The latest changes to the Full-Moto and the rise of the Downcountry bike mean that I feel worryingly close to the mainstream!
What’s in a name? Turns out there’s quite a bit. Up until relatively recently, sticking a longer travel fork and some burly tyres on a cross-country bike would have singled you out as a bit of a cycling novelty, whilst all of the cool kids were riding around on their latest Enduro wonder bikes. There were a few mainstream manufacturers, such as Kona and Evil, building off-the-shelf short travel bikes that weren’t all about cross-country racing, but they were few and far between. It’s an interesting facet of human nature that means that, from what I can tell, one of the main reasons this type of bike hadn’t caught on sooner was simply because it didn’t have a name. Then, like it or not, someone decided to refer to these bikes as Downcountry and suddenly every bike manufacturer and media outlet asking you to like and subscribe was suddenly falling over themselves to hop on this latest bandwagon.
Whatever these bikes are called, I’m just glad that there is an ever-increasing range of options to choose from. For me the aim of a mountain bike shouldn’t be to flatter the rider. Instead it should call the rider out for any lack of finessed or inattentive operation. Intimidating at first, then rewarding if you ever manage to master it. A bike that will not let you access its talent unless you can demonstrate that you are worthy. This is a level of intimacy and involvement that simply cannot be achieved with so many of today’s Trail and Enduro bikes in anything short of a race setting. But with less travel to isolate you from the trail, the latest Downcountry bikes feel to me like a step in the right direction for a great many riders.
Clearly this won’t be for everyone or even the majority. It probably won’t be the best tool for attracting someone new to the sport, and there are plenty of people who just want to enjoy the cheap thrill of going as fast as possible for the minimum effort. Each to their own. But for someone who’s been doing this for a while with a modicum of skill and a passion for the challenge of piloting a bicycle down the side of a hill and who wants to be fully emersed in the process of riding (where speed is simply a potential by-product and not an end in itself) this could be just the ticket.
The zeitgeist for mountain bikes in recent times seems to have become ‘complicate and add cost’, but what really matters when it comes to having fun? It is the connection and harmony between the bike, rider and trail. Whilst the design of these latest Downcountry bikes are still a little way from my own bike, they certainly get closer than most. And with a desire to take on some more challenging terrain in the Welsh Valleys, some recent changes to my bike mean that this gap is now even closer. A Maxxis Minion DHF / DHR combo and the shortest travel RockShox 35 I could get away with that would still work with my geometry have seen to that.
I understand that my point of view might wrongly be interpreted as a desire to return to an era where bikes didn’t work as well as they do now. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything must work – brakes must be consistent and strong, pick-up must be quick, gear changes must be positive. If you want a gear - bang it home, if you want to scrub-off some speed - brush the brake levers. Where I differ from many is in the extent to which I want to use these things to make riding a trail easier. For me, you should always be left to get on with the act of riding, wholly present and fundamental to the job of getting you and your bike down a trail.
Once we get beyond this level of basic functionality we happen upon a grey area, where the magic really begins. Whilst you want to be directly connected to the trail with all of the feedback that entails, you don’t want to be so beaten up by it that all you can do is hold on. Whilst you don’t want to be sat on a bouncy castle that muffles any challenge of navigating the trail below you, you also don’t want to be sat over the front end of a masochistic jackhammer. You want to be the one that’s keeping everything in control with just enough of a suggestion that you’re not too far away from being out of control. The perfect balance of filtering out just enough without diluting too much.
These are fine lines on the continuum between boring, engaging and overwhelming. Whilst the latest Enduro bike will tempt you with the promise of insane speeds as a result of buckets of ever-more sophisticated suspension travel, this particular evolutionary path takes us down a rabbit hole of one-upmanship where many of us never wanted to go. There are a number of reasons why gravel bikes have become so popular, but one of them is that, for a lot of people on a lot of trails, they are far more entertaining to ride than a 160mm travel full suspension bike.
For every combination of rider and trail I believe that there is a Goldilocks bike. In fact, the window in which such a bike can successfully operate is relatively large. My concern is that the two types of bike mentioned above are polar opposites, both sitting at contrasting ends of a spectrum. I believe that a great many mountain bikers would be better served by something that sat closer to the middle of this spectrum, and Downcountry seems to fill this void pretty well.
Following on from the video by GCN (which I referenced in a Blog post on 20.02.20), which compared gravel bikes with retro mountain bikes and suggested that modern mountain bikes make most peoples ‘normal’ trails a tad dull, I thought I’d play around with my set-up. Their suggestion of narrower tyres for a faster ride with less margin for error struck a chord and so my tyres have slimmed down to just 2.25’’ front and rear whilst I have also increased my rims from 27.5 to 29 to maintain a similar wheel diameter. The change also gave me the opportunity to re-live a little of my youth with some skinwall tyres which, even if everything else turns out to be rubbish, have almost certainly made the whole thing worth it! I know that they’re not as robust and will probably fall apart at the first sign of a decent sized flint, but I just think they look great.
Anyway, where my thinking deviates from that of the GCN video is in the appropriate bike geometry for a mountain bike whose primary focus is on having fun. Whereas they are advocating far steeper, almost road bike geometry that tips the rider forwards and down on to their hands for super-efficient pedalling, I still maintain that a rider is far better-off supporting the vast majority of their weight through their feet. I would argue that this is even more fundamental on a fully rigid bike than on your typical 140mm full suspension trail bikes as there really is nowhere to hide. Yes, you give away a little in terms of outright efficiency, but I would suggest that this is more than made up for in the control it offers. And without starting from a position of control I think that it's very hard to find flow and play with the bikes limits. So what I’ve ended up with is a mountain bike with a modern enduro head angle (66 degrees) and wheel size (29er), old school klunker riding position (70 degree seat angle and high bars), and gravel bike (-ish) tyres (just 2.25’’ wide) and zero suspension. You never know, it might just work!
Enduro Mountain Bike Magazine recently awarded the Ibis Ripmo the title of 2020’s best trail bike. No sooner had they done this than Ibis released an updated version of the bike, which they duly passed on to the magazine for them to test . Their opinion on the new bike was clear from the subsequent article that they wrote, entitled “The best trail bike made even better!”.
So, what had Ibis done to this bike to improve upon an already winning formula? Essentially, the new bike had received the industry standard tweaks by getting a bit longer and a bit slacker. The result is that “the previous Ripmo requires you to stay significantly more alert and careful with your line choice, whereas the Ripmo 2 is more of a ‘point and shoot bike’.” At this point we have to ask ourselves why we bother riding our mountain bikes in the first place. For me it is precisely because I enjoy being both alert and careful with my line choice, as the opposite (being inattentive and lazy with my line choice) would appear to not just miss the point but actually disappear off in the opposite direction.
The problem is that once you go down this particular rabbit hole of trying to make bikes faster and more capable there is never a good point to stop. Part of the problem is that having the opportunity to ride a bike that is just like your old one except for being a fraction faster and more stable seems like progress. But extrapolate this out over a decade or two and you end up with bikes that can pretty much ride themselves. And because this year’s latest, greatest bike is only ever compared with last year’s latest greatest bike, this is something that can keep happening without ever seeing the bigger picture. This would appear to be how we’ve ended up with the trail bike group test mentioned above containing 15 bikes with an average price of 7,376 Euros (about £6,176), and with suspension damping that would rival a WRC car and enough carbon fibre to shame a Formula 1 team.
Who wants needless overcomplexity muffling what’s between you and the trail just for the purpose of making it easier to go faster? In short, those who race and those who want some Top Trump bragging rights. For anyone who gets their kicks out of slicing their bike between the trees along a ribbon of singletrack on the ragged edge of adhesion, surely you want the very simplest bike that you can get away with? Why on earth would I be impressed with a bike that does the hard work for me? That’s where the fun is.
I want brakes that work, the bare minimum of gears that my fitness will allow, just enough comfort to go from simply hanging on to attacking the trail, grip that runs out predictably and controllably, a stable body position and easy acceleration. Nothing more. The very last thing that I want is a ‘point and shoot bike’. To reappropriate Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s quote, “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
Ever since I first watched the above video I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The guys at GCN posit that while modern mountain bikes are incredibly capable (they mention the Red Bull Rampage as an example of what is possible with the right rider), they also suggest that they now make the everyday trails that most of us ride pretty dull. So, while it is perhaps inevitable that we all want the latest, most capable bikes as used by the world’s top riders, the vast majority of us are simply ‘over-biked’ on the sort of stuff most of us regularly ride. This, quite literally, flattens any kind of challenge or thrill from riding. Their conclusions – for most people, most of the time, mountain biking has just got a bit boring.
Similar things have been said before, but it’s the next bit that really interests me. While they freely admit that we’re all grateful for modern niceties like disc brakes, the video puts forward a convincing case that retro mountain bikes, with their lighter weight, skinnier tyres and limited suspension travel, have the potential to result in a far more engaging and enjoyable ride on the sort of simple trails that most of us regularly ride than many of the their more modern ancestors. Fast forward 25 years and the closest thing to these classic mountain bikes is now a gravel bike, which they suggest has, in part, grown in popularity as a result of the disconnect that now exists between the capabilities of many modern mountain bikes and what most of them actually get used for. Essentially, gravel bikes take the best bits of retro mountain bikes and bring them up to date with modern technology.
With similar geometry numbers, only the minimum of suspension, low weight and relatively skinny tyres, both types of bike feel agile and lively, and can actually be ridden quickly without always having to rely on gravity for assistance. If you’ve read anything on my website, then you will already know that this is pretty much music to my ears. It was also a timely opportunity, combined with a long, wet winter with relatively little riding, to reconsider my set-up.
But before getting into that, one area where I would question their conclusions is in the geometry of gravel and retro mountain bikes. I still believe that handlebars need to be higher and that a rider benefits from being further behind the front axle when riding off-road, with more of their weight supported through their feet rather than their hands. Whilst I will admit that this results in some trade-off in terms of pedalling efficiency, I would argue that this is far outweighed by the payback in terms of handling and control, particularly at the limit of grip.
However, the upshot of all this is that I’ve decided to, once again, tinker with the set-up of the Full-Moto. My plan is to replace the current 2.6’’ tyres with something a bit slimmer (and possibly with skinwalls for the style points) to inject a bit more zip into the ride as well as providing even less margin for error in my line choices. In an attempt to keep the overall diameter of the wheels about the same I am also planning to switch the 650b rims for a pair of 29ers. Hopefully, I’ll be back shortly to present the physical manifestation of this thinking once I’ve found my spoke key.
So, a few judicious purchases to plug the gaps in what I already had combined with some late nights in the shed have resulted in a rather handsome bike (in my humble opinion!) I find the contrast of old school 3-speed hub, box-section rims and square tapered bottom bracket against the rather more contemporary seat mast, matte blue paint and Fabric saddle rather compelling. There’s also a simplicity and aesthetic lightness to it that seems to be missing in many modern bikes, but maybe that’s just me disappearing up my own backside? Ultimately, I suppose it’s only my opinion that matters, which is probably a good thing given that most bike shops hardly seem to be awash with polished components and arrow straight frame tubes!
The build was relatively straight-forward. The Sturmey Archer rear hub (see previous blog post) needed some adjustment in terms of the axle spacing, but, other than a good clean and a re-build, is completely original. The chain line is pretty narrow on these hubs and, combined with some chunky chainstays, made achieving a half-decent chain line and sufficient crank-clearance a little tricky. Hence the relocation of the chainring to the inside of the spider. While the absence of bottle cage mounts and cable stops (or anything else really) on the frame has meant that some lateral thinking and some bolt-on extras was required.
Once again, my lanky proportions and lack of flexibility have meant that I’ve had to do some relatively unattractive things to the front end. A stack of spacers and Specialized’s Hover riser ‘bar are a bit clunky, but, sadly, a pragmatic reality. Furthermore, the flat Nitto stem has been flipped to get the bars even higher and give my back a fighting chance of surviving at least a couple of hours in the saddle. Whilst I’m on the subject, if you are in the (admittedly very small) market for a polished 90mm stem with 31.8mm clamp and 17 degree rise then the Nitto UI-22 EX seemed to be the only option available to me here in the UK.
So far, I’ve only had the chance for a single, two-hour ride that included a benchmark test up Boxhill, which was somewhat hampered by a very hearty Christmas. However, the bike was very nearly faultless. The biggest surprise was the hub, which, despite its age (37 years and counting) felt absolutely rock-solid under power and didn’t miss a single shift. Admittedly, I wasn’t smashing it between gears, but I was expecting at least a few ghost-neutrals and the odd slipping pawl. Instead, after the first 15 minutes of anticipating the worst I just completely forgot about it.
The one and only fly in the ointment was the bracket that connects the bottle cage to the saddle. It is designed to separate into two halves using a quick-release fixing not too dissimilar from my Cateye rear light. In theory this sounds like a useful thing as it means that if I don’t need the cage then I can quickly remove it without the need for any tools. However, the only way I could stop the two halves from separating unintentionally on a ubiquitous, bumpy British country lane is if my bottle was completely empty, which rather misses the point. The subsequent application of some black zip ties has hopefully (and discretely) solved the issue.
Other than that I’m a very happy man. It’ll be interesting to see just how reliable the rear hub will be. I’m certainly looking forward to finding out.
A couple of months ago I was having a bit of a sort-out in my shed and came across my first Sturmey-Archer hub that I used to help understand how these little cylinders of elegant, engineering magic actually work. When I first acquired the hub it was still part of a rear wheel that I got from a bicycle recycling place where its steel spokes were slowly rusting, languishing on a shelf under a pile of other rear wheels. It was looking particularly sorry for itself, wearing a layer of grime that I suspect had been building up ever since the hub was made in 1982. However, to my surprise after a bit of elbow grease and a large helping of engine degreaser, the hub was looking like new. They really are lovely things, but it had served its purpose of revealing its secret workings and had been sat untouched at the back my shed until my aforementioned sort-out.
Seeing the hub again got me thinking – wouldn’t it be great to build a bike around it? It’s the sort of informal thought-experiment that I can merrily entertain myself with for a few weeks, turning it over in my head whenever I get 15 minutes to myself. Perhaps while staring out of a train window or during my commute. A couple of things then happened. First, I remembered that I still had a whole bunch of components in a box that had once been the culmination of a similar thought-experiment. This one happened to be a rather disappointing attempt to build a road bike around a Shimano Alfine hub that I tried about eight years ago (that’s a whole other story). This meant that a decent amount of everything that I would need was already close at hand.
Second, during my musings I stumbled across the perfect frameset – a cadet blue Viper from Brick Lane Bikes. Smooth welds, integrated seat mast and that colour! I know that there can be issues with sanding down aluminium welds, it’ll probably be as stiff as an unopened book, and even that colour still won’t make it quite like an original Cinelli Laser, but who cares. I think it looks great.
I then recalled a sportive I did a while back that my mates Dad had helped to organise. We’d got chatting before we set off and he was reminiscing about the old three speed racers that used to be cutting edge back in the day. It got me thinking, what would a modern interpretation of a three speed racer look like? A resto-mod, if you like. Mixing old and new. So that's the plan - a modern interpretation of a three speed racer. Ideally, it would have been great to go the whole-hog and throw some deep-section carbon rims at the idea, but my financial realities mean that things will need to be a little more modest. Even so, I think it could be a lot of fun and pretty stylish to boot.
So, hopefully I’ll be back in a month or so with the results of my endeavours, and I’ll soon find out whether my hunch was inspired or a festive folly.
I would like to draw a fairly unlikely parallel between the two worlds of mountain biking and baking. Not common bedfellows I’ll admit, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s the best example I’ve yet found of the tricky balance that I believe we are all trying to make when we go riding in the hills.
Back in the 1940s a number of companies introduced instant cake mixtures that only required some water to be stirred into them to create a batter that simply needed to be poured into a tin and popped into the oven. Initially this idea proved pretty popular, but as sales started to flag in the late 1950s, one food company carried out some research into the reasons behind these falling sales and investigated how they might reverse the trend.
The research was led by a chap called Ernest Dichter on behalf of General Mills. He concluded that the simplicity of the cake mix, just adding water, meant that the person making the cake felt like they hadn’t contributed enough to the task. There wasn’t enough work involved to reap the emotional rewards of baking your own cake. His solution was to remove the dried egg powder from the mixture, requiring the baker to add their own, fresh eggs. This relatively simple act was enough to provide the necessary sense of involvement that people wanted in order to feel like it was ‘their’ cake.
Now, compare this to riding your bike along a moderately challenging ribbon of singletrack. Tackle this on the latest, greatest enduro bike and the experience may feel rather tame, bordering on dull. However, ride the same piece of singletrack on an early 90s fully rigid cross-country bike (not forgetting your cantilever brakes and 120mm stem) and your ride may become a terrifying, white knuckled fight for survival. Just like baking a cake, we want to feel like an essential part of the process, but not necessarily to the point where it requires every ounce of our commitment to just get through it. For most of us I would suggest that we want riding a mountain bike to be neither a do-or-die fight for survival nor a walk in the park.
In theory at least, there is a perfect bike to match every combination of trail and rider, providing just enough of a challenge to immerse you in the experience, whilst still leaving enough physical and mental capacity to enjoy it, playing around with line choice and braking points. My trip to a Welsh trail centre earlier in the year was a good example of where bike and rider had been pushed outside of this optimal operating window. Suddenly, a combination that ordinarily sits slap-bang in the middle of the sweet-spot for my regular loops of the Surrey Hills was pushed beyond what was entertaining and into what was just hard work. It was a useful lesson.
So, next time you’re thinking about buying that new bike or investing in a few, choice upgrades, perhaps stop to consider whether you’re over-egging it.
Afan Trail Centre in the sunshine
As I mentioned in my last blog post, The Full-Moto (TFM) and I recently went to Wales for a couple of days, the first at Afan trail centre and the second at Bike Park Wales. It was the toughest test yet for the bike and it has given me plenty to think about. With its new, lightweight wheels and fork, the few rides that I’d managed to get-in on my local trails before the trip had shown that the bike had become even more playful, being extra-keen to hop, skip and dance its way between the trees. I was chuffed. And I had high hopes for the Welsh trip.
Having ridden a rigid bike with far more cross-country orientated intentions in rocky Wales before, I knew that the tracks could be pretty brutal without the protection of some suspension. But with the geometry of TFM combined with its new, svelte figure, I was confident that this time it would be different. I was wrong and the aftermath has given me a great deal to ponder.
Back in June 2017 I wrote in the blog about my love of being all-consumed and fully-immersed in the task of threading a bike down some singletrack (The Ultimate Currency). This is sometimes referred to as achieving ‘flow’, with the concept first being proposed by a psychologist named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He stated that:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
There’s something deeply fulfilling about being completely focused on the here-and-now. I once read that flow can be described as the complete opposite of multi-tasking (single-tasking?), which I thought was a nice way of describing it. And the TFM is the ultimate bike, in combination with my abilities, for achieving flow on my local trails on the North Downs and Surrey Hills in southeast England.
I believe that this inter-connected triumvirate of bike, trail and rider represents the perfect combination for maximising my enjoyment. It is therefore pretty obvious that if any one of these three is changed too drastically, then this house of cards will be destabilised. Essentially, in Wales I went beyond the limits of what TFM and myself could ride and still achieve flow. Because, while a ride needs to be challenging enough to require your full concentration, it shouldn’t be so hard that all you’re really trying to do is get to the end of it in one piece.
To be clear, this is not the same as having the necessary skill to simply clear a section of trail – everything that I rode over the weekend in Wales was within my humble abilities. But the rockiness meant that, at times, it was all I could do to hold on to the handlebars, which, ultimately, became quite a frustrating experience and one that all but eliminated any chance of achieving that all-important flow. However, it was one that taught me an important lesson. As much as I love my bike, I can’t expect it to be the perfect tool for every occasion.
It took me a while to accept this, initially preferring to believe that I’d simply lost my mojo in Wales. One of the guys that I was riding with, who I normally think of as a challenging, upper benchmark against which to judge myself, was simply riding off into the distance at Afan. Thoughts quickly turned to me being too old and that a relatively limited amount of time on the mountain bike in the last couple of years meant that I’d lost much of my ability. Thankfully, the upper sections of the blue runs at Bike Park Wales on the second day, with their sculpted, sinuous berms, helped to reform the perfect flow-triangle and with much excitement (and relief) I realised that all was not lost!
The drive home was spent considering my options. Initially, I thought that the answer was to buy a few, select components for TFM that I could swap-out with the bike’s standard set-up for these rockier rides – expanding the bikes reach into tougher terrain. Top of the list would be a suspension fork. But, as was pointed out to me on that journey home, I pretty much have all of the parts in my shed already to build a mongrel of a second bike, dedicated to these conditions. Essentially, a bike that creates a new flow-triangle when the trails get tougher. Pretty obvious really. So, I’ll be spending a few nights in the shed with the Allen keys in order to cobble something together, which I’m sure I will then be refining over the coming months. I shall report back with my findings!
The Full-Moto after its diet
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I’m chuffed to bits with the Full-Moto – quite simply, it manages to put a silly grin on my face every time I ride it. It’s certainly not the fastest way to get from A to B, but it’s a whole lot of fun doing it!
The only criticism that I’ve levelled at the bike is its weight. This was primarily due to a lack of funds when I was originally putting it together as well as a desire to try out some of the latest mountain biking trends. The latter of these helps to explain the three-inch-wide tyres and 45mm wide rims that, while undeniably helping to smooth out the ride and provide almost inexhaustible levels of grip, did add a significant amount of weight just where you don’t want it. The bike felt overly leaden, missing some of that sprightly, agile feel that I wanted. Ultimately, these choices are all just one big compromise, and in this instance I felt like this had taken things a bit too far.
The other area of the bike that is dragging around a bit more timber than is strictly necessary is the Salsa fork. For the money I can’t knock it – a through-axle, boost spacing, tapered steerer mountain bike fork for not a huge amount of money. But the all-steel construction was never going to result in anything approaching feather-weight.
Easton Arc30 rims and Bontrager XR2 / XR4 tyres
So, changes have been afoot, with new wheels having been laced together and a wizz-bang carbon fork slotted into the headtube along with a couple of other more minor alterations. The wheels retain the old hubs, but now have the 30mm-wide variants of the same model of Easton rim that I was using before (with matching stickers!), wrapped in some Bontrager, 2.6’’ wide tyres replacing the old WTB ones, significantly reducing the bikes rotating weight. Upfront, the Kinesis fork proved to be shockingly light when I removed it from its packaging – maybe it’s just a sign of me getting old, but it really is incredible how light this thing feels.
Kinesis Maxlight Boost Fork
On a slightly less thrilling note, the fork was an absolute pain in the backside to fit. The steerer didn’t taper quickly enough to clear the headsets lower cup, the top of the steerer was too large to comfortably accept my stem and the threads for the disc brake mount were clogged with resin. What should have been an enjoyable hour’s work turned into a number of nights swearing at various parts of the fork. Still, it’s done now and I think it looks great. But, for the money, I expected better.
So, to the scales of truth. The bike was previously weighing in at 33.6lb (15.2kg) without the pump and frame bag in the images. Now, the bike is at 29.1lb (13.2kg), so a respectable drop of over 4lb (or exactly 2kg). I’ve only just finished bleeding the front brake hose (which needed to be re-routed through the fork), so haven’t had a chance to turn the pedals in anger yet. But a few local rides will shortly be followed by a weekend away to Afan Forest and Bike Park Wales at the beginning of May, which will really help to show what sort of difference the changes have made. I shall report back once I know more.
Sometimes I think that it is worth pausing just to remind ourselves why we so often invest relatively large sums of money so that we might pump, skid, slide, jump and rail bikes through the woods. What are we all trying to achieve? For me, with my spare time limited by a full-time job and a young family, I want to escape to a place where I’m not thinking about paying the mortgage, getting the car serviced or preparing for that presentation on Monday morning. A place where I am nowhere else but the here and now. Where I’m flirting with the edges of my abilities and may even end up on the wrong side of my comfort zone a few times, whilst still finding a rhythm and flow to the lines I’m tracing. All at the same time as reminding myself not to take things so seriously that I can’t find the time and humility to laugh at myself for, once again, not being able to clear that section without a dab. A place where I’m immersed in nature, with all of its changing sights, sounds and smells, that also represents an ever-evolving challenge on the trail. Where I can be caked in mud or dust and nearly always with the gentle hum from the brush of a stinging nettle. Time is irrelevant. In fact, speed is irrelevant – merely a potential by-product of everything else. This is about as far away from a competition as you can get. Strava will probably be on and there’s a decent chance that I’ll be riding with a friend, but there is no such thing as ‘first place’ because there is no way to select a winner.
This is why I ride my mountain bike, and this is how I like to think mountain biking was originally conceived. By a bunch of fun-loving, outdoor-types who thought that it might be a laugh to ride some pretty inappropriate bikes down the side of a hill whilst wearing some pretty inappropriate clothing. As Charlie Kelly states in Fat-Tyre Flyer, they “explored every trail in the backcountry of Marin County”.
However, even for those laid back Klunker riders, this fledgling sport was soon looking to the stopwatch for approval. As Charlie Kelly goes on to say, there was “one nagging question: Who among us was actually the fastest downhill rider”. Pioneers of mountain biking, such as Gary Fisher, Keith Bontrager and Tom Ritchey, had all come from road racing backgrounds, where the post-race satisfaction of a podium finish trumps the in-the-moment delight of getting loose and messing about with your mates. Mountain biking was still wet behind the ears, and yet the seemingly inescapable dominance of the racing scene in all that would follow had already started to take hold. And no sooner had the first beach cruisers been repurposed than riders were starting to improve their machines.
Now, these improvements were understandable and even essential given the weight, reliability and performance of the equipment that they originally had at their disposal. It’s no-wonder that people tried to create lighter frames, better brakes and a wider spread of gears. What’s more interesting to me is wondering where they wanted to take this simple pass-time. It’s easiest to suggest that they weren’t ever thinking this far ahead, that they were just living in the moment. But the bikes that quickly emerged would suggest otherwise. It didn’t take long for these machines to start getting racier. In just a few years stems grew in length, handlebars dropped as seat tubes rotated forwards, all in an effort to create more efficient bikes. These changes came about in parallel with a growing cross-country race scene, this being the competition of choice in these early days, with the growing number of mountain bike manufacturers quick to sell their bikes to the public based on their racing credentials. These days, the type of competition may have changed, Enduro is the latest show in town, but the sales strategy is the same – race it on the Sunday, sell it on the Monday.
For those who want to race, or even for those who simply want to tell the world that they own the fastest bike, this is all very well and good. But what does this mean for those of us that might want something that’s a little closer to the experiences of those first mountain bike pioneers. For those of us who want to scare ourselves just a little bit by hurtling down the side of a hill, but for whom the stop watch is a poor barometer of a good time. There’s a chance that, like me, you don’t want to hide behind a long travel suspension fork made necessary, at least in part, by a geometry that pushes the rider forwards on to their hands as a result of ever steeper seat tube angles and longer top tubes. While this might result in longer, more stable bikes that can achieve ever greater velocities, the joy of feeling like an integral part of the process of navigating a bike down a challenging trail seems to have been diluted for an ever-increasing number of non-elite riders as body positions actually become less stable.
The very first Dirt 100 and the Commencal Meta 4X - all about the fun
There was a time when I thought things might change. Where, for example, a couple of bike manufacturers might start to offer two parallel lines of bikes – those for racing and those for ragging. It was November 2008 and the very first Dirt 100 had just landed through my door. Tucked away in its pages was a bike that caught my imagination like few others. It was a Commencal Meta 4X – woefully ill-equipped to be ridden for any distance in comfort, but it (and others of this breed) seemed to capture the collective imagination of both the press and the public alike for the briefest of moments. Suddenly, we had discovered a bike that put fun way before being fast on most trails. Just enough suspension to take the edge off big hits, a small, chuck-able frame, and built to withstand a beating. It was the Scrappy-Do of bike genres, always up for some mischief, and they just couldn’t be ridden without a big smile on the rider’s face. However, partly as a result of the demise of 4x (it was temporarily no-longer held in tandem with UCI downhill events in 2014 and 2015, taking a lot of the wind out of its sails), the bikes disappeared just as quickly as these wonderful machines had been re-imagined beyond their original design brief. Everyone seemed to instantly forget about them and we all moved on to the next big thing, which inevitably had links back to being the fastest once again.
Mountain biking, for its entire history, has so far appeared incapable of escaping the allure of the stop watch. Regardless of the sort of riding that we might do, I would argue that almost all of our bikes have been optimised towards outright speed at the expense of simple fun. Even though, for most of us, I would argue that this is a poor compromise. Will we ever get back to riding bikes that actually encourage us to attack a trail like those original pioneers of the sport: foot-out, flat-out in a shirt and jeans just for the sheer hell of it? I hope so!