The next generation of bikes

'Free ride' trend has changed mountain biking for good

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— Why on earth would a bicycle shop stock shin guards? If you don't know the answer, you're obviously not a member of the extreme sports movement of America's youth culture.

Ski Haus is selling shin guards to its mountain bike customers. They are made by motocross accessories manufacturer, Fox. They are a natural consequence of the new "free ride" trend which has developed from free skiing, which originally was driven by snowboarding. Got it?

Free riders need shin guards because their radical style of riding can lead to their tibias impacting with immobile objects.

"Free riding is like in skiing, when kids are hucking cliffs," Ski Haus' Dave Dietrich said. "They're doing it on bikes now."

If mountain bikers are going to hunt for "drops" and launch themselves into the clear blue sky, the bicycle manufacturers have to turn out a new breed of sturdy bikes with 5-6 inches of travel in the front and rear suspensions.

Chris Oppold also is seeing the influence of motorcycling on the bikes he sells at Sore Saddle Cyclery.

"These are motorcycles without engines," Oppold said, gesturing at the Trek Liquid 20. "They're strong, better, faster," than mountain bikes of just a few years ago.

This is the bike for high school kids who are intent on dropping off logs and boulders, he said. The innovative rocker arm that makes the rear suspension do what it does permits 5 inches of travel. The front fork on the Liquid 20 is made by Fox.

The strength of the Ski Haus line for years has been Giant mountain bikes. But 2003 marks the second year Ski Haus has carried Canadian made Rocky Mountain bikes. Individual craftsmen sign off on each phase of the manufacturing process, and their handwritten initials are there on the bikes' hang tags.

Rocky Mountain's free ride bike is the Switch, priced at $2,398.

Dietrich hefts the bicycle onto a hook suspended from a scale in the rafters and reveals that at nearly 40 pounds, this is no lightweight. But the bike is outfitted with extra wide tires and a heavy-duty frame. It also can do tricks.

Dietrich sets the bike on the floor, lifts the rear end 18 inches into the air and drops it. Most bikes would bounce several times on their tire before settling down. Not the Switch -- it hugs the floor as if it were coated with Super Glue.

Of course, riding a bicycle off a cliff isn't everyone's idea of a successful weekend. At Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare, John Morse believes he has the ultimate weapon for competitors in the Steamboat Mountain Bike Series. The Santa Cruz Blur is decked out with full Shimano XTR components. That means your crank, hubs, disc brakes and more are all lighter than those on the bike of the rider you just passed. The hollow aluminum crank alone retails for $490 and that's a sign the Blur is going to be pricey at $3,500 and up. But the real strength of the bike is in its "virtual pivot point."

"What it does, it allows you to have 4.5 inches of travel when you need it but very little movement when you're pedaling," Jeffrey Lowe said. "I race with old people in the sprint category, and I'm very slow, but I have a good time."

Lowe bought a blur this spring, and he's having a hard time leaving it alone.

Morse said Santa Cruz makes a bike with the same virtual pivot point, but heavier components than the Blur, for about $2,400. Another good bet is the Klein Palomino, at about $2,000. It is built with a frame design licensed from Maverick. Just a couple of years ago, the same frame and rear shocks retailed at $2,500, Morse said.

At Sore Saddle, Oppold's ultimate frame is the Specialized Epic S-Works M5 Aluminum. The suspension on this beauty has a "brain" that senses changes in inertia. A sophisticated valve, it allows the bike to differentiate between the kind of shock caused by a rider standing up on the pedals while climbing or the kind of shock that results from a rim rebounding off a log. If the input is coming from the pedals, "the bike locks itself out and becomes a hard tail," more appropriate for climbing, Oppold said. "When it senses trail input it free itself up."

Sore Saddle's Chris Gibbons said the inertia valve is so sophisticated that, if you're climbing and hit a bump in the trail, the suspension will still know enough to free up.

"And it's instantaneous," Gibbons said.

At Ski Haus, Dietrich is high on the Rocky Mountain Element ($1,950) for cyclists who like to ride the trails and compete in the mountain bike series. The bike offers 3-plus inches of travel front and back, but also offers the benefits of an old-school hard tail on the hills.

"It almost doesn't make sense to buy a hard tail anymore," Dietrich said. "The Element has 3D Link technology that gets away from any pogo-ing. Pedaling doesn't activate the suspension. It takes a bump coming up from the ground."

A couple of things about mountain bikes haven't changed -- they still have pedals and chains -- at least for now.

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