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.