Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

15 January 2011

Pro-Flex Reflection

Today I took a very short ride along the river to the Long Island City pier.  Along the way, I saw someone riding a bike I haven't seen in a long time.  


Back in the day,  a couple of my riding buddies had them.  I even knew a guy who raced on one.




If you were a National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) member in the early to mid 1990's, as I was, you knew someone who rode this bike if you weren't riding it yourself. This bike, the Pro Flex, was one of the first mass-marketed full-suspension mountain bikes.  




The first time I saw one of those frames, I thought that the rear was something Salvador Dali might've made if someone had stolen his palette and brushes and left an Erector set in their place. 


I never owned one, or any other full-suspension bike. However, I did have the chance to ride it.   I was not prepared for the springiness and cushiness of the ride, accustomed as I was to hardtail mountain bikes and very stiff road bikes.  In fact, I found the bike's bounciness disconcerting--like something I might expect of a pogo stick on wheels.  


I suppose that had I raced off-road, or simply become a more dedicated off-road rider, I would've appreciated the Pro-Flex or some other full-suspension bike.  But having such boingy ride was rather distrubing to me:  I felt that I had less control over the bike.  


Plus, I came to feel about this bike, and full-suspension bikes, the way I came to feel about carbon-fiber bikes: They're great if you're willing and able to replace them every couple of years.  (I was riding a lot, and hard, in those days.)  A year or so after I first saw those bikes, the suspension mechanisms broke on some of them.  Once, during a ride on a trail upstate, I saw a guy lash the ends of his frame together so he could ride his suspensionless suspension bike back out to wherever he parked his car.






Later versions used elastomers.  They were shaped sort of like miniature tires, and performed one of the functions of a tire:  shock absorption.  The problem was that, in time, the elastomers either hardened or they collapsed like deflated tires.  In either case, they no longer absorbed shock.  They were replaceable, but not easily.  Plus, they were a proprietary part.  Thus, anyone who still has one of those bikes would need to find replacements on eBay or, as "Citizen Rider" did, improvise new parts.


I'm guessing that ProFlex bikes have been out of production for at least a few years now.   That would account for their relative rarity these days.  Plus, performance-oriented mountain bikes simply don't last as long as good road bikes because they get more wear and tear.  I know that because I  wore out more chains and sprockets, and broke more parts, in my first two years of off-road riding than I did in twenty years of road riding.


It will be interesting to see whether this bike develops "cult" status and collectors start buying them.  That brings me to another parallel with carbon-fiber bikes:  They date themselves, which means that they don't grow old gracefully.  A quality lugged steel road frame will always look and feel right, whether it was made in 1930 or 1960, or just last year.  The same can't be said for a full-suspension bike from 1990.  That means, I believe, that neither the Pro-Flex nor any other full-suspension bikes will become "classics" in the way some iconic road bikes have.

8 comments:

  1. Love the post! Sure brings back memories (NORBA, Proflex etc).

    Proflex still has quite a cult following these days. They are indeed collected and if you're interested, there is a forum dedicated to just this:

    http://idriders.com/proflex/smf/index.php

    Personally, I always lusted after one when I first saw these in early grade school. Despite the shortcomings of this design when contrasted to modern xc rigs, I still went out and purchased/restored one. It's an entertaining ride for sure, and when tuned with firmer elastomers it's reasonable :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Boro: Thanks for the response.

    I see you have a page set up for a blog. Are you going to start posting on it?

    ReplyDelete
  3. i have a pro flex "animal" and i need part for it and how do u bleed the brakes ?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have a '97 Pro-Flex Beast that's still alive and kicking. After going through a couple sets of elastomers that are now almost impossible to come by, I bought some custom air shocks from Risse Racing. They cost about $250, but they really improved the ride. The suspension can now be adjusted to suit the terrain.
    I see Pro-Flex and K2 bikes come up on ebay and on Craigslist every now and then. The Beast's Magura hydraulic rim brakes were the Bee's Knees back in the day, but nobody misses them much in the age of disc brakes.
    Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Robert: I'm sorry I didn't respond to your comment. I don't know how to bleed the brakes. However, there are probably a number of threads and discussion groups where you can find, or ask for, help. Here's one: http://www.morcmtb.org/forums/archive/index.php/t-35392.html

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have to admit, I'm not sure what the objective of this blog entry is, but for some reason, I find myself...strangely bemused as a result of reading it. From the sound of it, your encounters with Pro-Flex bikes were few and well in the past now, but clearly it made a memorable impression on you, or else I doubt you would've taken notice of the Pro-Flex you saw recently. So it seems strange to me that they would be memorable enough for you to feel like writing about them, yet you don't have anything good to say about them, and you you don't think they're iconic in any way. How can a thing not be iconic, if it is "one of the first" AND memorable enough to be worth writing about 15 years later?

    Anyway, I own a Pro-Flex; two, if you count the one I built for my father, which is more on indefinite loan to him than anything else. My Pro-Flex 756 was my first "grownup bike", bought on clearance from a black-and-white advert in the back of a biking magazine that is no longer published. I actually got the magazine from a pile of collage-fodder that a high-school classmate was using for a class project.

    I still have that bike, though I've upgraded every single part on it since I bought it in 1996. I even had a rear disc-brake mount welded onto it, which necessitated removing the swingarm and mailing it cross-country to a guy who could do the work. It kept me fit in college, kept me sane after breakups. I've crashed it about a half-dozen times, and I even hit a car on it, when the car cut me off. (my father thought I was nuts for spending $500 on a bicycle, but after that incident he decided a cheaper bike would've crumpled under me instead of launching me safely over the car's hood.) After all that, it still works fine, with none of the non-replaceable parts showing any signs of wear.

    I see your lugged steel road bike, and I raise you this: http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y186/deusexaethera/bikes/CIMG5363.jpg

    ReplyDelete
  7. Fyrstormer--I don't think I was entirely negative. I did say I might have appreciated the Pro-Flex more than I did, and perhaps might have even bought one, had I raced off-road or simply did more off-road riding than I did. (Even though I was doing a pretty fair amount of trail and rock riding, I still saw myself as mainly a road rider.)

    Also, I think it was fair to mention the problems encountered by people I knew who were riding them in the early years of the bikes' production. It sounds like you got a later model; some of the problems might have been corrected by then.

    Finally, I stand by my point that you're a lot more likely to find an old road bike than an old full-suspension mountain bike, and that road bikes don't date themselves as much. In its own way, the ProFlex is iconic, for it was probably the first high-production bike of its kind. I'm sure there will be collectors and that people will ride them for as long as they can continue to keep the shocks working.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The frame in your first picture is actually newer than the one I have (‘97 vs. ‘96), so I assumed that is the kind of Pro-Flex you were familiar with. If you were referring to ‘94 or earlier, then yes, the design was significantly less advanced. ‘95-‘96 is when they worked out the major bugs.

    The rear shock appears to be unique at first glance, but actually a normal double-eyelet shock can be used in combination with a simple adaptor that holds the bottom eyelet tightly and adapts it to fit into the cone-shaped hole at the top of the strut. So, the unusual-rear-shock problem was solved years ago. The fork is even easier, because it can be replaced with any fork that has a 1 1/8" threadless steerer. The only other issue is that the frame uses steel bolts, which will eventually rust, but I replaced all my frame bolts with titanium, so that issue can be solved too.

    Yes, it's much more likely that you'll see an old road bike vs. an old mountain bike, but there's an explanation for that which has nothing to do with durability: full-suspension mountain bikes as we know them today have only been made since the mid-1990's, whereas road bikes as we know them today have been made since the 1920's if not longer. There are fewer old mountain bikes in service today because there were fewer made in the first place.

    Certainly it is fair to say that mountain bikes take much more of a beating than road bikes, but the *good* designs also are built stronger to withstand that beating. As I mentioned, I once crashed mine into a car piloted by an absent-minded driver, among other crashes I've been through. I hit the car hard enough to launch myself completely over the hood, and the bike pinwheeled through the air above me before crashing to the ground about 15 feet down the road from where I landed. All four of the wheel bearings were spalled from the impact, and the lower headset cup was stretched outward on its rear-facing surface, but the frame didn't need realignment, and to this day it doesn't creak at all. I have little doubt that a road bike would've suffered significant frame damage from that kind of collision, due to a build quality focused more on lightness than strength.

    Mountain bikes are more mechanically complex than road bikes, and obviously softer over bumps, which makes the archetypical mountain bike design more susceptible to being reproduced cheaply, for the benefit of people who want to own a bike but don't want to ride it. Weld some spare tubes together, maybe with some sheet metal that has edgy-looking "lightness holes" punched in it, stick some flashy decals on it and bolt-on a fancy-looking "shock absorber" that doesn't actually work, and you can sell a couple thousand of them to people who want some cool-looking garage jewelry. That is a very common approach, but I think we can all agree that any bike built like that isn't really in-the-running to be an antique to start with. You have to look at the *good* designs if you want to make bets on longevity.

    Because of that low-end market saturation, it's tempting to think that mountain bikes *as a genre* are less elegant, timeless, and durable than road bikes. Unfortunately mountain bikes haven't been around long enough for any meaningful data to exist in this regard, but it is worth considering that you yourself compared the style of the Pro-Flex swingarm to a piece of Salvador Dali artwork. That speaks well of its aesthetic appeal, even if it isn't your personal favorite.

    So, it's too early for anyone to say with authority that there won't be plenty of long-lasting iconic mountain bikes in the future. Once the genre has been around longer than the people commenting on them, as is already the case with road bikes, then we'll see. Conveniently, I am just barely younger than the first mountain bike (1982), so perhaps when I'm an old man I'll know how things really turned out.

    ReplyDelete