Early this morning I took a short ride on the American M-16 vintage all-terrain bicycle:
When I first took delivery of this bicycle I admit I found it dated and uncomfortable, but it has since become one of my favorite bicycles. This is partially because I worked out my position (“worked out my position” = raising the bars slightly), and partly because I realized I needed to stop thinking of it as a “mountain bike.” In the age of: large-diameter, high-volume, tubeless tires; wide bars and even wider-range gearing; clutch derailleurs; and of course single-ring drivetrains that don’t jam your chain in between the chainring and the chainstay just as you’re about to tackle that steep climb; using this as your trail bike is mostly an exercise for the hopelessly nostalgic and/or incurably obstinate. (I mean obviously that depends were you ride, yes absolutely there are mountain bike trails where this bicycle remains as competent as it was when it was first welded–and no, you should not abandon your “vintage” mountain bike in favor of the rolling freakshows of today so long as the former is still serving you well, that goes without saying.) However, as a grab-and-go bike with flat pedals and mixed-terrain tires it’s absolutely fantastic and totally up for whatever.
By the way, when it comes to using the M-16 as an actual mountain bike, one liability is the short chainstays. In fact the “16” in “M-16” refers to the chainstay length, which was shortened from the Comp-Lite model:
Yes, that’s right, they shortened the chainstays. On a mountain bike. This most likely helped eat up some tire clearance, as I know firsthand:
It also must help account for the bike’s relative lack of traction on climbs. (Along with the 26-inch wheels, of course. If you were riding mountain bikes during the transition to 29-inch wheels you may remember being amazed by how much traction you suddenly had with the bigger wheels. Well, I was, anyway.) Even on my Rivendell, which is not a mountain bike by any stretch and sports tires with like zero tread, I have lots more traction on steep unpaved climbs than I do on the M-16, probably because the chainstays on the Rivendell are so long my rear wheel is practically in another zip code. Meanwhile, on the M-16, I’ve got to move your weight around more to make sure your rear wheel doesn’t spin out on those steep, gravelly climbs.
But whatever, who cares about all of that? You don’t ride a 30 year-old mountain bike because of how it performs relative to the bikes of today. You ride it because it’s fun! Tire clearance may be “limited,” but it’s still plenty. 40 miles of “gravel” in sneakers and jeans? No problem! Knocking around the neighborhood for an hour at dawn this morning before assuming my parenting duties? Absolutely:
In fact, the “negative” aspects of this bike are precisely what make it such a great grab-and-go bike. Small wheels, narrow bars…these are unmitigated pluses when you’re got to carry a bike up and down stairs and maneuver it in and out of a crowded apartment building bike room. So when I need a bike to knock around the park or throw on THE CAR THAT THE FASCIST BULLY BOYS AT THE BANK NO LONGER OWN BECAUSE I PAID THEM BACK THEIR FILTHY MONEY when I bring it in for service, this is the bike I choose.
By the way, now that my wife is no longer riding this bike occasionally, I’ve removed the Cambium saddle and replaced it with the Concor that came with the bike, and I fully admit I did this entirely for aesthetic reasons. Also, I re-installed the Hite-Rite:
This too I did for aesthetic reasons, though it also occurs to me that if I ever need to lock up the bike it will serve as a saddle theft-deterrent.
Then there’s the operation of the bicycle:
Mountain bike components have come a long way (arguably much further than road components in terms of sheer functionality for their intended application), and I constantly marvel at how amazing even the “cheap” SRAM NX stuff that came on my Jones LWB is. At the same time, there’s just something satisfying about controls you actually have to engage with:
Levers, cables, pulleys…sure, you’ve got to plan ahead to shift (and arguably to stop), but pulling and pushing all that stuff is kind of like being on a sailboat:
And yes, as the sort of shallow person who changes a saddle simply for aesthetic reasons, I do find the look of the old stuff a lot more appealing:
The modern equivalent derailleur is better in every way, and if you were building a new bike you’d be silly not to use it. But admit it, it’s ugly as fuck:
Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, there are ways to enhance the whole “casual rambler” vibe of this bike. Bars with some rise and sweep would make those 40-mile rides even more enjoyable, and no doubt some supple Jan Heine boutique rebranded Panaracer tires would make the bike feel both faster and smoother, especially on pavement. However, at present I’m disinclined to do any of that, partially because I already have a Rivendell, and partially because I like the idea of keeping the bike true to its origins, even if that involves preserving some mistakes in amber. Anyway, once you head down that road you start changing everything, and you wind up with one of those completely over-the-top project bikes. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, projects are fun and all, but at this stage in my life I simply don’t have the time or the energy to reinvent bicycles. Also, I know myself, and once I start rethinking the cockpit on the M-16 to make it more comfortable I’m much better off just saying, “Fuck it, I’m buying a Platypus.”)
Most importantly, the M-16 has been an integral part of my learning how to savor even the shortest of rides. When you’ve got only an hour to ride your Inner Fred may say, “Why even bother?,” but this is a pernicious impulse. Instead, if you’ve got a whole hour to spend on the bike (or even a half of one) you should consider yourself lucky. I’m happy for my little bonsai tree rides, and living where I do I can easily access both city streets and “country lanes” in just a few pedal strokes:
Maybe what the M-16 has really taught me is the virtue of making do with what you’ve got:
Which is easy to say when you’ve still got a bunch of other bicycles to ride, but I’ve never denied being a massive hypocrite.