So much depends upon a reddish-brown bicycle: namely, the comfort of your ass on a rough trail. So how do modern mountain bikes take the grunt out of backwoods biking?
If we’re talking about the Bionicon Supershuttle, above, the answer is pneumatics. The German-built Supershuttle is pursuing one of the modern fronts of bike technology: adjustable shocks that adapt to the terrain. I’m not talking about air shocks–bikes have been using air and oil shocks for decades. These are shocks that move–picture the air shocks that car gurus install on their old Chevys, and you’ll get the idea.
Unlike this hoopty, the Bionicon has an air system that goes beyond stuntin’ and flossin’. You see, the venerable mountain bike has always had a problem: There are lots of different types of “mountains” that a rider can choose from, and no bike can suit them all. The Bionicon system aims to fix this by combining several bikes in one, and getting thousands of your dollars that would otherwise be spent on a shealth of two or three mountain bikes for different terrains.
The problem is this: Old, rigid bikes (like this 1820 edition, below, called a “draisine“) aren’t so comfortable on unpaved roads. As you can see by the diagram below, these things were downright deadly to an unprotected crotch — hit one cobblestone and kiss your future progeny goodbye.
The first solution to this problem was balloon tires, which sucked up bumps well enough. But in the 1970s, a bunch of Bay Area hippies began bombing down Mount Tamalpais with old Schwinns, and they realized that fat tires and coaster brakes just weren’t going to cut it. Guys like Gary Fisher, now head of the eponymous bike company, started modifying their old Schwinns to take more abuse, adding hand-pull brakes, multiple gears, and eventually suspension forks pulled from old motorcycles. For a time, this worked well enough at protecting these riders’ nuts and bolts.
Then Fisher and his hippy friends began to try to pedal these bikes back up the hill. They found that having a squishy suspension fork sucked all the juice out of their pedal strokes–every time they pressed down on the pedals, the fork bobbed up and down, like in the video below. They reacted by working out more, but engineering nerds weren’t satisfied by this solution.
This problem became worse with dual suspension bikes, which had shocks on both the front and back of the bike; dual suspension bikes sucked up more rough stuff and let you go faster, but there were suddenly two shocks gobbling up all your pedaling energy. Now the engineering nerds had a goal: a full suspension bike that could pedal as well as a bike with no suspension at all. Companies like Fox addressed bob by developing shocks with complex dampening valves (below) that tried to deaden small shock strokes while remaining sensitive to big impacts.
Other companies like Manitou developed “platform” valve shocks that used directional valves to discern peddle-induced bob from impacts at the wheel. All these solutions worked well, but they made the shock a lot less sensitive to small, jittery bumps. Industry prodigies like Dave Weagle tried to out-engineer pedal bob with normal shocks and complex linkages that “cancelled out” the bobbing motion without sacrificing braking or shock-absorption.
On bikes meant for all-around trails, called cross-country bikes, all these solutions were pretty satisfying. But for heavy-duty bikes meant for bombing down the gnarliest of terrain, the problem of pedal bobbing remains. And as young invincible riders build and conquer more insane obstacles (and video them, and set them to fulminant indie rock), they want to be able to ride their huge gnarly bikes out into the woods and ride them back without throwing up from exertion. For the last few years, that hasn’t really been possible; most of the bikes capable of taking serious abuse needed a ski lift to get to the top of a mountain.
The folks at Bionicon think they’ve got it all figured out, and indeed, they’re slowly winning over skeptics. The Bionicon works like this: when you’re climbing up a hill, you press a button on the handlebar and lean forward. That shrinks down the front shock til its short and stiff, making steep ascents easier. When you’re ready to descend, you hit the button again and lean back; the bike becomes slack and squishy again. Check out this delightfully Saxon video that shows how it all works.
Provided you can remember to hit the button at the appropriate times, the system works; I’ve ridden one and it does indeed do double duty as a capable climber and a descender. The only problem is that having a multi-purpose bike leaves few excuses for buying yet more bikes–a popular pasttime for cycling nerds. But if you’re of the minimalist ilk and you want a bike that can pedal all day and eat six-foot drops for dinner, then the Bionicon Supershuttle can be had for around $4,000; other models are less expensive. You can find local dealers here.
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