"So, what is your favorite bike?" I should be able to breeze that question, but it's the one I dread most. Boiled down to its essence, my job is to ride bicycles and tell people which ones I like best. I field that question so often that one would assume that I could snap back a clever three-word answer with the surety of Hillary Clinton during the first month of her presidential run. I can't.
I have to think about that one for a while before I can answer truthfully. Partly because the question may have come from an industry person with a keen interest in the outcome of a review, but mostly because testing high-end mountain bikes is a lot like pubescent dating. Almost every new bike is "the one," until that lust affair peters out and the next two-wheeled sex bomb rolls into the room. My favorite bike may have been the ready-for-anything 27.5-inch trailbike that I sent home in February, or it could be the impulsive 29er enduro sled that I am descending so well upon today. Only time can tell.
Ask me why I would choose one particular bike as my favorite - that's an easy question. I like a bike that, on a good day, blurs the relationship between man and machine. The controls are intuitive and its handling is responsive, but not so sharp that I have to sort out every line on the trail. It pedals well enough to make me feel like a hero on a good day and thus eliminates any excuse for my suffering on a bad one. By far, however, the two most important attributes I look for are that the bike has an extra measure of handling in the bank to cover my mistakes - and that it can show me something new.
Such performance requires precision, which puts a premium price on the bikes I like most, but standout components or a megatech chassis are rarely selling points in my favorite bike equation. Give me a frame, a component selection, and a suspension system that works in harmony, and I won't even notice whether or not it has a 35 or a 60-millimeter stem, a reservoir shock, a B-level drivetrain, or house-brand parts until I start writing up the review. Bikes that feel like an integrated machine are rare and beautiful creatures that don't always come dressed to kill - something to consider when seeking a meaningful relationship.
Scoff if you want, but I learned that it is advantageous to form bonding relationships with inanimate objects. The lesson came to me from an unlikely source. I was test flying an airplane that I had designed and built. Each flight was intended to explore the limits of the aircraft and, after a half-dozen of those anxious aerial experiments, my nerves were on end. As I prepared to climb into the cockpit, my Uncle Joe noted my lack of confidence. "Talk to her," Joe advised. "She'll tell you what she needs, and you'll feel a lot better up there."
Joe, a veteran US Navy airman who flew spy and anti-submarine missions around the USSR and China during the Cold War era, explained that often meant hand-flying planes, skimming the ocean above storm swells at night for 16 hours straight, or getting tossed about like a leaf in the upper atmosphere by the wakes of Soviet fighters attempting to abort his photo-reconnaissance mission. He told me that he named his airplanes to encourage his crew to bond to them. His hand-picked officers were young and brave - not the type to be conversing with a hollow, 70-foot aluminum cigar with wings and engines, but when it appeared that they were not going to make it back to base, Joe said that even the toughest of his crewmen would tap her hull, call her name and say something like, "Ok honey, bring us home one more time." She always did.
So, in many respects, my favorite bike is my trusted friend - intuitive and easy to get along with, and it has my back in case I get in a little too far over my head. Like a good teacher, it is more capable than I am, which encourages me to try new or more technical lines. I learn to trust it, and sometimes, when I am not so sure that I can handle a particular section, you might catch me tapping its handlebar and saying something like, "We got this, little one. Bring us home safe."