A Tale of Two Bicis, Part Deux

Editor’s note: A Tale of Two Bicis (part one) was published in the current issue of Dirt Rag Magazine, #211. Like what you see? To keep up with our print content, be sure to subscribe today so you don’t miss an issue.

photo by Ray Liu

Can a sudden injection of modern bike technology make you a better rider? Is 100 mm of travel enough for a casual rider, or is more always better? These are the questions I hoped to answer after the initial shock and awe of getting thrown head-first into the 21st century had worn off. If you’ve not had a chance to read it, I recently crawled out of my cave and threw a leg over a couple modern bikes for the first time in my 30-plus years of riding bikes. Since then, I’ve spent over a month riding a 2018 Pivot Mach 429 SL in conjunction with some of my favorite vintage bikes. The following is a brief account of how that’s been going.

It’s not that the log is particularly big, or the sweeping turn on approach is too fast. It’s not even the eight- to ten-foot rock garden on the other side or the fact that it’s a blind drop into it after you crest the log. It’s not even the quick jog to the right and then left around the stout birch, whose bark is scarred from previous encounters with pedals and other bike parts. None of it on its own is that treacherous, hell I ride through it on my vintage bikes all the time. But that’s exactly the problem today. I crest the log with the brakes slightly on, just to the point that I can see the entrance to the first rock and find the spot where my front tire needs to land. I find my line and get on the pedals to maneuver through the short section and lean into the turn to make my way past the tree. I slam on the brakes, the 6” discs halt me to stop in no time at all, I peer back through the cloud of dry dust… I failed again. I look down at this marvel of technology, a sub-28-pound, carbon fiber, full-suspension rocket ship and I can’t help but lament the fact that, despite all this advanced design, it doesn’t come with enough courage for me to just launch through that bit of trail. See, riding through that section isn’t the problem, not even on a rigid hardtail with a 2.1” contact patch pumped up to 34 psi. But I feel like, with a modern bike, I should be able to clear it in one move and never hit the brakes, but I just can’t get myself past the blind entrance. I don’t trust myself, or the bike. What difference does it make?

photo by Ray Liu

Although I’m just testing this bike, I can still imagine a salesperson explaining the finer points of the 429 SL, the benefits of the DW-link suspension design, or the ease-of-use of the 1x drivetrain, how cool the dropper post is and then going on about how much of a better rider it’ll make me. All of that is true, and yes, actually, I am faster in virtually all cases on the Pivot than compared to any of my vintage bikes. Riding the new bike has actually made me faster on my old bikes, because I know I can be. Funny how that works. But I can’t help but think I should able to do more. I want the bike to not only push me beyond just my athletic ability and mental grit, but to give me an instant +10 to my confidence and +5 to my technical skill.

Now, this all sounds like I don’t like it; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This bike, and I have to imagine others like it, is a perfect extension of my riding style. This might sound a bit contradictory at first, so bear with me. My first foray into the world of modern FS bikes was a 150mm trail/enduro rig that I couldn’t get used to. I felt like I couldn’t go fast enough to the point where the bike made sense, or that that the terrain I ride was challenging enough for the bike to really let it show its mettle. When the Pivot first arrived it was like I had found the perfect vehicle with which I could come to terms with all this new tech. I say “come to terms” because the simple fact that things are easier or better doesn’t mean that they will naturally work for someone who hasn’t been exposed to them, and what’s the point of all of that tech if you’re not going to use it. I personally cringe when I see some full suspension rig running around on the local bike path with slicks on it. I don’t want to be the guy tooling around on the trails with a cutting edge bike but not using its potential; anything less than what it was designed for seems like a waste.

photo by Ray Liu

Transitioning from my old bikes to the 429 SL has really been an eye-opening event. The “WOW” moment really hasn’t died down and, with each subsequent ride, I find more and more to like about new bike technology, especially when it’s packaged in a way that supports and enhances my riding style and ability. The 100 mm of travel that the SL offers is really more than enough for virtually all my local trails. There are a few sections and a couple of jumps where I might someday think I need more, but for this area it’s plenty. The thing I love about this bike is that it allows me to ride efficiently both in and out of the saddle. I can charge a hill and push the last few yards standing without regretting it.

Traction while climbing is amazing, mainly due to the rear suspension but also the modern tires. I can’t stress this enough: tire technology is amazing these days. In talking to people, the focus seems to often gravitate towards brakes, but without those grippy tires, we’d all just be skidding around all over the place. That being said, disc brakes are freaking cool. I don’t have to worry about feathering my rim brakes after a creek crossing or having to dial things back significantly when riding in the rain. Disc brakes as reliable and powerful all the time.

photo by Ray Liu

Lastly, the impact of the dropper post can’t be understated. This last piece of kit came fairly recently, so I’m sure the first time experience is not unique to me. It really enhances your ability to descend and provides a new dimension of bike handling not really achievable with a fixed height post. So, while it’s not a new invention per se (see my #210 Manitou BKR column), modern day materials and technology have made transformed into a highly functional piece of kit.

Getting a new bike like this makes you no better of a rider, much the same as getting some fancy dancing shoes won’t make you Fred Astaire — at least not on day one. One thing I will say about this bike is that right off the bat it felt like I had been riding it for years. I’m accustomed to the process of trying out new bikes (new-to-me old bikes, that is) and I’ve come to expect an acclimatization process that usually lasts at least several rides. Yet here, getting on a full suspension bike, let alone a 29er, never felt awkward and quite the opposite I felt comfortable on it right away. What it enabled me to do nearly perfectly right away were the things that beforehand were doable on my older bikes, but took effort and thought. A friend of mine summed it up pretty well: it gave me the instant ability to manage my ride at a macro level and let the bike sweat all the small stuff. In short, the bike propped me up in areas where I had wasn’t quite able to push my vintage rigs to ten-tenths, and if I wanted to go faster or harder it was right there in a way reassuring me a bit more. I have to imagine this is what it’s like for a less experienced jockey to ride a veteran horse. The horse knows it can run faster, jump higher or whatever is asked of it, but the jockey doesn’t know that yet. But as he or she gets the courage to take it to the next level, the horse is right there with them. So, this brings me back to my original problem of clearing this one section: Have I unknowingly found the limit of this bike, or is it a case where the jockey lacks bravery?

A couple of weeks ago, I finally made it to my first Dirt Fest event in Pennsylvania. I hooked up with the Pivot crew and got some tuning help on the SL as well as a chance to take the Trail 429 out for an extended after-hours session. The Trail 429 is a longer travel (130/120), slacker and generally more aggressive cousin of the 429 SL. You can choose either a 27plus or 29er setup. Given my time on the SL, I opted for the 29er. After a lengthy discussion on the relative differences between the Trail and the SL, I was expecting a bike that would be slow to turn in, lazy uphill and generally not my cup of tea. However, after only a couple miles I found the attitude of this bike to be wildly different than what I was expecting and in a way a complete Mr. Hyde to the 429 SL’s Dr. Jekyll. The SL is a bike that quite simply abides. It does whatever you ask of it and bolsters you up to the extent that you need it. It never urged me to do anything above and beyond what I was already going to do, it just does XC amazingly well and then some. The Trail 429, on the other hand, bored itself into my brain and kept repeating a simple mantra over and over, “Go faster, I got this,” and so I did. I swear I had one of my most memorable rides ever. I pushed harder and faster than I can remember doing in a very long time, and it really seemed that the faster I went, the more comfortable and confident I was. Now, you could chock it up to the faster, machine cut flow trails in PA, or maybe the more aggressive tires on the Trail, but I can’t help but wonder what this bike would feel like on my trails or on some really gnarly stuff.

photo by Ray Liu

It would be naïve of me to think that this story doesn’t have a Pivot slant to it; it does. But try to take a step back for a moment and think about it in terms of exploring the market for short and medium travel bikes and generally how those bikes make a casual rider feel. I fully acknowledge the fact that a Pivot may not be a bike that most casual riders start with — when this is all said and done my coin purse may not be deep enough for one of these bikes to find a permanent home in my garage — but suffice it to say I have come away from this experience with a deep appreciation for these bikes. I think that a well-rounded, short travel bike with a dropper post can be an extremely capable machine for most riders. I also am starting to understand the case for more travel and, generally speaking, more aggressive bikes, and by extension the different styles of riding and the corresponding bike designs. I might have to do some soul searching and possibly ride more bikes. If I stick to my local trails, I would do well with a short travel bike and continue to find ways to push my personal boundaries. However, my mind wonders back to that evening on the Trail 429 and how much fun I had, and I can’t help but wonder what new trails and new fun that bike might push me to find. Time will tell.