From Issue #187
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is book I read in my 20s. Looking back, the thing I most liked about it was how it made me feel not alone. At the time, I was too young to really understand author Robert Pirsig’s battle with schizophrenia, marriage and fatherhood, but his search for the meaning of quality was and is something I hold dear to my heart.
Now older, a father and divorced, but not a schizophrenic (thankfully, on all counts), I was at the library with my kids and realized I should grab a few things for myself for some upcoming travels. For someone who used to devour books, I’ve found that being on a plane is one of the few occasions I make the time to really dig deep into a book. Having lost my copy of Pirsig’s first novel long ago, it seemed time to read it again. Instead, the card catalog brought up “Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, a 275-page story of a middle-aged guy chasing ghosts down the same roads Pirsig and his son traveled decades ago.
I’m oddly attracted to this type of story, even if they always seem to be transparent attempts to ride the coattails of someone else’s fame. But “Zen and Now”, and the similar “Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy”, are honest books, or at least are well written enough to convince me of such. “Gironimo!” came across my desk as an advance copy months ago, but only recently did I start reading it.
Written by British author Tim Moore, he traces the route of the insane-sounding 1914 Tour of Italy, on all period-correct gear, although there is no attempt to repeat the times set by the original racers. The average daily distance was almost 250 miles, all on bikes with sew-up tires, wooden rims, cork brake shoes and a pair of cogs, one on each side of the rear hub.
As Moore struggles to piece together a working bike from various Internet purchases, I can see he is looking for quality in his endeavor. Yes, it is tilting at windmills, and I’m sure he was the butt of more than one joke in the local language as he creaked and groaned his way around Italy. But there was a vision there that was clear and honest, the same with “Zen and Now.”
While figuring out how to put together the narrative on the One Bike Challenge in Issue #187, I was having a hard time excusing myself for quitting my bikepacking trip early. But I’ve decided to cut myself some slack. Bikepacking should be enjoyable, and if the joy isn’t there, am I really going to find any quality in the trip, or in the writing I do about it afterward?
In hindsight, pulling the plug and spending time with an old friend, including a relaxing morning catching up on our lives, was a solid reminder to seek out the things and people we find to be quality, even if the true meaning of that word is elusive. I also came to the realization that solo trips have been a source of solace, enlightenment and discovery, but after a few decades of mostly solo travels, I realize I’ve dug as much stuff out of myself as I am likely to find. It is time to do a better job planning and inviting people to travel along. Post-ride beers taste better with someone with whom you shared an experience.
That’s what I’m after here: quality. We spend a lot of time trying to quantify the quality of things, and people and places. As tacky as it sounds, I think everything has a narrative, and finding it is the best way for us to communicate to our readers effectively about the quality of the topic, or sometimes the lack thereof. So even though I know the One Bike Challenge and other similar narrative devices might be slightly cheesy, I am firmly convinced they are an effective and entertaining tool to mine descriptions of that elusive quality at the root of our favorite products and people and places.
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Last year when working on the 2015 editorial calendar for Dirt Rag, I realized the holy grail might finally be found.
Found is really the wrong word, and maybe the grail is the wrong metaphor, but who doesn’t love a good Indiana Jones reference? In any case, the grail I’m referring to is a single mountain bike that can handle all the riding I would want to do in a year, and do them all well enough that I wouldn’t regret not taking another bike that was more suited to the task at hand. And I had to have fun. Having to suffer through an event due to poor bike choice is never any fun.
In any given year I might be taking part in endurace events (100 milers, stage races), attempting to not crash too hard in a bike park, or exorcising demons on a bike-camping trip. That is a tall order to ask of a single bike, and an even taller order to ask when the rider (me) has access to bikes that are designed with a focus on just such events.
With all that in mind, I picked three events to see if a modern trail bike could really do it all.
I planned a multi-day trip in the wilds of central Pennsylvania. With plenty of little-used pavement, dirt roads and singletrack, this would be a true test of my route finding and the bike’s ability handle a variety of terrain with the load of a self-contained camping set up.
What I’d be riding if I wasn’t on the “One Bike”: RSD Mutant rigid steel 29plus, a model that is now replaced with the Big Chief.
I decided it was time to revisit the Wilderness 101. The last time I rode it was at least a decade ago, on a rigid Karate Monkey with terrible cable disc brakes, terrible IRC Mythos tires, and an inadvertently terrible 34-18 gear choice. It was a top 5 hardest day ever on the bike for me. And I’ve had a lot of hard days on the bike.
What I’d be riding if I wasn’t on the “One Bike”: Black Cat Custom 29er hardtail singlespeed
The Chomolungma Challenge at Snowshoe Bike Park is not the most well know downhill race, but it deserves more attention. Chomolungma translates as “Goddess Mother of Mountains,” a name used by Tibetans for the mountain we know as Everest. What does this have to do with Snowshoe, a much smaller hill nowhere near Tibet? Everest is 29,029 feet tall. 20 laps of the Western Territory at Snowshoe is roughly 30,000 feet. Line up some racers and see who can do it the quickest. Simple.
I did this race a few years ago on a downhill bike, and for the most part enjoyed it, even with a broken derailleur cable for the last five laps or so. This was also the race the broke our circulation guy’s shoulder. (This was a awful as it sounds)
Unfortunately due to deadline timing, I won’t actually be able to take part in the race, but I’ll travel to Snowshoe to do the laps to simulate the carnage. I’ll miss the nice ladies handing out drinks and snacks in the lift lines during the race.
What I’d be riding if I wasn’t on the “One Bike”: KTM Lycan LT 271.
The One Bike
I had a list of mid- to long-travel 29ers that I was working from when this idea was hatched. The big wheels are more suited to the endurance and bike packing parts of this challenge, and the bigger wheels would hopefully make up for some of the short travel when attempting to not die at the bike park. Some riders wondered why I wasn’t using a longer travel 27.5 bike, but I felt the bigger wheels and shorter travel were more important for the two longer events.
One by one the 29ers fell by the wayside. Some where about to be redesigned, some companies didn’t return my calls or emails, and some were being sold at a faster rate than they could be made leaving none for the begging media.
So I started searching again. And hit upon this:
That is a picture of the 2015 Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt BC Edition. A few emails to Andres Hestler, and the bike was at my door.
Yes, it “only” has 27.5 wheels. Everything else about it is just about perfect. A 130 mm Pike fork is sturdy enough for Snowshoe, but not so long and heavy as to be a huge hinderance bikepacking or attempting to make quick work of 101 miles. The carbon frame keeps weight down. A dropper post is must, obviously. The real key that sold me on the Thunderbolt is Rocky’s Ride9 geometry adjust technology.
Via a simple chip system, head angle can be adjusted from 68.2 degrees to a delightfully slack 66.5-degrees. That is among the slackest available for a bike with a 130 mm front end, at least for a stock bike. Ride-9 also allows for adjustments for a more linear or progressive shock rate, and for lighter or heavier riders. This sounds pretty ideal for my uses. A single bolt holds the chips in place, although in the slackest setting, the frame blocks access to the air valve, making shock tuning a bit of a pain.
I’m limiting myself to only tire and cockpit changes. I’ve made some swaps to stock parts to get some extra time on components I’m reviewing, but nothing that changes the nature of the bike.
Stay tuned for the changes I made for each challenge, the gear that helped me finish, and finally the big write up in the pages of our magazine. Subscribe right now and you might be in time for the full test to arrive in your mail box.