Beginner Mountain Bike
During the crew’s annual trip to Interbike, I hatched the idea of spending some time riding some familiar trails on an honestly entry level mountain bike. These are not the bikes that brands take to Outdoor Demo for bike snobs to ride, or for consumers to try out at Fat Tire Festivals. This makes sense from a marketing angle (riding any other bike after spending time on a brand’s flagship seems like a compromise), but doesn’t really let a person get a grip on what mountain biking is like on a budget. If you spend any time ogling bikes on the internet, trolling through the pages of the typical mountain bike magazine or listening to the sales person at your local bike shop, it is easy to believe that a bike needs to set back your bank account by a good $2000 before you hit the trail. This may hold true if you insist on starting your hobby with a full suspension ride, but in reality, a hard tail is a good place to start as a beginner. Why plunk down all that hard earned cash before you realize that you get too scared when descending, hate suffering up a hill or trying to tune your ride trailside when things aren’t working correctly? An entry level hard tail allows you to dip your toe in the pool, and worse case scenario you sell it cheaply on Craigslist or end up with a nice winter commuter.
First of all, by entry level bike I am not talking about the bike shaped objects that can be purchased at your corner box store. Riding one of those on the trail, if not outright dangerous, would at the least be miserable. I am referring to the low priced hard tail mountain bikes available from almost every manufacturer that sells bikes to actual shops. They are not the rides in the front window, and it may take some time to convince a shop employee to show you one (spendier bikes mean more money in the till, and that is what shop owner’s want). My shop carries Breezer mountain bikes, the company that produced the first bicycle specifically designed for off road use. I sold several of their $549 Storm 29’ers last year, and decided to put my money where my mouth is. If I am going to honestly sell these bikes to customers, I should know what I am doing, for better or worse. So this fall when the 2015 line became available, I ordered the top of the line Breezer for myself, and an entry level hard tail for the shop.
I did not opt for the $549 version, instead I spent a little more and opened the box of a $660 Breezer Storm Sport 27. I really like this brand, but it is not as important as the price tag…. although there are some variances, components tend to be the same across brands at similar price points. I spent the extra $120 because it upgraded to Shimano hydraulic brakes, a Deore rear derailleur and the not bottom of the line Suntour fork. I made two modifications: I swapped out the stem for something a bit shorter, and replaced the stock plastic pedals with some flats that were a bit beefier.
A beautiful autumn day presented itself and since I had no plans for the afternoon, I decided the time was right to take this machine to the trail and see how it would perform. It was a little exciting, I felt like I was returning to my mountain biking roots, and going home always feels good. Some major differences between this and the old Raleigh M-50 I started on: disc brakes instead of canti-levers (can’t stop, won’t stops), flats instead of toe clips, a suspension fork, and 27.5 tires…. a little bit better fitting, but at 6’3″ I still like bigger wheels. A nice aluminum frame and a saddle that wasn’t as bad with some chamois between it and my sensitive behind. I picked through my wardrobe for some subdued threads so I won’t stand out too much, and rode off to find a suitable trail.
My usual Betasso/Benjamin trek involves several loops of each, but with this experiment I decided to be a little conservative: riding up Fourmile to the Benjamin Connector, Benjamin in the direction indicated to the Betasso connector, following the arrow to Betasso, and then the part I was most interested in: the dreaded Canyon Link. I locked out the front fork and started out. More on this later, but the first thing I have to say is that the flat pedals were not as bad as I had imagined them to be on the road climb. I got to the Benjamin Connector and decided to aim the poor bike down the first staircase. About half way down I felt like the fork was bouncing my front end all over. D’oh, the old “forgot to unlock the suspension fork” trick. A quarter second of chagrin mixed with panic, a deep breath, and I completed the descent. I stopped immediately and unlocked that sucker. I was not so brave on the stone staircase, and walked down to the creek, where I took my only picture to document the ride:
Thanks to the flood, this is a bridge to nowhere.
The rest of the ride was pleasant. Riding Betasso on the weekend is not something I do frequently, especially not in the middle of the day. There are lots of users out there, from high speed demons racing Strava to families having their first singe track adventure. It is a great place to watch other riders, but not my ideal. Climbing on this bike was decent, it was on the downhill sections where I felt I was pushing this bike past it’s limits. This is not really a weakness of the bike as it wasn’t intended for a rider like me, and it did make me feel like maybe I have managed to improve as a rider over the last 2000 miles.
- The flat pedals I had aren’t the greatest, but I think I am going to have to give flats a better chance.
- A Deore rear derailleur matched to Acera shifters handled the ups and downs well, although the chain slap on the front derailleur was a little disconcerting at high speed.
- The lockout on the front fork worked well, I didn’t expect too much from this model and it was adequate.
- 27.5 wheels are pretty sweet. Although they are a little small for my stature, the bike was still pleasant to ride. This may be the Goldilocks of wheel size for most riders.
- For all the talk of the stiffness offered by new bottom bracket styles, I didn’t notice the square taper behaving badly. Over the long term this could be an issue, as I have been terrible on crank sets over the years.
- I didn’t care for the chain slap, I will put the bike in the stand later and try to figure out how it became so exaggerated.
- The fork started to show it’s limitations on high speed descents, not encouraging the rider to try any aerial maneuvers.
- The front chainrings are riveted instead of bolted on, preventing replacement of the rings. This is not a practice I like, although it does help with the price point.
- On this bike, I would recommend replacing parts as they wear out, with a little upgrade. I like Alivio and Deore components when it comes to bang for the buck. The biggest shortcoming is in the front end as there are not many forks to upgrade to as the frame requires a non-tapered steer tube, and there aren’t many 27.5 forks with that option.
I am impressed enough that I recommend this bike for a beginner. Why spend over a $1000 on a sport when you are just starting out. At this price you can still afford some of the other things you will need : a pair of chamois (but for humanity’s sake where baggies over them), a multi-tool, pump, spare tube, a hydration pack, trail guide book, and membership to BMA (without them, there is no place to enjoy single track) and perhaps a nice pint of beer after the ride with a friend. No, this bike is not going to cut it for an “advanced” rider, but for the beginner or for a person that has had a few years off trail, this bike delivers a great ride for a good value.