I've been riding mountain bikes along with road bikes since I started my adult infatuation with bicycles in 1990. At times I've gotten somewhat involved in mountain biking, but road riding has always been the real passion for me. For a few years recently, the MTB was gathering a lot of dust unless I used it for some kind of Frankenbike road bike project. But since I started the bicycling club in the summer of 2005, I've been doing mostly mild MTB rides about once a week. In the last few months, some of the club members have taken more of an interest in offroad riding, especially since we cleared some new beginner to intermediate singletrack sections at the local Forestry Service recreation area.
I have especially enjoyed showing some of the MTB crowd that an old rigid bike like my Trek 970 can still be ridden fairly fast on the same trails the front and full suspension bikes ride. This weekend I went with some of the local MTB hotshots to a great riding area about an hour and a half away near Jackson, GA, the Dauset Trails. To my surprise and theirs, I was able to hang right with them most of the sections. We weren't going full-out racing speed, but we weren't taking it easy either. On some of the more technical climbing sections I was able to keep up with the front runners and opened a good gap on a few guys who are so fast on the road that I won't even ride with them.
But as well as I did, it was clear to me that I would have been a bit faster and a lot more comfortable on a bike with suspension. Especially on fast downhill sections where my bike was bouncing around quite a bit and wearing me out fighting to keep on track. I'm sure that too much of that kind of abuse would not make my bad lower back (herniated disk) too happy.
So, as much as I've fought it, I think there's going to be a modern MTB in the stable before too long. My budget will be between $1000 and $1500. I'm not sure if I'll go for a full suspension bike or just front suspension and a Thudbuster to lessen the jolt in back. I'm also undecided between 26" or 29" wheels. With price no object, I'd probably go with a fully suspended 29er, but working within a budget, I know that those extra features mean giving up some quality in the fork and components. I think a 29er hardtail may be a good comprimise as the larger wheels are supposed to roll more smoothly over rocks and roots.
I'm not really up to speed on what's what in the MTB lineups, so I'll be doing a lot of research and looking for knowledgeable advice from my friends here at 50+ and BF.