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.