Lessons Learned from Riding a 30-Year-Old Mountain Bike
Pedaling a Softride PowerCurve reminds Eben Weiss of the era when mountain-bike technology was taking shape—and producing wacky innovations
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
This past fall Specialized debuted its newest S-Works Diverge gravel bike. The company’s motto is “Innovate Or Die,” and true to that ethos their engineers fully optimized the bike for riding over irregular terrain by using the very latest in cutting-edge front and rear suspension technology. Called STR, or “Suspend The Rider”—and lauded as “absurdly comfy” by this family of publications—the $14,000 bike basically incorporates shock absorbers into the saddle and handlebars, but otherwise behaves like a rigid bike so you can climb and sprint without the suspension devouring your precious wattage.
Someone new to the world of high-end bikes could be forgiven for thinking the best-of-both-worlds “Suspend The Rider” concept is something bold and new, but in fact it’s been around almost as long as the bicycle itself. One of the more recent and notorious performance-oriented iterations was the Softride, which featured a spring-loaded parallelogram stem up front and a comically gigantic fiberglass beam out back that suggested a giant lizard tongue licking the rider’s taint. Like the Diverge, the Softride provided shock absorption both fore and aft, but was essentially a rigid bike from the headset down.
Softride’s engineers applied the beam concept both on the road and off; their PowerCurve mountain bike came out in 1991, at a time when even front suspension was still somewhat novel. By modern standards the Softride PowerCurve looks, well, kinda silly. But the RockShox RS-1 shock fork had only debuted in 1989, and full-suspension mountain bikes were in their infancy, so in this historical context it was a simple, straightforward approach to isolating the rider from rough terrain. Frame builders, including legendary innovator Tom Ritchey, adopted the technology and it won races at the highest level of the sport.The road bikes followed, and the frames proved to be quite aero, so Softrides also became hugely popular on the also-burgeoning triathlon scene. (Triathlon and mountain biking couldn’t be more different, yet they each came into their own at around the same time and they grew in tandem, and as new disciplines owing nothing to tradition their participants have generally been open to wild innovation and way-out designs if they promised better performance.)
As a cycling traditionalist who prefers classic bikes to all else and doesn’t care for suspension, the Softride never appealed to me in any of its guises. Admittedly, most of my reasons were quite shallow: aesthetically, I’ve always found them deeply troubling, and the name is also subtly suggestive of erectile dysfunction, so it’s just weird to see it plastered all over a giant turgid beam. Moreover, Softrides are often the object of derision, having attained ironic cult status in the mountain bike world thanks to BIKE magazine’s (RIP) infamous “Shitbike,” so I always took it for granted that they were shit. Yet I had never actually ridden a Softride–though that changed this past March, when Paul Johnson of Classic Cycle on Bainbridge Island, WA sent me one of his, um, less-coveted museum pieces, ostensibly for testing and analysis, but mostly just to taunt me.
This particular Softride–deliberately configured by Paul to be as vexing as possible–was a hard bike to tolerate at first, let alone enjoy. But after changing some parts around I found it to be just as fun to ride as any rigid mountain bike from that era. Yes, the undamped suspension stem acted more like a pogo stick than a shock absorber when pushed hard, so after a few rides I replaced it with a rigid stem and an intentionally flexy bamboo handlebar, which seemed a perfect complement to the bendy beam. As for the beam itself, while urban myths abound of riders being catapulted over the bars, after moving the saddle forward to reduce the bob factor (this was as per Paul’s advice, who explained that Bob Roll did the same thing when he raced them) I found its suspension to be surprisingly subtle. Granted, you can get the same effect on a rigid bike far more elegantly with a leather saddle and a high-volume tire, or even a suspension seatpost; my Jones LWB is a better “suspension” bike than the Softride in every way. In that sense the beam is gratuitous, accomplishing nothing but giving the bike a 210lb rider weight limit. But in an time of 26-inch wheels and 1.9-inch tires and suspension forks with elastomers in them, this design was a perfectly reasonable solution for a race bike.
Obviously in the years since the PowerCurve came out, bicyle suspension continued to evolve, and it was only a matter of time before front and rear shocks became more refined, and consumers moved on to something more high-tech than a diving board for your crotch. The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) didn’t help either, and 1999 the governing body banned Softrides from competition. Finally, in 2007, the company stopped producing bicycles altogether. And yet here comes the bike industry in 2023, suspending the rider and not the bike yet again, go figure.
Being a traditionalist, I should be grateful to the UCI for preserving tradition; after all, it’s only because of them that race bikes are still based on diamond frames and roll on equal-sized wheels, right? But what if, by stifling innovation such as the Softride, the UCI is not only discouraging new designs but also undermining all that I hold most dear, like rim brakes and mechanical shifting and box-section rims with 32 three-cross spokes and simple mountain bikes without any shocks? In a world where the UCI still allowed pros to ride beam bikes and funny bikes and all the other designs they’ve since banned, maybe the super-exotic high-concept stuff would have stayed where it belonged—at the very highest levels of competition—and the bike companies would stick to producing normal stuff for the rest of us, just as Mercedes engineers Formula 1 cars for its race team and cars with roofs, doors, and covered wheels for everyone else. Instead, race bike manufacturers must cram all their innovation into the constraints of a traditional silhouette, then they replicate that across their entire product lines, and before you know it you can’t buy a road bike that isn’t made out of plastic and doesn’t require a battery to shift. (Oh, who am I kidding? We’re talking about bike people here, they’d buy water made of carbon fiber if such a thing were possible.)
Regardless, riding the Softride simultaneously cemented my preferences for simple, pure, straighforward bikes while enhancing my appreciation for envelope-pushing innovation. It’s a funky memento from a time when when mountain biking was young and exuberant and the bicycles themselves were still taking shape, like weird primordial creatures slithering out of the sea. It’s also an important reminder to people like me that you shouldn’t knock something until you try it, and that riding the ridiculous bikes of yesteryear can be lots of fun. (For all the derision directed at the “Shitbike,” everyone who rode it sure seemed to have a fantastic time on it.) And of course it’s a testament to the fact that much of what’s sold as new is merely repackaged, and that if the last iteration didn’t age gracefully then the current one probably won’t either.
Most importantly, it remains to be seen how the new Diverge stands the test of time. But for all its quirks, the giggle-inducing Softride is still trailworthy 30 years later. So, who’s laughing now?