Sometimes you’ve got to know when good enough is actually good enough. As inspirational adages go, this one sucks, but it’s true all the same. There are occasions when life presents us with a happy balance; at such times you have to recognize that twisting the dial further—all the way to 11, so to speak—would be a mistake. Consider Mechagodzilla and the current rage to make every bike as long and slack as possible.
FIRST, THE LIZARD
We begin in Japan.
For decades, millions of people experienced the unrivaled joy of watching two grown men in ill-fitting monster suits pummel the crap out of one another. There is an undeniable majesty to old school, pre-CGI Godzilla. This was true whether the big lizard was handing Mothra his ass or simply running amok on a Friday night with his boys, Gidra and King Caesar, setting city blocks aflame and whatnot.
What is the exact source of that magic? You may as well ask why kittens are cute or why couples hold hands and stare off into the sunset. Hell if I know. I’m no scientist. But I do know this: An hour spent watching Godzilla was always an hour well spent. Right up until 1974; that’s when shit fell apart.
In the middle you have Mechagodzilla. To the right you have the real Godzilla. At far left is King Caesar, who bears an uncanny resemblance to this guy I know named Larry who lives beneath the Woburn Street bridge.
1974 was the year that someone in the marketing department of Toho studios decided that poorly performed judo in dinosaur suits had suddenly become passé. Consequently, the filmmakers attempted to turn that dial to 11 by rolling out the 84-minute pile of dreck that is Godzilla Versus Mechagodzilla.
The plot is a veritable dumpster fire of bad ideas. A plucky spelunker finds some crazy space-metal from the future tucked away in a cave, which leads archaeologists to discover a cave painting containing a vague prophecy, then Godzilla suddenly shows up and starts stomping Tokyo to bits instead of protecting the city. This was intended to be a head scratcher because Japan’s capital city enjoyed the status quo “We’re totally bros” kind of relationship typically enjoyed by an atomic-age dinosaur and his Japanese hometown. Vive le Intrigue!
Anyway, after all sorts of tedious plot machinations, the real Godzilla shows up in Tokyo pissed off and then some. Up until this point in the movie, the true Godzilla has actually been chilling out on Monster Island with his buddy Megalon, downing 40s of virgin blood and watching repto-porn (as monsters are wont to do). But back to the plot... The OG lizard king gets wind that another monster is tarnishing his good name, so he turns up and launches a blast of fire breath at the impostor Godzilla. Said fire blast melts away a flesh suit to reveal Mechagodzilla--a mechanical Godzilla powered by aliens from “the Third Planet from the Black Hole” who are actually just dudes in cheap, Planet of the Apes knock-off suits. By this point you just want the movie to end. It’s not even gratifying when Godzilla rips off Mechagodzilla’s head.
THE BIKE BIT…
To be fair, the producers at Toho studios were probably just trying to spice up the Godzilla formula. They were 13 monster movies deep into the series and probably reasoned that adding a giant robot with laser-beam eyes and rocket appendages would be just the shot in the arm their franchise needed. It's a plausible strategy, but it also misses the point—the original Godzilla recipe was already perfect. Trying to turn the latest installment of the franchise into a space-dinosaur version of The Usual Suspects only mucked it up. Sometimes trying to twist the dial to 11 on every product within sight is a mistake.
I feel the same way about some of the trends in the mountain biking world these days. I'll start with the obvious one: the goal to make everything long, low and slack. Let me begin by saying that if you looked at what was on offer five or six years ago, a lot of bikes stood to be improved by having their reach grow and their head angles relax. The most obvious choices were the bikes that swam on the aggressive end of the all-mountain swimming pool. The Giant Reign and Trek Remedy come to mind. But other less-obvious bike genres benefitted from getting a bit, for lack of a better word, "radder". The 2016 Kona's Hei Hei 29er, for example, became a bike that could be raced XC, but also rallied like an aggressive trail bike. Going longer and slacker with that particular model simply made it a good deal more capable and fun. Win, win and win.
A great movie that would not be improved by the addition of men in dragon suits. See, it works both ways.
As one of the people who'd been inserting the "This could be better if it were longer and slacker" line in at least half of my bike reviews for years, I was gratified when bike companies listened to the many riders who were calling for the same. But that doesn't mean that every bike must necessarily grow longer and slacker in order to be "modern' or even, simply, worth your consideration. What happens, for instance, when a model was already pretty damn long and slack? What if that bike was already pretty dialed in the "progressive geometry" department? Do we really need to add another 20 millimeters to a model's reach every three years? Is it absolutely imperative to slacken the head angle another degree while we're at it? Suddenly we find ourselves in a world where 460 millimeters of reach on a size large is sooooo 2014 Kona Process. Now we better make that reach 480 millimeters or--wait--make it 500 millimeters!
Look, there comes a moment when you pass the tipping point and you wind up with a bike that is reaaally long and stable--an absolute marvel of high-speed stability--but a bit of an annoying armful to muscle through super tight trails. Or to put it simply: A dose of long, low and slack can be truly awesome, but a size Medium bike with a 48-inch wheelbase is just a mighty long-ass bike.
Of course, if you are racing enduro or shuttling all the time or looking for a single-crown, mini-DH bike, then it's hard to go too long and too slack. All is right in your world. But it's decidedly less awesome for that rider who is still looking for that one bike that he can ride everywhere. That rider will hit a point when they are wishing 2015's, six-inch travel, all-mountain bike still occupied floor space at their local bike shop.
Remember when the 2015 Reign seemed long? That's because it was. For 2018, the Reign's reach grew by 15 millimeters to 473-millimeter reach (size Large), which is really just the new normal right now. In fact, by Mondraker or Pole standards, it's downright short...so there's always that.
Enduro is still the hot librarian or "it girl" of the bike industry in 2018, but what if you aren't an enduro racer or your trails or your riding style don't merit the slackest, longest bike possible? Well, it's not like you'll exactly find yourself adrift in a barren, bike-less world when it comes time to buy a new rig. For starters, you could opt for a new bike with less travel, slightly steeper geometry and a shorter wheelbase. There's that option. And, yes, some companies are also still offering both all-mountain and enduro models (selling a Bronson alongside a Nomad or a Stumpjumper and an Enduro, to employ just two examples). There are, however, other brands that now have a sizable black hole in their line up between all-purpose, trail bike and mini-DH bike.
I realize, of course, that this may all come across as just one "old guy" bitching about how shit has changed and how great everything would be if life was just fixed in stone. You can dismiss what I'm saying here as just another "You kids get off my goddamn lawn!" kind of rant, but that's not actually what I'm saying here. I think people who wanted mini-DH bikes should have gotten them a lot earlier and it's great that those bikes exist. For the record, on the right trails, they are a blast to ride. But I also wind up traveling to parts of the country that don't boast the gnarliest trails and I meet people who want sub-47 inch (1194 millimeter) wheelbases and head angles somewhere north of 66 degrees.... The trend to make every bike long, low and "slack-as-f*ck" misses the mark for those riders.
Theoretically, turning the dial up to 11 is going to make everything awesome. From here on out, it's going to be lazer eyes and rocket hands and space aliens and mini downhill bikes for everyone. All the time. On every trail. Yay!
But when we reach for that dial each and every time, we sometimes risk launching right off the tipping point and into a world where fashion trumps function. There is a fine line, a wise man once said, between clever and stupid. It pays to know where that line starts and where it ends.