Hafjell Norway. Robin Wallner.
Hafjell Norway. Robin Wallner.

Steve Jones takes a look at some of the possible questions, dilemmas and problems facing the Dirt reader, offering some mountain bike tips as we enter a new year…

DIRT ISSUE 143 - JANUARY 2014

Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones and Sven Martin

SHOULD I BE RIDING HERO DIRT?

This is a big one. What is it and where can you get hero dirt for starters? Do you need to ride UK based bike parks even? If you’re a newcomer by all means go and sample the delights of such places. Do it on a hardtail, get yourself a bun and a latte, but increasingly riders are looking for something different. This involves natural challenges with custom corners, awkward off–cambers, a fair splash of root, a liberal amount of rock and a freethinking measure of danger. But more than anything it’s the search for loose, dry, wide expanses of dirt, a place to slide and hold, to fully choke up the lens.

Narrow–gauge surfacing with lumps in? Not if we can help it. Everyone wants to go stone–free these days. A place where the bike will slide underneath you, where it will glide organic arcs that flow in sync with the landscape. We’re bringing up a generation of riders content with hitting downslopes all day long, but who become quickly and painfully out of depth on natural terrain.

It’s not only a British mindset, we are seeing riders across Europe inspired by what they have seen at the Enduro World Series or World Cup downhill increasingly becoming hung up with historic switchbacks, crude bulldozed berms or achingly slow switchbacks. They thirst for unrefined, untreated, macrobiotic. Yes you should be riding dirt.

IDENTITY

Aspiration and apathy can be the blight of mountainbiking. Riders over–biked on machines without any air pressure in the shocks. Often it’s down to identity. Influenced by characters, places, marketing and product, holding your line is a difficult business. Big blokes with skinny jeans, big girls with shallow skirts, and both with their bums out.

The distinction between racer and rider is becoming less defined. There is arguably less of a disconnect between downhill and cross–country than many would have you believe. In the past many were racers (or followers) in either discipline – you could go one way or the other, and both would royally mock one another.

Nowadays everyone wants a bit of both. Just look at the cross–over of racers in enduro events. At first I contemplated that maybe a ‘racer’ required a different bike to a ‘rider’. 160mm forks will always be faster than 140mm down a mountain. Bigger forks simply allow you to commit. It’s a fact. Yet many riders who want ‘a bit of both’ are increasingly opting for 160mm bikes because they are now light, robust and allow day–long outings with downhill ripping. For many riders it’s a practical solution. The mountainbiker is cultivating a new image, enduro is more a philosophy than a race category and riders are identifying with that. This is roots stuff. It’s no longer uncool to pedal to the top.

Singletrack trail, technical trail, trail, all–mountain, endure… these are just some of the activities we are forced to identify with when really there’s not a massive difference. And anyhow, each is loaded with too much contradiction and perception.

A close weekly inspection of the local uplift wagons reveals that anything goes. The ‘Alps Identity’ still appears to be working its card too. But consider. If you ride, say eight hours each week of the year, then that single week in the Alps equates to about 5% of your riding time. That ‘practical solution’ 160mm is still a lot and probably too much bike for most of the UK’s trail riding scene. But why buy a £4000 140mm bike at 32lb when you can get a 160mm at 29lb at the same price? Or maybe the angles and wheels of a bike like the 140mm Trek Remedy 29 would give you a better range of use?

You really don’t need 160mm to do the majority of trail riding the UK has to offer, but whichever way you let it hang either side of that exposes your identity – so we are led to believe. This is where bikes like the Intense Carbine (140/160) and BMC Trailfox (150/150) and the Scott Genius LT (170/170) are ahead of the curve – they offer options but don’t choke a rider of imagination. Given the opportunity for an ever–increasing range of riding and ‘one tool’ will do the trick. We are made to think we need to identify when in fact we do not.>>

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Steve Smith Downhill at the 2013 Leogang UCI MTB World Cup Finals, Austria.
Steve Smith Downhill at the 2013 Leogang UCI MTB World Cup Finals, Austria.

 

SHOULD I BE CONSIDERING A PLASTIC BIKE?

Don’t be fooled by the luxury impression about carbon because largely it depends on the construction, for many bikes still feel and behave like cheap plastic bikes. Still carbon vs aluminium is valid question. In terms of the frame/chassis, whilst carbon is overpriced it is seen to add value in terms of weight loss and looks. Lightweight is a good thing as long as strength is not compromised.

Aluminium, less of a smooth operator but still has a lot going for it although the raw material is now commanding high prices. The fact is I’ve broken several carbon bikes in the past twelve months and suggest caution to many who are in the market for such bikes. Some are of immense integrity, others weak of muscle where needed, this is largely down to manufacturer experience and knowledge. Some are plainly still guessing. If you’re a bruiser on 160–200mm I’d advise on aluminium simply because its less catastrophic when it fails and less prone to stone chips.

And even though weight might be your deciding factor, just remember ali’ can still be light if built light – there are many sub 30lb 160mm bikes and a couple of sub 35lb 200mm. Remember many carbon bikes are actually only carbon front ends.

And wheels? In trail bike circles whereas carbon frame/carbon wheels are great, consider the carbon wheel–only option before splashing out on a carbon frame because it’s the wheels that will get you faster – this is especially true on 29" wheels. On 160mm bikes many racers have opted for aluminium rear wheels because of the fragility of carbon in rock situations.

EUROPEAN DIRECT SALES

Like it or not companies such as Canyon and YT Industries (that sell directly, cutting out the middle man/shop) offer truly incredible bikes at the right price. The YT’s Tues downhill bike and Canyon’s Spectral are two examples of bikes with great integrity. Yet they are but two bikes in an industry offering angles, colours and specifications in a sea of variations and last season discounts.

SHALL I DITCH MY 26" BIKE?

If you’re in the market for a new bike then yes do it while it’s still worth some money… if you want to keep it for posterity or memories then obviously not. Likewise if you’re happy with your horse and have a heavy streak of Luddite in you then you will have already made your mind up.

But what if you want to take advantage of those small benefits that bigger wheels offer? What if you believe in better? What wheel size shall I get? Basically get the correct bike before the wheel size, and make sure you’ve asked all the correct questions including where and what you ride before you choose the wheel size.

Some of our favourite bikes this year are 29" – they include the 138mm Specialized Stumpy Evo, the 140mm Intense Carbine, the Enduro World Series winning 140mm Trek Remedy, the 150mm BMC Trailfox and the incomparable 155mm Specialized S–Works Enduro. These bikes are the absolute cream of big wheels. For all year round riding I’d go 29" without any doubt whatsoever – offering grip and traction for that six months of the year where small wheels get sucked into a battle with the ground.

If you only ride in the Alps or Liguria then consider the 27.5" for they will take more punishment. Similarly back in this country if you’re riding is on 160mm but really you’re smashing out downhill runs most of the time. This is where tyres come into play because at the minute there are few offerings in soft compound dry weather grip for the 29 brigade. Don’t underestimate the control and confidence that a Maxxis ‘Super Tacky’ or Schwalbe ‘Vert Star’ offers. Also if you cannot go the distance money wise for strong 29 wheels then a 27.5 will be better for you.

Very simply, if you’re in the market for a trail bike consider 140mm x 29", a big hitting gravity weighted 160mm then have a look at the Kona Process in 27.5" or even the super light Scott Genius LT. And for downhill? If you can bare the flack from belligerent/set–in–their–ways DH racers then also head 27.5" with bikes such as the Intense 951 and Solid Strike.

SHOULD I BE A POACHER OR A SHARER, A GIVER OR A TAKER?

An issue of global importance, but of local sensitivity. If you choose to poach tracks consider that local riders and builders share localities with locals and (legal or illegal) the landowners. They have relationships built on trust – some riders honour the ‘no weekend uplift’ rule when the local residents want some peace and quiet. There’s the neighbourhood scene to consider – how much do you put back into your local trails?

There’s the national scene – should I really be tramping into someone else’s backyard without even asking? I’ve witnessed no end of rude, obnoxious, clueless twats on my tracks this summer – to them I say ‘f–k you’ – not because of riding the tracks, but simply because I’ve seen no end of them ride past me in big gangs without even a polite ‘hello’ to the person raking out a corner.

And if you do poach have some respect, not only for the builder but the trail too. In the US there is far much more trail respect in terms of no corner cutting or ramp building, etc.

If you are local and ride local tracks offer a hand in summer maintenance, better still add to the network with your own ideas. Just remember once your track is made it’s out there for all to enjoy. For takers of the world consider the locals have relationships built with residents that operate 365 days of the year not just a selfish weekend away.>>

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Emiline Ragot Feb 2013. Snow Park near Queenstown. New Zealand.
Emiline Ragot Feb 2013. Snow Park near Queenstown. New Zealand.

REAL OR RESORT?

Hard, soft, vast and often dangerous, giving an opportunity for speed that most places fail to offer. For a window of two to three months a year, from Bonneville to Bratislava, the lifts open for a window of chance like no other. The Alps slip their veil, uncovering leaky greens, hoof browns washed out with frosty, brisk waters. The sound of cable and the reassuring chatter through the pylons, the nervy swing and shudder as a rider fails to mount, the quick step off, the exposure. Decisions about what pocket to put your lift pass in, what tracks to run, the avoidance of the mandatory berm that’s every bit as ordinary as you find worldwide. The Alps. Majestic peaks and towering runs, dry mouths and wet riding gear… and gangs of blokes. And if all else fails there’s always cheese.

True, many places can be ‘real and resort’ but ironically it’s the resorts that suffer from the most xenophobia, but that’s no surprise given the transient populations at these altitudes.

The centre of the downhill universe might once have been the Alps, in fact it’s still the Alps but there has been a shift. Long travel trail bikes have stretched to 170mm and now offer sizing and geometry that allows for rapid sure–footed descending. Enduro has captured people’s imaginations, offered up possibilities. The Trans–Provence race has captured the spirit of adventure.

The French/Italian Riviera is raising the tempo, offering an upliftable and often drier alternative to the Alps. A four–hour journey from London will have you locked into some of the most inspired runs amidst mesmerizing landscapes. What makes the Riviera work is the range of options, meaning that for now at least you can be sat in a square quietly (or not so quietly) going about the business of riding. You can return to inexpensive food, a dip in the Med’, some banter with locals. For now at least.

CAN I IMPROVE AND POSSIBLY GET FASTER BY MYSELF OR SHOULD I BE TRAINING AND RIDING WITH BETTER RIDERS?

It depends. It depends on your personality, drive, technical outlook… there are endless factors. Riding with better riders will help you ride faster and it will give you an insight into what the good guys can do. Over the years I’ve been lucky to tuck in behind many of the worlds best on track’s they do and don’t know. Get in behind a pro on a track they know well and you will be fully blown away. Try and hold on for even a short while because nothing (not film, not stills, not GoPro, not helicopter, nothing) will give you an awareness and understanding quite like it.

In terms of fitness training this is a difficult area. A good trainer will make you faster, a bad trainer will run you down. Training will improve you and at the same time might drain the fire from your belly. The right training might also be boring and ultimately what you actually get back becomes one of diminishing returns the more you do. Get it right and get fit and the payback is massive, you can pretty much ride everywhere on any bike. Ask a trainer – just remember there are good trainers and rogue trainers who have no right to be on the hill.

CAN I BELIEVE WHAT I READ ON THE NET?

Believe what you want, read the online ‘reviews’ and then consider the quote my friend/journalist Seb Kemp once said, “summary of features, but no performance analysis, sales pitch not a review."

DO I NEED TO SPEND THREE HOURS IN A VAN?

Ten runs with twenty minutes uplift is over three hours in a smelly van with a load of people you don’t know. It’s great for meeting new friends, talking shop, geeking out, slagging, bitching and generally complaining how many lines you missed, how flickable your bike is or simpering about how your bike is “blowing through its travel".

Just consider you can do all that whilst getting fitter by riding to the top. And so, relative to a few previous points, you need to be vanning it to get loads of technical runs in for skill, and you need to be pedalling it to be able to do multiple runs without getting tired. Strike a balance.