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!