I was an avid mountain biker in my early 30s, and once again I have taken up the sport, more than a decade later, to find that lots has changed. The trails and techniques have not changed much, but I have. Luckily, mountain bikes have changed too, and newer models are much more suited for people at various stages of life and skill levels.
The Mongoose Switchback Sport ($399) women’s mountain bike is a great bike for a new or returning mountain biker. The Switchback is tall, with its 27.5-inch wheelbase and a raised handlebar stem, and it allows me to sit high and upright. As I have gotten a little older, my neck and back sometimes feel stiff and painful, so this more erect posture is exceedingly more comfortable than the hunched-over downward-facing position of older mountain bikes.
The front suspension fork absorbs shock and offers a lower-impact ride than a fixed fork, so again, for an older body, this is more comfortable. The fork features a lockout knob, so that if you are on a paved surface and you don’t require the benefits of suspension, you can change over the fork so that it performs like a fixed fork, which offers a less laborious ride.
The pedals on this bike feature standard platform pedals. When I was a more aggressive mountain biker, I used clipless pedals, which required me to have special shoes with clips, and when clicked into the pedals, my pedal stroke was more efficient. For serious riders, clipless pedals are a must, but for a weekend rider like myself, the platform pedals are more suitable. As I am out of practice with the clipless pedals, the platforms gave me less anxiety. There is nothing worse than not being able to clip out of your pedals in time when you stop, and tipping over like a bad scene from Laugh In.
As this bike is tall, I appreciated the girls’ style lower top tube. While in my younger days I would easily swing my leg over the seat, now I am glad to be able to have the option of stepping through the bike to mount it.
One thing that will take some adjustment for me is the width of the handlebars. Because of the gears and their positioning on the handlebars, I am not able to place my hands close together. At first I felt like my grip was too wide, but I am getting use to this stance.
The aluminum frame keeps the bike lightweight, which is not only good for quick riding on the trails, it makes it easier for me to lift to put on a bike rack on the back of my car or to hang on a rack in my garage. It’s the small things that are important! One non-standard component that I will add to this bike is a kickstand. I’m aware that true mountain bikers do not have kickstands on their bikes, as it could be dangerous if it snags on roots, rocks or other obstacles on the trail, and it also adds a minuscule amount of weight to the bike, but I prefer the convenience of a kickstand to leaning my bike against a pole or a tree, or having to lay it on the ground.
The components on this bike are high-end for the price point. The Shimano Tourney 3_7 drivetrain with Shimano EZ-Fire shifters make shifting smooth and easy, and the mechanic disc brakes with 160 mm rotors are responsive without seizing up. At around $399, this is a great entry-point hardtail bike for a rider who wants the bells and whistles of a specialized bike but who is not yet willing to invest in a bike costing upwards of $1,500 for features like rear suspension. If I continue riding and want to become more competitive, I can always upgrade this bike, or trade up to a more advanced model.
For my weekend jaunts on and off single-track and paved trails, the Switchback is ideal. It is a serious enough bike, loaded with high quality Shimao and Xposure components, that I am not embarrassed riding among avid cyclists on the popular local trails, whereas on my comfort bike I felt a little like an oddball. It has performance features that make it enjoyable to ride but not too high maintenance for someone like myself who just wants to have a great time and not make a career of tinkering with my bike. This particular Mongoose model is among the higher end of the brand’s offerings. Mongoose also makes less expensive models, though for anyone who wants to get carefree, long use out of their equipment, I recommend going with one of their upper-end models. It might be another $100 to $300 to buy the better bike, but in the end you will get your money’s worth.
While certainly the hardware of mountain biking is the most significant investment, the apparel you wear while will riding can make your experience much better. Biking apparel today is nearly as technical as bikes themselves. The high tech fabrics have evolved and to provide more efficient wicking of perspiration to keep you comfortable when you work up a sweat, and they have features that allow you to adapt them as you progress in your ride or the weather or riding condition changes.
Sugoi, a brand that was forged in British Columbia, Canada, is designed to give you all optimal comfort and performance no matter what the weather. They make a great all-around Coast Hoode ($120), featuring a Aero fleece fabric that is a bonded knit with DWR, so that it protects against wind and water. It’s lined with a dry active jersey fabric to keep you warm, and it has two hand pockets for when you’re off the bike, and an inside pocket perfect for a cell phone or wallet. The collar features a media management system so you can secure headphone cords. When wearing this jacket, it is clear it was designed by true bikers, who thought of everything.
For early fall riding were days when it is less cool, the Coast Long Sleeve shirt ($65) is a great option. It also has great styling, so if you slip into a café on a rest break, you’ll fit right in and not look like your necessarily wearing a bike jersey.
For safety, Sugoi also makes an excellent reflective Zap Training jacket that makes you stand out like a radioactive rider when headlights hit you, if you ride after dark.
As I is a have always been a believer in dressing for success, it is my philosophy that if you have the right gear and clothing, you will perform better, and you will get the most out of your ride, whether that it is pleasure or trying to meet a training goal. When you feel comfortable on your bike and in your riding clothes, and you feel confident about your equipment, you can focus on your ride and getting the most benefit from it. As I gear up to get back into mountain biking, and now I have a nine-year-old son to keep up with, I am thrilled to be back in the saddle, and I am ready to roll.