Recently, a friend of mine rode one of the latest “longer travel” trail bikes (around 160 mm of rear wheel travel) and was blown away by the bike’s capabilities on the trail. He couldn’t come up with a reason why he shouldn’t have one and he asked me what I thought.
I told him that I may not be the best guy to talk to when trying to make the decision on whether or not to buy a new bike – of course you need one of those! Who doesn’t?!
But he asked me another very interesting question about having a “bigger” (more travel-friendly, slacker angles, heavier – more “all-mountain” or “enduro”) bike versus a “smaller” (lighter, less travel, steeper angles – more XC race oriented) bike, and which would be the best for skill progression.
I think that most riders believe that the smaller bike would be. It would require more skill to ride; it would force better line choices, near perfect riding position, and therefore, make a rider learn proper technique. While, with the big bike, one could simply plough into obstacles, and the bike would do all the work – no skill required!
But I actually feel that the opposite is true. The bigger bike is more likely to give the rider the tools necessary to learn proper technique while the smaller bike may actually inhibit the learning process.
First, we don’t learn very well when we’re scared or in “survival mode.” With many mountain bikes that are very much on the XC racing side of the spectrum, the combination of things like tire choice, stem length, geometry of the frame, rigidity and strength of the parts (or lack thereof) – especially having the seat jacked up to the climbing height when descending (no adjustable height seat post) – can all add up to a pretty dicey ride when trying to negotiate difficult terrain. Will the thing climb like a rocket ship? Yep, probably will. But as soon as these bikes get pointed downhill or into tough terrain, a lot of riders end up in the “just-try-not-to-crash-mode.” And this is obviously not a very good environment for learning and applying new techniques.
On the other hand, the bigger bike will instill confidence. The rider will now have a controlled setting of sorts, and have the ability to focus on specific aspects of riding instead of simply “just-trying-not-to-crash.”
More importantly, the larger bike allows for higher speeds in the tough sections, thus, allowing the rider the opportunity to process the trail at these higher speeds and get accustomed to them. This is huge.
Anyone who has ever taken my instruction comes away with a new understanding and respect for how important trail-vision is on the bicycle. We spend a lot of time on vision, breaking down the techniques for using vision on the bike, how, and why they are necessary. I often stress that if you can only learn one chunk of the instruction, make it vision because it is the most important thing when riding the bike.
Though very few do it properly, most riders do understand the importance of seeing the good lines and putting the bike in the right place on the trail (of course, there’s more to it than this). Vision is obviously very important (and kind of complex and counterintuitive). But there is way more to vision and bike riding then just that.
Of our five senses, vision is giving us nearly all of the information about what is happening in the immediate future with our ride. If I am scared, it is because I see obstacles that seem intimidating or maybe because I’m going – what I perceive to be – too fast. The way we see the trail and its perceived dangers affects us psychologically and this determines the decisions we will make.
Again, a bigger bike gives you the opportunity to learn how to see and process the trail at higher speeds. You become comfortable at these speeds and therefore confident. Now, you are able to work on techniques and learn skills and apply them at speeds and in terrain that would be very difficult to do with a smaller bike.
Yes, you will eventually find your limits on the bigger bike. And, yes, you do have to pedal the thing to the top (usually). But now, even if you do go back to that svelte XC race machine after being on the big dog, you have the ability to process at those higher speeds. Speeds that used to be intimidating, no longer are. Of course you will have to slow down for stuff on the small bike that you didn’t have to slow down for on the big bike, but now those decisions are more academic and not driven by fear and intimidation.
A few examples:
Speeds on my XC/trail bike don’t seem fast because I’m used to the speeds of a downhill bike. Obstacles on an XC trail aren’t intimidating because I’m used to the obstacles on DH track. Of course I do need to slow down on the little bike for the same obstacles that I could blast through on the big bike, but it’s because I know that I don’t have the right tool for that particular job/section of trail – not because I don’t have the riding skills.
Most of us have probably heard the story of someone’s buddy, who is a dirt bike rider and went on a MTB ride for the first time in his life, and was extremely fast on the descents right away! Well, this person is used to processing the trail at dirt bike speeds (that are usually much greater than MTB speeds). He’s not intimidated, he’s seeing good lines; he’s doing this part of riding – the most important part – very well.
The above is also a big reason why many pro downhillers ride a lot of motocross in the off-season.
And, if we put an average DH racer on an XC bike and point her downhill, she’ll ride the wheels off the thing, only slowing because of the perceived limitations that the bike imposes on her, but not because of perceived limitations of her skill!
So, if you were on the fence about getting into a longer travel trail machine, jump off and grab that credit card! Not only will you have a blast, but also you’ll own a great new tool for developing skills that will transfer over to you XC race bike very nicely.