This is the second part of the article where I am pondering the issue whether we need super bikes. In the previous installment I focused on why are they a breed of treacherous monsters capable of sucking up our time and energy, and why we should take a closer look at the development of our bodies and minds. I wrote about how we should acknowledge the limitations of the technology in delivering fun experience or taking us from point A to B faster, but now I would like to give technology some credit as we must also recognize the limitations of ourselves.
The problem is that it is not always easy to distinguish what do we mean by innovation, evolution or development. What is a super bike anyways? I think what makes a difference between 2000$ Canyon and 3000$ Gian Reign is the quality and type of components like brakes, dropper post, clutch rear derailleur. Now the thing that makes the differnce between 3000$ Reign and a fully carbonated 10000$ Santa Cruz Bronson is mainly weight. Good weight saving like wheels, semi-useless weight saving like XTR drivetrain instead of SLX, and quite useless weight savings like stem with Ti bolts, carbon bars, cranks and few other bits and bobs. Are we talking about functional pieces of technology like dropper posts, pure weight savings like ti bolts, or gadgets like electric shock? In order to determine what is actualy useful I always go 10 years back and I ask myself: if I could take only one thing from my current bike what would that be: Modern geometry, modern forks, carbon, brakes, a dropper post, a trillion of tyre options in different compounds, larger wheel size, tubeless systems? I'd say brakes, those Saint brakes I have now are just simply unbelievable, we rarely realize how lucky we are: lighter than XC brakes from 5 years ago, fade free, monstrous power under great control. Then I'd might take tubeless tyres to get less flats, then maybe suspension, dropper post. Weight shavers go out of the list quite fast. For instance dropper post made dramatic change to my riding experience, I have much more fun pumping the terrain and I ride more balanced, I'd give up rear suspension for it if I was forced to, even if it weighed double as much.
An important and overlooked issue is that some stuff requires skill to take advantage of: for instance I discovered the true wonder of light wheels only after my cornering and trail pumping skills improved. I used to like it because it was easier to climb but that was a very tiny part of what it does. Light wheels accelerate wonderfully and if you pump corners or obstacles you get an instant gratification for your effort. Same goes with increased contact patch on larger wheels - if you can corner, if you have plenty of power in your legs so that you can now utilize more on a slippery climb - you are going to love it. But you must be able to live up to it, you must actually experience that, for it to become true, you can't just hear some bloke saying something and parrot it just to prove someone to be wrong on the internet or post-rationalize your purchase.
I find it a bit off to say that after all Mountain biking is all about the engine - the rider, about being in nature, travelling to some breathtaking location, riding with your friends, overcoming your fears and any other cliché you can read in that topic. Perhaps some people can live up to that, but for majority of us I don't think it is so "simple". In that way one is implying that he could take a rigid single speed to a downhill track and have as much fun as on a downhill bike if timing was no object, as long as he had his buddies around. That is bollocks. In one of his articles, super coach Gene Hamilton talks about how little a rigid single speed can actually do for you to learn riding. Downhills, tackling rough stuff is more rewarding thus more fun on a super bike. In the VitalMTB podcast about testing new Marzocchi forks, Hamilton talks that anything that allows you to focus more on looking ahead is good. Lee McCormack, the author of Mountain Bike Skills books says that it is easier to get into flow on a downhill bike. He also mentions this great saying: every trail can get challenging depending on how fast you go.
Lately I have been riding my hardtail a lot and I realized how wrong I was when I've been saying that riding a hardtail improves riding skills and makes you shred more than if you'd only have a downhill bike. I believe that riding a hardtail is so differnt from riding a full susser that, it's just a completely different bag of skills. You ride differently, you must find the right amplitude in the rock gardens because you either stall or die, so you must ride slower. Then you pick different lines that might not necessarily be easier but are just more efficient for that kind of bike. When I was riding my hardtail with flat pedals I noticed that I am very still from the waist down, I am focusing a lot on having supple feet to keep them on pedals, as soon as I changed to clipless I found that I am starting to pump again, but ultimately, it is when I take out the full susser when I can really get my bottom moving. A thing that hardtail does for you though is it makes you a bit less anal about the art of suspension design and setup. I consider myself quite good at setting it up my suspension but what long years on HT gave me, is I don't really care about imaginary characters haunting poor riders: Pedal bob, Brake Jack and Pedal Kick.
Can there be a surprise when testing a 10 000$ super bike? Probably not, in most cases you are going to be blown away if you haven't ridden a dozen of such bikes before. Because it will always be the case of how good can a simple bike be? How far can it lie from what the super bike can do for you? How soon is far enough? If I just go back those 10 years in time and remember the most miserable gear failures I realize that they would never happen on my current "modern" bike. The technology moved a long way. In my short experience with strength training and tens of components I tried, I feel that a good piece of technology can boost a skill, but this skill has to be there.
To sum up both articles, to express what I really think of the subject of "Bike VS Man" I'd wish to say the following: I believe that we should all train our bodies as much as we can with a target fitness indicator to be ability to ride and climb anything for any duration on 1:1 gear ratio (save riding in Alp size mountains). Then when when the money allows, we should focus on obtaining features and components that are firstly useful and treat the light weight selectively - like wheelset. Now the main question: Do I think that we need super bikes to have more fun on trails or be faster on competitions? in a word: NO. But I do like to look at them! World would be missing something if we didn't make super bikes, super cars, super supers! It is irrational and let's keep it this way!
I have purposefully evaded talking much about wheel sizes because that's what the next "what grinds my gears" article will be about. But that will be published already in 2014 because the Christmas is coming and I need to prepare Waki-leaks Christmas special along with the New Years biking-related card that I make since 3 years.
Thank you for reading, Cheers!
Wacek Kipszak WAKi