Tag Archives: steel

My Muddy Fox Courier Comp

From my collection of vintage MTB frames, this is my Muddy Fox Courier Comp. It hails from the golden age of Muddy Fox mountain bikes, before the brand started using its name to peddle mountain bikes that were complete and utter rubbish.

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This was something of an impulse purchase, Fortunately, it cost peanuts. My interested was piqued by its Tange Infinity steel tubset, with a beautiful wishbone structure on the seat stays, and its bright green paintwork with matching steel stem.

The paw-print stamped into the seat tube sleeve is also a nice touch.

I have no plans to build it up, as yet. But if anybody has any ideas, please feel free to add a comment below.

Building my Haro Extreme 1991

A couple of years ago I decided I needed a second mountain bike, you know, to have in the shed just in case my main bike is put out of action. I wanted to avoid a repeat of my first summer in Portugal, when a trashed wheel and a slow bike mechanic made me miss nearly a month of the best MTB riding weather.

I wanted something in steel, something from the early nineties, and something a bit different. Luckily for me, Haro Extreme Comp frame came up for sale, in great condition and at a fair price, and I couldn’t resist buying what was, at that time, my 4th MTB frame.

This frame has elevated chain stays, a fad from the early nineties which eliminated chain-slap, and also allowed for a shorter wheelbase. This last point, the shorter wheelbase, made for a more responsive ride, and aided rear wheel traction when climbing by placing the rider’s mass more in line with the tire’s contact patch.

However, the fact that this kind of design fell out of fashion by the second half of the nineties speaks volumes about its cost to benefit ratio. Perhaps more importantly, I think elevated chain stays look really awesome!

Other curios features of this frame are curved top tube (similar to Raleigh’s Dynacurve), brake bosses for a u-brake on the chain stays, an extraordinarily short head tube for a frame this large, and funky bottle cage bosses.

Until my build is complete, I’ll have to resort to showing pages from the Haro MTB catalogue of the same year. I have the black frame, on the right hand side of this page:

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But sadly, I don’t have the cool looking Tange fork. The page below explains the reasoning behind the unusual frame geometry.

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Below we get to see the Haro Extreme Comp from a different angle, and side by side with a classic diamond frame from elsewhere in Haro’s 1991 line up.

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How to buy a vintage mountain bike

OK, so you have some idea about what model of vintage mountain bike you’d like to have. How do you go about buying it?

By far the best place to buy a vintage mountain bike (or any kind of vintage bike) is retrobike.co.uk. Prices are generally fair, and the sellers are almost all honest. Ebay is a bit of a mixed bag: prices tend to be higher that at retrobike.co.uk, and borderline fraud is not uncommon, unfortunately. Gumtree can also serve up some gems, if you’re able to collect from the seller.

Retrobike doesn’t just have a for sale forum, there is a also a forum for posting ‘wanted’ adverts, of you’re looking for something specific. More often than not, somebody who has the item (or bike) you’re searching for, and will reply to your advert. There is also a handy forum where the retrobike.co.uk community can be asked for honest valuations on any bike or component.

Things I look out for

A rule of thumb is that buying a complete (or nearly complete) bike is more cost effective than buying all the parts separately. Of course, if money’s no object, or you have a specific set of components in mind, then by all means do the latter!

Similarly, sometimes it pays to buy a ‘donor’ bike to get a full set of components to turn your bare frame into a complete bike. Some even buy complete bikes for a single part, and then break down the remains to sell separately, to cover the cost of that single part.

I’ve found that the level of wear on moving parts usually makes little difference to the price of a vintage bike. A bike with a nearly worn out drive train could sell for the same or a similar price as an identical bike with very low mileage. The key to detect a low mileage bike is to look at the parts that wear out fastest: tires, chainrings and cassette. It helps to know beforehand what the original specs of the bike were.

What I try to avoid

I try to avoid bikes with evidence for having had a hard life, or which haven’t been looked after. For example, a little bit of rust is not necessarily deal breaker, but it would be pot luck as to whether the rust is just skin-deep, or has gone all the way through the tubing. In the event of there being more than a little bit of rust, I would not touch the bike with a barge-pole, unless the frame is something really special and/or cheap.

It sometimes happens that a seller tries to sell a decent frame, but built up using low grade parts, to an unsuspecting buyer. I’ve seen frames go cheaply on ebay, only to get relisted a week or so later at an inflated price, having been built up with inferior parts. Imagine a Zaskar built up with a Shimano SIS pressed steel and plastic drive train!

A seized seat post is another ‘gotcha’ that occasionally crops up. Although not fatal, it does take a fair bit of work to remove (or dissolve) a seized-in post. Similarly, beware frames that have been stripped down, with the exception of the bottom bracket, which could be hinting at a seized in bottom bracket.

Suspension can be a thorny issue, as it can be hard to tell whether they still work. For suspension forks that use elastomers, it’s common to find the elastomers have disintegrated. Oil forks may require new seals. If you really want suspension, it may be best to buy separately a set of forks that you know are in good working order.

Finally, beware adverts or listings with no photo of the item, or only limited photos. A good seller will show the bike from all angles, and will show and describe honestly the condition, and any damage to the item.

Which bikes to choose?

Tastes and budgets differ, so there is no clean answer to this question.As a general rule, it’s hard to go wrong with a double-butted cromoly steel frame with a Shimano LX or DX groupset, which should cost somewhere in the region of 75 to 150 pounds (100-200 Euro; 120-230 USD) in good working condition.

But also check out my highly subjective list of some of the best vintage steel or aluminium mountain bikes. If you’re up for a less conventional bike, then perhaps an elevated chain-stay (e-stay) mountain bike might hit the spot. I also highly recommend Raleigh Special Product Division’s titanium and steel composite frames, which are usually very good value for money. For more refined tastes, hand-built Reynolds 853 frames occasionally come up for sale.

My rides: Raleigh Dynatech Mission (Dynacurve)

One of my projects is a 1990 Raleigh Dynatech Mission. I’ve heard great things about this frame, and I’m rather looking forward to getting it built up, when time permits.

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The frame is of an unconventional construction, having butted Reynolds 653 mang-moly steel main tubes (531 material, after heat-treatment), a Reynolds 531 Mang-Moly fork and rear triangle, and an aluminium head tube.

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Look closely, and you’ll see the frame is lugged. But unlike most lugged frames, this one isn’t lugged and brazed. In fact, the main tubes are joined by bonding (using high-tech aerospace glue) into lugs. This actually makes for a stronger join than could normally be achieved through welding or brazing – the heat from which can reduce the tensile strength of heat-treated steel – and allows different metals to be joined (aluminium and steel in this case, but Raleigh also bonded titanium and metal matrix to steel and aluminium).

Raleigh often didn’t publicly acknowledge which tubing was used in their Dynatech ranges, preferring instead to invent their own tubeset designation. In the case of the Mission, Raleigh’s mix of Reynolds 653 and 531 was designated ‘2070 performance enhanced tube set’.

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For comparison, my Dynatech Voyager‘s 2060 tube set has Reynolds 531 main tubes instead of 653, and a chrome-moly fork.

Check out the unusual design of the lugged head tube  in the photo below

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But what really sets my Dynatech Mission apart from other frames is its ‘Dynacurve’ top tube. Dynatech Missions are not exactly common, and frames with the Dynacurve top tube are even more of a rarity – so I feel pretty lucky to own one.

As the name suggests, the top tube has a noticeable curve, so as to “ensure maximum support for the seat tube while keeping the head tube at the optimum length” on larger models of the frame.

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However, it’s not obvious why the Dynacurve is really needed at all. Other manufacturers managed to build large frames without the need for curved top tubes, but perhaps the issue is related to the bonded construction of the Dynatech. Regardless, I think it looks really cool!

See the photos below, linked from retrobike.co.uk, for a few more examples of Dynacurve frames.

Dynatech Voyager with Dynacurve:

Compare the above to the non-Dynacurve (smaller) bike below:

Dynatech Voyager without Dynacurve

And another example of a Mission, again from retrobike.co.uk:

Photos of my own build will follow at some point in the future … watch this space!

36er mountain bikes: what you need to know

Recently, I’ve found myself harbouring a growing interest in the concept of the 36 inch wheeled mountain bike. Suitable for all but the tallest riders, 36ers are still very niche and require a significant outlay to have one custom-built, yet they could very well be future for taller riders who do longer-distance cross-country riding.

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The bikes shown above are custom built steel 36er, from Truebike. Go and check out their webpage for prices and further details.

While I’ve been convincing myself to go ahead and get a 36er MTB built (later this year, hopefully), I’ve read up on just about every possible aspect of this type of bike. I’ve weighed up the pluses and negatives, investigated options for suspension, possible tires, frame materials, frame-builders … and so on.

This blog post is an attempt to distill all the relevant information about 36er mountain bikes into a single reference guide, which I hope can be useful for others who may also be pondering whether to try a 36er, or to raise awareness of the great possibilities of large wheeled MTBs.

What is a 36er?

A 36er is, as the name implies, a mountain bike built for 36 inch diameter wheels. This wheel size is not plucked out of thin air at random, but is chosen due to the availability of components for unicycles, which have 36-inch as one of their wheel-size standards. (32-inch is another standard size, for which the same principles discussed also apply, but which won’t be discussed here to avoid complicating things.)

For the wheels, conventional wisdom among builders of 36ers seems to be that a combo such as 36-inch, 36 hole, aluminium rims from Nimbus (the market leader in 36 inch rims), with 14 g straight spokes in a 3-cross pattern, on 29er-specific shimano hubs.

Until very recently, owners of a 36er would have been forced to make do with heavy, and not particularly grippy unicycle tires. But there are already a few MTB-specific 36er tires available now, including this tire being sold by Waltworks, which they describe thus:

Vital statistics:
Size: 36″ x 2.25″
Weight: 1625g +/-40g
Tubeless Ready: Yes
Max PSI: 65
Bead: Wire
TPI: 36
Durometer: 60 Shore A

These tires are significantly lighter (you’ll save more than a pound per tire) than the competition, which help you accelerate more quickly and reduces the weight of the wheel at the rim allowing for faster/longer rides with reduced effort.  They are tubeless ready and setup well allowing for lower pressure and more grip. Bicyclists have found 18-23psi to be a good range while unicyclists have gone a bit higher to 32-40psi.

Tread pattern lies between a Kenda Nevegal and Schwalbe Racing Ralph in terms of tread depth and design, creating good grip across a wide range of terrain and conditions while maximizing speed off-road and on.  Tapered and ramped center knobs along with ramped transition knobs provide traction and control, while tie bars connecting the triangular transition knobs to side knobs help with cornering.

That’s most probably the tire I’ll be ordering for  my 36er.

A 36er MTB is also going to need a frame and fork that can accommodate the giant wheels. At the time of writing (2015), 36ers are a niche variety or MTB that are not manufactured by any of the mass-producing bike companies. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent custom frame-builders to choose from worldwide, working predominantly with steel tubing. Some are even able to adapt suspension and other components for use on a 36er. (At the end of this page I’ve compiled a list of frame-builders who are known to be willing to build 36er frames.)

The other components can basically just be a mix and match of regular MTB parts, depending on your own preference and budgetary constraints. In terms of gearing, a 22 tooth front chainring with a wide range rear cassette (i.e., 11-36) seems to be what many recommend (bigger wheels require lower gearing).

An overall price is hard to define, since it depends on the components and materials chosen, but somewhere in the ballpark of 1500 GBP / 2500 Euro / 3000 US Dollars should be roughly the lower limit for a compete 36er.

Who can or should ride a 36er?

The minimum height to be able to ride a 36er is probably around 5 foot 8 (173 cm). To put things into context, this would be roughly equivalent to a quite short rider on a 29er.

A rider who is 6 foot (183 cm) or taller should have no real problem with a 36er, and anybody above 6 foot 9 (206 cm) or so would probably find a 36er to be their optimal choice of mountain bike.

If in doubt, it may be best to go for a 32er MTB instead.

Summary of the positives (as I see them)

The benefits of riding a 36er ought to be, in effect, an accentuated version of the benefits that 29ers bring:

– The larger wheels give smoother ride (rolling resistance, flexibility, momentum).

– Larger tire contact patch may provide greater traction.

Such a unique bike cannot fail to be a talking point on the trails (I see this as positive, but some may disagree).

Summary of the negatives

Heavier than smaller-wheeled mountain bikes, predominantly due to the larger wheels. Expect a 36er to weigh in at around 30-35 lb (13-16 kg). This might sound like a lot of extra weight, but in mitigation one must consider that the higher body weight of the taller riders who might opt for a 36er makes the weight of the bike somewhat less important.

Their heavier wheels are harder to spin up, and are more difficult to decelerate when reducing speed.

Reduced maneouverability, and more body language required on tight turns.

High cost – the lack of mass-produced frames for 36 inch wheels means having a frame and fork custom made.

Limited choice and availability of rims, tires and spokes. In many cases, these parts are optimized for unicycle use, rather than MTB use.

Normal MTB drive train components can be used, but this may result in sub-optimal gearing.

Except perhaps for giants, even a negative rise stem may leave the handlebars significantly higher than the saddle. Higher bars may not be to the taste of traditional cross-country riders.

A list of known builders of 36er mountain bikes

This is not an exhaustive list, but the idea here is to maintain a list of frame builders who are able to build complete 36-inch wheeled mountain bikes. I’ll add to this over time as I discover more.

Dirty Sixer (USA)

Keener Cycle Works (USA)

Poetry In Motion Cycles (United Kingdom)

Waltworks Custom Bicycles (USA)

Truebikes (Slovakia)

Thomag (Switzerland, links to his youtube video)

Wheeler (Taiwan) It’s not entirely clear right now, but it seems theirs may be the first production 36er MTB to come to market. Very exciting if true!

Reynolds 501: the entry-level workhorse of vintage mountain bike frames

If you owned an entry level Raleigh mountain bike during the mid 80s to mid 90s, then chances are the frame was made from Reynolds 501 tubing.  It was the workhorse tubeset at the bottom of Reynolds’ steel range, and was cheap, strong, and not especially heavy.

As the proud new owner of a vintage Reynolds 501 mountain bike frame similar to the Raleigh Montage pictured below (from retrobike), I’ve been browsing through old catalogues and reading up on the tubeset used in my frame, to get to know what exactly I’m going to be riding.

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The story of 501 pretty much begins with new mountain bike craze in the 1980s which saw a deluge of cheap, mass-produced chromoly frames from the USA and Japan, using tubing of quality that typically lay somewhere between the basic ‘gas-pipe’ tubing and the Reynolds 531. Partly in response to this, Reynolds developed their 501 tubeset, allowing the company to compete in this sector of the bicycle market.

A key difference with 501, compared with 531, was its manufacturing process.  Whereas 531 tubing is drawn out to form tubing,  501 tubing was seamed, meaning it was drawn as a sheet before being pulled into a tube, and then welded. The welding part of this process results in some (potential) weakening of the product. Anecdotal evidence, from various cycling forums I’ve perused over the years, suggests that 501 is indeed weaker than 531, with failures occurring along the seam in the tube.

At the time, Reynolds claimed that their 531 and 501 tubes were of equal tensile strength when manufactured, but with 501 being having a tensile strength of about ten percent less than 531 after being welded.

As for frame weights, 501 was pretty competitive. Reynolds claimed a 501 frame would be 2.3 kg, compared to 2.2 kg for 531 ST (Special Touring), 2.05 for 531 C (Competition Racing), and 1.9 kg for 531 Professional (road racing and time trials). Frame size wasn’t stated, as I recall.

The related tubeset ‘Reynolds K2’ then appeared during the early 90s to replace 501 in some mid range steel Raleigh mountain bike frames. K2 tubing was used in lugged and brazed steel frames from the Raleigh and M Trax ranges from 1992 or 1993 to 1995. K2  is rumoured to be similar to 501, but with a twist.

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This seat tube decal comes from a page in the 1993 Raleigh Off Road catalogue, and appears to be one of the only photos of a Reynolds K2 sticker to be found on the web, to the best of my knowledge. And since information about the K2 tubeset itself is so scant and difficult to find, this short blog post quite possibly represents the most authoritative description of K2 tubing in existence on the web!!

That same 1993 Raleigh catalogue says this about K2:

Let’s start with the frame. CAD designed for maximum performance, the frame is built from Reynolds K2 Cromoly Mountain Tubing. Developed exclusively for Raleigh, the Reynolds K2 tubing has eight laterally aligned ribs on the butt section providing superb lower triangle rigidity and enormous strength in the areas of maximum stress.

After I contacted Reynolds, I was fortunate enough to get this reply from Terry Bill, who spent 49 years working for Reynolds:

K2 was a special tube set made for Raleigh. I have no records, but from memory, it was a 501 CrMo material, and had 8 flats along its full length (not butted). It was one of the earlier “oversize” tube sets.  31.8 down tube, 28.6 top and seat tube. The flats (laterally aligned ribs referred to by Raleigh) would only be for about 2/3rds in the seat tube so the pillar could be entered.

The concept of tubes with 8 flats along the length was first used by Reynolds in their 700 Classic road tube set, but it was not popular with the small builders, they wanted to use the “butted” term when selling frames, and we withdrew it.

Raleigh then adapted it for their K2 mountain bike range. The K2 top and down tubes had 8 flats along the length and no butt. The seat tube was only flats for part of the length so the seat pillar could be fitted. Raleigh did this because they felt the flats gave extra stiffness to the frame, to stiffen the BB shell to stop the sideways movement when pedaling.

In 1996, K2 was replaced with the Reynolds Optima cromoly tubeset. Like its predecessor K2, this was a tubeset produced especially for Raleigh, for use in their bottom of the range Special Products Division models.

Terry Bill also told me this, about Optima tubing, which confirms some internet rumours:

Raleigh Optima tubes were again special manufacture for Raleigh. These were a butted 501 material, but the butts were very short.

Almost no additional, reliable information exists on the web about Reynolds Optima, aside from a handful posts on bicycling forums which are all a variation on ‘I found a bike and the frame says it is Reynolds Optima, is it good?‘.

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Decals such as this, found on some Raleigh Special Products Division frames from the late 90s, prove that Reynolds Optima really did exist. As we now know, optima was essentially a new version of 501, presumably having been tweaked to cope better with tig welding, which in turn allowed for lighter frames compared older lugged 501 or K2 frames.

Retro Raleighs: a trip down memory lane

A rather nice, vintage Raleigh mountain bike came up for sale recently on retrobike, which set me tripping on nostalgia via google image search.

Raleigh did some excellent mountain bikes back in the day – see my titanium Dynatech Diablo and my titanium M Trax 300, for example. But by the early 90s, Raleigh’s steel framed bikes had come to be seen as a bit naff, unfairly some might say in hindsight.

Their Dynatechs were still a bit cool, but other UK brands or imported American mountain bikes were the new must-haves for the coolest mountain bikers. At least this is how I remember things as a teenaged mountain biker…

However, twenty years on a bit of digging on google and retrobike yields some great examples of surviving 90s Raleighs. And while they don’t have the overt XC racy looks of rival brands like Marin, Cannondale, or Orange, I still find them visually appealing in a way that’s hard to explain.

Perhaps this is partly down to details like the lugged frame design and the Raleigh head badge, which hint at the heritage of bicycle manufacture at Raleigh and give a vintage feel to an already retro bicycle.

Reblogged below are a just few of the fabulous Raleighs I’ve come across:

Raleigh Thunder Road.

Pure awesomeness in the form of a Reynolds 531 mang-moly steel frame. Photo from a retrobike thread dedicated to Raleigh MTBs. I’m now currently building one of these myself.

Raleigh Yukon

… from the same retrobike thread as the Thunder Road. Another 501 frame.

Raleigh Moonshine

… again, from the a retrobike thread. Reynolds 531.

If you like what you’ve seen, then please do go and check out the ‘get ya raleighs out for the lads’ thread on retrobike.

Rourke 853 first ride

Finally built up and ready to ride, this is my Brian Rourke 853 mountain bike. 20150206_125313 After collection from the bike shop, I couldn’t resist taking it for a spin around downtown Porto for a little test ride. 20150206_132106 I love the chrome together with the polished aluminium of the Shimano Deore DX rear mech. 20150206_125432

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Overall it rides like a dream, most things work as they should. The Deore XT thumbshifters provide surprisingly crisp indexed shifting across the cassette, and the XTR V-Brakes stop exceptionally well. The Pace RC 36 suspension fork looks great, but will need a bit of tuning to get the sag and damping set up to my satisfaction. And the long stem and narrow bar are going to need changing for something a little more practical!

5 Ways Mountain Bikes Were Better In The 90s

Modern mountain bike technology is incredible. The arrival of decent suspension, hydraulic disc brakes, tubeless tires, and many other innovations all help today’s hard-core mountain bikers go faster than ever before, for longer, over more challenging terrain.

The contrast with the technology we used in the 90s couldn’t be any stronger. It’s actually quite hard to believe we rode off-road with rigid forks, cantilever brakes, and so few gears, and lived to tell the tale.

Few would seriously argue that modern mountain bikes are not better overall than their 90s ‘retro’ ancestor, but here are some ways that 90s mountain bikes were better…

1. Low maintenance, low cost

One of the great things about mountain bikes during the 90s was their simplicity. No shocks to tune up, no hydraulics to bleed. Keeping your bike in good working order was pretty easy, and rather cheap by today’s standards.

Thinking about going out for a ride? Just grab the bike, check the tire pressure, squeeze the brakes, double check the most crucial bolts are tight enough, and off you go.

2. Just one wheel size

When everybody used 26 inch wheels, borrowing a suitably sized replacement inner tube from a riding buddy was a heck of a lot easier than today, what with 26 inch, 650b and 29 inch. A single size of wheel also made thing simpler when upgrading to the latest frame – just fit your existing wheels to the new frame, without worrying about whether to make the jump to a trendier wheel size.

3. Steel bikes, built to last

As a material for frames and cycling components, steel is hugely under-rated. Steel is cheap, strong, fatigue resistant, and easy to repair. Rear mech hangers can be bent back into alignment numerous times before they are ruined; damaged or rusted tubes can be removed and replaced; disc tabs can be added easily to usher a retro steel frame into the 21st century.

It’s true that steel frames and components are not the lightest, yet they aren’t overly heavy and some would argue the strength of steel is worth the slight weight penalty compared to aluminium or carbon. In any case, weight doesn’t matter much these days, judging by the 28-30 lb weights of most mid-range modern mountain bikes.

There is also an argument to be made that steel bikes are the ethical choice. A good, hand-made steel frame will last a lifetime if cared for properly. Choosing this over far-eastern aluminium or carbon will significantly reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of your bike, and as such will help the environment – you know, the wilderness and countryside we ride in.

4. Shifters that allow you to trim your front derailleur

I’ve never understood the need for having indexed front gears. Not only are shifts between chain-rings much less frequent than shifts on the rear cassette. But indexing also forces you to use a single front derailleur position, which can take a lot of tuning to get just right. When not perfectly tuned, the chain can grind noisily on your front derailleur’s chain-guide when using gears at the extreme ends of your cassette.

This is (or was in the 90’s) easily solved if your gear levers are thumb-shifters or grip-shift, because both allow micro-adjustment of your front derailleur. Goodbye grinding chain, hello perfect front derailleur alignment!

5.  Bikes were lighter despite all that steel

Back in the 90’s, a mid-range mountain bike would have weighed in at somewhere around 24-25 pounds – significantly lower than the 28-30 pound weight of a typical mid-range mountain bike today.

However, concerns about bike weight seems to be more about vanity than performance. Dwarfed by a rider’s body weight, the weight of your mountain bike is barely worth worrying about. Unless you find yourself regularly carrying the bike over obstacles, or your bike is super-heavy, just lose some body weight instead.