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Benefits of Transitioning to a Modern Mountain Bike: Comparing Late 90's Technology to Today (2020)

I’ve recently had the pleasure of rediscovering mountain biking, and the change in technology has been shocking.

I began riding mountain bikes in 1996 when I bought a second-hand GT for $250. I loved that bike enough that I invested another $2,000 into it between 1997 and 2001, upgrading everything but the seat, seatpost, and frame.

For the day, it became top of the line — 26" Mavic rims, Manitou SX forks, Shimano XT 3x8 drivetrain, shifters, and V-brakes. The frame was steel, which I preferred over the stiffer aluminum frames at the time. It probably weighed in around 31 lbs. I’m a big guy, so the 21" frame fit me well.

I rode this bike for almost 25 years, though not always as much as I would have liked. Life got in the way for a few years, trails near my home in South Florida were pathetic, and it wasn’t worth the effort.

We now live in Northern Georgia, and my daughter turned 11 last year. To my great delight, she decided she wanted to learn to ride mountain bikes. We bought her an inexpensive Cannondale at the local REI, and we were off to the trails. It wasn’t long before we learned of the local NICA league, and it’s been something of a blur since then!

As I was slowly introduced to the new technology brought to mountain biking, I realized how obsolete my bike had become. Unfortunately, my bike’s frame was not tapped for disc brakes, and my brakes and shifters were on integrated mounts — changing one would require that I change everything.

After a bit of hinting, my wife told me to go find a new (used) bike for my birthday this year. I was fortunate to find a 2018 Ellsworth Enlightenment, equipped with the full line of Shimano XT components.

Brakes, Moving from V-Brakes to Hydraulic Disc.

The first thing I noticed when riding my daughter’s bike was how much better the brakes were when compared to my V-brakes. Even the cheapest mechanical disc brakes they put on her bike out-performed those on my antique.

It used to be (with the old Canti- or V-brakes) that riding in water or mud would destroy your braking power. Not anymore. The disc brakes are positioned high enough to avoid the worst of the mud and muck, and the pairing of the metallic pads with the rotors provides unbelievable stopping power under any conditions.

Adjusting rim brakes was certainly my least favorite maintenance task. Having to tinker with them to get them “toed in” just right was a never-ending process. Tinkering with brakes is no longer required: pads are easily replaced and and are self-adjusting. Shimano mineral oil rarely needs to be changed. An occasional bleed only takes a minute or two.

Wheels, Moving from 26 to 29 inch Tubeless.

The 29" tubeless wheels will roll over just about anything. It almost feels like having full suspension — it’s certainly a much smoother ride than the older 26" wheel inflated to a higher pressure. Making the switch to both the larger wheel and tubeless at the same time makes it difficult to say which makes the bigger difference, though.

The tires are not only larger, but wider. The increase from 2.25 to 2.35 inches provides both additional traction and volume. The volume, I have come to understand, adds to the smoother ride. The tires absorb the rocks and roots better, rolling over the rough parts rather than simply clattering over them.

In more than nine months of riding, I’ve only had a single flat. The sealant in the tires is almost magic. I can remember getting a flat at least once every other month, usually due to punctures (and I used kevlar liners!). I’ve pulled some gnarly stuff out of my new tires, but they rarely need more than a few presses of the hand pump to restore them to proper operation.

Drivetrain, Moving from 3x8 to 1x11.

Where my daughter’s bike came with a 3x9 drivetrain which was very familiar to me, my new toy included a 1x11 drivetrain. Even though my old bike had an XT drivetrain, the shifting on the 1x11 was something I had never dreamed possible. My chain zips up or down my cassette — often several cogs at a time and under load — without missing a beat.

They’ve replaced the Phillips-type set screws with Allen bolts, making adjustment easier. I can’t explain it, but the entire process of setting the shifting (limits and indexing) is just easier.

Frame, Moving from Steel to Carbon.

There were carbon frames in the late ’90s, but they were not affordable. I remember a friend who had one of the new Trek Y Five-0, and he’d paid close to $5k (this cost more than my car at the time!). It was a really cool novelty, but I suspect he quickly regretted the purchase as the ‘Y’ frames became obsolete so quickly.

I am happy to see that carbon is more affordable now, and I cannot find words to describe the difference that removing seven pounds from the frame creates. The bike feels like it wants to float up the short, steep climbs, and even longer uphills became tolerable immediately.

While the internal cable routing does little for the performance of the bike, it helps to keep everything looking clean. If there is one feature I dislike, it may be this one. The cables seem to bounce around a bit inside the frame making the smallest bit of noise. Where they could be better secured and more easily serviced on the outside, they are largely inaccessible on the inside.

A lot of folks seem to obsess with frame geometry. I honestly can’t tell that there is a major difference here, but then I am continuing to ride an XC hardtail rather than the more aggressive enduro bikes. While minor changes to geometry probably do a lot to help the industry sell new bikes, I’m quite content to stick with the older frames and put my money into maintaining a set of quality components.

Forks. Moving from Manitou SX to Fox Factory 34.

I’ve never been one to obsess over suspension. As mentioned, my old bike had Manitou SX forks which performed well enough to keep the major impacts from traveling up my wrist. The new bike has Fox Factory 34. Yes, they have more travel (and I know I use it), but is it worth the premium price? I’m undecided. They’re certainly lighter than my old forks, and that counts for a lot.

A few more random thoughts…

The one upgrade I made after purchasing the bike was adding a dropper post. Once I learned these existed, the point was not negotiable — I was going to have one! I have not been disappointed. Not only does this allow adjustment for more efficient climbing and safer descents without having to dismount, but it allows me to change the height during long seated portions of a ride when things get a bit uncomfortable. I’d liken this to the adjustable seats in your car.

Across several moves, I managed to hold on to all of my bike tools. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that nearly everything remained relevant and that there were very few new tools I needed to acquire. The bottom bracket is a newer design, requiring a new wrench, and I needed some magnets for fishing cables through the frame. While not strictly required, I opted to go with a torque wrench so I didn’t wreck the carbon frame.

So, how does it all add up?

The day I got my new bike, I dropped four minutes off a 24 minute lap time at my local trails. No joke — 17%, and all that changed was the bike! Through more riding this season, I’ve cut my lap time by another three minutes.

I’ve put close to 1000 miles on the bike in just over 6 months, and it only continues to go further and faster each time I climb on.

Do I miss my old bike? Certainly. Like an old T-shirt, there were a lot of memories. I doubt I will ever be able to forget the day I dropped the frame at the recycling center. Still, I cannot imagine it having any role in my life today other than taking up space in my already cluttered garage.

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