Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Suspension of Disbelief

I'll warn my regular readers right up front: The wonky disc in my lower back is flaring up, which has me in a not-so-pleasant mood. There's something about a relentless, droning, knife-like pain shooting down your leg that will do that to a fella. Thankfully, my Angel of Chiropractic Care is going to set me straight tomorrow, so I'll be back to my usual charming self.

In the meantime, I'm grumpy, and I think I'll point that grumpiness at a trend in new bikes that drives me nuts. Calling it a "trend" might imply that it's actually trendy, but this has really been going on since I was in the biz a decade ago. I absolutely cannot STAND the proliferation of cheap suspension parts on just about every new bike imaginable. Clunky, sticky seatposts, pounds and pounds of bouncy forks that always feel like a loose headset... I hate 'em.

Let's start at the seatposts. In theory, I'm all for a suspension post executed well... they're a simple way to isolate high-frequency bumps from your rump. They're especially helpful on a tandem when the captain is too inconsiderate to call out bumps (ask me how I know). But execute that thing to hit the price point on a $250-$300 bike and you might as well just put an accordion boot around a regular seatpost. I can't tell you the number of those monstrosities I fought with, trying to find that sweet spot between "doesn't budge" and "makes the saddle nose swing like a compass needle." I saw more than a few come in for 30-day checkups completely stuck at their lowest position, their riders blissfully unaware. Oh, and of course, when they
do move, there's the squeaking. The infernal squeaking. The only place these things came in handy was when you squished them down on the sales floor to show just how (theoretically) comfy they were -- which probably used up their only compression anyway.

On the front end, it seems like a suspension fork is now about as optional as a wheel, and the same race to the lowest common denominator has taken place. The most laughable thing is that most of these bikes now feature the comfort-bike equivalent of ape-hangers: tall head tubes, giraffe-like stems, and riser bars that put the rider's hands about nostril-high. Here's a tip: If your knuckles almost graze the garage door, you don't have any weight on your hands... which means you couldn't feel your suspension fork even if it did provide any useful suspension. It's just spec-sheet cotton candy, designed to make Bike A look $50 more valuable than Bike B.

So, when I rule the world, what will my perfect $250-$300 bike look like? You can bet that it will have no cruddy suspension gee-gaws front or rear... just a regular old seatpost and a rigid steel fork (because, to paraphrase an engineer pal, failure modes are important when a part is keeping your face off the pavement). It will have MASSIVE tire clearances so "comfort-oriented" customers can jam some massive rubber in there... since that's a cheap suspension system that actually works. And it won't sell for beans, since there won't be anything for the salesperson to squish. Sigh...