Are bikes so good nowadays that they're boring? Is there something to be said for a bike that may be flawed but is full of character?
I'm extremely blessed to be able to call this thing I do a job; riding the newest bikes like they're rental cars that I've taken out under an alias and then telling you guys what I think about them is a fun gig. And I don't take this opportunity for granted, but the more new bikes I ride, the more I find myself looking back and appreciating the unique details, the things that give a bike character, of the machines that I used to own long before I was able to ride whatever pricey test rig might be in my stable right now. No, I wouldn't want to be still on any of them - today's bikes are far better, and I have more fun because of that - but I can certainly appreciate certain aspects, mostly visual, of those bygone bikes now more than ever.
This growing sentimentalism about bikes I used to own could simply be what happens after a few decades of riding. Then again, the reason for my nostalgic thoughts might also not have anything to do with mountain bikes at all - parts of my youth may have conditioned me to believe that character counts for at least a few points of awesomeness, even if it comes at the expense of overall performance. There's a reason that everyone loves a three-legged dog, right?
While a lot of kids grow up in cookie-cutter houses in or near a culdesac, probably playing street hockey or generally being neighborhood terrors, I was fortunate to spend the first eighteen or so years of my life on a big slice or semi-wild property that was surrounded by many acres of more semi-wild forest, with an old, drafty house on that land that my family called home. Picture a heritage house from the 1950s, all white and with blue shutters, a big porch out front, and a drunk looking woodshed nearby that somehow refused to fall despite a curious lean. It was a place that was full of character, especially the house itself.
|This bike is perfect, and it's also perfectly boring. It's kinda like a well-trained dog with all of its legs, whereas those old bikes were all like three-legged stray dogs that might be friendly but also might bite you.|
The thing that stands out most in my memory were its big windows, which I admit does sound odd. All of them were leaded glass and single-pane, none of this energy efficient stuff you see nowadays, and it felt like the wind passed right through them during cold winter storms. Sure, they may have done a piss poor job of keeping the heat inside the house that was coming from the old wood stove, but they're also one of the reasons that place was so special - they made the house look like it was lifted straight out of an old movie. Any sane person would have had them replaced, but I don't think my family ever entertained the idea of committing such a crime.
Those old windows, along with a lot of other things about where I grew up, might be why I can look back fondly on other, far from perfect things from the past. This includes some of the bikes that I've owned over the years. Few of these machines were amazing for their time, and some of them were actually pretty terrible, but I can appreciate certain details on some of them.
After a series of entry-level and completely forgettable bikes that I either broke or plain wore out, I ended up with a brand new Giant ATX 1 DH that, despite sporting the same amount of travel as today's modern all-mountain bike, was far too much bike for me at the time. Most people who own downhill bikes today don't actually need them, and that was just as true back in 2000 when I didn't need the one I owned. The Giant's boxy frame tubes never really won anyone over when it came to its appearance, but I'll never forget being fascinated by the finger-thick downtube that looked out of this world at the time. Calling it a tube is probably a stretch - I think it might have been solid judging by how much the frame weighed - but this skinny little downtube simply made the bike for me.
As anorexic as it appeared, the sight of that little tube inspired confidence. After all, just imagine how strong the rest of the frame must be if the designers at Giant believed that the bike barely even needed a downtube! Or something.
I rode the piss out of that yellow and red Giant and then ended up selling it for not enough money after a few years in order to pick up the second generation Santa Cruz Super 8, a single-pivot downhill sled that bears absolutely zero resemblance to anything Santa Cruz does these days. It was far too much bike for me, even in my early twenties when my beans were at their biggest and I thought I was invincible. The big '8 never really blew me away with anything it did on the trail, but I still find myself thinking about how massive and imposing the bike's swingarm looked back then. Sure, it was really just two sheets of aluminum with a few stiffening ribs and some connecting lattice work, and I'm not all that positive that the bike was even that stiff, but the swingarm looked like it was lifted right off of a dirt bike.
Appearances count for a lot when you're in your twenties, and while the bike may have handled like a monster truck with only three wheels and my skills didn't match the travel it had, I'll never be able to look at another bike's rear-end without thinking ''Meh, still not as cool looking as my old Super 8.''
Those two bikes, along with a few dozen more that I owned, would be considered terrible if they were brand new today. And so would the countless other bikes from years ago, but I'm sitting here, looking at this $7,000 carbon fiber super-bike that I'm in the process of evaluating and thinking that it's... boring. Yes, it's light, performs so well that reviewers like me have had to shift our standards of what's good and what's bad, and it looks great, but it just doesn't have any character compared to those old and flawed bikes that came long before it. I know that if I bought this bike, I'd be very happy with everything about it, but I also know that I'd sell it in a few years time and probably never even think about it again.
This bike is perfect, and it's also perfectly boring. It's kinda like a well-trained dog with all of its legs, whereas those old bikes were all like three-legged stray dogs that might be friendly but also might bite you.My job is to tell you about a bike's strengths and flaws, and I think that I'm supposed to always want better-performing equipment. Regardless, there's part of me that wishes there were more three-legged stray dogs to ride and write about.