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.

24 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 :)

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  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?

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

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  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!

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  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

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  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

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  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.

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  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.

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  9. Justine, First I wanna say awesome blog you have made a fan. I was probably just abit before your time in my serious cycling days. I remember well 300mi. a week training, riding in the back of some really over packed van to get to the race location, etc. mmm good times!!!
    I just acquired a Proflex 756. needs a few suspension fixes and gobs of TLC. but how can you not love a bike that makes elitists cringe at the sight of that erector set front end, then rejoice in their gasps of disbelief and bitter tears as you calmly pass them on a local trail. at aprox. one hundredth their monetary outlay. of course they will blame their tires,shoes, handlebars and possibly even that $900.00 rear shock made from metals only available when made in zero atmosphere by aliens contracted by NASA. end of the day I love my "Dinosaur" bikes. being "antique" myself. hehehe

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  10. Anon--Hey, I don't blame you for fixing up the Proflex you just acquired. I don't think they're bad bikes: I just think that you have to realize what it was designed to do and its potential flaws, and ride and repair it accordingly.

    Congratulations on your find.

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  11. I am thrilled to find this blog, as I was "BIG" a PRO FLEX 253 lover. All I can say is I did not too much off road riding, actually none at all unless you want to count writing through football fields and such. I mainly road along the ocean in Hollywood Florida. My PRO FLEX 253 is a great bike. I corrected the yellow sponge shock absorbers with steel coils, perfect. Unfortunately my back surgeries have prevented me from enjoying riding any longer, so I'm willing to offer this antique if you want to call it that for sale to the first appreciative person it . It is in perfect shape and may the best offer win. This bike cost me $1400 back in '94 I think maybe earlier. But the titanium lightweight construction will make it last forever. My email is m.silvester@aol.com

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  12. M.Silvester--I'm glad you have such great memories of riding the bike. I'm sorry that you can't ride it any more. I hope your surgeries don't stop you from riding altogether!

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  13. Thank you for the great post,It is really a big help.thanks for sharing nice blog.

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  15. It is with somewhat mixed emotions that I read your blog, but mostly am happy to see it. I share many of Fyrstormer's sentiments, particularly the notion that the bike has inspired many reflections. In fact, Neil Donoghue of Global Mountain Bike Network recently did a flawed comparison between the 957 and a modern Canyon Lux.

    Rather than pick apart GMBN's comparison, the thing that should resonate is that they even did the comparison to begin with. The 957 is nearly 20 years old and people are still talking about it.

    My contribution? Right after I got out of college, my father bought a bike store and started carrying Proflex bikes. I think he gave me a 554 as a gift. That bike was a mountain goat. I loved it and road it and road it and road it. When the 957 came out, I had enough money to buy it at wholesale.

    Then I moved to Seattle and rode the bejesus out of the 957 on Tiger Mountain and lots of trails around Seattle. My college friend who had moved with me, bought an 857 and we became weekend warriors, status we held for years. Then life happened and we both stopped riding for about ten years.

    Last year, I decided I was going to get back into MTB. I dusted off both my 554 and 957 and an old Demo Diamond Back V2 and proceeded to get them back in to riding condition. I had the Noleens on the 957 sent back to Noleen and the shocks were recondition. I changed the rear spring and replaced the chain and got new tires - Wild Grippers.

    The 554 was a lot harder to reanimate. The elastomers had completely fallen apart and no one still has these that I could find. I tried a direct replacement elastomer, but it doesn't come close to performing like the MCU's did. I also found out that the Fastrack front fork on the 554 had been recalled years ago as had the Manitou fork on the Diamond back. Fortunately Manitous. Manitous send me a replacement 140mm fork which I stuck on the 554 along with some V-brakes and I found an old Marzoochi Bomber for the Diamond back.

    Getting to the point, my friend and I have been riding the 957 and 554 a lot in the last 12 months. The 957, imo, is still a dream to ride. The bike is incredibly supple for light rough and climbs like a mountain goat. The 957 is still more bike than I am rider and the 554 has been more than serviceable with a new front fork. After all, I still see people riding hardtail.

    Last year, a friend of my father's rode my Diamond Back and loved it as we tooled around Duthie Hills. It's got a spring suspension in the back and yet it rides better than the 554 (Just can't bring myself to spend $50 on spring for the 554).

    The point is that these old bike are still fun to ride. But the MTB industry has shifted its focus on down hilling and I won't pretend that any of these old bikes are able to compete with a modern day All-Mountain, Enduro, Shredder, Trail bike when it comes to going down hill. A major change in modern bikes is that head angle has grown increasingly slack. The 957 is set up at around 74 degrees which is steep for even XC bikes these days. A-Mountain bikes are frequently in the 66-69 range. That makes it possible to go a LOT faster down hill. And let's be honest, down hill speed is where all the sex appeal is for the industry. So it is unlikely bike companies are going to go back in time. But from my perspective the Proflex design is still amazing and fun to ride. We'll see if that changes as I look for a better down hill bike and test ride more.

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  16. Arrowhawk--You have quite a history with your Pro Flex bikes! I am glad you are riding again--I simply like to see people ride, whatever they choose to ride.

    I don't mean to "bash" Pro Flex bikes, as I never owned one or even rode one extensively. I merely wrote of what I noticed among those who rode them during the time I was an active mountain biker.

    I agree with your assessment of the current market place. It is indeed oriented toward downhill speed (or the perception thereof), as the ski market seems to be. I think it has a lot to do with something "Citizen Rider" observed in one of his recent posts: "Mountain biking has become a destination resort activity, not a daily dose of fun."

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  17. I think those of use who have owned and loved these bikes naturally get defensive when people have a bad experience on the bike as you described the bike being too bouncy. What year did you ride the bike? Which bike was it?




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  18. Arrow--If I remember correctly, it was around 1992 or 1993,and the bike was an 857. Could be wrong, though.

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  19. With Proflex, the last number generally refers to the year in 1990 the bike was made. The '54's game out in 1994 and the '57's came out in 1997. I am not familiar with any bikes before 1994.

    The 8xx bikes were generally red, but that 857 would have been in 1997. However, I was looking at a Proflex brochure from 1994. Apparently the designer, Bob Girven started with a flex stem in 1988. The brochure states that Proflex made its first full suspension bike in 1990 and the picture shows a red bike that looks somewhat like the 8 series. So you may have ridden an 85[1,2,3]x in 1993.

    I have no experience with Proflex before 1994, so I can't speak to the ride-ability of those early bikes, so it very well may have been exactly as you describe.

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  20. Arrowhawk--I know it was red, and that I rode it around 1992 or 1993.

    It may well be that, as you say, I was riding an early models and that the later ones were better.

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  21. I have a chance at picking up one of the 96 Beast models. Not much info out there that I could find on the 1996 Beast in particular.
    Wondering if it is worth the investment? I will not be using it for DH riding. Mostly want full suspension for the comfort on flat land, and build up for a future project (again.. not DH riding).
    Does anyone think the Beast model is worth $200?
    It has the spring shocks.
    One thing that I am worried about is that it is apparently a 16" frame. I'm 5'10"ish, and I do not mind being a bit shorter on the bike if that means a lower center of gravity.
    Also would like to know the weight of this bike. From what I can find, the bike appears to be all aluminum.

    With all that said, I have nice hardtail bikes. Just want a cheap (not junk) FS bike that I can ride and later build into a project I have in mind. Project is NOT trying to build up this bike into a high-end DH bike or anything like that.

    Anyone have input?

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  22. Rad--From what I'm hearing and reading, it should be fine for the kind of riding you intend to do with it. I welcome comments from other readers.

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  23. Thank you for your input.
    I have moved over and posted on a few specialty forums that I found. Should be able to get some more in-depth data points to determine mt direction of course.

    Enjoy your week!

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