If I'm honest, I'm struggling with the bike. It's not that it doesn't feel good - it does. There is a painful awareness though; every time I point it down the hill I know that it could be doing so much more.
Over the last few years, I have ridden a fair selection of different trail bikes, some with more success than others. What I haven't ridden is a DH bike. If I had to pick a date, I would say 2013. That is probably the last time I swung my leg over a bike with a full, red-blooded 200mm of travel front and rear. I think it was the Specialized x Ohlins launch at Val di Sole when I got the chance to be one of the first journalists to try the Swedish gold on a mountain bike. My main memory of that day is being terrified at trying to pilot an unfamiliar bike down that monster of a track.
If you had asked me before last week how I felt my form was right now, I would have told you pretty decent - my fitness is good right now and my speed is ok (not that it's ever as much as I would hope for). Aboard all those different trail bikes I could adapt, find speed, feel good. But not with the big bike. It turns out that four years of absence and the constant evolution of these bikes have left me struggling, frustrated at myself.
The problem is that I can't justify owning one of these. It's not that I don't like them - I most certainly do, nothing else comes close to a genuine, long-travel weapon. It's just the practicalities of owning one...
Back when I used to think of myself as a downhiller, I remember leaving my London home at 5 am on a Sunday morning. After blitzing down the motorway westwards I'd grab my mate from the station and then we'd head up into the Welsh valleys. It was about 5 hours driving on a good day. Sometimes we'd hit Cwmcarn, but more often than not Mount Ash, a course that has always had a place in my heart. Stowing the car at the bottom of the hill we'd push our bikes up the course - maybe 45 minutes of hiking for a 3-minute run. Rinse and repeat until we were too tired to keep going. If we were lucky, we'd get 6 runs in a day, plus a few sections. Then it was time to throw the bikes back in the car, drop my mate off at the station and settle into the long drag East. Those were sketchy nights on the long drive home. I'm not proud to admit this, but some days I was so tired as I reached the M25 that I don't really remember driving that last hour and a half home. It was a brutal routine, but those few minutes of flying free down the mountainside were the only real, alive moments in my week.
It scares me to think that this was a decade ago. The years in-between have flown by and with age, my riding has changed. There was a point when people started mounting DH kit onto trail bikes: single rings, bigger tyres and burly forks. Today they're called enduro bikes, I guess, but there wasn't really a label for it at that point. Pretty soon I realized that I was having about the same amount of fun on the way down, but I now had a bike I could pedal back up again, or even off into the hills in search of trails you'd never reach with a DH bike. You can ride from your front door, and once you have got used to that, the idea of driving to find an uplift or a chairlift seems like a lot of hassle and expense. As for pushing a bike up the track? It just doesn't seem like much fun when I could be off pedaling somewhere. In 2012 I picked up a Specialized Enduro and at the end of that year, PB asked me to predict what I thought might change. I wrote that, in the face of these evolving trail bikes, I didn't see a future for DH bikes. I still stand by that column today.
Which gets us to this summer. As a fully paid-up media-dickhead, I now know people who work for bicycle companies. I've shot for Canyon for a few years now, so I thought I would try my luck and see if they would lend me a Sender for a month or two. They said yes. Which is why I have just finished prepping the Sender for some lift-accessed fun tomorrow. We're going to load the bike onto the back of the car and make the two-hour pilgrimage up to a near(ish) ski station. I cannot wait. Since last time out, I have fettled the bike a bit and spent some time talking to myself about being less scared on the way down. Hopefully, it'll do the trick.
Yet as amazing as these runs aboard the Sender may be, I still couldn't put down my cash for one. The practicalities haven't changed. For a few weeks of the year there is some novelty in trekking the bike around on the rack, but once the novelty wears off, you're left looking at an amazing, expensive bike that won't get used anywhere near as much as it deserves. If the reports coming from the UK DH scene are anything to go by, I'm not alone in feeling like this. As the 'Ardrock Enduro pulls in more than two thousand people for a weekend, the BDS and SDA DH series are struggling to get riders signed up - so much so that long-time BDS organizer, Si Paton, has pulled the plug on the series for next year.
So how do we save the future of DH bikes? I think the answer may be that we need to reconsider how we think about owning bikes. I am not talking here about traditional rentals. With the best will in the world from the people who run these services, out of necessity they prioritize reliability over performance. You tend to find rental bikes built with 2.5kg wheels, basic forks and shocks that can be worked on with hammers. Among serious riders, they just don't quite scratch the itch.
Yesterday I was reading a very interesting essay on the future of ownership. It suggested that we would no longer own colanders because with automated transport it would be cheaper and easier to rent one for a meal, then send it back again afterward. While I'm personally not keen in outsourcing my cooking implements, a subscription/timeshare/on-demand DH bike sounds about perfect.
Have a couple of weeks in Whistler coming up? Order a bike. After, rather than have it waste away in your garage/loft until your next trip, send it back. I'm not going to get bogged down in the practicalities of how it could all work, but I would gladly pay an annual subscription to have this Sender available to me for the 5-10 days when it would be the perfect bike to have with me. What I don't want is the guilt of the 355 days a year when it would be sitting in my garage unused. Rather than paying £5,000 for a bike, I quite like the idea of paying £1,000 a year (to pull a number out of the air) to have use of a bike. If you count on keeping a bike for three years', that then works out to be cheaper than buying. If you have a bad year, simply stop the subscription. No stress. Maybe this way I could avoid the embarrassment of trying to get up to speed after not riding one for so long. Surely I am not alone in wrestling with the practicalities of owning a bike likes this? I certainly never want to see the day when companies can no longer justify making bikes as good as this...