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Bespoken Word: A question of perception

Bespoken word
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

I’ve been lucky enough to have been a pro bike and kit tester for nearly 25 years. But all this time I’ve been fighting a balance between technological advances that make riding easier, faster or safer, and bikes and kit that might be measurably ‘worse’ on many metrics, yet give me more ‘feels’. That hard-to-define life and eagerness that can’t be logged onto geometry charts or spreadsheets. 

My ramblings last week about low weight and being ‘overbiked’ and conversations since really brought home to me that maybe it’s the sensation of speed we should be chasing, not sheer speed.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go full #boomer here and say everyone who starts riding should be forced to ride a fully rigid hardtail with cantilever brakes off-road or a road bike with downtube shifting and cloth bar tape. I’ve tried both in the past year and it’s like trying to text on a phone with number keys and just left me thinking 'how on earth did this ever catch on?' 

If a bit of retro is what you’re into, go for it, but even the most wool shirted, L'Eroica veterans or Klein Adroit riding masochists would have to concede that most of the major advances in bike tech have been overwhelmingly positive in terms of expanding our limits. Suspension, dropper posts, disc brakes, indexed shifting, tubeless tires that are wide enough to grip rather than skitter about the road or trail like a dog on a laminate floor - the list is a long one. But are we now getting to a point where things are so good we’re actually killing - or at least transferring - the thrill a lot of us got into riding for in the first place?

Bespoken word

Plenty of retro nostalgia but indexed shifting is unquestionably better (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

If you’ve read my recent Zipp 303 Firecrest road wheels review with their prescriptive super low pressures for fatter tires, you’ll know I’ve raved about their smoothness, easy acceleration and surefooted handling. Same with the Continental GP5000TL tires with their eerily damped, watt and speed skewing ride. To underline the argument off-road I could pick any number of longer, slacker, smoother downcountry/trail/enduro mountain bikes. And yes I’m happy grouping them together because several brands like Santa Cruz don’t even make any distinction between geometry until you get to the XC and DH extremes and even Nino runs a dropper and 2.4in tires for some races. And let’s not even start talking about how it’s almost impossible to tell the state of the art lightweight, aero, dropped stay road race bikes apart in silhouette.

There’s also a ton of science from the very basic to deep data drilled peer-reviewed papers that confirm that vibration and noise are the arch enemies of efficient progress and I’m absolutely not disputing that. Well not all of it, but I’ll probably fly off on that tangent some other time.

What I would say is that the one thing all of these things do is make a bike actually feel slower rather than faster. The vibrations designers are so carefully muting are what blur our vision, rattle our eyeballs and tell our own accelerometers that we’re going flat out. That sharp kick through the pedals and staccato tap through the tires hardwires us into hard efforts with a visceral violence. Steering that twitches and twists along a line that’s perpetually a split second away from disaster rushes endorphins and adrenaline through us with bowel and bladder threatening intensity.

So when we kill the chatter, smooth power response and turn split seconds into lazy minutes with 64-degree head angles, we’re left chasing speed down a tunnel that increasingly takes the thrill out of the actual ride and transferring it onto the delayed gratification of Strava.

There are countless parallels with other thrill-seeking toys (because that’s what bikes are unless you’re a professional racer) too. ‘Naked’ motorbikes without fairings that rip your arms off when you accelerate. Slammed, screeching hot hatches or rasping rally cars, versus leather seated, traction controlled supercars. I know people who’ve tested both for a living and the one common theme is that all of them end up loving and buying the heart beaters, not the outright performance world-beaters.

Obviously, if you race for real, or just like turning every ride into a race, then you’ll get your thrill from the gaps you rip in groups, the climbs you crush, cutting under others in corners or how long you wait at the bottom of a descent. But even then I think numb efficiency can sometimes be mentally detrimental unless you’re the kind of racer who’s data confident enough to probably be better off time trialing rather than tearing about in a group. Because if you don’t feel fast when the hammer goes down, it’s a lot harder to apply the pressure yourself. Plus while it’s hard to argue that Team Sky and early DH dataloggers like Nico Vouilloz created a competitive edge through consistency, wouldn't we all rather watch - and be - Alaphilippe or Pierron? Explosive, edgy and clearly enjoying taking their bikes and their skills to the ragged, passionate limit?

As well as the state of tech right now, I think this year has forced a rethink for many of us too. Many of us have been left with local trails and roads as our bread and butter and often with restricted time to enjoy them too. So bikes that make the most of that in terms of involvement have been the real winners - even if they haven’t worried the KOMs and QOMs on Strava.

I’ve left £7k SRAM Red AXS superbikes hung on the wall in favor of cheeky alloy all-rounders because I’d rather ride an overachieving underdog than a ‘meh’sterpiece. I put a shorter than recommended travel fork on a trail bike to speed up the handling and then stuck Nino Schurter’s favorite Syncros integrated cockpit on top to minimize the grams on a steel frame that weighed 4kg. Not because it made any sense, but because I thought it might be fun and damn, was I right.

The Scott Endorphin will be remembered, not because it was a good bike but because it had character

And in a world of increasingly ultra-competent but generic choices, those slight freaks and oddities are where you’ll hopefully sense that there’s a bit of heart creeping into the words of my reviews. Not just the cold calculating head of carefully cross-referenced spreadsheets and wattage/speed plots. 

They’re the bikes and bits I’ll remember from a specific characteristic or just how they took a sequence of singletrack corners once. Like that Scott Endorphin in 1998, which twisted so much you had to flick into the next corner while it was still shaking the last one out of its elevated stays. Or the first time I rode a Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod and started salivating like a rabid dog if I knew the road was about to turn upwards and which I still suspect had a cleverly shaped EPO infused suppository rather than a saddle. But it wasn’t aero, it didn’t have deep-section wheels and it definitely didn’t have disc brakes. But the SuperSix Hi-Mod that’s waiting to be built up in the workshop has all of those things and everyone says it’s faster. So will that grab me in the same way with its rose-tinted Education First team livery and make me realize I was just remembering the old bike through rose-tinted glasses, or will it leave me with an Entertainment Thirst?

And that’s probably the key thing here is that we’ll all have our own sweet spot of what we want from a ride and from the bike that takes us on it. Whether it’s the fastest and most tech possible, the most comfortable, the most capable or the most characterful. It might be made of car park/coffee shop head swiveling carbon or artisan crafted by someone no-one else has heard of. Or maybe it’s just the one we’ve been riding for years because it still works fine, we’re totally used to it and we’ve ridden a lot of miles and had a lot of smiles in the time we could have spent working to pay for a new one or worrying what that new one should be.

Wherever you sit in that spectrum, the one undeniably great thing is that having more options and more cross-bred technologies is making it much easier for a lot more people to enjoy riding than ever before. And that definitely gives me the thrills, as well as a vague idea where to take this chat next week...

Guy Kesteven
Guy has been riding mountain bikes since before they were mountain bikes and is right handy on an offroad tandem (of course he is).