By Vernon Felton
My brother rolled to a stop and gave a tired grunt.
"So," I asked, "What do you think?"
My brother was riding a test bike—one of the sexiest all-mountain bikes on the planet. I was expecting some seriously effusive gushing.
"Meh. I don't know…It's alright, I guess."
"All right? Seriously? Dude, that's an Enduro Carbon. That thing is…is…" I was at a loss for words. "it's awesome." I finished lamely. My older sibling responded with a noncommittal shrug.
No way was I going to let it go at that. I climbed off my bike and walked on over to inspect the Enduro. Ah, there. The problem stuck out like a sore thumb: my brother was running something like sixty percent sag. The bike was choppered out and, no doubt, was either bottoming out every time it saw a rock or sinking into its travel with every pedal stroke.
I gave a long sigh. Jesus, how many times had I've gone over this with him? It doesn't matter what you're riding, if the bike isn't set up correctly, it's going to feel like a very expensive pile of crap. So I began, for the thousandth time, to launch into my speech about how he could determine the proper amount of suspension sag and dial in his rebound damping. I was moving into the extra-credit part of the monolog where I explain the whole C, T and D thing when I realized his eyes had glazed over again. Shit. He'd probably gone catatonic the moment I said "spring rate".
I changed tack. "Okay, Mike, think of it this way: proper suspension set up is like the Ronnie James Dio of the mountain biking experience."
My brother's eyes lit up with understanding for the first time. My older brother spent 1980 to 1987 constantly wreathed in a pot cloud and wearing the same black concert t-shirt. He may not understand how proper suspension set-up impacts his daily ride, but he understands the Tao of Dio.
THE TAO OF DIO
Before we consider the case of one Ronnie James Dio and his relevance to the world of cycling, I must insert a disclaimer: I, like so many writers today, labor under a contract that explicitly forbids me from writing about Ronnie James Dio. I hope, however, that my employer will read this and recognize the pressing Dio/mountain biking connection and its value to Bike's readership. Onwards then…
Who was Dio? An explanation is in order for those of you who didn't grow up in the `70s or `80s, or for younger readers whose parents failed to pipe classic metal into their cribs. Ronnie James Dio was the second lead singer of Black Sabbath. Though, to call him "lead" anything would be to miss the point entirely because Dio has never been given credit for really "leading" anything. This, as so many contemporary scholars have pointed out, is the very essence of Dio-ism—to be undervalued, dismissed and written off as irrelevant, when one is truly deserving of much more attention.
NO REPLACING THE KING OF MUMBLE
We must travel back in time to see why this is so. The year is 1979 and Ozzy Osbourne is, by his own best recollection, coked out of his mind in a Los Angeles hotel, naked and drifting in and out of consciousness beneath a pile of pizza delivery boxes, Wild Turkey empties and spent condoms. You could say Ozzy was on a bender, but this was essentially standard operating procedure for the guy who sang for Sabbath from 1968 to the spring of `79. This was the guy Dio had to follow. He shouldn't have been too hard an act to follow.
Ozzy was never a dynamic frontman. He lacked Jim Morrison's drunken-Apollo, mystic appeal. He had no David Lee Roth-style back-flips in his bag of tricks. He couldn't even drive onto stage aboard a Harley, a la Rob Halford. Instead, Ozzy sort of lurked in front of the microphone and mumbled loudly. When Ozzy was really rolling, he had a tendency to clap his hands (out of time) and hop a bit. At his most majestic, he'd raise both hands and flash a Richard Nixon-esque "peace" pose. That was what he had working for him. And yet, love or hate the guy, Ozzy put an indelible, working class hero stamp on the lead singer position that Dio couldn't dream of matching.
SATAN'S FAVORITE ELF
Dio, to be fair, had his own limitations: whereas Ozzy never pretended to be a singer, Dio possessed an operatic range that was undeniably impressive, yet also smacked of someone who aspired to star in “The Pirates of Penzance”, but just didn't have the proper haircut or codpiece for that gig. At 5'4", Dio also had trouble giving off the Lord of Darkness vibe so clearly required for the role. Instead, Ronnie looked a lot like a very earnestly diabolical elf…in tights….with a crystal ball fetish. The sheer awesomeness of it all was easily overlooked.
And so it happens that if a group of men get together and discuss the topic of Black Sabbath, the Ronnie James Dio years are often dismissed with scorn. Dio, conventional wisdom holds, was a hack who helmed the band at an unfortunate time. But if you actually cue up the early Dio-led Sabbath albums (Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules), there's no denying the power of Satan's favorite elf. The dude had pipes. Dio's solo songs (Holy Diver, Rainbow in the Dark, etc.) stand out as equally impressive, despite the rhinestones, Lord of the Rings-vibe and Dr. Seuss-Meets-Satan lyrics. Dio rocked. In fact, his is one of the best voices in rock and roll—he just seemed irrelevant when weighed alongside the likes of Ozzy.
THINK OF YOUR BIKE AS DIO…
Just as Dio's importance is underestimated, so too are certain components on your bike. People fixate on the ride quality of a $3,000 carbon wheelset or obsess over how to shave another eighth of a pound off their 23-pound race rocket, but if you're really interested in getting the most out of your ride, there are less obvious, but more important, items to sort out. Consider these the Ronnie James Dios of your bicycle. Underappreciated. Disrespected. Downright obscure. But in the grand scheme of things, so very important.
Proper Tires, Properly Inflated
Tires are your contact with Mother Earth. If that sounds too hippy-drippy, think of it this way: a good set of rubber is what keeps you from constantly eating shit. I've had terrifying rides aboard great full-suspension bikes that were saddled with crappy tires (and even good tires) that were so over-inflated that the bike pin-balled off of every rock and root in sight. There's no point in bolting on an $800 fork if you run your tires as hard as cement.
The best way to safely run lower, traction-loving air pressures is to go tubeless. Fortunately, there are a ton of ways to do that today. You can either go full UST, or just do the whole rim-strip and sealant spooge thing. Hell, if you don't feel like bothering with any of that, there are plenty of wide-rim wheelsets that will let you get away with running tubes and ridiculously low tire pressures with very little fear of pinch flats. If you're complaining about your bike's suspension and your tires are inflated to 45 psi, trust me—it ain't your suspension's high-speed compression damping that's screwing things up.
Size matters. Unless you're racing cross-country or are shopping for the perfect mud tire, avoid skinny (1.9 and 2.1-inch) tires entirely. Stick with 2.35-inch or wider versions. Personally, I don't run anything narrower than 2.4. Likewise, while everyone obsesses about rotational weight, you should avoid tires with ultra-light casings. Yes, the burlier version of your favorite tire may add a half-pound or more to the party, but you know what really slows you down? Trying to pedal home with a giant gash in your sidewall. Yeah, you can try stuffing the thing with leaves and branches or using a PowerBar wrapper as a shim, but blowing a flimsy tire apart in the middle of a ride is a great way to ruin a good ride.
In short, go wide. Go heavier than you think necessary. And for God's sake, don't run so much pressure.
A Bike That Fits
I was going to talk about geometry here—what a profound difference a few degrees or inches makes, but you know, it's really more a matter of fit. A bike that doesn't fit you is a bike that will always hold you back—I don't care how many awesome reviews it received or which pro just raced it to the top of a podium.
For starters, heed the manufacturer's sizing suggestions—they list that stuff on the website for a reason and while I've run into dozens of bikes that had very different geometry than what was advertised on the spec sheet, I've usually found the basic Our size Medium model fits riders 5'6" to 5'10" guidelines to be fairly accurate. And, of course, your local bike shop is generally a good source of information here as well.
Of course, the only way to really get a correctly-sized bike is to test ride one before you buy. I know—that's easier said than done, but it's worth the hassle. Visit bike shops, go to demo days, Bogart a friend's rig…do whatever you have to, but get some real dirt time aboard the bike you desire in the size you are considering. Craigslist is awash in bikes that someone thought would probably fit them. That says it all.
Suspension—Set It Up Right, Dammit!
And so here we are, back at the beginning. People get dogmatic about the suspension brand they favor—the Fox rider so willing to gouge out the eye of the RockShox fan and vice versa, but most of us (myself included) are not actually riding our forks and rear shocks at their true capacity. Seemingly insignificant tweaks can yield mind blowing differences in how your bike rides and, yet, I've met countless riders who haven't bothered to check their suspension in months. I'm not going to get too geeky here. Let's just focus on getting the sag dialed.
First, determine your shock's stroke. You can look it up on the manufacturer's website or just pull the o-ring up the damper tube until it's kissing the air can, then let out the air and, slowly, sit on the seat—you want the shock to fully bottom out, but, you know, be gentle about it. Climb off and measure how far the o-ring moved down when the shock bottomed out. That's your shock stroke.
Now do the math. For cross-country riding, aim for between 20 to 25 percent sag. For trail and all-mountain riding, you're going to want to run between 25 and 30 percent sag. Let's say that the rear shock on your new enduro rig has a 50-millimeter stroke. That would mean that little O-ring should be showing 12.5 to 15-millimeters under your static weight. Don't try and eyeball this measurement. Get out a measuring tape and do it right.
Next, you'll want to dial in your rebound damping. If you are unfamiliar with the little red dial on your shock (and don't be embarrassed…a hell of a lot of riders are), check out Seb Kemp's piece on suspension tuning here.
You might be rolling your eyes at this point in the diatribe—how very basic—don't run your tires at 45 psi, ride a bike that fits, set-up your suspension properly…. Why bother with that crap when you could be looking at the next super bike or the latest fork? I get it. Proper tire pressure is to the new, carbon Santa Cruz V10 as Ronnie James Dio is to Ozzy Osbourne.
But being underappreciated isn't the same as being unimportant: this is the Tao of Dio. Understand it. Embrace it.