Occasionally, someone throws a video at me that captures my imagination. The latest was a 30-second short of Candide Thovex skiing a freestyle line that resembles your basic Red Bull Rampage run – until he double back-flipped over a ridge and into oblivion. I was impressed by how massive his line was, but what really got my mind going was how fluid he was from start to finish – on sticks. I wanted to be that guy. When I watch someone hit their line at the Red Bull Rampage, I am equally impressed, but not in the same way.
The Candide Thovex edit.
I don’t care too much for cold weather, or downhill skiing, for that matter, but I appreciate mastery of the form, especially when speed and outdoor sports are the subject. “Mastery,” though, is not a word I would use to describe downhill mountain bike riding.
I know some, maybe most
of you are going to lose your minds after that last sentence. What about Semenuk or Gwin, or any one of the mind-blowing videos that pop up each week? Have I somehow slept through the last 20 years of amazing progression? I have not. Before you grab your well-worn flat shovels to settle the score, bear with me and read to the end.
What I am
saying here is that, as a sport, we haven’t been around long enough to hone our skills or our technology to approach the same apogee that skiing presently enjoys. To be fair, skiing as a recreational sport has been evolving since 1850, alpine skiing since the 1920s. Mountain biking, by contrast, has only been evolving since the late 1970s, and downhill bikes were not readily available until the mid ‘90s, which suggests that we have a ways to go before we reach our full potential.
Kurt Sorge's winning Rampage run has big moves and remarkable flow.
Our sport is certainly not lacking in talent or technology, but I am sure many riders would agree that, at their highest levels, there is a palpable difference between the speed, amplitude, and flow of ski versus mountain bike. When I watch skiers hitting big mountain free ride lines or competing in World Cup downhills, I lean into the action. I expect a clean run. When I watch the Rampage or a World Cup DH, I do so with a measure of anxiety. I anticipate a crash or an equipment failure. The doom filter erodes the experience.
Gold medalist Beat Feuz scorches the downhill at St. Moritz.
So, I get it, downhill skiing is not the same as downhill cycling, but we are not all that different either. We ride similar lines, we share many of the same tricks, and often ride the same mountains. We ride different mediums and use different tools, but essentially, the two sports are joined at the hip. My reasons for comparing the two is to suggest that, unlike snow sports, downhill mountain biking suffers from an identity crisis, which may be retarding its progression.
Cody Townsend owns it.
One of the reasons that skiing has progressed to such a high level is that the sport and its technology evolved in a vacuum. Nobody started alpine skiing because they really wanted to be a motocross racer. Skiers were not burdened by physical and technical limitations handed down to them by cross-over sports, which suggests that their upward progression is open-ended. Nobody knows where the limits are, because there is nothing to compare it to. They still glide on two sticks like their asymmetric cross-country ancestors, but the performance of today’s equipment is insanely adapted to the task. Stable at speed, crazy maneuverable and truly an extension of the rider – all without the benefit of conventional steering, suspension, or brakes.
Danny Macaskill's performances on a trail bike exhibit a balance of skill and flow.
Downhill bikes evolved from cross-country mountain bikes and in the shadow of cross-over sports like BMX and motocross. While all three genres lent us a form of expression, they also imposed limitations upon the progression of the sport. Every aspect of a cross-county bike is still mirrored in the design of a downhill bike, just elongated and beefed up. Slopestyle and freestyle tricks are borrowed from BMX and much of what we see in competition is judged as such. There is not much variation between freestyle moto and Fest - one is a little bigger and more fun to watch. Take away the berms and downhill bikes can barely make it around a corner at speed. The one flat corner on a DH course is where much of the action happens… just like Supercross. Race courses and gravity trails may look tough, but they are also tailored to compensate for the deficiencies of the machines.
Blaine Gallivan makes it look easy.
Mountain bike downhill has become so iconic that it may be impossible for us to conceive that it could evolve in a dramatically different direction, but that is exactly what I am suggesting here. Consider, if you can, how gravity bikes, race courses, big mountain, and freeride would have evolved in a vacuum. Without the influences of cross country, BMX and moto, a downhill bike may have developed into a coaster, without any drivetrain at all. Who knows what wheel size it would have ended up with, or what the tires would look like. I’d love to carve flat corners like a boss. Would it have a saddle? (It’s not like skiers need one). And, there is the question of suspension: maybe less travel, combined with built in flex? We may never know.
Brandon Semenuk's performance in "Raw" transcends the formulaic expressions of BMX.
We don’t know what a real downhill bike could be, because we assumed it should look like something familiar. The same goes for how we ride them. We have yet to discover what freestyle mountain biking could have evolved into because we assumed it should look like BMX, only bigger, and it does. Downhill racing and big mountain looks a lot like we are riding motorcycles without engines, because, except for pedals and a bicycle seat, we pretty much are. It’s no surprise then, that trailbikes have evolved to the point where their descending capabilities now rival downhill machines. Once we figured out the pedaling part, all we needed to close the gap were two-ply tires and a 63 degree head tube angle. Downhill bikes don’t seem so badass anymore.
Candide Thovex takes freeriding to a new level.
Downhill is evolving at a crawl, and more travel and a different wheel size aren't going to provide the breakthrough moment it needs. To master this sport, we need to reassess every aspect of it. It will take imagination and innovation from both riders and designers to distance downhill from enduro – and even more so, to progress slopestyle and freeride out from under the shadow of their seminal influences. It could happen. It could be brilliant. I’d like to see the day when my skier friends post must-watch mountain bike videos on their home pages in January.
Aaron Gwin's style and intensity suggests the precision of World Cup Downhill skiing.