Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Me, On A Mountain Bike

Heading Out On A New Trail

Well, it happened. After staying a pure road cyclist for years and years, it was time to purchase a bike for Calgary. (After all, I figure my squirrely road bike will be good on about 20% of the terrain/roads/paths up there for about 25% of the year.)

A bike for, you know, commuting. Commuting: the desire to be free and go everywhere on your bicycle. Every college student's dream (some successfully, many not), and oddly one I've had every time I head off to a new degree or job - seemingly without learning from the last time. Though to my credit, despite my continued use of the bus rather than a bike to actually go places, I still love riding (or 'tearing up some pavement') for plain old fun.

So this time, I may have done something right. I said "How much do I want to spend?" My intuitive answer: Somewhere around $250. But then you play that game (you know,
that game) with yourself. It goes something like this... A little voice in your head says, "Hey, for $20 more, you can get a Shimano name brand rear derailleur", and then "And hey, if you spend $30 more, you can get front shocks!" Then disc brakes, then recognizable brand tires, and soon you're looking at bikes worth $500 and wondering what happened.

So there I was, playing that game, ready to take the dive. After all, if I was getting a commuting bike, why not get one that I can also mountain bike on? Who knows, I might actually like mountain biking....all the other skiers in the world seem to. Generously, Roy's parents offered to help me with the bike for my birthday, so that bumped me out of the commuting-only category. And it only left the question of what to get, and where to get it.

I looked around (they need a name for the intense Internet scouring fervor that comes with trying to research every bike - or what have you - in the world without actually setting foot in a store) and found a few good options. I spent a number of hours of my life on
MTBR, reading their reviews. I looked at bikes from REI, Performance, Helens, and some online stores.

And finally, I played the most controversial game of all: Not wanting to spend $500 for a $500 bike. (Yes,
that game.)

More fervored Internet scouring. More spec comparisons. Finally, I purchased a
Windsor Cliff 4500 from Bikesdirect.com. Before you start letting your mind go off on some tangent about what you think of buying unseen, unridden, unreviewed bikes, let me tell you that my ordering of the bike was not without some small amount of panic. No amount of Internet scouring could appease me, pre-order, that either bike or vendor were not going to blow up and disappear respectively as soon as I ordered one. But everyone has their reasons for eventually making such a choice, and I had mine, which are probably best left for 'an evening and a pint', rather than being told here.

Regardless, some people call the Cliff 4500 a 'mixed' bike. That is, some name-brand components are on the bike to bump the price up, but some components are pretty cheap. Truth be told, I really don't care. It was $350 total with Rockshox and disc brakes. I bought my Raleigh 600 road bike (which I love) many years ago under similar circumstances (as stock, with very mixed Shimano components, and some no-name components) and have slowly replaced components as I want to, rather than paying a huge amount of $ up front. Plus, cheap handlebars still work pretty darn well until I grow my skills enough to want something different.

Regardless, the order process from Bikesdirect was pretty basic: I paid, and 24 hours later I got a UPS tracking number in a generic thank-you email. The next Monday, on time, the bike showed up at my door, lying on the side that says "Do Not Lay On This Side" in huge bold letters on the box. I signed for it, cringed as various metallic components could be heard clanging inside as I brought the bike in, and ripped open the cardboard. Here's what I found - basically a very compact bike in pieces:

And, truth be told, the bike was just fine. There was one paint scratch behind the top of the front fork. But aesthetics aside, the excellent packing job had the bike in 99.9% perfect condition on arrival, more than I expected. (The clanging was the pedals, packaged in a cardboard box of their own.) Here is another picture of the bike once extracted from the box:

There are a few things that I feel I should mention. First, their website does not describe everything that needs to be done to assemble a bike when you take it out of the box. I needed to do the following:

  1. Remove bike from extensive packaging and find all the pieces and components in the box
  2. Put the quick-release shaft through the front tire, and the front tire on the bike fork
  3. Put the saddle and seatpost unit on to the bike (using the provided quick release lever, a nice touch)
  4. Put the chain on the front gear ring
  5. Put the pedals on (needed 15mm wrench)
  6. Put the stem on the headset, and tighten appropriately (their instructions are wrong - they just say to tighten the stem expander bolt, which won't work, you also need to tighten around the headset, needed a hex key for this)
  7. Rotate the handlebars in the stem (they were put on upside down at the factory, again, needed a hex key)
  8. Install the front brake on the frame (need hex key, cable cutters for trimming the brake cable, and a crimper to finish the cable off)
  9. Align the pads on the front and rear brakes (need hex key, and some knowledge about disc brakes, which I spent about 10 minutes with the included documentation getting)
  10. Tune the deraileurs (Mine needed minor tuning only with the finger screw)
  11. True the wheels (I've not done this yet, they're decently trued for test riding anyway)
Also, the screws don't come pre-greased so I also used a bit of my synthetic grease. I've worked on my own road bikes for years, but I'm still much much slower than a bike tech, and it took me 2 hours from box to riding.

Then, the 'how to put your bike together' instruction booklet that they send is worse than useless: sometimes it's just flat-out wrong. The book I learned maintenance for my road bikes from is Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance, and I'm sure his mountain biking version is also great, though I don't own it (yet). However, Bikesdirect does send every pamphlet that goes with every component, and those are actually pretty darn useful. Here is the spread of paperwork that came with the bike:

I also put on some pedal clips, as well as the usual additives (pump, seatbag, etc). After assembling, I took the bike for a couple of spins around the block, getting the seat height right and fine-tuning the shifter cables.

And then, the next morning, I took the bike out for an actual ride! It was my first real mountain bike ride of my life. I went down Crags Road in Malibu Creek State Park, down to the M.A.S.H. site and beyond. I wouldn't call the trail a beginner's trail (I had to get off and walk for about a half mile on a really rocky and skinny trail part). Perhaps I was following a side trail? At any rate, I sure enjoyed it for my first ride.

Here is my bike and an old rusty prop car from the M.A.S.H. show: old machine and new machine together:

And a closeup of the bike, since that's probably what you really want to see:

The bike handled really well, and so all in all I consider the whole adventure of finding a mountain bike to be a success. In my internet scouring, I came across some words from a GORP article:
If this is your first mountain bike ever, which it sounds like, it really isn't going to make much difference which frame you go with. You'll fall in love with what you get used to, providing you're happy with it from the start.
And boy, did I have fun! I can see why skiers like this sport: it's techy, strenuous, interesting, and yet very accessible. Who knows where this bike will take me next?


AL said...

Thank you for this Article, I was playing the same game and actually I end in the exact Web Site looking the same MTB (Windsor Cliff 4500) Now I can order my bike without “panic” :-)

Anonymous said...

Really cool looking bike! I plan on buying one next week. I bought a Windsor wellington 2.0 roadbike from bikedirect a year ago. Amazing bike! And like they say, these are the same bikes built next to Fuji's, Treks etc. They all come from Taiwan and are assembled wherever they are headed. I love how the "true bikers" sit on the sidelines(forums) and judge the bike while they pay 2-3x's more for the same thing with Trek written on the side...It keeps the price down for people like us.

Anonymous said...

I have put 12 mi. a day on this same bike for 18 months with little maintance. I did just recently bend the back rim though. :( If you are considering the 4500 I say go for it. It's not bad for a entry level. Ride On!