Downcountry bikes were an interesting proposition. In fact, even the longest touring bikes were a very mixed bag. The latter category stretched all the way to the space age from, if you were to sorely stray from aesthetics, you could say from the Steam Age. There was something distinctly Brunellian about the steel frame bike during this test and, I have to say, I really liked it. Slightly gangly, maybe. There was almost a Stephen Merchants affair. But alas, maybe it is something in the Bristol water.
What made downcountry bikes so interesting was the ideological Iron Curtain that existed within the group. There were bikes that were longer and lazy that we could never dream of. There were also bikes with a more conservative geometry.
There were some things that a lot of these bikes got wrong though. I guess I would suggest that a bike’s specs could be as strong as its weakest link. It was weird to see some of these bikes, imbued with amazing suspension parts on frames that, if anything, could be defined as too drastic, come with things like organic bearings or small rotors. The point of these bikes was that they opened up so much ground – it seemed weird trying to reattach that ability on the first attempt.
It was like having a modern supercar with drum brakes. It all seemed a bit strange. Then, of course, there was the element of the short dropper post.
Want and need is a different thing. However, when you bolt Track Where the low-country on the name of the model of a bicycle, concessions must be made. It’s no longer an XC bike, it’s inherently, by its very definition, a compromised beast – which is good! Compromise makes bikes interesting. As horizons narrow, design is guided and innovations are more likely.
Now, still carrying bad news, here’s a bitter pill to swallow: downcountry, which I know is a silly name, is a real thing. Yes, I know you probably think I’m an idiot, and frankly who can blame you, but I would say there was a real difference in this test between 120mm trail bikes and downcountry bikes. I am sorry. I’m just sorry. What have I become?
I don’t know if I consider it a category, but maybe a very apt description. Some 120mm bikes have a trail feel, some 120mm bikes feel more downcountry, and some look like long-legged XC bikes. The latter are as convincing, in terms of descent ability, as a child standing on the shoulders of another under a trench coat. The chasm of difference is both obvious and immediately apparent.
I think with designing a bike, a better bike doesn’t always make you go faster, but it opens the window of executability. I have often thought that we could boil down to three main parts: roughness, stiffness and speed. A good downhill bike can do all three with ease. A good enduro bike can do two with aplomb. A shorter travel bike can normally only do one at a time.
Of course you can roll anything over anything, I don’t think that possibility is taken away, but the likelihood of you not taking a nap decreases.
Well that was all fine until I realized last weekend that everything I know about bike design is wrong. Everything I’m talking about is redundant and frankly I’m embarrassed. Discount everything I ever said. View these editorials with even more justified skepticism than you may already be. Beep all my clips that might appear in the podcast. I am absolutely and unequivocally wrong. Of all.
So with that in mind let’s get some things straight and make up for things I’ve said in the past – cable routing needs to be external, dual locks and directional limiters aren’t a silly USP to hang on to novices. , rocker chips ain’t No bullshit, cranks should be long, seat tubes shouldn’t be shorter, no one should think outside of the current crop of standards… e-bikes are the answer!
And what was the slip that triggered this avalanche of this new awareness? What light broke for the first time at the dawn of my epiphany? Well, I’ll try to keep it relatively succinct.
In an effort to make friends in a new city, I really tried to move away from simple autonomous driving. Recently when asked what I had done I said “listen to grunge and go cross country”. Quite simply, something had to give. I also remember telling this person that I’m not the c-bomb that I often run into like on the podcast. Be careful, this is not how we make friends. No, a new approach was needed.
I abandoned my Spotify Temple of the Dog radio station, put away my flannel shirts, and ripped my Eddie Vedder posters off the wall. It was time to get social.
And I made friends. I even had a social night out on Saturday and the only thing on the menu was a humble pie made in British Columbia. Needless to say, many slices were served.
I’m not someone who likes to scare people. I always find it pretty reductive when people say “oh damn, this is so horrible – you don’t stand a chance!” Having said that, I would never want anyone to get confused because they are on a trail that is not quite suitable.
Our group of cyclists arrived and to my surprise the downhill bikes were out. I had said I would show runners some of my favorite trails. Now the riders in question are much better than I am in all areas of cycling. There is not a facet of their riding that I could hold a candle to. However, the sight of shallow XC tires on their bikes, and knowing what we had in store to ride, left me a little worried about them.
I just mentioned, in what I was hoping to be in a relaxed way, that maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t have the best time on the trails we would be taking. I guess I was so engrossed in distinguishing between the good and the very good that I completely forgot that talent is the great leveler of all design weaknesses.
So we hiked a trail that I would describe as pretty bloody. I was amazed. I was really impressed. I noticed at one point that this should be the advertisement for Ikons. However, I didn’t know what was in store on the road.
There we were, enjoying a trail side conversation, as this squadron of lycra clad runners passed, all with their seatposts seemingly going all around their buttocks and going straight up to their eyeballs. They were absolutely shredding. Honestly, I thought it was the sickest thing I had seen in a long time. I was there on my big enduro bike. I felt a little embarrassed.
Not that the trail was easy to navigate, but it was rather amazing how easy a great amount of skill and talent can be. I thought about this field test, and what some people think it will look like to quarter hair under a microscope with a Stanley blade. It’s not that these bikes weren’t different, or that they didn’t feel drastically different, both in good and bad aspects. It’s also not like the other testers haven’t drawn similar conclusions, but sometimes I find myself stuck in my own world. Truth be told, and I can only speak for myself, but I think a bike’s flaws can become more apparent due to your own technical shortcomings rather than your skill.
I think the humble pie and impostor syndrome are useful things to expose yourself to and hopefully keep you from becoming a complete asshole. One thought I come back to often, both in my professional and personal life, is a quote from Mark Twain. He once said “A man is never more truthful than when he recognizes himself as a liar” and I think that is a very useful thing to remember. The recognition that we are all those walking contradictions that deposit both ideas, as well as lies and errors, whether about ourselves or other people, and in my case the particular complexities of routing cables, knowingly or not. The mistake is not to try to resist it but rather to not recognize it.
So in short, if you’re good enough, buy yourself a 2013 Giant Trance and be done. Let us mortals sweat the little things.