The Under/Over

Mountain biking has gone too far. Not only has it become a super expensive sport to get into, but more and more we act like you need a high-end, dual suspension bike to have a good time in the woods, which is fundamentally false. The question, as usual, is not one of needs, but one of wants.

What do you want your ride to be?

There is a stretch of trail very near my house, a 5 mile out and back, or with a bit of road to fill in, a 12-mile loop. This trail has everything, tight, twisty single-track, switchback climbs, fast flats, a bit of tech, a bit of flow. I am #blessed.

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I’ve ridden it on a 26″ hardtail, a road bike with 28mm tires, a single-speed 650b hardtail, a 29er, a gravel bike running 40s, and a dual-suspension bike. It was a fun ride every time, in both directions.

To ride it on a gravel bike, you are probably “underbiking,” i.e., giving yourself a bit more challenge than is strictly necessary. To take it on with 28mm tires and rim brakes, you’re certainly in the under category. A hardtail is a nice choice. Hardtails are precise. They handle and climb well. They’re good in tight spaces, and the techier bits of this trail yield positively to 120mm of front suspension.

By the time you double your suspension, you’ve smoothed out all the bumps, removed most of the challenges. You can rip. It’s fun to rip, but you’re over-biked. This is not a judgement, per se. It’s not a bad thing to do. It’s just that you’ve brought a gun to the knife fight. You’re gonna win without trying very hard.

One of the things I say all the time about my full-suspension bike is that it is a better rider than I am. I spend most of my time perched atop it, trying my best to stay out of its way. Give it some power, point it straight, and let it do what it’s good at. It will go over most anything.

Is that what I want on every ride though? Is it always satisfying?

To say that different bikes produce different experiences is a bit dumb. Of course, they do. I guess what I’m getting at is that too often, we’re reflexive about our choices. We succumb to the style of the times, and right now, that means being over-biked quite a bit, or, as a reaction, under-biked. Obviously, if you’re not gonna ride your enduro rig, you’re gonna opt for the gravel bike, ignoring the eight bikes in between.

I am as susceptible to the pressure of peers and press as anyone. For a few years, in the early 00s, I couldn’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t be commuting on a track bike, as if that was a reasonable attitude. Evidently, I had quaffed whatever flavor Kool-Aid was going around at the time. To wit, track bikes are fun to ride, but then, so are all the others.

On Wednesdays I ride with a crew of local knuckleheads. We almost always ride some part of the trail I described above. We are nearly never all on the same type of bike, and I take this as less a sign that some of us don’t know what we’re doing (which may also be true), and more as a sign that each of us is responsible for deciding what we want our ride to be. We stick together just fine. Smiles and laughs happen. Riding bikes is a good thing to do.

Join the conversation
  1. khal spencer says

    I live almost walking distance from La Tierra Trails and a couple miles from the Dale Ball trailheads in the People’s Republic of Santa Fe. All great riding and I never put the bike on the car to get there. I’ve done the trails on a cross bike and gravel bike with 700-40’s but the rocky sections combined with an old disk herniation in my lower back is the reason I ride my old Specialized Stumpjumper on the trails. It is long in the tooth, a 2005, with 26″ wheels, but I like the upright steering angles and short wheelbase, which makes it slot car quick on the twisty trails. I’ll ride that bike until the wheels fall off, of either it or me.

    We also have the glorious Rail Trail down to Lamy, which is a paved urban trail the first six miles from the Railyard and then dirt/cinder/gravel the next dozen. I ride that on the gravel or cross bike. For example:

  2. dr sweets says

    Ride whatever you want. No one worth a damn gives af. I’ve ridden my enduro sled to get coffee, on XC rides, enduro races and at bike parks. I’ve commuted, raced cyclocross and ridden technical single track on CX bikes. Doesn’t matter. Your ride is as entertaining or as boring as you make it. There is already way too much “us vs. them” bs in the world and I have no need to bring that into cycling. I will reserve the right to heckle and crack jokes b/c as long any efforts are funny it’s swell.

  3. John Rezell says

    With very little handling skills I fell in love with dual suspension, which I call training wheels for mountain bikes. I enjoy the comfort of it with fat knobbies and ride it everywhere

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