Right, back on the mountain bike after too long. Seriously, city living and family guff can all but kill the best intentioned mountain biker. That and the fact that riding on the road is just so damned easy to do in comparison.
As shameful as it sounds, I rolled my own ‘pièce de résistance’ (so far) in frame design out for only the second time for a properly serious good old dirt session in a year (discounting the wee sessions with the lad). I know how that sounds, just typing it make me hang my head in shame to be honest (what was that about riding on the road being easy?). The last time I saddled up the bike, I had it set up the way it was supposed to be, or at least as I had spec’d the production bikes, namely with a Zoke’s 55 hanging out the front. The heft of that fork is rude to say the least but I have to admit that the 55 is the most insanely stiff, plush and rock solid fork out of the box anyone could ever hope for. The front end tracked like it was on rails and I found it bit so hard that soft berms would collapse! But the heft…..
After that ride, I shelved the bike and as most riders do when they don’t ride enough, started to get all academic in a way that keeps the magazines in business. So I sat and thought, the 55 is a great fork but it’s bloody heavy, it truly is. All you have to do is pick up the bike to realise this…. or even just the fork alone. I wondered if I could stick a lighter fork on the front?
“there’s danger in the rear view mirror, trouble in the wind…”
By chance I just so had a lighter fork sitting around, a very nice top of the line X-Fusion Velvet DLR2. Ok, it’s a bit short on travel for the frame but I wondered… So pulling out the production drawings for the Sanny, I did all the right measurements of what would happen if I popped the Velvet in there. As it so happened, it did not do a huge deal, just steepened the head by 1 degree and as the Sanny was sitting on 67 already, bumping it to 68 would be fine; speeding up the front that little bit and taking a wee amount off the wheelbase. So on it went.
Over the next few months I rode the fork around and as suspected, noticed that the front became just that little bit snappier, one degree does make a difference if you ever wondered. The fork still needed breaking in but on the light duty it was receiving it seemed just fine, if not a little snappy on its rebound.
So comes the most recent ride. 20 (and a half <- that bit's important!!) k's of tight, twisty and relatively fast bliss. Awaba may not be big on altitude but the dips, snappy pinch climbs and sweeping track through smooth and marginally rocky trails do work the suspension (and legs). Keeping in mind that the last ride on the bike was with the 55s on board, I had a fair idea of how well the bike tracked. Or did I? I'll admit it had been a while between drinks but I remember the front end of the bike being better than this, either that or my skills had just gone to sh!t. Ok, I needed to warm up, that was it. So we did the first 10k's and for most of that I spent a good deal of time wrestling the front end, which seemed to have the desire to want to fold. Coming into the second lap, I pushed into a dead pan easy sweep, tapped the front brake a tad and suddenly found the front falling apart; if it were not for the nicely behaved Conti tyre, I would have eaten some loam. I caught up to Lenny who was on the Sanny's cousin, the Zen II, promptly hopped off and started to check the front wheel. Was it loose, had something broken, was the tyre ok? But on checking all of this, the front was fine. What I found was that the lovely light fork had the desire to eat all its travel through the mid stroke, and I do mean all. It seemed at the slightest whatever, the fork just dropped its load, which as many may know, will drastically alter the front end geometry (where, as the fork compresses, the head angle becomes steeper... and steeper). This explains why the bike had become such a handful in any situation where the forks compressed, from technical dips to sweeping corners. The net result is that my fun factor dropped through the floor as I backed off on the fun stuff, not knowing just what the front might do if pushed too hard. Now, reading up on the fork on the interwebs to prove to myself I was not totally mad, nor that I had become such a crap rider, I discovered that the Velvet does indeed have a tendency to want to do this. Messing around with the air pressure can help some but even if the official charts are off, knowing how an air fork works tells me this will not really help all that much through the mid stroke. Others are also messing around with heavier oil and/or more oil. What I did not read in any of this was just how heavy the guys having these issues are. I am no lightweight. Loaded up with water and all that, I am coming in around 96kg's (around 212 pounds). At 6'3", that's what you get. Even when I hit my goal weight of 88kg, I still will not be a whippet. So the question I am asking is, do I have any real business using such a light, longer travel fork? Sure, the bumf will tell you that the fork was designed for this and that but I bet my bottom dollar that the in house testing used to determine the valving etc. was done by guys much lighter, and probably smaller, than me; you know, design and make something for the larger, middle band of the consumers and forget about the pointy ends. What this means is that no matter how much fooling I do, I, and guys like me, really have no business with a fork like this. I just don't think they are meant for bigger guys and while very good models can work fine, they will never be perfect, always offering some drawback in performance, be it stiffness, suppleness or just overall durability. So OK, the 55 is the extreme end, you can get lighter 160mm forks, but it can not be denied that a 160mm fork, with a 20mm thru axle, is designed for heavier situations. While not directly for bigger riders, bigger, heavier bikes, riders with potentially more gear and bigger hits. Essentially, the bigger AM style forks are ideal for bigger riders as they will handle the heavier loads with ease, especially if being used in more passive environments. At my weight, the reality the additional 1.5-2 pounds of the 55 really does not make a difference. You can say it does, and if you are a serious racer I'd probably agree but when you consider your own weight, those tyres you use, the gear you carry and the water in your pack, the additional fork weight is pretty low on the list for what it gives back. As it is, I've lost 7kg's (15.4 lbs) since I last rode with the 55s on the bike, so the added weight does not even come close to what I've taken off. When I consider with the 55s on the bike, I climbed without issue and descended and railed without thought, I think putting them back on the bike is the smart thing to do. My (small in stature) man Dave said to me while discussing this:
“I spec by fun and confidence factor. I don’t want any parts that make me feel less confident on the bike, e.g. worrying about the wheels not tracking if I hit a root at an angle, not having grip when I need it, or braking, etc.. Likewise, super draggy tires feel slow and ponderous, reducing fun factor overall, so that’s the only place where weight makes a difference to me… ride feel is more important than the clock.“
It’s probably the wisest way I heard this put. While magazines and everyone will tell you to go lighter to be faster, depending on just who you are, or even the way you ride, this may not be the best approach to actually being fast. Being comfortable and confident with the bike you are riding is probably the largest contributing factor. I know for a fact that I was slower on my last ride because I didn’t trust the front end of my bike…
Side note: An almost inverse of this can be said for small, light riders that experience many of the same issues in reverse.