up or down (especially in addition to adjusting front and rear suspension).

As for the shock, the only adjustment I fiddled with much after getting sag set up is the ProPedal knob. This changes how open the shock is when the ProPedal is on—from fairly stiff to fairly cushy. Though it's true that more efficient pedaling generally brings a harsher ride, I find little compromise in the middle of the three settings. It works so well in so many situations, I often leave it there after a climb, unless the descent will be long and hairy. One less lever to worry about is a big plus.

I don't know if they were original, but the Specialized Captain 2.0 tires the Pivot came with broke away on nearly any challenging terrain, even set up tubeless. It didn’t take long to decide to mount my sweetheart tires from last year’s fully-rigid escapade—Maxxis Ardents (2.4” front and 2.25” back). Suffice to say, I still adore them. The Ardents handle nearly everything with aplomb. If I know the trail will be relatively buff, I’ll bump ‘em up to 30-plus psi; I find them plenty fast in that scenario. 

With pedals and a bottle cage, the bike weighed in at my LBS at 28 pounds, not bad for such a smooth ride, though not the lightest for a cross-country bike at the heady 2010 sticker price of $4250.00. I’m fine with the weight; first of all, it climbs so responsively that I almost don’t feel it. Also, I recently did a couple of runs with the Mach on a fancy bike park downhill trail, and felt confident enough to get air over and over. The solidity of the bike added to my confidence.

Contributing to overall lightness are the 680-millimeter Syntace carbon bars, which sit comfortably between all-mountain-ripper and sapling-squeezer widths. The carbon portions of the DW Link help out, too, and you can subtract a few grams for the unbelievably smooth XTR shifters. Other high-end spec includes Hope Tech brakes and Industry 9 hubs and spokes. If you don't know about these companies, it's worth doing a little research. 

I don’t know if there are many versions of the early Mach 429 on the market, so I can only hope this review will be informative to those considering other years, or even a current model. The closest bike Pivot currently makes is the Mach 429 Trail, with 120-130 mm of travel, a Boost 148 rear hub, and full carbon frame. Anyone who can take a trail bike to its limits should take seriously the claims in the video on this page.

If you're considering a Pivot, know this: I’m falling more and more in love every day with a five-year-old model… which is easily that much ahead of its time.

Maybe Chris Cocalis really is that mad genius in a castle tower on a stormy night...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

No-mind Mountain Biking

I've been meditating again lately.

I did it for years back in the 90s and early 2000s, then got distracted. It's great to be back. When I sit down for a morning meditation, I feel oddly like I do before I climb on my mountain bike at the trailhead: a sense of anticipation. "Let's see what this brings!" I look forward to the challenge of allowing discomfort or relaxation or numbness to arise and pass, without shooting off into worries about the day, or thoughts of when this will be over. 

Full awareness is one of those undersold treasures of life: It doesn't cost a penny, yet even a drop of it enriches my life immensely.

One of the places it does that is on the trail. It's long been fashionable in mountain biking circles to talk about the Zen of riding. For me, that's more than a metaphor. Let’s look at a ride at my local haunt after work recently:

Swooping through a turn I used to skid through on the brakes, my heightened alertness allows me to notice my center of gravity shift slightly forward to stay over the bottom bracket. I press my feet into the pedals at the apex of the turn, and  feel the weight coming off my hands just a tad, the tires sinking into the dirt, and the front wheel adjusting its turn angle minutely in each part of the turn. Best of all, none of this is calculated; it just happens—again and again, turn after turn. I feel like I’m surfing. Because my mind isn't clouded with worry about my abilities, I swoosh over rocks and roots I used to walk around.

As a beginner, I've absorbed many technique tutorials that sometimes when I ride, my mind is like a swarm of gnats. Those well-meaning guides can make a simple sweeping turn into brain surgery. In those precious moments when my mind is off-duty and I'm tuned into my body, that turn becomes a sensual experience. My body teaches itself what it needs to cooperate with the bike, with the terrain, with gravity. All those elements become a river, flowing smoothly downhill.

Is this refreshing emptiness of mind a benefit of riding so much that the complex parts of technique come together on their own? Or has this leap come from my increase in awareness off the bike? There's no answer in that chicken-and-egg question, and I'm not asking. I'm too absorbed in the moment -- this rock to hop, this slight dip to pump, this opening of the trail at the bottom of the hill, where I zoom out into the clearing and let out a whoop, exhilarated and rested at the same time.

Tomorrow morning will find me sitting in my room, marinating in the silence, letting go into the adventure.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Backdoor Wild

On a weekend camping trip 1.5 hours from our house
I’ve been reading a bit of Alastair Humphreys’ wonderful blog today, and thinking about wildness.

Humphries is a professional adventurer with all kinds of major expeditions under his belt, including cycling around the world and sailing solo across the Atlantic. After writing and talking about these for a few years, he realized that most of the people who loved his work never got to do the grand adventures he specialized in. So he changed career directions, and started undertaking what he calls microadventures: small escapes not far from where you live. They don’t cost much, don’t require much time off, and are scalable to one’s skills and fitness. He says this idea has really taken off with his readers.

After perusing his thoughts this morning, I did a few hours of work, changed, and rode off to the local trail I use for quick weekday morning rides. It’s just a mile or two from my door. I adore this trail, almost too much. Sometimes I have to avoid riding it for a week or two, because I get tired of it. I know where every rock and root is. Today was my first time back after such a break.

It was a sunny, humid day, but not overbearing; just enough to create that deep summer feeling. I was sore and tired from recent hard rides, so I decided to take it easy up the climbs. Moving slower and breathing easier, I was able to notice that the light is changing as we move into August, becoming more stark and silvery, a little taste of the amazing autumn light in New England. Ferns were dark green, lush, and thick throughout the lower, parkland portions of the reservation.

At the top of the trail, resisting the thought that I “should” pedal through and start the descent right away (the tough-guy thing to do), I dismounted, leaned the bike against a tree, and took a few minutes to open my senses and take in what Momma Nature had laid out for me this morning. A woodpecker was taking single, isolated whacks at a tree not too far away. Odd—they’re usually fast as jackhammers. The water in the vernal pool far below the trail was scant, dark with tannins, and green with seepage from soaked vegetation. Late summer was showing off everywhere I looked.

I asked myself, as I took in the deep colors and soft sounds, how much farther away from civilization I’d need to be to feel satisfied at that moment. The answer, at that moment, was “I’m satisfied here and now.”

Wild is where you find it. In the right frame of mind, I’ve found it in a vestpocket park in Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong; all kinds of great benefits come from creating a novel-length packing list and launching off to parts untouched by humans. But many of those boons can be had, in smaller but much more frequent doses, a mile or two from my house.

Maybe yours, too.
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Five Ways to Have Fun with Unfit Riders

I'm not a fast or skilled bike rider, either on road or trail. Over the years, I've been slowly making peace with this. But sometimes, those who are quick and deft seem determined to rub it in my face with their cheerful competence.

As if it weren't annoying enough to ride with people who are way fitter, and, in mountain biking, way more graceful that you, those people often have an uncanny talent for saying and doing insulting things. My theory is that people who are naturally talented are blessed with a blissful ignorance of what it means to struggle on a bike. They usually make miserable teachers and coaches, because they have no idea what they're doing that makes them so phenomenal. As the old saying goes, "Those who can't do, teach"—because they put long hours of practice and thought into whatever small advantage have.

If you're one of those talented folks, well, I'm just so happy for you! To reward you for your undeserved, inborn specialness, I'm offering up a few ways you can add to your fun when you're out there with a lesser rider. All of the following have happened to me at least once:
  • Take them to a technically demanding trail, and then assure them that, despite their dire misgivings, they can handle it. As reassurance and a way to question their courage, mention the 73-year-old grandmother who regularly rides that trail—on a rigid singlespeed. Be assertive; sometimes, healthy, rational fear can be difficult to overcome. I ended up with a bruised femur this way, a bunch of years back.
  • When they balk at riding a feature you just sailed over, say, "Wow, I thought I was the one who had trouble with that kind of thing!" A rider once said this to me on our very first ride together.
  • Invite them for their first road ride with you and a friend, and then take off out of sight with your friends when they lag a bit. For extra credit, fall into your habitual paceline with your friend, and then just roll out again without a word when they finally catch up with you at the intersection where you're waiting for them. 
  • When they're suffering like a dog on a long, steep climb, get to the top ahead of them—and then sail back down and ride up again, right next to them, chatting away, and asking questions they can't answer in their hypoxic state. If they say they're about to vomit, it's especially helpful to ask, "Do you have that metallic taste in the back of your throat?"
  • If they get a flat, grab the pump out of their hands and loudly announce, "I have tons of experience with flats, it'll be faster for the group if I do this." For bonus points, neglect to center the brakes on their road bike after you re-mount the wheel. What hijinx! They'll puzzle over their abysmal fitness while trying to keep up with the group, only to find out later that their brakes were dragging.
There are so many more ways to have fun with your unfit friends. Feel free to post them here and share!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

One More Version of the Mukluk: Hardtail 29er

I guess you could say that I backed my way into this whole mountain biking thing.

Two Januaries ago, I test-rode a Salsa Mukluk fat bike, and had so much fun, I bought the thing within the week. I spent that winter floating on snowmo trails in the beautiful farm country I call home.

Toward the spring of 2014, I had Will Systsma at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange build me a pair of dishless 29er wheels on extra-wide hubs, to fit the Mukluk frame. I wandered out on the fine single-track of Western mass and spent the summer trying to learn how to mountain bike with a very rigid bike (like, with an aluminum frame and fork and super-stiff wheels):
 Late in the season, I threw on the fat front wheel to minimize some of the New England trail abuse and keep the light front end down on climbs. This was quite a fun iteration, allowing me to carve and bomb trails with a little more authority. I also loved the double-takes it got at the trail-head:
Fat-front Mukluk
As this spring was approaching, I had the shop order and mount a 100mm Rockshox Bluto fork, the first suspension fork manufactured especially for fat bikes. We mounted the non-fat wheels with it, and for the last month, since the trails started drying, I've been riding a hard-tail 29er:
A very wide stance for the stanchions
Most experienced riders have probably done that whole sequence of wheels in a very different order, but two things have always been true of yours truly: 1) I'm either late or early to every fad; and 2) I never, ever do things the easy way.

I haven't had a ton of experience with suspension forks, so if you've come here for a comparative statement about the Bluto versus your Reba or Fox Float 32, you should Google that, and satisfy your soul. (Spoiler alert: The comparisons are mostly complimentary, with a minority complaining about flex in the Bluto's long, skinny legs.) Speaking for myself, with some time to tinker with the sometimes-contradictory functions of air pressure, rebound, and compression, I've begun to figure out how this newfangled suspension-fork thingy helps stuff like turning, rough terrain riding, and so forth.

There are some oddities to this set-up; after all, we're talking about a converted fat bike here. First, the Mukluk's 68.5 degree head tube angle is slacker than most 29er hardtails (and a lot of full-sus bikes); combine that with the long wheel base, and the bike is squarely in the trail-bike geometry range, but without the usual rear shock. This relaxed front end makes me feel confident attacking rocks and logs, although I do get a lot of saddle bucking from the rigid back as a result.

The relaxed head tube angle also means that I have to get lower and lean the bike more for turns. Tight New England switchbacks, in particular, are a challenge; the bike has an tangential tendency that I'm still learning to correct, via extra leaning and hip twisting. By comparison, when I rode the ridiculously fun and agile Jamis Dragon Pro last fall—a bike with 20 mm more travel up front, but a way shorter wheelbase and chain stays, and, of course, smaller wheels (27.5 inches) I found, even with my beginner skills, that I could telepathically weave through narrow chicanes and switchbacks.
2014 Jamis Dragon Pro
Finally, I'm not experienced enough to judge the nuances of how the stiff, dishless rear wheel, in combination with the stiff aluminum chainstays, affect handling. I'm guessing they provide a lot of support for standing and hammering on the pedals, but might make choppy terrain a little less forgiving than would, for example, a steel hardtail with a standard-dish wheel.

These quirks aside (and what bike doesn't have its trade-offs?) I'm having a blast on the new set-up, and my riding is improving. I may still be in the market for an affordable dual-suspension bike (because my middle-aged body and modest athletic talent will make the most of it) but for the non, I'm happily reeling in the learning and the miles on my unique Mukluk hardtail. Look for me out there, and, as always, get out and ride!
Making the most of a new fork and a sloppy early spring