Steamboat Springs The almost magical disappearance of the snowpack this season promises a short mud season and an early mountain biking season. Cyclists will be grinding out ascents of Emerald Mountain and flying down Valley View from the top of Thunderhead, as soon as the wind and sun have completed their annual spring chores.
The cross-country trek from Rabbit Ears to Buffalo Pass will have to wait until at least June. But Kokopelli's trail already beckons. And there is a new breed of mountain bike for people who are more interested in long cross country rambles than they are in technical ascents and descents.
Fisher has come out with a new bike with 29-inch wheels that contrasts to the 26-inch wheels that have dominated mountain bikes since the beginning of time. The new Fisher line of mountain bikes with larger wheels are appropriately dubbed the Two-Niners.
"The 29-inch wheels are for someone who is a serious cross-country rider," Harry Martin of Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare said. "They are a lot faster and have a lot less rolling resistance than bikes equipped with the standard wheels."
"Twenty-six inch wheels have been the standard since mountain bikes first came out," Martin said. "Remember, the original mountain bikes were basically old clunkers sort of beach cruisers.
Fisher founder Gary Fisher says during the explosive growth of mountain biking since the mid-'70s, nobody has really slowed down enough to question whether the 26-inch wheel is the best dimension for the sport.
The Two-Niners are running counter to the trend of full suspension bikes they have a state-of-the-art front suspension, but they are hardtails pure and simple. And that's the way many cross country riders want it.
The Two-Niners' frame has been tweaked substantially, Martin said, to allow for the bigger wheels while keeping the center of gravity for the bike low.
Fisher is one of the recognized pioneers of mountain biking. Another of the sport's founding fathers, Kent Eriksen, is designing frames right here in Steamboat for the Moots manufacturing plant. And Eriksen has come up with some innovations himself.
"Kent has been developing a matched arc suspension that is fully active," Moots' Butch Boucher said. The technical genius in the new "Smoothie" frame is the elimination of a pivot point. That seemingly minor adjustment has resulted in a frame that eliminates pedal induced wobbling, Boucher said.
He recently came back from a four-day trip to Moab and Fruita where he gave a Smoothie a thorough workout. Boucher said he thought the bike compared favorably to Moots' hot-selling YBB (Why be beat?) frame of recent years.
"People think a bike that gives you a plush ride is not good at climbing," said Boucher. "This bike climbs efficiently. It excels at absorbing both small and big bumps without a loss of efficiency."
The bikes offer between 3 and 4 inches of rear wheel travel.
"The Smoothie feels very nimble," Boucher said. "It has that light quick feel I like about bicycles when they're really dialed in."
Rich Takesuye of Sore Saddle Cyclery works for one of the biggest Moots dealers in the region. He says the Steamboat-based company is becoming more and more known for its road bikes. He assembled four road bikes for local customers.
Takesuye believes full suspension bikes are here to stay. Riders who learn to adapt their pedaling style to apply consistent power throughout the stroke will begin to favor them for both climbing and traveling downhill at speed, he predicted.
The ability to adjust rear suspension travel at the push of a button is really helping drive the move toward full suspension bikes. Sales of hardtails at Sore Saddle, like the old standby, the Stumpjumper by Specialized, have declined markedly, he said.
Similarly, manufacturers have provided dealers and owners with the ability to customize front fork settings to suit the individual rider.
Full suspension bikes begin at $950 to $980.
Todd Fellows at Ski Haus is excited about the new bikes by Cannondale dubbed the "Scalpel."
Cannondale has taken adjustable suspensions to a new level, allowing riders to make adjustments without ever getting off the bike.
"It's a full suspension bike, but you flip a knob and razzle a switch and the frame becomes fully rigid," Fellows said. "If you get off the trail and want to ride across town you can switch to a rigid bike."
The switch from a fully suspended to a rigid bike is accomplished with two switches that resemble the old thumb shifters once used to shift a bike's gears. The rear suspension is controlled by a lever on the handlebars and the front suspension is controlled with a shifter on the stem that's easier to reach than a water bottle, Fellows said.
The folks at Ski Haus are also enamored by the fact that Cannondale frames are made in the U.S.
"No fewer than 40 American hands touch every bike they make," Fellows said.
Another innovation Cannondale is bringing to the fore is the increasing use of carbon fiber together with aluminum in its frames. The carbon fiber flexes naturally, Fellows said, where aluminum frames rely on pivot points to flex. Pivot points wear and require frequent maintenance when used as hard as Steamboaters ride their bikes. The fewer the number of moving parts, the less need for costly maintenance, Fellows pointed out.
Moots bicycles range in price from about $3,500 to upwards of $5,000. Moots offers good value for the money, Takesuye said. But people don't have to spend lavishly to get a really good mountain bike today. That's due largely to the fact that the technology developed by high-end manufacturers is liberally trickling down to lower price points.
Martin and Takesuye agree that people can purchase a great mountain bike for about $700.
Sore Saddle offers bikes without front fork suspensions beginning at $239 for a Trek worthy of a dirt road. Bump your budget up to $300 and you get front suspension with brakes that can be operated with a single finger a substantial safety feature for young riders, Takesuye pointed out.
"What you get for $700 is unbelievable," he said.
Martin agreed; at $700, Fisher's Hoo Koo E Koo offers 27 speeds, a front suspension and aluminum frame.
"Ten years ago, an equivalent bike would have cost $1,600," Martin said.