Is there a point at which the whole “long, low and slack” geometry thing goes too far? A Malcolm Gladwell-ian tipping point of sorts at which front ends get too floppy and wheelbases grow too long to be any fun on trails outside of the bike park? Have we already hit that tipping point? Are we years away from reaching it? Or, perhaps it’s more like the weird, bald kid in The Matrix
who pointed out that the ultimate truth is “There are no spoons”…. To wit, there is no tipping point at all—no such thing as too long, low and slack? If you want to skip ahead to the poll, now’s as good a point as any to scroll on down and drop your own two cents into the bucket.
If, on the other hand, you are up for a bit of context, read on.
I sincerely wonder about this geometry thing. I’m not suggesting that I have an answer here. I’m not trying to pose a straw man hypothetical. I’m no engineer. I’m just a guy who’s lucky enough to get to throw his leg over the theoretical top tubes of every generation of mountain bike—a professional taste tester who looks at the 2018 round of bikes and realizes, “Huh. Everything seems to taste like enduro these days. Didn’t expect that from the cross-country bikes, but okay…”
I look at the new bikes coming out for 2018 (some of which I am riding right now under the cloak of secrecy) and I watch the head angles slacken further, the reach and wheelbases growing longer and I can see both sides of the coin.
THE PRE-MONDRAKIAN ERA
Let’s step back for a second.
For years, decades really, you could argue that mountain bike geometry was static—stuck in the proverbial amber. Remember when the 71/73 head and seat tube angle combination was considered something of a Divine Truth—this was how GodAlmightyBabyJesus wanted mountain bikes to be!
Keep the front center short, slap on a stem that looked like a prop from an adult movie and—BOOM—it was on like Donkey Kong. Short, steep and sketchy was the name of the game for roughly forever. Which is odd when you consider how the rest of the mountain bike was evolving at a blistering rate. We may have traded in our fully rigid, double diamond bikes for full-suspension hydroformed aluminum or swank carbon machines, but the dimensions and angles of the proto-mountain bike lived on, well past the point when they should’ve gone tits up.
Until recently, at least.
The past four or five years have been a sort of long, low and slack revolution. Sure, brands like Gary Fisher and Specialized had long embraced pairing stubby chainstays with shorter stems, lower bottom brackets and longer top tubes, but brands like Mondraker and Kona took hold of that particular dial and twisted that thing waaaay past 11, so to speak. The rest of the industry soon followed suit.
This made a whole lot of us (myself included) happy. More stability, a more centered feel on the bike….there’s a lot to like here. If you were a fan of the fun part of riding (i.e., that part where you actually descend), the shifting wisdom on geometry was a “about damn time” kind of scenario. BACK TO THE FUTURE
But as 2018 rolls up to the curb and a new crop of bikes pile out of the clown car with even longer wheelbases and slacker head angles, I wonder if we might not be pushing things a bit far. I mean, if you are racing enduro or riding a bike park, the answer is “No, we’re nowhere near the limit of long, low and slack.” Particularly as brands begin to experiment with a wider range of fork offsets to help fine tune trail.
But what about people who want, say, something akin to an all-mountain bike from just four years ago—a bike with six inches of travel, that is biased more towards descending, but is still nimble and an absolute weapon on the tightest of trails? Maybe they aren’t riding Mach Chicken all the time or maybe they never go to the bike park or maybe their home trails just tend to be crazy-tight and twisted and a 48-inch wheelbase is never going to light their fire… Is that rider well served by all this?
You can argue two things here—and I often have.
(1) Just size down: If you used to ride a large, buy a medium instead the next time around; and
(2) If you don’t like the long, low and slack thing, don’t buy a bike like that. No one is forcing you to go enduro, bro.
Fair play. To a point.
As every new generation of bike seems to get longer and slacker (you can only go so low, thanks to pedal smacking), there comes a point at which even the size small and medium bikes have fairly long wheelbases themselves. Longer than some shorter riders, or riders who just preferred tighter wheelbases, actually want.
Second, as consumers grab hold of the long, low and slack trend, there’s a tendency to pigeonhole any bike that isn’t pushing the boundaries of that newer formula as some kind of outdated, piece of shit the moment it blinks into existence. I’m not just talking about longer-travel bikes either. Trail bikes and XC bikes often get measured by the same enduro yardstick. And, hey, sometimes the result is absolutely awesome. Those genres were clutching old-school geometry for far too long. Bikes like the latest-generation Kona Hei Hei 29 and the Santa Cruz Tallboy make a strong case for adding some descending prowess to shorter travel bikes.
But, again, maybe there are riders out there who really dug the original formula and are bummed that it’s becoming harder to find in even non-enduro circles. And it’s becoming harder to find those bikes because bike companies don’t want to put out a new bike that looks like the old man on the porch, who’s yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. I’ve spoken with more than a few designers from companies who’ve flat out said as much…and we were talking about their 100 and 120-millimeter travel bikes.
Every time a bike company has rolled out a new model this spring, it seems like the marketing spiel has been “We added 15 to 20 millimeters of reach to every size.” In some cases, that’s a great thing. In other cases—particularly when a bike company has been steadily growing their bikes in that direction for a few years now, the end result is some seriously lonnnng wheelbases.
Conventional wisdom holds that all design is a matter of trade offs. You generally make one trait better at the expense of another. If we keep choosing stability and high-speed performance, do we get to a point where agility and slower-speed performance in tight conditions truly suffers?
Have we hit a limit here?
Are we still a long ways from hitting that limit?
Or is there no such thing as a limit at all when it comes to geometry?
What do you think?