By Vernon Felton
Just give it to me straight—which bikes suck?
We get asked this all the time. It's understandable. Magazines and websites simply brim with bike reviews that drip with praise. It seems like every bike "instills confidence" or "rails corners" or "climbs like a goat." You might believe that some bikes are awesome, but they can't all be. It defies logic. This isn't tee ball where everyone wins—this is the real world, a world that's full of winners and losers. And yet you don't see a lot of reviews that flat-out flame a bike.
Why is that?
The go-to answer is that magazines are beholden to advertisers and that editors are loathe to bite the hand that feeds them. Sure, there are magazines and websites for which this is true, but it's actually a lot less common than you'd think. We get accused of it and, trust me, we lose advertisers every year who jump ship because we wrote something about their bike or widget that didn't ring with praise. It's easy to believe that "the media" is corrupt, but that's painting a whole lot of very different people with the same filthy brush. It's more complicated than that.
NOT A LOT OF CRAP
Here's the deal: there just aren't a lot of truly shitty bikes out there these days. Once upon a time, buying a bike was like playing Russian roulette. There were plenty of very expensive bikes that were absolutely atrocious. Separating the wheat from the chaff felt like a Herculean task.
You can blame the advent of full suspension for that fact. Suspending a bike was clearly an idea with merit–you could ride a bike off road now and not feel like you were getting a colorectal exam. Sweet. But there was this one problem: many designers didn't really know what the hell they were doing when they cooked up those first, buck-toothed, flipper-headed bikes. Absolutely everything seemed like a brilliant idea. Let's suspend the back of the bike with … rubber donuts! Awesome! Or how about we attach a giant, flexy beam to a totally rigid frame? It'll be like a diving board for your ass! Sweet!
Engineers floated these ideas around boardrooms and there was much high-fiving and rejoicing. This was so much cooler than just adding a rigid straight-bladed fork to a bike or painting it neon pink. This was like working for NASA.
It was great. And it was terrible.
Some of those early designs were absolutely atrocious—the bikes would bob uncontrollably every time you pedaled or they'd eject you from the seat with terrifying force the moment you encountered a rock. There were, in short, some very bad bikes out there. This was our sport's pimple-ridden, mullet-sporting, parachute pants-wearing adolescence.
It's not as if the cycling industry's best minds were clueless—it's just that they woke up one morning and were told to create something brilliant by noon. What's more the advanced materials and manufacturing techniques that we take for granted today didn't exist then. Developing a mountain bike that climbed efficiently and descended well back in, say, 1996 was like being given the raw materials for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and being told that you needed to build a ballistic missile out of the stuff.
So, yes, for a while, some bikes really sucked.
But the smart people with the protractors and calculator watches have had 20 years to figure things out and, in that time, bikes have gotten a whole lot better. I'm trying to remember the last time I rode a bike that was an absolute dog on the climbs… . I'm coming up blank. The same holds true for downhill performance.
This isn't to say that all bikes are equal or that you should grab a 29er hardtail and hit the closest bike park because any rig is just as capable as the next. The market has matured and split. And split again and again and again. The end result? Very few bikes flat out suck, but bikes do have very different strengths. Whether or not those strengths suit you is a matter of where you ride, how you ride and what you like to ride. Your perfect bike and my perfect bike probably don't look the same at all.
My job, and the job any tester worth their salt, is to say something more intelligent (and accurate) than "This bike sucks!" or "This bike is awesome!" Our role is to parse out where the bike excels, where it could be improved and what kind of rider would like (or dislike) it.
In short, if you're looking for simple black and white reviews these days, you're going to be disappointed. It's all shades of gray. That's not very comforting when you are trying to wade through the seemingly infinite choices and figure out where to spend your thousand-plus bucks, but here's the good news: you don't have to worry about whether or not your next bike is going to be a total pile of crap. It won't.