Chasing your tail in the quest of the perfect mountain bike

Many years ago when I rode Giant’s XTC test bike I thought it was so good I bought one only to realize later it was less than ideal.


By Ron Koch

When I see somebody out on the trail on an archaic 1990s mountain bike with a big smile on their face, I think two things: How can they ride that? If they knew what they were missing by not riding a modern bike, they wouldn’t be smiling like that. That thought is often followed by a bit of envy over their enjoyment and acceptance of riding a dated, inferior dinosaur of a bike. I could never be happy riding a decades-old bike. Heck, I struggle with riding a season-old bike, and I’m far from the only one.

As a mountain bike magazine editor, I am constantly bombarded with questions from friends and acquaintances about bike stuff—typically, what bike I am liking these days and which one they should get. For a few of these friends, it’s a habitual six-month-to-a-year process. When they ask my opinion, I always ask what they don’t like about the bike they are riding now, the one they absolutely loved not long ago. Then, based on that feedback, I’ll recommend a few bikes that I think they’ll like.

I also always suggest that they get out and ride the bikes, because nothing tells you more about a bike than riding it; no review, no geo chart and certainly no marketing propaganda from said brand. Nothing replaces saddle time.


A few weeks typically go by and I get a follow-up phone call. “This is the bike; it’s perfect,” I often hear. For the next few months during the honeymoon phase with the bike, all is well. Add-ons are typically aesthetic in nature—anodized bits and bobs, graphics and matchy-matchy grips are typically the call. Then it starts: “I notice X, Y or Z when I ride the bike; did you feel this?” they ask. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t, but either way, the mods start. Longer travel forks, coil shocks, shorter stems, wider bars, new tires—it varies greatly depending on what the rider doesn’t like or wants to enhance. Somehow, the bike that was perfect a short time ago is no longer living up to their expectations.

Occasionally, these modifications actually solve the problem and the bike is “perfect” again. Other times, one mod creates another issue that requires another tweak to something and the spiral continues. My favorite is when somebody tries a bunch of changes all at the same time. Believe me, I get it. You think you know what each thing is going to do, but more often than not, one thing changes another and you end up having no idea what change created it. Every now and then you’ll get lucky and it actually does what you think, but typically it does not. It’s always best to be patient and make only one change at a time.


This cycle tends to continue until, one day, I get the call saying, “I think I’m gonna sell my bike and get something else. What are you liking these days?” The circle has completed, and they are back searching for the next perfect bike. Now, I’m not suggesting that I do not do the same thing. I’m as guilty as the next person, but I’ve been doing it for decades. In most cases, the new bike was indeed an improvement. However, there have been others that I regretted because I just jelled with that bike like no other. The first one that made me feel that way was an early 1990s Specialized M2 hardtail with a Rockshox Mag 21 SL Ti fork. I climbed better on that bike than anything since. Or, at least, that was my perception. I still catch myself daydreaming about climbing on that old bike 30 years ago.

Then there was the team-issue race bike where the brand’s outsourced fabricator messed up and made the head angle 2 degrees slacker than it was supposed to be. With no other bike to ride, I got used to it and grew to love it. This was decades before slack head angles were cool, especially on XC bikes, and I had a true advantage on downhills with little—if anything—holding me back going up. I won my only NORBA National XC race as an Expert on that bike. At the end of the season, the bike manufacturer swapped out the “blem” frame for a standard one—and I hated it. By the time I got the new bike built and realized my mistake, it was too late; the old frame had already been scrapped.


Years later, while working for Moots, I scribbled my idea of perfect hardtail geometry on a napkin and gave it to founder Kent Eriksen, who was still mitering tubes at the time. It was a culmination of all my favorite bikes’ features. It had the slack head angle of the blem team bike, long chainstays of another, as well as a steep seat tube, long reach and really low bottom bracket. He looked at me, laughed and said, “It’ll never work.” Then he said something to me that has stuck in my head ever since: “You can get used to anything.” He was suggesting that I stick with more standard geometry and get used to it. I stubbornly suggested that he was wrong and insisted he cut my frame’s tubes to the napkin’s specs. He just chuckled and agreed.

My custom frame looked odd two-plus decades ago, but it was way ahead of its time—long, low and slack. The only thing I regretted was the switch to long chainstays. It worked against the long reach and slack front end. I got used to it and even won some races on it, but it wasn’t really better than standard geometry, just different. Mr. Eriksen was right. My idea of the perfect bike was flawed, and you can get used to anything. I eventually sold that bike and a couple more that I still regret. Maybe those people out riding those old bikes with a smile were just smart enough to quit while they were ahead.

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