Like many old people I grew up road riding because mountain biking was still in it’s infancy even when I left school. But even by that point, I was already heading as far off-road as my skinny tires would let me and the cool kids were all doing BMX trains not nose to tail roadie chain gangs.
As soon as I fished a knobbly tire hybrid out of a canal at college, heading into the woods on “The Bike from Atlantis” I was hooked for life. So what is it about riding off-road that ticks my boxes compared to staying on Tarmac?
It’s certainly not because I’m a natural. The few sections where I’m smooth on trails today are the result of the same kind of attritional ‘smoothing’ that turns bricks into round red pebbles if they’ve been rolled up and down a rocky beach enough. While the useless sidepull brakes and wonky steel wheels of ‘The Bike From Atlantis’ and the super long stem and super narrow bars of the Giant Escaper that replaced it certainly didn’t help, as for several years I seemed to be lying somewhere near my bike as much as I was on it.
The sense of achievement and reward as I gradually coped with (I’ve never mastered) more difficult terrain was addictive even when my growth was at a glacial rate. Over thirty years later, the thrill when I finally clean a challenge section is still a massive buzz. Whatever level you ride at, fitness you have and whatever your priorities are there’s always something to work on, progress with and feel good about. Steezy riders will tweak their air time. Racers will develop handling skills or track reading wisdom that can unlock seconds and the same learnings will unlock satisfaction and smiles for recreational riders. Head-in-map explorers, trail builders and tuning tweakers, etc all get a lot of pleasure from mountain biking without necessarily even turning a pedal too. And if you don’t believe me, just look at all the different ways mountain biking is covered by media, or just type MTB into social media compared to road biking and see at the difference in diversity.
In contrast, road riding is basically a fitness game. Sure you can ride the same roads slower and braver/better descending can give a thrill if you’re willing to put your life in the hands of the traffic gods. But you don’t get to ride up anything new if you improve your aerobic capacity. Better descending skills don’t unlock extra game levels, you just go a bit faster in the same places. And if you haven’t got that fitness or don’t trust a square inch of rubber with your continued tenancy on earth, then there’s nowhere to hide or other skills you can use to compensate. Dropped bars just offer dropped riders and dropped heads, while risers give you the chance to grab something uplifting in many different ways.
One of the reasons I’m writing this comes from the recent coverage of early season bike shows and re-realizing just how limited road bikes are when it comes to tech. Whether it was the London Bike Show or Sea Otter, the best in show stuff for road bikes was almost entirely related to fancy paint jobs on cookie cutter bikes where the only real differences were material (hipster steel or Ti V hype performance carbon), a few mm more tire clearance or a ‘radical’ geometry change of up to a degree from numbers that haven’t changed for over a century. Even the new tech that has come into road – disc brakes, tubeless tires, through axles, suspension, internal storage – is all from mountain biking and the only thing they’ve given us is the curse of internally routed control lines.
Look at show coverage on mountain bikes and not only do you get some lovely paint jobs and an even greater span of potential construction methods but there’s still a huge range of experimentation going on. DH head angles to triathlon seat angles, adjustable angles, hidden shocks, monster truck dampers, tons of travel, minimal travel, multi pivots, engineered flex, gearboxes, frame fitted mechs, frame integrated mechs, manual lockouts, damper adjustments that need a degree to fully understand and a whole ton of electric stuff from data loggers to suspension automators. And if you’re into e-bikes that’s a whole new world of weird and wonderful range gain, weight loss, rider/equipment interaction tech or motor hiding innovation to explore.
For sure mountain biking doesn’t have anything like the heritage or mass recognition of road racing, but does that actually add anything? Well, beyond the traditional instance on having races so long that the vast majority of most races are wasted grinding out non-combative miles in the hope something interesting happens in the final fractions. Even the basic physics of slipstreams and aerodynamics punish aggressive or attacking riding compared to sitting in wheels and hiding. No wonder a huge proportion of 200km+ races are decided in the last 200m. That’s like watching downhillers riding all the way to the top of Fort William on fire roads for several hours, rolling down the course in a bunch trying to get to the front without crashing each other out and then deciding who wins on the last jump. Perhaps no surprise then that the one bit of road racing that everyone raved about last year was Tom Pidcock attacking on a descent before winning up the Alpe D’Huez. The same current Olympic and European MTB champion who clearly loved being back on dirt in Chur last weekend ahead of the first World Cup XCO in a few days time.
Those XCO races are generally flat out, heart in mouth excitement from the holeshot into the first corner, up every multi line techy climb or bike and rider at the limit descent. That's XC we're talking about too, not the 'how do they even ride that, let alone at insane speeds' world of enduro and DH racing. Plus there's an ever bigger world of freeride/slopestyle/trials competition or just steezy riding to feast on outside of pure racing.
Despite plenty of evidence in the form of miserable looking faces hunched over drop bars when I’m heading to and from the trails, I’m not going to trot out the old ‘roadies are just boring’ line here. We won’t even dwell on the fact that mountain biking as we know it was started by a bunch of Californian roadies who got bored of life on the black top and started modifying beach cruisers to go off-road. Because while road clubs and groups do seem to be a lot keener on official groups with rigid rules, traditions and admin addiction than notoriously hard to herd mountain bikers, I also know lots of interesting and entertaining people who ride road bikes. Somehow they’re never the people I end up alongside on the occasional times I forget myself and end up on a group ride though. And crucially, if you find yourself in a peloton alongside someone as interesting as drying paint, there’s no escaping them unless you climb in a descend in a way that’s likely to get you a telling off by some self-appointed drop bar dictator.
In contrast, if you want to chat to someone on a fire road climb when mountain biking then for sure you can, but most of the time it’s full gas on the trails and then gassing about it at the stops between sections or in the pub afterwards – when everyone is stoked on the ride or buzzing from surviving a sketchy moment not just talking about their FTP.
So while you might see me on a road bikes a few times a year when I fancy going for a ride without it being work or just cant be bothered to do a ton of cleaning afterwards, when it comes to fun riding and racing on fascinating tech I’ll always be a mountain biker at heart.