We all like to be flattered - it’s human nature. And I don’t believe that it’s any different when it comes to riding mountain bikes. I’ve read a number of reviews recently about new bikes that sport larger tyres, slacker geometry and / or increased suspension travel relative to the norm. More often than not such bikes are described as great fun, with their uncanny ability to hold their speed and shrug-off previously dubious line choices, allowing the rider to reel in their mates in a way that just wasn’t possible on a ‘normal’ bike. This isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s simply the latest iteration of the steady evolution of the mountain bike that’s been going on ever since the first Klunkers. As a result, what is considered ‘normal’ is constantly in a state of flux. As an example, when I started mountain biking anything that didn’t come with a 71 degree head angle and a 73 degree seat angle would have been considered pretty radical, but now such geometry would be eyed with a great deal of suspicion.
However, the question that I keep coming back to when I read such reviews is ‘where is this all heading?’ If you give me a new bike that means I can now straight-line my local trails where I was previously having to select my line choice with care, then I will probably have a good giggle at the novelty value for the first couple of rides. Particularly if it means I can leave my regular riding buddies in my wake. But this can only ever be a rather transient sort of enjoyment. After a few rides my regular trails will start to feel a little underwhelming as they no-longer present the challenge that they once did. Either I will just have to accept that my riding will now be less fun or I will have to find a new challenge. The former option doesn’t sound very appealing, while the latter is just a zero-sum game, but with the likely requirement for more travelling and expense as I hunt out trails that once again test my skills. I’m not for one minute saying that we had already hit the sweet-spot of mountain bike design in the early 90’s (we shouldn't all chop-in our current bikes for something with super-steep angles on 1.9 inch tyres with 120mm stems). But I do think that there is a danger that a bike that flatters a rider in the short-term may ultimately make riding a little less fun in the long-term.
After all, what do we think is the ultimate goal that we are all trying to reach? If you race then fine - speed is king and do whatever it takes to achieve it (within reason!) But my mates and I, like a lot of people, ride mountain bikes to have a bit of fun. I don’t want my local trails to be easy. I want to have to work for it. As I’ve said elsewhere, I want to be immersed in the experience of playing with the limits of traction across challenging terrain. If we take the current trend to its eventual conclusion, if we just want to straight-line everything, then we may as well all buy ourselves road bikes right now. I already have one of those and, although I love it, it’s for very different reasons and is certainly no substitute for my mountain bike. So when I read positive reviews of bikes that include lines like ‘devours testing terrain’ (Dirt Magazine) or ‘turned rock gardens into gravel lanes, ironing everything flat’ (Enduro Magazine) applied to short travel trail bikes my heart sinks a little.
Let’s be clear, I’m not having a pop at people who want to sell or buy more capable bikes. That’s not the point that I am trying to make. There’s nothing wrong with having a wizz-bang, carbon fibre full-suspension bike. My mate has one and loves it. For him its the perfect bike to maximise his enjoyment on the sort of trails that we ride. And that’s the crux of it - I want the perfect bike for maximising the fun that I have. I find the most difficult bit is being honest enough with myself to recognise the difference between short-term novelty value and long-term enjoyment.
The trend towards longer, slacker, fatter bikes should be great (at least I hope that it is, as I’ve also just bought something along these lines - please see the previous post for more details!) Such bikes have the potential to encourage more people to give mountain biking a try, provide more choice to the consumer and allow people to ride more challenging terrain than they previously could. That perfect bike to maximise fun for any given combination of rider and trail will be unique to every person and location, and that requires a range of bikes to be available and the latest ones are only helping to broaden this choice. The problem is that there will always be another bike out there to seduce us by instantly making us feel a little bit more like a riding God. By all means lets have a quick frolic with bikes that flatter our abilities, but I think that we also need to recognise what makes mountain biking such fun in the first place and make sure that we don’t ignore this in the blinkered pursuit of ‘better’ bikes.
With this in mind I decided to build up a bike specifically for messing around in the woods at the end of my road - a rabbit’s warren of short pieces of sandy single track on a small scrap of a hill primarily frequented by dog walkers. Nothing particularly technical or challenging, but its proximity combined with my young family makes it perfect for a handy mountain biking fix. For a quick giggle it’s perfect, but the last thing you’d want to ride is the latest Enduro rig. Instead I decided to pull something together primarily using spare parts that I had kicking around in my shed, with the aim of creating a big bmx (mtbmx) that is simple, reliable and just the right side of challenging to ride on my local loop. It’s a bit of a mongrel, but could be a lot of fun. There’s a second reason for this ‘new’ bike, and that’s the requirement for a home for my latest iteration of my modified three speed hub. I’ll write more about that soon, but for now the main news is that there’s no more toggle chain!