The premise of the Staff Ride feature is that tech editors have one go-to bike that we ride most of the time. Some do. I don't. I spend the lion's share of my time riding review bikes. I ride them as-delivered before I modify them, which lengthens the process. Sometimes a bike brand will give me an extended interval on a particular model, and I'll take the opportunity to use it as a test mule for components. That said, I rotate through bikes so regularly that I rarely have the luxury to become intimately familiar with any single one. This is the exception.
My feature bike for this chapter of Staff Rides is my "Time Machine." It's a Mantis Pro Floater that was given to me in the Summer of 1996. I had recently sold Mantis Bicycle Company to become a magazine editor, and its new owners thought it fitting that I should ride the latest version of the 100-millimeter-travel dual-suspension machine that earned a cult following for the brand.
It's not period correct. I upgraded the bike at various times during the '90s, but it's been frozen in time since the millennium, and as such, it represents everything (good and bad) from the era when "cross country" and "mountain bike" were synonymous. I take it out once, or twice a year as a measure of how far we've come - or not - in many respects.
The Pro Floater launched in 1992. It was named by Motocross Action Magazine founder Jody Weisel.
Clark Jones designed and built the shocks at Noleen Racing. Special bushings and shafts were necessary to counter the lateral loads on the suspension.
I put a lot of miles on this bike in its day. It's been to all the sacred destinations, and it's been raced downhill, cross-country, and at 24-hour events. But, the beautiful green machine drifted further back in the garage as technology marched on and review bikes promised more and better everything. About the same year I signed on with Pinkbike, I pulled it out, threw some new tubes in and took it out for a solo ride. I was a bit shaky riding a 120-millimeter stem, but otherwise, the Pro Floater was a pretty sweet ride. I imagine the feel would be like a modern driver lapping a familiar circuit in a race car from a previous generation. Everything familiar, yet at the same time, very different. I maintained the tradition and have come to enjoy the perspective it offers.
Specialized Team Control tires are suitably aggressive but look impossibly thin now.
Huge tire clearance with 16.25" chainstays. Elevated stays still rule that equation.
About the Bike
Pro Floater front sections were welded aluminum. The top-tube-mounted shock was dictated by the rear suspension design. Like an automotive MacPherson strut, the shock is a stressed member that is integrated into the seatstays. The seatstays pivoted on the dropouts of a simple, single-pivot swingarm that hinged near the chainline at the top of the middle chainring of the triple crankset. The shock needed special bushings and a stronger shaft to handle the lateral loads of the Mac-Strut arrangement. They were manufactured by Noleen Racing in Southern California.
The arching right-side chainstay was intended to clear 50-tooth chainrings for Kamikaze style DH races. (Yes, we spun them out on the straights.)
Elevated chainstays seemed like a good idea at the time to keep the chainstays short (16.25 inches/413mm) while avoiding tire and chainring clearance issues. The high arch of the right-side stay was done to clear the derailleur (or rickety chain guide) while using a 50-tooth chainring for DH races. Geometry was pretty standard for the time: a 73-degree seat tube angle, 70-degree head tube angle, the medium frame's top tube is 23 inches, and the bike was designed around a 100-millimeter-stroke fork. A short stem back then was 90 millimeters, with a mid-length stem averaging 120 (like the Control Tech stem on my bike). Bar ends were the rage, and 24-inch (600mm) handlebars were thought to be wide. Oh yeah...
Control Tech seatpost and WTB saddle. Droppers were not on the radar in 1996.
Crazy looking, but the old-school cockpit rocks for climbing.
2001 Marzocchi Bomber X-Fly with 100mm-travel. Still performs.
Marzocchi gave me the fork, which was a boost for the bike. It's a 2001 Bomber X-Fly that has yet to blow up. There were few options for reliable suspension then. The drivetrain is Shimano's famous eight-speed XTR, which is probably the most stable shifting cable-operated drivetrain of all time. I have seen it click off gears with the cassette encased with weeds. The downside? Its 13 by 32-tooth cassette ensures the use of a triple crankset (46, 34, 24). Oh, and it has XTR V-brakes.
Cry about new standards? Everything about this bike is obsolete. It has 26-inch wheels. Its 19mm inner-width rims require tubes. It has quick-release dropouts, 135-millimeter rear axles, and a 68-millimeter bottom bracket shell. Its 1.125-inch steerer tube is not tapered. It has cable-operated rim brakes, a 26.8-millimeter seatpost (no chance for a dropper), and the handlebar clamp is too small for today's bars. So, beyond grips, cables, housings, the saddle, and pedals, nothing else is compatible.
Pre-hydraulic cable simplicity. Shimano's V-Brakes were the best available at the time, but don't measure up to disc brakes today.
XTR Triple crankset: 46, 34, 24t.
Eight-speed XTR was Shimano's all-time best shifting drivetrain. The cassette range was 13 x 32t.
What's it Like to Ride?
Let's be honest. Unless you're Nino Schurter, you are not going to be able to jump off of a slacked out trailbike with a dropper post, a 50-millimeter stem, and 780-millimeter bars, and shred on a '90's era anybike. In a half hour, I remember the moves, and the Pro Floater becomes quite fun. It's light - only 26.4 pounds with pedals. There is ample "anti-squat" in the lower gears to climb with conviction. It takes a little faith to high-post the steeps, but it's not too bad. Oh, and I recall why Lycra shorts were popular... because I always snag my baggies on the saddle trying to get back up and over after descending. The Specialized tires are printed at two inches wide, but once they start spinning, they look slimmer than the rubber that gravel bikes are using these days.
Somehow, it all works, however, and I become reacquainted with my vintage Mantis by the ride's half-way point. My hands fall onto the bar ends as I rise out of the saddle and pump the climbs. My left-hand stops reaching for the dropper lever and the front derailleur begins to sort out the chainrings. Occasionally, the hiss of Shimano's rubber brake pads fades to the familiar rim-brake moan, and I look down to see I'm using two fingers on the levers again. Oh, and spare tubes? I bring more than one... just like the old days.
What I notice most is that there's a lot more to manage on the Mantis compared to modern trail bikes. I have to pay attention to shifting, braking, and steering. I micro-manage my line selections and braking points. When I switch back to a contemporary bike, like a 150-millimeter 29er, I can daydream at the same pace, on the same trails. I can see a time when XC racers might re-adopt some form of bar end grip. The position is so much more natural for 100-percent efforts. I can't imagine why anyone would return to a 120-millimeter stem, though. And, disc brakes? Yeah, disc brakes, please.