THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS FACING THE MOUNTAINBIKER IN 2014
Everything from drifting dirt to van trips and training, it's all in there.
Sometimes it's best to stop, think, and then let someone else do it.
Hopefully this sort of thing doesn't keep you up at night but there are always a few subjects that will have been passed across the bar or bench seat of a van that define the year of riding ahead of us.
Like any sport, the fashion factor can progress, but equally hold back any participant. In issue #143 Steve Jones took a look at what might be crossing your cortex and as you hatch from winter ready for spring. We thought you might be into it so we slid a copy of the mag into the internet word processor and here it is.
Words and Photos: Steve Jones
Aspiration and apathy can be the blight of mountainbiking. Riders 'overbiked' without any air pressure in their suspension. Often its 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 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 because they are now light, robust and allow day-long outings that include downhill ripping and 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 and it’s no longer un-cool to pedal to the top.
Single track trail, technical trail, trail, all-mountain, enduro, 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 uplift wagons reveals that anything goes. The “Alp Identity" still appears to be working its card too. Consider this, if you ride say eight hours each week of the year, then that single week in the Alps equates to about 5 percent of your annual riding time. The ‘practical solution’ of 160mm is still a lot of travel and probably too much bike for most of UK’s trail riding scene. But why buy a £4000 140mm bike at 32lb when you can get a 160mm at 29lb for the same money? 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 - or so we are led to believe. This is where bikes like the Intense Carbine (140/160) the 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, one tool will do the trick. We are made to think we need to identify when in fact we do not.
[part title="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 bike parks?
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. Increasingly though, riders are looking for something different. This involves natural challenges with custom corners, awkward off cambers, a fair splash of root, liberal amount of rock and a freethinking measure of danger. 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, 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.
[part title="Shall I ditch my 26"?"]
Is the curator on the look out for new recruits or is 26" here to stay? Depends what you are after really.
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. Make sure you’ve asked all the right 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 Stumpy Evo, 140mm Intense Carbine, Enduro World Series winning 140mm Trek Remedy, the 150mm BMC Trailfox and the incomparable 155mm 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’s few offerings in soft compound dry weather grip for the 29 brigade. Don’t underestimate the control and confidence that a ‘Super Tacky’ or ‘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 140x29, a big hitting gravity weighted 160mm have a look at the Kona Process in 27.5 or even the super light Scott Genius LT. For downhill if you can bare the flack from belligerent/set in their ways DH racers then also head 27.5 such as the Intense 951 and Solid Strike.
[part title="Should I be considering a plastic bike?"]
A successful aluminium bike now winning in carbon, but how much is bike and how much rider?
Don’t be fooled by the luxury impression of carbon, largely it depends on the construction, for many bikes still feel and behave like cheap plastic bikes. However, carbon vs aluminium is a 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. Light weight is a good thing as long as strength is not compromised.
Aluminium, less of a smooth operator 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 would suggest caution to many who are in the market for such bikes. Some are of immense integrity others weak of muscle where needed, something largely down to manufacturer experience and knowledge. Plainly some are still guessing. If you’re a bruiser on 160-200mm I’d advise on aluminum simply because its less catastrophic when it fails and less prone to stone chips.
Even though weight might be your deciding factor, just remember ali’ can still be light if built light – there are many sub thirty pound 160mm bikes and a couple of sub thirty five pound 200mm ones. Remember many carbon bikes are actually only carbon front ends.
So to wheels, in trail bike circles where carbon frame and carbon wheels are great, consider the carbon wheel only option before splashing out on a carbon frame as well. 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.
[part title="European direct sales"]
Is handmade being replaced by handpicked?
Like it or not companies such as Canyon and YT Industries offer truly incredible bikes at the right price. 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.
[part title="Should I be a poacher or a sharer, a giver of 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 neighbourood 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 FUCK 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 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.
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 operates 365 days of the year not just a selfish weekend away.
[part title="Real or resort?"]
How good is it to find a trail with just one other tyre mark in it?
Hard, soft, vast and often dangerous, giving 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 of what pocket to put your lift pass, what tracks to run, the avoidance of the mandatory berm every bit as ordinary as you find worldwide. The Alps. Majestic peaks and towering runs, dry mouths, wet riding gear….and gangs of blokes. 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 most xenophobia, 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 imaginations, offered up possibilities and the Trans Provence has captured the spirit of adventure.
The Riviera is raising the tempo, offering upliftable and an 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.
[part title="Can I believe what I read on the net"]
Sometimes it's best to be without the internet...
Believe what you want, read the ‘reviews’ and then consider the quote my friend Seb Kemp when I showed him - “summary of features, but no performance analysis, sales pitch not a review."
[part title="Do I need to spend three hours in a van?"]
Is it worth all that van time when you could learn more on your doorstep?
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 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.
[part title="Can I improve and possibly get faster by myself or should I be training and riding with better riders?"]
Training is about balance remember.
It depends on your personality, drive, technical outlook….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 tracks they know 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 Go Pro, 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. 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’s good trainers and rogue trainers who have no right to be on the hill.
So there you have it, at least some of the decisions facing a rider in 2014 explained (ish) from Steve Jones' point of view. What about your opinions though? Wang em in the comments, we know you want to.