Soft Rides Demand Hard People

Further to yesterday’s post, this thing just happened to me:

Like the band Phish or the movies of John Waters, these bikes have something of a cult following, but it’s a cult I’ve never been inclined to join:

Nevertheless, like a “virgin” venturing forth to the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ shortly after signing off yesterday I girded my loin and took it out for a ride:

While that ride looks like a simple out-and-back, if you zoom in you’ll see I did a little loop to properly test the bike’s offroad capability before heading back:

By the way, “girding your loins” literally means to put a belt around your waist to keep your clothing in place during battle or something like that, and one thing I quickly learned during the test ride was that the saddle really wants to castrate you when you mount it–like it must actually be designed to snag your “pants yabbies” and then lop them off like a vegetable peeler, or at the very least puncture your scrotum. As the official Classic Cycle Old Crap Test Pilot riding the equipment supplied to me (no matter how awful or dangerous) is a matter of pride, so I resisted to the temptation to swap saddles, but by way of protection I girded my own loins by donning a pair of padded boxers and also wearing jeans. This I hoped would at least reduce my chance of finishing the ride as a gelding.

However, I did make one change, which was to replace the Eggbeater pedals, but only because Paul didn’t include the cleats for them:

Before doing so I did briefly try the Eggbeaters with Time cleats, since I always wondered if maybe they’d work. (In case you’re wondering, no, they don’t work, though you can kinda sorta get them to engage rather tenuously.)

The repulsive unique design of the Softride also makes it impossible to affix a saddle bag, and naturally it’s important to carry a full complement of tools when you’re riding an unfamiliar and freshly-assembled bicycle. Back in Softride’s heyday you could have bought a frame-specific bag from them:

But I just lashed a tool roll to the bike’s giant fiberglass lizard’s tongue with a pair of toe straps.

Tell me that Softride beam doesn’t look exactly like a lizard’s tongue. Now try to get the image of a giant lizard licking your undercarriage out of your mind.

The first time I got on the Softride after putting it together was a very odd sensation, and not just because the saddle tried to neuter me. It was also disconcerting to put my weight on that flexy beam, since it immediately starts to sag and so my instincts told me that it was about to break. But that sensation passes quickly, and by the time I hit the dirt I was kinda used to it:

And I enjoyed getting the bike up to speed on the long flat stretches too:

Looking at the Softride today you’d probably think to yourself, “Well, that doesn’t look like a very good design,” and of course you’d be right. But it’s not as simple as that, and like any recent trauma victim I’ve got a lot to process, so I beg your indulgence as I do my best to make sense of my first impressions:

The beam is obviously the most noteworthy feature of the bike, but it’s almost impossible to assess it because I couldn’t tell how much of what I was feeling was due to the beam or due to the saddle:

I do however think it’s safe to say that the saddle is fucking horrendous. Sometimes a saddle looks like it would be uncomfortable, but then you try it and are pleasantly surprised. Take for example the all-plastic Cinelli Unicanitor, which I tried for the first time on the Teledyne Titan, and which surprised me by being perfectly comfortable despite its appearance:

This is not the case with the saddle on the Softride:

Not only does it look like some kind of evil minimalist duck, or something out of a Tim Burton movie:

But it also feels like you’re sitting on an airplane toilet while someone hiding inside it is trying to get their finger up your ass. It also flexes–a lot–and because of this it was tough to tell where the saddle ended and the beam began. Therefore, I think I’ll have to change it before riding the bike again, and while that may sound like a cop-out, I maintain it’s impossible to properly assess the bike as long as it’s saddled thusly, in the same way you can’t properly judge a film if you’re watching it through a SCUBA mask filled with saltwater. And if all that weren’t bad enough, every time I swung a leg over the bike–and I mean every time–I’d catch my inner thigh on the high ridge in the back of it and almost fall down:

The worst saddle I ever rode was the one on this bike–also from Classic Cycle, go figure:

[Photo: Ultraromance or whatever he’s called these days]

But that one at least had the excuse of being over 100 years old. This one was nearly as bad, and is apparently still in production, which is, quite frankly, shocking to me, and suggests humans have learned absolutely nothing as a species during this time.

So yes, given all that, I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions about the beam at this point. However, I can tell you how to adjust the saddle height, and you do it by loosening up this bolt and sliding it up or down–though it’s a trial-and-error thing since it flexes as you ride you ride and so you’ve got to kind of figure out a midpoint:

I can also tell you that the beam does what it’s supposed to do, which is keep you suspended and isolated from jarring impacts. I can see why someone would enjoy this floaty feeling–for example, my elder son tried the bike for a minute or two and loved it. Of course he’s also a kid who’s mostly digging the novelty factory, plus he’d just made a catapult for the Science Olympiad so he probably still had them on the brain. That said, I never felt like the beam was going to launch me from the bike. That could be because of the damping material that’s supposed to be in there, or it could be because I simply didn’t push the bike’s limits. Certainly the beam allows you to ride over this sort of thing while seated despite 26-inch tires inflated to a relatively high pressure, which counts for something:

The fact that your saddle height is constantly changing as you ride didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would–I mean, yeah, I wasn’t crazy about it, but you shift position so much anyway when you ride a bike on irregular surfaces that it wasn’t really as bad as you might think. There’s also a real advantage to the beam, which is that when you’re out of the saddle to accelerate the bike behaves like a regular hardtail. However, this is also a disadvantage if you consider that when you get out of the saddle for other situations which might still warrant suspension–like bombing down a rugged descent–you get no benefit from it at all. In that sense the bike has sort of a “Lady in the streets, freak in the sheets” type thing going on; when you’re sitting down it’s a softail and when you’re standing up it’s a hardtail. I’m sure this was a big selling point for some, but to me it makes about as much sense as a drivetrain that lets you freewheel while climbing but is a fixed-gear while you’re descending. To me, a bike should be one thing or the other, not two things at once. Mostly I liked the bike much better when I was out of the saddle…but again, that might simply be the transcendent awfulness of said saddle, and the fact that getting out of it was more of a relief than any form of suspension could possibly offer.

Then there’s the front suspension as furnished by the stem:

Like the beam, it works quite well to isolate you from the terrain when you’re cruising along rough surfaces. However, due to the lack of damping, anything more than that is like riding a pogo stick. This is most apparent when you weight and unweight the front end to lift the wheel, as you might when hopping a curb or riding over a log–first it compresses, then it snaps right back in a somewhat jarring fashion. Hitting an obstacle while descending can be even more disconcerting, since the handlebar just comes right back at you. Sure, hitting an obstacle while descending is also pretty jarring on a a rigid bike, but it’s more predictable than a spring-loaded handlebar. Basically, it works fine just as long as you’re on level ground and not shifting your weight. This seems to be the theme both fore and aft–it’s as though they designed a bike with the idea that the rider should maintain a constant position at all times. That’s not really a viable proposition for riding up and down on varied terrain. However, if you had, say, a long and flat commute on a cobblestone streets this could very well be the bike for you.

Anyway, the TLDR of it is that the suspension works pretty good on rough, level surfaces when riding seated, but gets increasingly quirky as you move out of that plane. Today it seems downright goofy, but relative to other suspensions at the time it could probably hold its own. Also, plenty of people who laugh at it today are probably riding similarly silly bikes, like…oh, I dunno, dual-suspended crabon garvel bieks with dropper posts and Lauf forks or whatever.

After the saddle, the second-worst thing about the bike is the shifters:

I remember very well when these shifters came out, though I never tried them until now. Basically, the idea is they work like Shimano road shifters, and you change gear by moving the brake levers up and down. As I recall, shifting was supposed to be super-fast since you’d just kinda nudge them, like using paddle shifters on a race car or something.

Well, everybody hated them, and I totally see why. In theory they should be really easy to operate, but in practice getting your hands under the levers is like trying to reconnect a cable in your engine bay that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach. To mitigate that, Shimano included some sort of bolt-on thumb lever, which you can sort of see sticking out on the front shifter, but which is absent from the right one. (Paul included it but it was too annoying to install and so I didn’t bother:)

This is quite a misfire (pun intended) from the company that created the wildly intuitive trigger (or “Rapidfire”) shifter, and the lousy ergonomics of the shifters is only compounded by the bars. At first I kinda liked them since they offered more hand positions than a classic flat mountain bar. Eventually though I realized the tight curve at the outside only aggravated the rooting-around-in-your-engine-bay feeling. Also, with a stem that long the “aero” portion is useless if you’re not Graeme Obree, and if you even attempted to use it offroad there’s no way that single-bolt clamp would resist all that leverage:

Besides that, the awfulness of these features is only emphasized by the rest of the parts, which are quite nice–though the Microdrive cranks is arguably another nod to evolutionary detours:

And the one good thing I will say about the shifters is that downshifts are quite effortless in conjunction with the RapidRise derailleur:

Also, the XTR V-brakes are fantastic:

And who doesn’t love the look of classic 26-inch mountain bike wheels?

Well, plenty of people probably don’t like them, but I do.

Boingy parts and questionable components aside, the bike handles like a racy pre-suspension mountain bike otherwise, which is to say it’s quite nimble:

It even has “Direct Response Steering,” which of course is way, way better than indirect response:

Though the bike sort of surrenders its already loose grip on composure on climbs like this, where the front wheel develops a mind of its own:

So there you have it, a case study in how to overcomplicate a perfectly decent bike:

I suspect a cockpit and saddle swap would actually make it kinda fun–and if there were a way to get rid of that lizard’s tongue then you’d really be onto something.

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