Common sense tells us that the more expensive and modern a mountain bike is, the faster it is.
Otherwise the pro’s would still be winning XC races on rigid steel bikes with 21 gears and 26″ rims, instead of big wheeled carbon rigs decked out in M9000 and various other boutique components. Right?
However, the reality is probably not quite this simple, and I’ll tell you why.
Are vintage (or retro) mountain bikes faster? The answer to the question really depends on how you ride. In an all-out cross country or downhill race, there’s little doubt that you’ll be faster on a modern bike. The better traction, lower rolling resistance and superior suspension will all add up to faster laps, especially on XC courses that seem to be tailored to exactly the kind of bikes pro XC racers ride these days.
But most mountain bikers are not pro racers. So, what about the ‘normal’ rides that ‘normal’ mountain bikers do? I think its fair to say there’s probably no such thing as a ‘normal’ ride these days, what with all the different tastes and styles that have blossomed in recent years, from old school XC to hardcore free-ride; from trail centres to epic wilderness expeditions. Clearly, it’s a case of horses for courses — different bikes will excel under different conditions.
What do vintage mountain bikes do best? Aside from their obvious advantages of low purchase and low maintenance costs, the stretched out, head-down riding posture of your typical 90s vintage bike helps significantly when climbing. This posture allows rider to make good use of those powerful lower back muscles, thus bringing significant extra power to the pedal stroke — as is the case with the typical road-bike riding posture.
And if your ride takes in some road sections to link up different off-road trails, a vintage MTB is going to be faster here too, thanks to a more aerodynamic rider posture, allowing one to make-up time (or save energy) for the more technical down-hill trails on your route.
It’s certainly no surprise that some top pro MTB racers now go for the old-school, head-down riding posture. To give one example, olympic and world champion mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavý famously prefers to ride this way – albeit with a thoroughly modern bike, of course!
Image credit: http://www.geo.tv/olympics2012/NewsDetails.asp?id=55322