Monday, May 17, 2021

We've Been Here Before

Apparently leaked on social media, this Fox AX sus fork is rumored to be out this Fall.
 Back in the early days of MTB suspension there was a huge debate over whether or not it was necessary, and what, if any design was a good one. Because there were a LOT of weird designs floating about. Obviously telescopic fork design won out, but there also was a 'dirty little secret' about suspension in the early to mid-90's. That was that the Pro racers weren't taking advantage of it.

Many people weren't aware of that, but many Pro XC racers were effectively locking their suspension forks out and riding them rigid. Now, there could be a lot of reasons as to why that happened, but after riding the Fox AX Adventure fork a few years ago, I think I could tell you at least a couple of reasons why that was. 

First of all, one should consider a few parameters which were non-negotiable for suspension on bicycles. One: Weight HAD to be minimized at all costs. This is probably the number one limitation upon suspension fork design to this very day. Since we were, and still are for the most part, speaking of 100% human powered design, weight is a critical factor to deal with and you want that weight to be as low in mass as possible. This means that certain things that may have stiffened up the chassis on forks, made them operate more efficiently, and which may have accounted for pedal induced movement had to be discarded in favor of light weight. 

Secondly: Geometry for the bike had to be compromised to accept suspension. At first, this wasn't that big of a deal. 63mm of overall travel isn't a lot to account for, but there are no forks for MTB with that little of travel anymore, and most have a minimum of 100mm of travel. The 'sweet spot' for average mountain biking is 120mm-130mm. This length of suspension adds to the overall length of a bicycle fork, which has to be accounted for in design. The sloping top tube design was the answer to the question of how to do this, and front end height increased as a result. 

The Fox AX suspension fork I tested for Riding Gravel in 2018.

Why did we need more travel? Because it was quickly realized that 63mm, and really, even 80mm of travel, wasn't enough to account for everything a MTB was seeing in terms of trail obstacles, speeds, and being capable of dispersing energy in a way that riders would find acceptable. 

So, that's a brief description of where we came from and why we went where we did with MTB suspension. What does that have to do with a 'gravel bike'? Well, certain things are happening here that are causing us to see that what is happening now with these short travel gravel forks and the initial wave of MTB forks is related. We also are seeing another effect happening. That being that MTB design has swung so far in one direction that a void exists which some folks are trying to fill with a 'gravel bike'. 

Comments: In my opinion, we are reliving the past if we think for a moment that 40mm of damped travel will work in a way that is intended. These short travel forks, (Fox, White Brothers) address small inputs just fine, but are quickly overwhelmed when faced with anything resembling an MTB experience, and no wonder. While it is true that you could set it up differently, you are playing with such a restricted amount of travel that getting the kind of energy dissipated that one might see from riding rough single track is nearly impossible to do without compromising every other aspect of riding gravel. And then there is weight. You are adding a LOT of weight for not much benefit here. I have not even touched the complexity and maintenance issues either. 

So, just use a Lauf type design then? Well, obviously the Lauf fork wins the weight and simplicity of design over the telescopic options, but it is not damped travel and you have to buy into the odd-ball looks. But yes- that fork is far superior for everything a gravel bike should be doing. I do not think 'gravel bikes' need to have MTB traits to handle MTB trails. Want to take that single track, that connector which has that rocky down hill, or what have you? Great, either live with 'underbiking' or get out your MTB hard tail which has all the versatility, utility, and capability you need to cover everything from fire roads to pretty tough back country stuff. Oh........those modern hard tails don't go very fast? They handle climbs a bit clumsily? You don't need 120-130mm of suspension business up front? I get that, and this is where the bicycle industry has gone wrong. 

Once upon a time when NORBA Pro MTB'ers competed, they had to do a hill climb, a down hill competition, a trials competition, and an XC race, all on the same bike. I sounds far-fetched, but it is true. At one time a mountain bike was made to cover all the mountain biking needs. Of course, specialization came in and changed all of that, but somehow the multi-purpose all-terrain rig held on. Then about ten years ago, that all changed. 

The Gen I Fargo, as seen at the 2008 Interbike Outdoor demo, is 'that' bike that is missing.

 Drive trains became more limited in range on the high end to accommodate short chain stays and huge tires. Front ends got really jacked up to accommodate longer suspension forks, and more, of course, happened along the way and the next thing ya know, that versatile off-road vehicle was gone. Fat bikes could be said to be 'that bike', but those huge, heavy tires and still, you also lack the high speed drive train along with that low end grunt. It just is not the same thing.

So, we get these bikes with curly bars, barely big enough tires (50mm) and now they want to put some anemic front suspension fork on this? I'm saying this is a whack idea based upon the idea that 'anything gravel sells', not on real-life, sensible design and practicality for use. Keep gravel bikes 'road based' and if you go off-road, well then design this bike that is missing in action these days. But don't try to use a 'Gravel®' as a marketing ploy to make 'that' bike happen again. It's going about it all the wrong way. 

The bike that they are all mimicking, the one bike that solves the problem of 'curly barred, big tired, "mountain bike-versa-tool" is the Gen I Fargo which came out in 2008. Make that bike, a flat bar version, (El Mariachi?) and done. Make it accept 650B X 2.1's or 29"er X 2.4"ers and keep the geometry less slack. Add a big ringed crankset with at least two chain rings. (I'd still spec a triple), and make it 11 speed with at least 3 gears below 1 to 1 ratio and a big ring in the 46-48T range for speeding down fire roads and flats. 

It would definitely NOT be a sexy bike, a racer's bike, or a bike that would figure into a marketing plan showing riders catching air, roosting, or bombing edits on social media. No, it would be that bike that most off-roaders should have. Just like most road bikers should not have racing oriented bikes, but they should have that 'all-road' bike misnamed the 'Gravel Bike'. 

And that's my take..............


MuddyMatt said...

Agreed there's a gap in the market, and agreed that Gravel is the wrong term for it. It seems to me the industry knows too about the gap, but not what to call it. I think if any of us knew we'd be thanked!

The question is, are non-cyclists, or potential cyclists asking for ANY of this? No. Not at all. As always it looks like another way to sell more bikes to the same people.

A few friends have been joining me and my gravel bike guys by dusting off their 26" MTBs of the mid-00s (when 26" bikes were reasonably sorted re. discs, short-travel forks and reliability). They have switched out to 650B wheels and put 40c and upwards tyres on them and the bikes work really well.

BUT, their bikes can handle juuust a bit more than our rigid gravel bikes so when we hit the trails, they want something a bit more testing, whereas those of us on rigid gravel bikes are maxxed out and hurting. Flip to smooth trails and tarmac? We win. At some point on the ride, each of us is on the 'right' bike! Fun, but it does compromise each of our rides and people have to join them with an open mind.

So there's the gap right there. An XC MTB that's not a race machine. Based on ease of use and in my experience superior reliability, definitely a 1x for that - just tweak the gearing range a little if needed. Maybe a 34T with an 11-42 or closer rear).

Personally, for average speeds of 11mph or so on that sort of semi-testing terrain I don't mind a modern geo, 1x hardtail at all and will happily put in 15 miles on a road/gravel/trail mix, but I agree they are not the bike for that sort of ride really.

What's also worth noting with modern MTB design is the trail pixies build trails to suit them. I've been riding the locale for years and we are lucky to have lots of woods, hills and great countryside access (development-protected land just outside London, UK). Over the past 3-5 years, the local builders have really ramped up the technical side of new trails - they are superb fun on 130mm travel MTBs but not for novices or non-technical riders.

The trails have evolved with the bikes and I'm not sure that's a good thing for getting new people into MTB. Something that sits in that gap that gets people off-road and then surprises them at what their bike can do over smooth flowy trails, rocks and roots is definitely needed.

A final thought. With short sharp hills and technical trails, the direction of travel is ALL e-MTB. Every week I see more and more e-MTB riders and they are not your traditional MTB or road rider. Most are carrying a few pounds and clearly new to the sport and (probably) exercise. Their etiquette just isn't there, blasting past other riders and trail users with little consideration and barely a hello while they are at it. And the trails? Getting ripped to bits. Talk about braking bumps! There is so much money in this the industry is pushing the e-MTB angle like crazy and they do look great fun.

Not sure I have drawn any conclusions there or got anywhere, but food for thought!

Guitar Ted said...

@MuddyMatt - Great insights and thoughts there! Thank you for those comments. I think the crux of almost every issue we bike nerds have with niche marketing is summed up perfectly in your second paragraph, which I am taking the liberty of quoting again here:

"The question is, are non-cyclists, or potential cyclists asking for ANY of this? No. Not at all. As always it looks like another way to sell more bikes to the same people."

That pretty much dovetails into what you were talking about at the end of the article about motorized cycling. Making it 'easier' is appealing to those who thought that MTB was 'too hard' and maybe there is a bit of 'fun-factor' involved as well.

Another thought: Is it easier for the industry to push motorized cycling in the off-road realm where there are no barriers (or very few) to use? Whereas HPC bikes for roads is a complex matter which can only be addressed by better infrastructure, enforceable, cyclist-friendly laws, and ant-car planning and legislation. Is that why eMTB is 'popular' vs pavement electrified bikes?

Tom said...

How 'bout the flat bar Journeyman or the new Black Mountain La Cabre or even the MCD serving as "that bike"?...I currently have 27.5x2.1 on my Wolverine but I don't think the frame is robust enough for some trail stuff.

Guitar Ted said...

@Tom - I think what Black Mountain Cycles is doing is very close to the mark. There are other small companies doing similar bikes and that is because Trek,(the 920 notwithstanding) Giant, Cannondale, and Specialized do not make them. So-called "second tier" brands like Marin, Kona, and others have something arguably close to what I am mentioning here as well.

So, if you look- they are there, kind of..... But none of them are quite what I am saying they should be which is a versatile MTB hard tail. The kind you could turn into a "flat-bar Journeyman" or a drop bar "La Cabra" type rig. The same bike could be all those things and more.

Surly used to have such bikes too, but with all the splintering off of their model lines into weirder niches, I think that they lost some of their focus. Think the Ogre, which is one of the types of versatile hard tails I am thinking of. That's a great example but you can hardly find one and that is not a pandemic-induced thing. Ogres were hard to find pre-pandemic too. The problem with a surly is that they are so over-built that the weight penalty is a bit much. Coupled with perhaps too much of a good thing in braze-ons and versatile drop outs, you get something a bit too odd for the masses. But the Ogre is about as close as it gets to what I am thinking.

Make that same bike with more 'standardized' frame appointments, in aluminum, (lighter/cheaper) and in a way that flat bars or drops could be fitted, and then we're talking.

rth009 said...

Still love my 2011 orange Vaya with 26/36/48 9 speed for what you are describing. I've got fenders on it so I cant run as big of tire as I'd like, but I can ride MTB trails, just gotta go a lot slower than on a trail bike. I'm lucky to have an Ogre, too.

R said...

I'm glad you mentioned the Ogre! I lucked into a L blue frame last summer; and paired with whiskey rims (tubeless nanos) and a triple ring up front - this whole post had me nodding right along - agreeing with what works (for me) on Iowa gravel.

Tman said...

I am building up my Black Mtn Monstercross in just this manner (I wanted cantis not disks). It is my modern take on an MB Zip. Instead of a Moustache I have a Ritchey Koyote ergon grips and tandem dummy hoods in the "aero" position. Drivetrain is a triple with a nice wide spread based on an old touring crank. If I want to ride any of our more technical trails I have a modern HT with a 5" fork, 275+ tires and drooper. As soon as I saw the La Cabre I started thinking of a future build to bridge these two bikes.

Barry said...

I've felt for a long time the mountain biking has diverged from the rest of cycling so much that, that it's really a different sport. As ebikes take over mountain biking, this is only going to get worse.

Jon BALER said...

The current Velo Orange Piolet is designed for flat or drop bars. The original version was designed for drop bars, and rides great IMO.

Guitar Ted said...

@Jon BALER - It is an intriguing bike but it needs updating to through axles. Until Velo Orange does that I already have 'that' bike in the Gen I Fargo. If Velo Orange ever does pretty much exactly that geometry WITH through axles, well then.......