There are, of course, fast riders who will be rapid on anything sporting a wheel at either end. There are, also, frame designs likely to be quicker on specific terrain be that up or down. Especially with our faster rider on board.
Further, expensive components may harvest marginal gains just not within the metrics defined by marketing departments. The issue with modern bikes isn’t that they aren’t fast, it is that your average Joe is not. On race courses, winning is time sliced by tenths of seconds, outside of the tapes we could probably make do with a sundial.
Which is pretty much how we find ourselves today and looking back maybe ten years. But cast your gaze a little further and you may remember the noodle-tech 90s where mountain bike frames were barely mutated road bikes. Purple anodising and bar ends hardly masked a hundred years of thin tyred DNA.
Back then Joe or Jo Average could easily overwhelm frame stiffness, brakes, tyres, elastomers and a whole bunch of components barely fit for purpose. Yet our magazine heroes wrestled those steep angled bridleway bashers through downhill courses in ways that still amaze today.
I miss those days even if I don’t miss the bikes. And if I did I could buy something labelled gravel and replay the whole experience*. But jump onto a contemporary trail or enduro bike and while you may be going faster, that velocity is hard limited by the six inches above your shoulders, not the six inches below**
So far, so old news. Sure, but I’m just riffing on the periphery of an important point coming soon. We’re travelling in that direction, and shall arrive shortly***. Before we do let me share a vignette of todays’ ride. March likes to remind you we’ve barely closed the door on winter with hail, hard rain and bitter winds. All of which soaked the trails under my tyres.
The last of which is steep, committing and unforgiving. There’s lots of places to crash and none of them are good. My standard earworm is Pinball Wizard as I attempt to present a thin veneer of competence in the face of sustained terror. Ridden this on many bikes including this new one last week. Never ridden it in these conditions. My brain is distracted by rocky wet limestone promising geological trauma keen to collect another victim.
But I’m okay. Not because of an unlikely skills upgrade. Or a sudden lack of imagination. No, I’m managing the whole thing in my sphere of ability because I trust the bike. But it’s more than that. The last few hours we’ve been hooning down mellower trails where all my usual hang ups have been knocked down.
Not being worried about grip in corners. Especially off camber corners. Not being scared by the speed through trails narrowed by trees. Not dithering on drops or braking for jumps. Not over-thinking what’s coming. Not thinking anything at all, so getting as close to living in the moment as I ever am.
All of which means I’m riding more quickly on these familiar trails. Don’t confuse this as fast. And certainly don’t confuse it with the limits of the bike. But there is something important here; there is something unquantifiable about bikes – any bike – that gives you the confidence to push a bit harder. Towards your limits, maybe beyond them. But not within screaming distance of what’s underneath you.
It has nothing at all to do with the material the frame is made of. It’s definitely not related to wheel size, head angle, chainstay length, reach or stack, suspension travel, bar width, tyre compound, yada yada yada. All of these thing play a part. But not to set a limit, more to encourage you to push yours.
Great bikes do this. They are not fast bikes. They may not be expensive bikes****. They will probably not be race bikes. They are the bikes you grab every time the trails waits, the bikes you mutter a silent prayer to when it’s all getting a bit serious, the bikes you sit and stare at in your shed. The bikes that make you fast.
Back to today and I’m on one of those bikes. There’s some shit coming up that’s has two outcomes. Well maybe three if getting off and walking counts. Deep breath, muscle memory, bit of a death grip, hand the thing over to your trusted sidekick and let that breath go when you sail out the far side. Total non event.
For the bike. Up here in those six inches a light blinks on. This is what happens when you stop trying to fix bikes because they can fix you better. I’ll never tire of the simplicity of feeling like that. Because it’s takes the limit out of limitless. So I tap the bars, whisper thanks, pretend my organic mate can hear me. Breathe again and up the pace.
No bikes are fast. Some bikes make you faster. Go find that one.
*Only every single thing is quite a lot better. Because long term evolution beats revolution.
**Just so we’re clear, I’m talking about suspension travel here. You filthy animals 😉
***You may ask why does it take you so long to get to the point, to which I’ll reply ‘You’re new here, right?’
****Okay yes for this sample size, I accept they are.