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AZX-T by Astro
by Lester Lin

Have you ever had one of those days where you just can't believe how well you rode?

Saturday afternoon, I met up with Daniel to do our side by side comparison of ASTRO's AZX-F and AZX-T bikes on our local Gas Plant mountain loop. Both are lightweight cross country full suspension bikes featuring ASTRO's unique star-link on the rear suspension. The AZX-F is patterned after the Specialized FSR XC, and the AZX-T is supposed to be an Ellsworth Truth variant using a traditional triangle frame. Just remember T for Triangle. These bikes both have a premium selection of lightweight hi-performance parts: SID SL fork, Fox Float RC rear shock, XT drivetrain and Ritchey Rims and Stem for the "T". The "F" is even higher grade, with all XTR, Crossmax ceramic rims. The only lesser part is the SID rear shock.

My two previous rides (Maokung and Gas Plant) on the AZX-T found a lightweight well handling bike, flawed by the tendency to exhibit pedal induced bob, and a BB that puts the pedals too close to the ground. Constant hits with your pedal on rocks, roots and even the road on fast turns where you are trying to power through. However, it's smooth handling rear suspension and well designed geometry made this rig a pleasure to ride. On my second outing, I started discovering the magic formula for climbing those really steep off road hills: Plant your rear on the tip of the seat, put it in granny gear, lean forward, try to relax your upper body, and spin up the hill. Un-weight your front and rear as you cross those roots and rocks, to maintain traction and steering capability. As it was early in the morning, and I was riding alone, I didn't feel brave enough to try the more aggressive/technical portion of the ride by myself.

Saturday afternoon was a great day to do the test. The hot morning blazing sun had now been hidden by a cloudy sky that threatened to dump a load of rain all over us, but never followed through. Thus we had cooler conditions, but a nice dry trail. After 3 back to back rides on the AZX-T, I was feeling quite used to it by now. The small kinks of ghost shifting had now been fine tuned out, and the bike was shifting in top form. As we started into the beginning part of the ride, Daniel was bemoaning that two weeks of inactivity due to his trip to Czechoslovakia had made him almost forget how to ride off-road, as well as feeling quite weak. (I know that feeling all too well) The benefit was that this gave me plenty of time to be well rested between climbs as I waited for him.

The Gas Plant has a number of short steep climbs that takes a lot of skill and huge effort to attack. 8 months after finding this trail, I still find sections that I have either never before conquered, or done so only once or twice in all my attempts over this period of time. I have tried numerous bikes on this trail, and have found a select few where I could really feel the BIKE making a difference to my success in the climbs. The Mountain Cycle San Andreas, and my Specialized M4. Even then, I still end up dismounting and pushing more times than being successful in riding all the way to the top. Saturday, I found myself conquering one hill after another on the AZX-T without spinning out and having to push. My confidence was really bolstered each time that I looked back in disbelief at the hill I had just climbed!

As the trail turned downhill, the same confidence inspiring climbs with this bike turned into an invincible feeling going down hill. The ultra-low BB/pedal height which was a liability on the trail and climbs now made the bike into a mistake proof hill hugging caterpillar on the descents. Down the first set of stairs with a 90 turn at the bottom was no sweat. The next set of stairs, I felt even more in control. Down a rocky chute..... Again, no problemo. Down a root strewn hill, I didn't even tense up. Finally, there is one one technical turn on a very steep place where I have consistently crashed in the past. It was on this slope that I bent the front wheel on my Ned bike. I have had numerous scrapes, rope burns (from the ropes strung on the side of the trail to assist hikers on this steep grade) bruised shins, thighs and ribs and other minor injuries trying to master this section. This is the bend to which I have just resigned myself to walking as of late because of the high crash to attempt ratio here. However, Saturday, on the AZX T, I just confidently danced my way through this section on two wheels. Man was I ever psyched! It was just so easy!

As I prepared this test bike to return to Ona, I was doing my customary tooth brush cleaning of his impeccable bikes. I reminisced how my initial mediocre attitude towards this bike had turned into one of great admiration. But then a little thought entered my mind. "It's not the bike that made such a difference, your riding skill has really improved". Yeah. That's it, I thought to myself! It's ME that has improved. I determined that I would try my old trusty FSR Comp,( my first Full Suspension Mt. Bike) the next morning.

5:30AM, and I was out the door, thanks to nasty mosquitoes that had awakened me from my slumber while they took their blood samples. My FSR Comp, with a very run of the mill Rock Shox Judy C non-dampened front fork and coil rear shock is always a joy to ride. Many pleasant memories have been accumulated on this bike. As I sped down the short bumpy hills, I could feel a little difference from the non-dampened fork, but not enough to find it disturbing. As I started the crucial climbs on my trusty FSR Comp though, I couldn't believe how BADLY I was performing. One place after another, where I had clawed my way up the obstacles on the hill the day before, I was slipping, or stalling out in the same places! It was a nightmare! The thought that it was me that had improved, not the difference in hardware was becoming a rude joke in my head.

As the trail turned downhill, I steeled myself mentally that I was going to relax, and just float down the first set of nasty stairs. Ha! It went more like this:
Boing down the first stair,
Boing down the second,
Boing down the third stair, fourth stair and fifth stair,
then CRASH on the sixth!

I landed in a position straddling my horizontal bike with the chainrings digging down my calf. I now had a beautiful set of red bear claw marks down my right calf courtesy of my distorted view of my own skill level. With the non-dampened fork, coupled with the spacing and steep grade of the stairs, the combination was working me like a pogo stick. With each succeeding step, I was more and more out of control.

This was in tremendous contrast to shooting these stairs on the AZX-T the day before. It was difficult, but with the good dampening of the front fork, and the magical geometry of the bike, the flawless performance of the Avid V brakes, along with the ground scraping low BB, I went down with no problem!

By the way, I forgot to mention that after clearing this section so smoothly on the "T", I ran back up the hill to ride Daniel's AZX-F down the same section. The "F" has the same great front fork, but a more stretched out riding position with straight XC type handlebars (Yuck) and bar ends (double yuck) that puts your weight a bit more forward. Also this rig is equipped with XTR V brakes clamping on Mavic Crossmax Ceramic Rims. These brakes took a LOT more force to get the same braking action as the Avid Brakes/Ritchey Rims combo on the "T". As I started down the stairs, I was unprepared for the poor performance of these XTR brakes, and in two blinks of an eye, my velocity going down these steps was too fast to negotiate the turn near the bottom. At the crucial point in the turn, the trail builders had driven two stakes in the ground with a 6 inch high board nailed between them. It was as if they had designed this to put crazy mountain bikers over the handlebars when they can't wrestle their bike through the turn. As I was a veteran to this whole maneuver trying to master the stairs before, I hit the obstacle, and smoothly bailed 45 degrees to the left, doing a somersault, a roll and ending on my feet, unscathed. I raised my hands in victory as I pictured the watching crowds coming to a standing ovation, and the judges holding up perfect 10 scorecards.... Unfortunately, this splendid performance wasn't even seen by Daniel because he was too far down the hill. Just as well. He really feels fear and pain when this bike crashes because this is his prize ride where you will find all the most expensive and lightweight hardware that money can buy. A bike damaging crash can really be expensive on this "F". My gymnastics were only to be enjoyed by myself and the mosquitoes.

Well, after two crashes in two days in the same place, I totally deleted any remaining thoughts about my superior skills, and gave due credit to the AZX-T. I also knew when to call it quits, and turned around to take the easy route home. But..............then the thought came to me, Lester you should have ridden your Ned bike instead. Taking back some of that credit, I determined to ride my M4 on the same trail the next day.

I headed out early Sunday morning to catch this ride before Church. The trail was as dry as a freshly opened box of Corn Flakes. The trail had such a nice crisp feel as you felt the nice bite of the tires on the trail. I just knew I was going to ace this course this morning. Turning upwards, felt good, and the short fast down hill runs felt much better with some dampening provided by my SID XC fork. Coming to the major hills though, I met disappointment again. On most of the climbing obstacles, I came SO CLOSE to making it. However, I DIDN'T cleanly clear over half of them, and in my book, almost doesn't cut the cake. It seemed like the longer wheelbase, and the higher crown height of my fork left me struggling to keep my bike going where I wanted it to go. Steering while climbing was a hit and miss thing, and I would end up pedaling through the shrubbery on the side of the trail then stalling, or hitting roots at a poor angle or position and spin out. It just wasn't like climbing on the "T". If the T scored a 95, my M4 would score a 65.

Turning downhill was better. The technical stairs; no problem. The windy rock infested part was OK, but the longer wheelbase of the Ned bike didn't give me as nimble a feel as the "T" However, when I reached the really steep section, I ended up slipping off my pedals, and putting a nasty set of bloody scratches up my already well scarred shins. It was there that I had to give back the whole credit to the AZX-T. I would score it 95 to 75!

Normally, I am one that looks down on the people that are constantly trying to upgrade their bikes in the quest of becoming a better rider. (Ha! I know that is real hypocrisy coming from me, but that attitude is there.) Rather than concentrating on building skills, they look to take a shortcut by spending more money. I always feel good when I meet new riders that ride the socks off the rest of us on their 8 - 10,000 NTD mt. bikes because they are just great riders. Of course, good equipment can enhance their performance, but they're not dependant on it. However, on the balancing viewpoint, my experience these last three days shows how much difference the right combination of suspension, forks, geometry, and brakes can make when you are pushing the limits. I have managed to extend my time with Ona's bike for on more week, and want to do the gas plant one more time just to make sure it's as good as I have said it is!

I watched with dismay as I saw one showering rain after another pour down yesterday. I knew the effect that it would have on the gas-plant trail. A wet trail can have such a detrimental effect on my joy of riding. I used to love driving a 4x4 on the muddy roads to our ranch in Northern British Columbia. Fish tailing from one side of the road driving with constant applications of full throttle and fast shifting was really fun until you hit a ditch and had to put on chains in the muck, or worse yet suffer the humiliation of being towed out. Unfortunately, I don't have the same sense of enjoyment slithering around on a bicycle, especially when the front end washes out from underneath you. However, Wed. morning, I was still determined to try Ona's spanking clean AZX T again, wet trail or not.

The trail was definitely on the mucky side, wet from the previous days rain. The crisp corn flake feel had changed to something between soggy corn flakes and oatmeal. As I started pedaling up the hills, I could immediately feel the diminished traction. As I approached some of the slick rock sections, I was already defeated in my mind for not being able to power through on two wheels. Much to my surprise, despite some wheel spinning, I made it on two wheels. I passed another tricky uphill section that had foiled my attempt on both the M4 and FSR, and made it through again! Oh this bike is good! However, when I got to the root infested section, my attempts turned unsuccessful one after another. My scientific guess is that wet roots take on a slippery factor of 10 to the 7th power compared to dry conditions. That would be the equivalent of lubing your rims with Manitou Prep M, and trying to stop with Teflon coated V brake pads.

As the trail turned downhill, I started down the stairs without hesitation. I was a little off balance, and combined with the wet conditions, I was headed right towards the famous "over the handlebars" board at the critical bend. As my tire hit the board, my chest went ramming into the back of the seat with karate like force and POW! THE BOARD BROKE. Instead of going over the handlebars, off I went into the lush greenery on the slope below. (Now I know that the trail-builder didn't put that board there to trip up crazy Mt. Bikers. It was there to protect hikers who were slipping down the stairs on their hinder parts from continuing their slide any further. Gasping for breath, I pulled the bicycle and myself back up onto the trail. I was happy that I had worn my long riding pants with the crash pads sewn in, and that my ragged shins were not further injured. But Oh my Ribs! MY RIBS! Ohhhh my oh my! The reason I hit my ribs is that I forgot to lower the seat before doing these stairs! That's why I didn't feel as stable as the other day! Now I doubly appreciate the ability to put the seat down so low on this bike!

That was enough adrenaline for the day, and I made a 180 to go back home the easy route. Even then, I was able to two wheel up a couple hills that I normally end having to push the final grade on foot.

After a quick shower, I immediately put on a T shirt to hide the big red mark on my abdomen from my crash. The other day, she was already complaining about my battered shins leaving some blood marks on the sheets, so this time, I was literally avoiding having insult added to injury!