People choose to ride mountain bikes for all sorts of different reasons. Some people major on exploring the great outdoors, others on competing against their peers and the clock, whilst others focus on meeting new people and seeing new places. For me it’s all a little more elemental - it’s about maximising the number of visceral, exciting moments where you have that feeling of being up on your toes and dancing between the trees. Both bike and rider pushing and goading one another to their respective limits and being totally immersed in the experience. It’s about earning your speed, extracting it from the trail by drifting, accelerating, pumping and getting loose. Get it wrong and you pay with an inelegant staccato of a ride. Get it right and bike and rider flow down the trail, seamlessly joining the dots. It should be challenging, it should require focus and it’s right that on some days you just won’t be on it. This simply helps to make those days when everything clicks that much sweeter and rewarding.
For several years now I’ve been experimenting with and refining my bike set-up specifically in an attempt to maximise the fun that I have on it. I’ve tried all the wheel sizes, fully rigid, hardtail and full suspension, clipless and flat pedals, derailleurs, hub gears and single speed, chain and belt drives, and tyres that range from super sticky to frighteningly slippy. My main focus has been on recognising that, unlike the car world for example, mountain bikes still rarely seem to be substantially different whether they are intended for racing (where outright speed is king) or for fun (where I find it’s all about playing with the limits of traction over challenging terrain). So while grip, stability and neutrality are the cornerstones of a racing bike, these are often at odds with creating an experience that is both engaging and entertaining. So I have been trying to home in on the components and geometry required when fun is the name of the game and enjoyment is prioritised over outright speed.
With this in mind I happened across a frame built for exactly this purpose, which I bought through a Kickstarter campaign. It’s called the Fastforward (https://vimeo.com/141321471) and is made by a German company called Last. They seem to have a relatively low profile here in the UK, but are probably best known for their dirt jump bikes. I think that it’s a fantastically purposeful looking thing with the most elegant adjustable dropouts I’ve ever seen. I’ve built it up predominantly with parts I already had (apologies to those who are offended by the lack of a dropper - it's on its way) and, as I had hoped, a quick first ride was characterised by bucket loads of fun.
However, I recently watched a short film that captured the inaugural Hack Bike Derby (https://vimeo.com/163273593), which has got me thinking. The film documents a bunch of ‘normal’ blokes (albeit custom frame builders!) having an absolute blast whilst riding around some very average woods in the pouring rain on some pretty ropey looking, fully rigid, single speed bikes. It’s a world away from the complexities of rebound damping circuits, carbon layups, electronic shifting and everything else that the mountain bike world seems to be promoting at the moment. It was an absolute tonic. Suddenly it all seemed blindingly obvious. All of this time I had been focusing primarily on the bike that I was riding, when the type of riding that I was doing required at least as much attention - just not in the way that I had assumed.
Even as I write this now, I can’t believe that this hasn’t occurred to me sooner. But then I’m not talking about sticking the bike in the car and spending a long weekend in the Alps, bivvy biking in the Welsh valleys or staying in a Bothy in Scotland. This sort of aspirational stuff normally makes it on to my (often rather hopeful) list of New Years resolutions and which also tends to fill the pages of mountain bike magazines. In fact the sort of riding that I’m talking about is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It’s about scratching around in the woods a stones throw from your house with a bunch of mates. It’s the sort of riding that’s more suited to jeans and a T-shirt than a Camelback and knee pads.
These thoughts reminded me of an article that I read a little while back about a father who was offering some advice to other parents after his experience of introducing his son to mountain biking. The moral of the story seemed to be to build up slowly to a ‘proper’ mountain bike ride as most kids aren’t used to a whole day in the hills. If his kid was anything like me at that age then he would probably be more at home building some short downhill runs that included a few rickety jumps and dodgy berms, before racing his mates down them. I’d sort of logged this article away somewhere in the back of my head on the assumption that one day it might come in handy with my own kids as I introduced them to the ‘real’ world of mountain biking.
But the Hack Bike Derby made me question all of this - it made me realise that the riding I did in my childhood was probably also the most fun that I’ve ever had on a bike. In an almost perfect parallel to the bikes that we now commonly ride, which have been getting ever more complex and ever more expensive under the pretence of getting ‘better’, the type of riding that I’ve been doing has also tended to get more elaborate as I’ve got older without necessarily becoming more fun.
To paraphrase Leonardo Da Vinci - “Every child knows how to have fun. The problem is how to keep having fun once we grow up.” As we go from childhood to adulthood we seem to become increasingly susceptible of falling for a commonly held, but incorrect belief that added complexity must be better, where more must always equal more. An aspiration for more expensive and more complicated bikes together with rides that involve ever longer distances in ever more exotic locations. Or at least that seems to be the way my riding has gone.
Well, I’ve decided that the arrival of my new bike is also going to mark a watershed moment in the type of riding that I do. I’m going to try to recapture the fun that I had as a child by building shonky jumps, doing big skids and razzing around my local woods with my mates. That’s not to say I won’t still frequent the odd trail centre, but my focus is going to shift from believing-the-hype to trusting my inner twelve year old.