Coming back from our recent field test in Pemberton, I had a fresh feeling of clarity. Not just because of a near-fatal dose of hypothermia as I literally woke up on the train tracks, and the concurrent heightened appreciation for one's own mortality that comes after you genuinely think you might die, but I’d also ridden bikes from the future
, as well as bikes from the past.
The downcountry bikes were an interesting proposition. In fact, even the longer travel trail bikes were a very mixed bag. The latter category spanned to the space age from, if you were to cruelly go off aesthetics alone, one might say from the age of steam. There was something distinctly Brunellian about the steel-framed bike on that test and, I have to say, I really quite liked it. Slightly gangly, perhaps. It almost had a case of the Stephen Merchants. But alas, maybe it’s something in the Bristol water.
What made the downcountry bikes so interesting was the ideological iron curtain that existed within the group. There were some bikes that were longerer
than one could ever dream of. There were also bikes with more conservative geometry.
There were some things that many of those bikes got wrong though. I suppose I would suggest that a bike's spec might only be as strong as its weakest link. It was odd to see some of these bikes, steeped with amazing suspension parts on frames that, if anything, could be defined as too radical, came with things such as organic pads or small rotors. The whole point of these bikes was that they opened up so much terrain - it seemed bizarre to try and peg that capability back at the first attempt.
It was like having a modern supercar with drum brakes. It all seemed a little strange. Then, of course, there was the element of short dropper seat posts.
Want and need
is a different thing. However, when you bolt trail
on a bike’s model name then concessions have to be made. It’s no longer an XC bike, it’s inherently, by its very definition, a compromised beast - which is good! Compromise makes bikes interesting. As horizons narrow, design is driven and innovations are more likely.
Now, ever the bearer of bad news, here’s something of a bitter pill to swallow: downcountry, which I know is a silly name, is a real thing. Yes, I know you’re probably thinking I’m a pillock, and quite frankly who can blame you, but I would say that there was a real difference in that test between 120mm trail bikes and the downcountry bikes. I’m sorry. I'm just so sorry. What have I become?
I don’t know if I view it as a category though, but maybe a very adept description. Some 120mm bikes have a trail feel, some 120mm bikes feel more downcountry and some feel like long-legged XC bikes. The latter are as convincing, in terms of descending ability, as one child standing on another's shoulders beneath a trench coat. The chasm of difference is both obvious and immediately apparent.
I think, with bike design, a better bike doesn’t always make you go faster, but what it does is open up the window of executability. I’ve often thought that you can boil down descending to three main parts - roughness, steepness and speed. A good downhill bike can do all three with ease. A good enduro bike can do two with aplomb. A shorter travel bike can normally just do one at a time.
Of course, you can ride anything on anything, I don’t think the possibility is removed, but rather the likelihood of you not having a dirt nap diminishes.
Well, all of this was all very well and good until I realised last weekend that everything I know about bike design is wrong. Everything I waffle on about is redundant and, quite frankly, I’m embarrassed. Discount everything I’ve ever said. View these op-eds with even more justified skepticism than you perhaps already do. Bleep out any of my excerpts that may appear in the podcast. I’m absolutely and unequivocally wrong. About everything.
So, with that in mind, let’s set some things straight and compensate for things I’ve said in the past - cable routing should be external, dual lockouts and steerer-limiters aren't a silly USP to hook in novices, flip chips aren’t crap, cranks should be long, seat tubes shouldn’t be shorter, nobody should think outside of the current crop of standards… e-bikes are the answer!
And what was the slip that started this avalanche of this new realisation? What light first broke through on the dawn of my epiphany? Well, I'll try and keep it relatively succinct.
In a bid to make friends in a new town, I’ve really been trying to branch out from just riding on my own. Recently, when asked what I’d been up to I responded “listening to grunge and riding cross-country”. Quite simply, something had to give. I remember also telling that person that I’m not the c-bomb I often come across as on the podcast. Note to self, this isn’t how you make friends. Nope, a new approach was needed.
I abandoned my Temple of the Dog Spotify radio station, put my flannel shirts into storage and tore my Eddie Vedder posters off the wall. It was time to get social.
And make friends I did. I even had a social soiree on Saturday and the only thing on the menu was BC-made humble pie. Needless to say, many slices were served.
I’m not somebody that likes to put fear into people. I always find it quite reductive when people say “oh f*ck, this is so gnarly - you don’t stand a chance!”. That said, I would never want anyone to get themselves into a pickle on account of finding themselves on a trail that isn’t quite suitable.
Our riding group arrived and to my surprise, downcountry bikes were out. I’d said I’d show the riders some of my favourite trails. Now, the riders in question are far better in every avenue of bike riding than myself. There isn’t one facet to their riding that I could hold a candle to. However, the sight of shallow XC tires on their bikes, and knowing what we had in store to ride, did leave me a little worried for them.
I just mentioned, in what I hoped was a relaxed manner, that maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t have the best time on the trails we would be riding. I suppose I’ve been so wrapped up in distinguishing the difference between the good and the very good that I completely forgot that talent is the great leveler of all design foibles.
So, we rode a trail that I would describe as pretty-bloody-keen. I was amazed. I was so genuinely impressed. I remarked at one point that that should be the advert for Ikons. However, little did I know what was in store down the road.
There we were, enjoying a trail-side chat, when this squadron of lycra-clad riders came past, all with their seat posts seemingly bypassing their backsides entirely and going straight up to their eyeballs. They were absolutely shredding. Honestly, I thought it was the sickest thing I’d seen in a long time. There I was, on my big ol’ enduro bike. I felt somewhat embarrassed.
It’s not that the trail was easy to ride, but rather it was amazing to see how easy a large dollop of skill and talent can make things look. I looked back to that field test, and how to some it will look like I’m splitting hairs under a microscope with a Stanley blade. It’s not that those bikes weren’t different, or that they didn’t feel drastically different, in both good and bad aspects. It’s also not as if the other testers didn’t draw similar conclusions, but rather sometimes I do get wrapped up in my own world. Truth be told, and I can only speak for myself, but I believe a bike's shortcoming can become more apparent due to your own technical inadequacies, rather than your proficiency.
I think humble pie and imposter syndrome are useful things to be exposed to and hopefully stop you from becoming a complete arsehole. A thought I often come back to, both in my professional and personal life, is a Mark Twain quote. He once said "A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar" and I think it's a very useful thing to remind yourself of. The acknowledgment that we're all these walking contradictions who deposit both insight, as well as falsehoods and fallacy, be it about ourselves or other people, and in my case the particular intricacies of cable routing, knowingly or otherwise. The mistake is not in trying to resist it but rather in failing to acknowledge it.
So, in short, if you’re good enough, buy yourself a 2013 Giant Trance and just be done with it. Leave it to us mortals to sweat the small stuff.