Humans love groups. It’s what made us feel safe when we were throwing sticks at leopards on the African plains as hominids and that same basic wiring is why we cluster together in trailhead car parks. Or even if we don’t know the other people there, we’ll immediately make snap judgments about who we would or wouldn’t team up with if we had to should a spotty apex predator lope down the singletrack.
Is it the bloke with the brand new VW T6 Transporter and the 10k factory spec enduro bike. The lads in the beaten-up van who are casually manualing and schralping any sort of bank or slope while their other mate tries to find his front axle in the back of his old Nissan Micra. The camper van couple in slightly too short shorts on bikes with slightly too steep head tube angles. The big builders on the e-bikes who look at the tech off-road climb, think f**k that and go up the fireroad in Boost instead. The skinny XC predator sharking through the car park on his fifth lap having ridden the fifteen miles to get there as a warm-up. I could go on – and on (I normally do) but you get what I mean. We are evolutionarily hardwired to cluster for comfort.
Clustering things into groups makes them easier to manage too. A goes with A, B with B etc. It’s nice and neat and makes sense when you’re labeling your bikes, organizing your website, or trying to coax people into parting with cash. “You are this person, therefore you need this” is the basis of all marketing.
And for the most part it works very well on a macro scale. I’m certainly glad when I click on ‘whoever.com' [not a real bike website – Ed] to check bike stats and they’ve helpfully split things down into road bikes, city, and mountain bikes. Columns, pigeon holes, neat lines, order, discipline, labels, and neon highlighter underlines keep us in our place. Here you are, this is you. These are your people, this is what you do. Come and feel safe here. Oh and if you could shut the door behind you to keep the doubts out that’d be even better, because then we’ve really got you in a retail snare.
Most of us don’t even ride mountains
The thing is though, the labels we’re putting on bikes now make even less sense than they’ve ever done and that’s saying something. What do I mean by that? Well, mountain biking as a commercial phenomena grew on the promise of opening up wilderness you couldn’t walk to. Taking you far away from the ‘cars, cops and concrete’ – or if you were already a cyclist, the uptight bureaucracy of road racing - into a world of dope, drum circles, and going where the hell you wanted. Even then though the people peddling the myth were mostly hardcore road riders, and pretty soon they were racing these friendly, freedom machines even harder than their Colnagos. Repack might have been flannels, flares, and a big party afterwards, but when those stopwatches clicked it was full-on fierce racing, with the competitiveness and kudos to match. In fact it was so tense, Gary Fisher apparently had to tape beer bottle caps over the buttons of the timers like missile arming switches on a fighter jet to stop Charlie Kelly from triggering them by accident.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, basically that since the beginning the mountain bike’s massive advantage was that you could do whatever you want with it. And the bigger tires, better brakes, and safer handling elements are still why they’re winning at that now, whatever the numbers attached to those different aspects are. And ironically, now those numbers are getting closer to each other again across all spectrums of the sport/recreation/entertainment/hobby – whatever you want to call it – categorization is becoming more and more complicated/meaningless.
WTF is 'downcountry' anyway
For example, I went out last night on a Scott Spark. The latest version of one of the most successful XC race bikes ever. It’s even got a one-piece carbon bar and upside stem and lockout front and rear. But then it’s also got 120mm of travel, relatively relaxed angles, and comes as standard with 2.4in wide tires. So it’s kind of a ‘downcountry’ bike too. And I know people hate this phrase which is why I’m using it.
Anyway back to the story, this was a mixed ‘gravel’ ride so when my ‘mates’ saw me pull up on an MTB it suddenly became more of a road ride. But then while the official reason for rolling out on the Spark was to finish off some wheel testing that I’m way late with, I was also interested in how it would handle what I knew would happen. And while I’m certainly not saying it didn’t damn hurt, however hard they tried I kept that lumpy Michelin front rubber roaring in their ears all the way along that Tarmac torture strip. Flicking the remote to ‘traction’ meant it cruised easily along meadows and farm tracks proving a couple of kilos is less important than avoiding a kicking. And then when things got spicy, I opened up full travel and just listened for the receding squawks of people trying to push their bikes too hard.
At the weekend though, I was riding a Canyon Spectral with only 5mm more rear travel and it was a completely different machine. Especially after I stuck mullet wheels on, loaded it with Cushcore, and slipped a Fox coil-sprung damper* amidships. In fact at that point, it became more unruly, rowdy and an incitement to riot than the 160/150mm Spectrals I’ve ridden.
And because fashion demands such things I even dressed up in my favorite ‘Can’t Quit Cartel’ enduro pajamas (I think they even say “Stay Rad’ on them, and the packaging certainly did) to make myself look bike appropriate. But did I ride any different? Nope. I still tried to chase a roadie up the climb on the parallel singletrack to see if I could goad him into puking before I did (I lost that one, and worst of all, the film footage screwed up too). And I pushed as hard as I could on the descents. In other words, while I rode one ‘downcountry’ bike like a ‘gravel' bike, I rode the other one like an ‘enduro’ bike and loved that too. And I’m not just cherry-picking bikes to suit my argument here, there’s similar blurring happening everywhere. Trek Top Fuel. Meant to be XC, but parties like a hooligan. Yeti SB-150. Ferociously fast enduro bike, but so uptight and serious about it you almost get road bike sensations if you take it for a casual cruise.
Trail is now what enduro was a couple of years ago and riders are running the best enduro bikes in World Cup DH races. Freeride used to be what bike park is now but is probably closer to what 4X was than anything else. And even if it’s too long to get into now, most people riding gravel would be far better off on a cross-country mountain bike. Not the sort of XC bikes that are now what trail used to be though, the old school type of XC bikes. And then if you look elsewhere in the globe you’ve got tour, marathon, all-mountain that all mean something to marketing departments who’ve got focus group feedback to prove it and the aspirational photographs to sell it.
Anarchy not axle paths
But at the end of the day mountain bikes are brilliant because you can do whatever you want on them. In fact the whole history of mountain biking has been built by people doing things they weren't supposed to do on the bikes they had. As much as the industry/governing bodies/assorted control enthusiasts try, we're also a notoriously anarchic tribe that's impossible to try and organize into any sort of official group. So whatever you’re riding and whatever you’re wearing, don’t get hung up on labels and categories, just have a great time being you on the bike you’ve got.
Oh and don’t get all judgy either. That couple in the camper van might be lunatic fell runners who will pull that XC shark out of his Lycra sausage skin and smear him up the next climb like pâté. And the big lads on the e-bikes all used to ride swamper motorbikes together before green-laning got outlawed so those steezy kids are likely to get a schooling when things get tasty too.
* Don’t try this at home kids, the Spectral 125 doesn’t officially have clearance for mullet or coil shocks.