Why Short Travel?
A short travel bike is both more difficult to ride and harder on the body, so why would someone, especially a rider whose bike spends more time on a chairlift or in the back of a pick-up truck than it does pointing up a hill, choose to ride one? It's how these less-forgiving bikes react to the terrain and, much more importantly, respond to rider input, that make them so enjoyable. For example, a downhill bike, simply because of the traction provided by its slack geometry, can often require a hard stab of the rear brake to square off a corner or make an abrupt line change, whereas a trail bike might only request that you lighten its rear end and commit to the line. Sure it might be easier (read: require less skill) to get the job done on the downhill rig, but nailing a formidable line on a little bike is infinitely more rewarding than the same move on a forgiving DH sled.
The same can be said of nearly any scenario you might encounter on the mountain, from the drop or jump with the sniper landing that will punish a short travel bike and its rider, to the fast and chundery sections of the trail that force you to pick the optimum line instead of simply leaning back and letting a downhill bike do the work for you. It's when you master finer inputs and the sharper handling of your steed that things come together to create an experience that is hard to equal aboard anything else.
Proper line choice is key when on a short travel bike, especially when conditions are tricky. The reward is worth the risk in my book.
With their unparalleled ability to carry immense speed on truly challenging terrain, downhill bikes are fearsome ground coverers when they are called for. That speed is one of the main reasons that we take part in this sport, isn’t it? I'm not convinced, and I'd argue to my grave that it isn't actually the out-and-out speed that makes a ride memorable, but the smaller moments that stand out. Nailing that move, big or small, and setting the bike down right at the top of the transition. That long manual through the trees on a foot-wide piece of singletrack. It's pulling Gs through a set of linking berms. It's the rear end breaking loose on that one tricky corner, throwing up a brown spray that you can see behind you out of the corner of your eye. All of these moments can happen more easily, and more often on a shorter travel bike because they use geometry that allows entry and expert level riders (that's 98% of us, by the way) to smash berms with ease, run smaller volume and less forgiving tires that break loose with less effort, and can usually brag about being light enough to allow a rider to really throw it around.
Don't get me wrong, there are many places and trails where a downhill bike is not only a blast to ride, but also the key to survival. The problem is that more often than not these bikes are being ridden on trails that don't require that level of forgiveness, and the riders aboard them have somehow convinced themselves that the opposite is true. The reality is that while some of you may go slightly slower on a shorter travel bike, I can almost guarantee that you'll have more fun.
Chromag's Jinya Nishiwaki enjoys the fruits of riding a hardtail on Whistler's technical terrain.
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