The Art of the Mountain Bike Demo

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Living in Santa Cruz, you almost don’t have to own a mountain bike. Just about any day of the week, you can demo the best bikes on the planet: Santa Cruz, Ibis, Intense, Yeti, Trek, Specialized.

Which is a good thing. With bikes like these going for $6,000 to $10,000 or more, you kinda wanna get a feel for how they ride before you buy.

But there is an art to the demo. And a respect as well.

The first thing to remember is keep it as short as possible. Others are waiting in line. This obviously doesn’t apply to demos where you’re paying for the privilege, but in most cases you’ll be much appreciated for consideration of the next rider.

Don’t be surprised, though, if demo bikes aren’t all new and shiny. A lot of the time they’re kinda beat up. Face it, there’s not much down time for fixing, refurbing, replacing. When they’re not being ridden, they’re being transported in a truck somewhere.

As a result, over time the bike’s parts and performance really suffer. Shocks lose the butter and become hard to tune. Tires go bald. Pivots start creaking.

Demo'ing a new Instinct 29er
With Tyler at Rocky Mountain demo booth

It’s a shame, because ideally, demo bikes should all be top-of-the-line, brand new, totally pimped out rides.

Think about it: You ride a $10,000 demo bike, you’re going to be blown away no matter what its idiosyncrasies. You’re going to want one. And if that means going for the $3,500 “special blend” instead of the one you rode, then that’s OK. Because it’ll always be in your mind that you can upgrade or tweak the bike to ride like the demo.

Instead, demo bikes often get the cheap builds. I guess I can see why: They’re cheaper if they get trashed or broken. But it’s counterproductive in the long run.

If you demo a TOL carbon frame with cheap components, and it’s been pounded on for a few weeks, my experience is that bike is not going to impress.

I had a sobering reminder of all this when demo’ing Ibis’ new HD3 three times over the space of a few weeks. Yeah, I know: I’m lucky. I live less than two miles from Ibis headquarters.

My first ride just blew me away. Everything was new, of course, and worked the way new stuff does. Wow, I could climb and rail my favorite haunts like never before. The tires were grippy. The shocks were plush. The drivetrain shifted like a Ferrari.

Four or five weeks later, the same bike wasn’t so rockin’. Everything was pretty worn in, or worn out. You can’t make an HD3 ride bad, but compared to a brand new HD3, this bike was a hurtin’ puppy. Put it next to a newly outfitted competitor like the Mach 6, say, or Intense T275c, and it would suffer by comparison.

All I’m saying is that when demo’ing, try to get a well-maintained bike. And if you can’t, take into account the wear factor. Cut the bike some slack if it’s a bit trashed. It’d be a better ride if it was yours.

You’re also going to want a demo to-do list. Because you can’t, or at least I can’t, keep all the pointers in mind when I prep the demo.

I put together the checklist after discovering there’s a big difference between just riding a bike, and riding a bike as if it were your own. In the former instance, you hop on and take off. You might make adjustments during the ride, but probably not. You basically just want to ride! So you ignore things that on your own bike would drive you nuts.

If you’re serious about buying the bike, though, you’ll want to take care of the tweaks before leaving the demo pit. Here’s some things to look at:

1. Sizing. Make sure you get the right size. Figuring that out is not as easy as it used to be because the new enduro-influenced breed, with its stretched top tubes, steep seat and slack head angles, and short chain stays all mean a former M may be an L and an L may be XL. You’ll be assigned a certain bike size based on your height, but that’s no longer the best rule of thumb. Instead, you need to sit on the bike and figure out what feels comfortable.

2. Shock sag. They’ll set it by your weight, but again, your preferences may vary. Give it the lean-and-push test to dial the sag where you want it. (This admittedly might take a bit of riding to figure out, though.) Good demo staff will get the sag set up right before you take off.

3. Tire pressure. Again, check to match your preference. Most demo bikes are pumped up way too hard.

4. Saddle fiddling. Height adjustment isn’t a biggie any more because of droppable seat posts. But position and tilt of the saddle is. This again can make a huge difference in the enduro platform. I’ve gotten bikes (especially Pivots, due to laid-back seat angle) where the saddle is slammed all the way forward. Or tilted slightly upward. Other times the saddle is pushed back and the nose tilted down. I myself like a level saddle centered on the post, where possible, because it makes apples-to-apples comparison easier for other bike geometries. This adjustment is especially key because if you get out on the ride without the right wrenches, you won’t be able to make any tweaks and your demo quality will suffer.

The other thing to check is nose alignment with the stem. I’m always amazed at how far out of line the saddle can be on a demo bike. And a few degrees can really throw off the bike’s ride feel.

5. Brakes. Check to make sure they’re adjusted properly, and there’s no rotor drag.

6. A way to record your experience. For referencing, you’ll want to make a record of component brands and stats, like width and style of handlebars, length and rise of stem, brand and model of suspension, etc. etc. I enter them into a list on my iPhone, but speaking them into the phone mic also works, or just use pencil and paper.

7. One additional way of keeping a record is to take along your GoPro or helmet cam and speak into it as you ride, a running real-time record of your impressions. Kinda geeky I know, but I’ve found it useful not only for documenting but also for on-the-bike reviews at my blog.

For all the above reasons, it’s handy to take the following equipment along on a demo:

Allen wrenches
Shock pump
Tire pump
Smart phone
Camera/action cam

Along with your other usual gear of course.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, the most important facet of the demo is the ride itself. Be sure to stretch the bike, take it challenging places, do interesting things. Most of all, have fun! If the demo bike isn’t more fun than riding your own bike, after all, you’ve wasted your and the bike maker’s time.

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