If you believe everything you read, every wheel size is the best wheel size, every frame is the best frame, every brand is the best brand and every ‘standard’ is the new standard. Some bike shops are reporting more customer confusion than ever before, which is slowing down sales as people try to sort out the reality from the hype.
Curious to hear which products mountain bikers were backing with their wallets, I dropped in to Summit Cycles in Matraville, Sydney, a boutique mountain bike store that recently opened a second shop in Melbourne.
Summit Cycles is a type of bike shop that wouldn’t have existed ten years ago. Rather than stock something for everyone, they focus on high-end mountain bikes, which their customers typically modify with custom part selections.
Summit’s customer base is fairly affluent, with their average bike sale sitting close to $9,000. These are people who are very particular about the ride experiences they want from the components they choose, even if it means sacrificing other luxuries to afford them.
“If you compare it to road it’s interesting. Most road stores in the city would commit to having eight, nine, ten thousand dollar bikes on their floor because it’s a thing. It’s also a thing in mountain biking," said store manager, Adam Macbeth.
"People, especially if they have been mountain biking for a number of years, are at that point where they know exactly what they want and what they don’t want.
“The average customer is a lot more educated. We don’t spend much time explaining differences between particular models of bike. People tend to walk through our door knowing what they want.”
While the shop's staff certainly stand by the brands they stock - it wouldn't be a good shop if they didn't - it's an interesting destination for learning about the latest trends according to riders, rather than advertisers.
As far as the rest of us are concerned, the product designs that perform best at the high end are the ones that most riders will seek out on bikes at a lower price point in years to come. In fact, you’ll also see a lot of the components discussed here specced on the current suite of bikes available from other brands already.
“For us, Yeti SB5c, which is your mid-travel trail enduro bike, is our hands down most popular bike five-to-one over any other bike in store,” said Macbeth.
“In general, it’s nice that we live in an age now where you can buy a really, really capable all-mountain bicycle that you can ride all day and maybe take endurance racing.
“That 125-140mm bike is really our sweet spot. I think most of the people that are getting 150mm or above bikes are probably getting it because the industry is telling them that is this awesome thing that they should have.”
This is a type of bike that also didn’t exist ten, or even five, years ago. Innovations in suspension design have seen lot of cross-country and downhill riders switch to this efficient option that offers the best of both worlds.
As far as other dominant purchases are concerned, it’s a safe bet that if you build up your new trail bike with 1x11 drive train, a dropper post, Fox or RockShox suspension and cover it in bright, matching colours, it is certain to be on trend.
“It’s been a long time since we set a bike up with a front derailleur, that’s for sure,” said Macbeth.
“This year, especially because Shimano have finally released XT in 1x11, we’re seeing a bit of a swing back to Shimano. I know when we opened in late 2014, where there wasn’t really a cost-effective Shimano 1x11 system, we hardly sold a Shimano bike.”
Shimano’s electronic Di2 is something the shop sell more for shorter travel cross-country style bikes, but it hasn’t gained traction yet for the trail market.
“I think there are still a lot of consumers that are a bit worried about trashing a $700 rear derailleur,” said Macbeth. “You definitely hear rumours of XT electronic in the pipeline and I think that will change the way consumers feel about that. If it comes in at a good price point, it will be popular.”
So what about wheel size? 26” wheels are are officially thing of the past. 27.5” was the primary choice for trail bikes in 2015. “Although, you’ll notice for 2016 there’s quite a few manufacturers going to that mid-travel 29er trail bike, like Yeti SB 4.5, Pivot Mach 429 Trail,’ said Macbeth.
“Again, that kind of bike that you could rock up with to a marathon race and have an amazing time.” But with a dropper post and slacker angles, it ticks the boxes for an all-day trail bike, allowing its pilot to hit up the growing number of gravity enduro events as well.
“We’ve definitely, across the board, seen a swing back to hand built wheels over factory, big bladed alloy spoke kind of wheels,” added Macbeth.
“Our range at the moment kind of goes from nice hand built wheels to alloy rims, straight to carbon ENVE hand built. Mostly because we’ve seen a lot of really off-putting failures with Chinese made carbon wheels and we didn’t feel really comfortable about selling a carbon wheelset in that $1500-2000 range.
“If I wouldn’t ride it, I wouldn’t feel great about putting other people on it.”
For people buying a mountain bike in 2016, Macbeth’s advice is to carefully consider getting the bike set up right for your body shape and riding style.
“I think these days it’s really hard to buy a bad bike. There’s probably a good 20 brands you could clump together and it’s impossible to buy a bad bike from those guys,” he said.
“I think one thing in Sydney, and in general, that people are a little bit too fixed on is maybe the whole demo bike thing."
Instead he emphases building a relationship with your bike shop over the first six weeks of bike ownership: "Working on the shock tune, working on the fit and making sure whatever you have is set up right, for you. Building that relationship with whoever you’re getting the bike from is probably the biggest factor in having a good time long term.”
With so much choice on offer, not only in terms of frame designs and componentry, but with trail types, riding locations and events, the rising dominance of the trail bike certainly allows riders to enjoy a little bit of everything.
With the alll-round performance capabilities this offers, the image of the sport is shifting too. A lot of riders are moving away from a racing-based image and are enjoying the sport as a means of travel, lifestyle and playful exploration.
I leave the store feeling excited, hooked on a sport that, while sometimes confusing, continues to break its own boundaries and regularly reinvent. And while the product debates continue to ebb, flow and sort themselves out, I can't help but wonder what we'll all gravitiate towards next.