You first fall in love with the feeling. Whether it’s climbing or descending that speaks to you, the earliest months of your affair are consumed with what’s going on inside your body, mind, and soul. Soon enough though, you begin to notice something else. The more time you spend on your bike, the more your affection grows for the shiny—or perhaps matte-finished—bits and pieces bolted to your beloved frame.
Like a teenager falling in love for the first time, you may be attracted to the obvious, or what your friends tell you is important; cranksets and derailleurs are often the objects of wistful first love. As you gain experience and discover that a $450 carbon crankset doesn’t really feel all that different from a quality, $200 cold-forged alloy version, and paying an upgrade fee of $150 for a carbon cage and ceramic bearings in your rear derailleur didn’t turn you into Nino Schurter, you gain what the victors call wisdom and the vanquished call experience.
After a few disenchanting forays into the upgrade world, you begin to realize that the prettiest things don’t always bring lasting happiness. Of course, there are exceptions; like the gorgeous guy or gal who’s also loving, supportive, and forgiving, a high-quality wheelset not only looks great, but will undoubtedly help improve your riding. The perfect package always comes with a price, however. Dating a flawless specimen of humanity can be more stressful than it’s worth, and high-end wheelsets cost an arm and a leg.
With wisdom and experience come the confidence to listen to what speaks to you, and the prudence to see through the hype. Your buddy may have a sexy-looking carbon stem, and the website marketers will all try to convince you that it’s something you can’t live without, but do you really think spending $250 on a shiny (or matte) handlebar-holder is going to put a smile on your face ride after ride?
After my own misguided attempts to find happiness in shiny objects, I finally realized that what really does it for me are tires. Despite their dull, drab exterior, the inner beauty of tires shines brightly. Even if you pay MSRP for the most expensive tires available, which lies somewhere around $80, there’s no other part on your bike that offers so much while asking for so little in return. Tires sound like the perfect partner, no?
My obsession with tires was consummated when, with a new IRC Kujo DH on the front of my Santa Cruz Bullit, I came into a square corner way too hot. I had overcooked this turn many times before, but now, as I jammed the inside grip hard toward the dirt, the bike somehow hooked up and seemingly pivoted around my front wheel, leaving me set up perfectly for the turn’s exit and carrying more speed than I thought possible. After that, I decided that figuring out the intricacies of tire design, construction, and setup was the best way to spend time and money when it came to my bike.
In my mind, tires are the perfect component. Filled with nuanced technology, there’s no shortage of features to compare when debating the merits of one tire over another. Unlike cranksets, the performance of tires can be assessed right on the bike shop floor. Only the test jig knows how stiff those carbon cranks are, but you can prod and poke a tire for immediate feedback. Pinch the sidewall to gauge thickness. Press a fingernail into the tread to determine rubber compound. Push on the knobs to see how the siping affects deformation.
Tires are the most effective way to alter your bike’s performance. The right tire combination can wake up a sluggish bike, or turn a twitchy, sensitive rig into a planted, confidence-inspiring, corner destroyer. You don’t even have to spend money to get a different feel from your bike. Simply playing around with the air pressure in your tires changes the way your bike feels in rocks, turns, jumps, and climbs. Like a selfless romantic partner, tires are where you should place your affections.
So let your friends chase after the unicorns of carbon fiber componentry, and ostentatiously display how much their supposed deep relationship with mountain biking means. You (and your tires) know just where the true gold lies.