In March of 2019, after five years of enjoying my souped up cyclocross bike on the singletrack trails, I found myself at the Sedona MTB Festival, completely saturated with full suspension mountain bikes. Seems like I was the only one there that actually preferred the bumpy stuff. This is the origin story of how a roadie came to love and excel at riding the trails in hyper road bike fashion. This is a cross cultural tale of following your passion, not being defined by the group you are in, and loving, without restraint, all those who surround you. It is while riding my drop bar trail bike that I discovered how to have kick ass fun and still be faster than everyone else.
AN ALL TERAIN BIKE
WITH ROAD RACING GEOMETRY
I discovered riding bicycles as an adult in 1994 when I was 20. Since then, bicycling in all its forms has pretty much defined my entire adult life. The first two decades had me cycling exclusively on a road of some sort almost every day, either for pleasure, for touring, for commuting, or for competition. Until I turned 40, I never imagined once that I’d ever seriously venture off the road. Only on occasion did I enjoy gravel and dirt roads, or a short cut-through trail, but I did ride them with confidence on skinny racing tires, and that was always fun. Not that I had any attitude towards riding mountain bikes or the off road culture in general, but I just never identified with either. I enjoyed a diverse range of road biking activities for 20 years, and it just never even occurred to me to look further.
Over the course of those first two decades and five bikes, I came to know my own preference for a sporty and agile riding style. The most influential of this fleet has been my 1981 Celo Europa, lugged steel, campy record, road racing bike. I do love me some classic bikes, but this one happened upon me before I even knew how to appreciate it. For years, it sat in storage waiting for the day I would notice it as anything more than old and dated. Long story short, I refabbed it in the summer of 2000, and rode it almost exclusively for the next few years. In 2007, I gave it another refab, this time with all new racing components, and it served even another 7 years, till 2014, as my competition bicycle and go to and daily ride. Still today, this is the bike that fits me best, not only in its tall sizing (58cm seat tube!) but also in its extreme sporty geometry. I especially have always loved that I can turn a tight four foot circle at walking pace, without any wobble or uneasiness, while high atop this nimble and balanced machine. I might even suggest that this would be the single most important metric for me, when in 2014 I found myself shopping for a new bike. This is when I knew that I wanted my next set of wheels, regardless of breed, to be fast, agile, and free to maneuver at all speeds.
In 2014, I was shopping for a cyclocross bike to be a more versatile and adventure capable daily rider than my Celo road racer. After a bit of 40th birthday magic, help from friends, and an unsuspected inheritance from my immigrant grandfather (Descanse En Paz, Papa), somehow I ended up at the top of the line, having a custom ti frame built for me by TiCycles of Portland. I brought them my Celo and said, ‘put 2 inch tires on this please’. Even then, I was not expecting to have a mountain bike, but an all terrain bike with road racing geometry. Some people call that cyclocross with fat tires, or monster cross. That’s what I got.
BUT JUST AS FAST OR EVEN FASTER
In the five years since getting my new bike, I have gravitated more and more towards trail riding. At first it was just a gentle tug on one who was curious about what could be accomplished with this monster ride. Everybody I talked to said it was not a mountain bike, but there are probably some trails I could ride. Well one thing led to another, and curiosity to explore turned into fun for learning. After a while I developed a real passion for defining the edge of what “can be done” on a drop bar trail bike. Because this kind of fast and agile problem solving is more fun than I (or anyone else, apparently) had ever imagined. I broke a lot of bike parts (but never any body parts) and, piece by piece, replaced every component on that frame with an even more robust and trail capable version. These days, trail riding is pretty much all I do on that bike. All the while, my friends and riding partners are still telling me I should get a “real” mountain bike.
The MTB festival in Sedona this year proved to me, without a doubt, that this bike and my skill at riding it are a perfect match for the technical trails traditionally reserved for squishy mountain bikes. Alongside thousands of moderate to expert riders being corralled by the cycling industry to try and buy high end, task specific, full suspension bicycles, I tore up the terrain on my fully rigid drop bar trail bike. There is nothing wrong with task specific bikes and wanting to sell lots of them. But somewhere along the race to develop the “best” mountain bike, everyone got obsessed with suspension as the most important metric. Industry and consumers alike have amplified each other’s narrow focus, and created an echo chamber of one way innovation. That’s totally fine, but I have to say that the “best mountain bike” problem is still not solved, and won’t be solved by simply throwing suspension at it. On my drop bar trail bike, I was overall faster (though definitely not in specific cases) and more agile than every other fully suspended bicycle rider (which was all of them) that I met on the trail at the festival.
Let me be super clear. I am not ranting about the pros and cons of suspension or the people who want to ride that way. Indeed, there are extreme situations where suspension does allow for greater performance. I am saying that we as a mountain biking community, in our zeal to ride the biggest and baddest trails, have managed to overlook the real possibility that a simpler bike could indeed be more agile, given the right skill set. Not more skill, but different skill. Not a better bike, but a different kind of bike. Not less technical trails, but a different style of riding the same trails. Not slower, but just as fast or even faster overall.
IN A SEA OF MOUNTAIN BOATS
In the world of mountain biking, more travel is less agile. We can obfuscate this fact with a bunch of numbers and ride descriptors, but the fact remains. Suspended mountain bikes are less able to deftly navigate through hard obstacles than their unsuspended counterparts, whether the pilot wants to or not. So the only solution left for suspended bikes to overcome even tougher obstacles, is to add more travel and roll over them. All of a sudden we have a new kind of fun, and the race is on to build or buy the biggest and baddest trail tank. While a squishy ride can be a better experience for many riders, the fact remains (to drive the point) that these mountain boats are less and less able to navigate around obstacles, and more and more able to just roll over them. Indeed, we might even have forgotten what it’s like to solve a rock or root garden, let alone lost the ability and skill to do so. (Snap!)
Well … isn’t rolling over obstacles faster than having to navigate them? One might ask this obvious question, and then one would only have to experience the difference to come to their own conclusion. They are different kinds of fun, and both are valid way to enjoy the trail. That much is certain. The question of actual speed, from start to finish, will be different for each course and hasn’t been adequately tested yet for any. I would argue from my own experience, that being able to maneuver with precision and dexterity does matter in maintaining an overall fast trail speed, specially through tight corners and mandatory obstacle gardens. I don’t, however, think the comparison is particularly an important one to make. I’m really just suggesting that mountain boats, while good for some things, are not the only trail game in town.
The evolution of mountain boating is understandable, even expected, when you consider the origin of mountain biking. The predominant design solution for getting a bike to handle hard obstacles is to slacken the head and seat angles, putting the front wheel further forward and the human rider higher up and further behind the pedals. With this in mind, it’s no wonder we’ve looked to and relied on suspension to soften the ride. With one’s weight centered closer and closer over the rear wheel, and one’s spine more and more vertical (or vertically concave as is often the case), bumpy terrain becomes a real pain in the everywhere. What we are witnessing, in this sea of mountain boats, is the evolutionary culmination of this one idea (to slacken the geometry) taken to the masses and amplified across generations. If it weren’t for the international popularity of cyclocross to spur a parallel evolution in road bike design, we would probably be stuck with only mountain boats for a while.
OUT POPS A FEISTY LITTLE
It’s not too much to say that a cyclocross bike is an all terrain road bike, but not all are seriously trail worthy. The number one feature that sets a cyclocross bike apart from a shredding drop bar trail bike, and that has to be designed into the frame and fork, is clearance for mounting at least 2 inch tires. Not all cyclocross bikes can do this, but these days a number of manufacturers have addressed this quiet request coming from various corners of the cycling community. They call these gravel grinders, bikepacking bikes (some variants), monster cross bikes, and even drop bar trail bikes (some variants). Bikepking.com has a great rundown of available models for 2019. Most, but not all, of these bicycle designs are evolutions of the cyclocross bike, maintaining the steeper “road racing” geometry that set them apart from the “suspension ready” mountain bike variants. These cyclocross evolved designs are what I call mountain goats, and why I created this blog to shed light on the build and riding characteristics that make these bike so much fun!
Yes, I am saying that a steeper “road racing” geometry makes a bicycle more agile on the trails. This goes contrary to the long standing philosophy of mountain bike design, where slack geometry is considered “more stable” (and confusingly described as “more aggressive”). But remember that they are coming at the problem of navigating obstacles from a very different angle (pun intended). To “roll over” or “roll down” large obstacles, a slack geometry is more stable if the rider is unable (by position or by fitness) to shift his/her body weight above the bicycle. To be most agile in “picking your line” through obstacles gardens or even hauling up and over obstacles, a road racing geometry provides for quick steering and (with hands in the drops, upper body low, and core supported) allows for much more body control by centering the riders weight above the pedals. Such a position frees up a capable rider to make confident decisions at speed, while also providing a more tactile understanding of the trail bellow. The bicycle and rider, being intimately connected in this style of riding, can adapt to and solve most of the same obstacle problems, in a different manner, than their full squish trail partners.
Once you have 2+ inch tires and an appropriate road race geometry, you’re pretty much ready to hit the trails. There is a learning curve, but as long as the new rider plays it easy and safe, skill will develop and fun will be had. Throw in a rock or root garden to challenge your balance and speed, and out pops a feisty little mountain goat. It is seriously that simple, to begin, but with time will need some care and maintenance to keep growing.
FEEDING AND TRAINING
YOUR MOUNTAIN GOAT
A few modifications need to be made to the average cyclocross build, to make it a more robust and reliable drop bar trail bike. I will cover each of these trail mods in detail with later blog posts, but here’s a high level view. Front fork needs to be very strong indeed, because direct hits will happen. Tires need to be at least 2 inches and tubeless, to allow for lower pressure to absorb plenty of the bumps. Wheel rims, front and back, need to be über bomb proof, probably heavier or very expensive, to withstand a torrent of direct hits that come in the first couple years of riding. Handlebars only need to be about as wide as your shoulders (think quick steering), with some flare but not too much, and lots of padding in the drops. Seat needs to be split nose of some sort, to keep your soft parts safe in the bumpy conditions. Pedals need to be clipless to really drive the agile machine through obstacle ridden terrain at varying and averagely fast speeds. Drivetrain needs to be slack free and able to withstand plenty of torque, cause you will bounce around and accelerate after every obstacle. Disk brakes are essential, with hydraulic calipers also being high on the checklist, to allow for fine tuned navigation around tight corners and obstacles. Pretty much every part of the bicycle needs to be upgraded for the all terrain battle that lies ahead.
Speaking of battle fields, your body should not be one. Contrary to popular opinions from people with little experience, this style of riding is not hard on a body that knows how to handle it. As with the bicycle build details above, I will go into more detail on the fine tuned riding skills needed to execute this style of agile awesomeness in future blog posts. But the bottom line is this: it does not hurt when done well. First thing first, upper body is low to get your center of gravity low and keep your maneuverability high. Get used to it. Make it work. Hands need to be relaxed and deep in the drops for optimal security. Wrists are straight through the elbows for stability and joint health. Elbows stay tucked in and shoulder blades descended for shoulder joint health. Back is flat, core is stabilized, and pelvis is neither angled up nor angled down. Weight is evenly distributed between the pubic bone and the finger bases, with most of it dedicated to pushing pedal strokes. Saddle time is fleeting when navigating obstacles. Knees come up. Knees go down. Knees don’t go out except in an emergency, and even then feet are better for balance keeping. Butt goes back, not up or down, to keep balance on steep descents. Did I mention dancing? Lots of dancing and body moving going on in this active style of trail riding. Keep it loose and well supported.
This marks the end of the great divide between road bikes and mountain bikes. This divide opened up in the early eighties, and has only gotten wider and more exclusive over the last 40 years. Haven’t we had enough of polarizing forces driving apart what would otherwise be peaceful and coexisting communities of diverse individuals? Diversity is our strength, and we need to encourage it. Squishy mountain bikes and fully rigid drop bar trail bikes are two equally valid ways to enjoy the same outdoors. If you think you might want to hit the trails on a drop bar bike, I want no less than for you to explore these options and to make new friends while doing so. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not possible, or that you need a squishy mountain bike to do so. They’re probably just jealous that you get to have more fun.