On Underbiking

Underbiking is the cycling equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight, or as my friend Bruce says, “bringing a butter knife to a knife fight.” All of that violence aside, the basic idea here is that you would ride a bike, most often a gravel bike, on trails that really demand some sort of suspension and a much wider, treadier tire.


It’s kind of a joke, kind of a brag, and kind of a real thing. If we believe that for every 5 feet of trail there is an ideal bike, then it stands to reason that sometimes you will be on a piece of trail for which you are either underbiked or overbiked. Also, one person’s overbiked is quite possible another person’s underbiked.

Oddly, no one ever #overbikes. Instead, you are rolling along on whatever bike you’ve got, zooming in and out of #bikeness, sometimes under, sometimes over, sometimes spot on. In those moments, you’re just biking. No one hashtag #justbikes either.

Shimano North America, our handsome sponsors, also sponsor #underbiking everywhere it happens.

As with most human misconceptions, there is a problem of pattern recognition. Our minds are continually seeking predictable, linear stories we can tell ourselves about the world, the better to navigate it and its gauntlet of hazards. Riding a bike, whether on pavement or dirt, is this process in microcosm. And once we’ve decided what the pattern is, we then prescribe behavior we believe will help us stay alive. Not surprisingly, bike riders will usually opt for the bike that makes the route they have planned as easy as possible, or as fast as possible to ride, which are usually the same thing.

We are lazy really. That’s another thing about us.

So what is the point of calling it out when you’re #underbiking? Obviously, some folks want to let you know that they can ride hard things on sub-optimal technology. It’s an ego thing, and not even a particularly egregious one. It’s like all the people who want you to know they ride single-speed, or fixed, or a different wheel size than you think they should. It’s low key identity politics aimed at convincing ourselves we exist or exist in the best possible way.

We don’t.

To deflect the charge of egotism, I think many use the term #underbiking ironically, as if to say, “I’m not so obsessed with knife fighting that I won’t show up with a butter knife.” They’re cocky and insouciant at the same time. I love it. And only the #underbiker themselves will know whether they’re being ironic or taking themselves too seriously. Also, these two states are not mutually exclusive.

I also think underbiking has merit as a form of riding. If you’ve ridden a full-suspension bike on run-of-the-mill singletrack you’ll know that you’re on a machine that is not the least perturbed by rocks, roots, or other natural detritus. You can absolutely rip non-technical trails without stressing your bike handling skills overly much. To me, this is less like riding a bike, and more like following the bike down the trail. I’ve done it. It’s fun as hell. But we should not pretend that it’s the obviously right way to ride a bike.

Some people like the struggle, and I admire them. Full disclosure, I’m probably one of them. Most of the time.

In fact, I’m that boring old fart who will extoll the virtues of 26″ hardtails, which were, of course, once overbikes. To ride a 26″ mountain bike is to learn the finer points of bike handling, balance, agility, etc. Mistakes are punished. Progress can be slow. But some of us really like that, and I, for one, wish the dusty old relics of mountain bike history were still being ridden over hill and dale, because, well, they’re still great bikes, even though they are underbikes now.

Gravel bikes are the #underbike du jour. Intrepid souls whipsaw themselves through singletrack like a Plinko ball dropping into its low-scoring slot, and why wouldn’t they? Like pretty much every other bike you might ride anywhere, it’s fun. It’s also fun to needle those who think they need knee pads and a chest protector to ride the same trail (there is nothing wrong with either of those things BTW). And that brings me back to my prior contention that #underbiking is sort of a joke, sort of a brag, and sort of a real thing.

I know times are tough. Inflation is inflating. But you can probably still afford the $3/month it costs to subscribe to The Cycling Independent and we’re worth it.

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