The basic concept here is mountain biking is getting larger, in several ways:
Larger MTB population
Firstly, during lockdown a whole lot of people discovered that the outdoors is a great place to be for a bunch of reasons, and some of those people discovered this on mountain bikes. This accelerated a trend of more people being out in the wild who don’t have the skills or basic outdoor education that a lot of old-school mountain bikers have. To be honest, that’s a whole can of worms to be discussed at length another day, and it’s also worth noting that in early lockdown at least it was the explosion of people riding locally that was the big change. So for the purpose of this piece I’m concentrating on the fact that the same lack of knowledge also applies to bikes. Particularly the ambient level of technical appreciation of the finer points of bike design, suspension and geometry that fanatics like us get all twisted up over.
Bigger MTB population
The second element of the ‘bigger picture’ is that riders themselves - like most of the human population - are getting bigger. That’s been obvious in the way I’ve been finding my old standard choice of medium clothes for tests orbiting further out from my bones than normal for several years. It really seemed to jump up a belt notch this year though, with me questioning whether some brands were using maternity guides for their garments. So I dug into the background of this a bit and no, those clothes that didn’t fit weren’t scaled off expectant mums, they were sized off the go-to ‘standard population’ templates. Inevitably there was a ripple of indignant outrage around my tester and riding mates who social media huddled together for our own self-justifying ‘safety’. It didn’t take long to subside when we started looking around and realised that carrying a significant layer of adipose insulation is far more common than looking like one of those pictures that the RSPCA uses to make you feel sorry for abandoned dogs and donkeys.
The E of the Equation
It’s fair to say that all these situations are getting accelerated by e-bikes too. By adding a motor and battery, you instantly lower the previous exercise history entry point for getting out onto the trails. An extra 250w of power (basically the output of an average rider) also makes it a lot easier to get off the couch and cruise up contours however much the couch is breathing a sigh of relief in your absence.
At this point the entire Focus (you’ll see why that’s capitalized shortly) on what bike to get naturally becomes the power of that motor and the size of the battery because that’s by far the most important thing. Not the geometry (what even is that?), the suspension kinematics (isn’t that German for things to do with movies?), and almost certainly not the nuances signified by suffixes like ‘Elite’ or ‘Charger R’ rather than ‘Charger II’ or the difference between acronyms like XT or SLX.
Where there is an interest shown in the bike it’ll naturally tend to be at the interface point. So wireless shifters are a big win over whatever the actual name is on the mechs they’re moving and a clever display or a grip with an embedded haptic is more likely to grab attention than an extra dial on a shock they don’t understand. Cables that are hidden away rather than looking like ‘that’ drawer full of knotted chargers, shoe laces, zip ties, etc. that every home is scared of.
It also means a shift in brand recognition which helps manufacturers like Bosch who already have a reputation across power tools, automotive and even kitchen appliances compared to a major MTB player who’s never bothered to dabble in the world of vacuum cleaners. Even in the small bike component gene pool, frequency of appearance pays dividends for the mass market so while fanatics might soil themselves over an Intend fork or a BikeYoke seat post, a newbie is more likely to find comfort in Fox, RockShox or even own-brand bike kit.
The new Focus
And while all of these things have been creeping up on our insular little world of assumed knowledge, deep-dive tech and hand wringing over half a degree here, 5mm of BB drop there, or shock curve plots for quite some time, it really struck home with the latest bike I reviewed.
The lead designer of the Focus Jam2 - Fabian Scholz - also happens to be the German Enduro champion so there’s no doubt the dude knows how to build a seriously rapid race machine. However the whole focus on this 150mm travel e-bike is about helping more people find their ‘Happy Place’, and while that might sound like marketing guff, Focus has really followed it up with not only the bike design but also the equipment choices.
For a start - like the recent human-powered Jam, the bike has a 150kg system weight limit. Not just the frame but the fork, bars, wheels, tires and even the own-branded ‘Post Moderne’ seat post. That’s twice the weight of me ready to ride, but for those riders who fall foul of the general 120kg max load, it’s a huge door opening to enjoying the outdoors.
It’s not just the spec that’s geared towards handling the hammer of bigger riders and/or those more likely to make mistakes or not know how to ‘ride light’ when they hop over stuff, or even recognize when they should either. The handling is a degree or so on this side of the cutting edge of what would make it a proper ripper. It’s also a fair bit higher off the ground than I’d want for scything through turns. The suspension isn’t as progressive or firm in the mid-stroke as I’d want to really push those big Schwalbe tires to the max and moving the shock to the top tube has changed the kinematic slightly. Because it’s a Charger R damper in the Zeb fork and a Performance rather than Performance Elite shock on the rear, there are fewer dials I can get all twisted up over tweaking.
And yes, this means it’s not as suited to what I’d want, and judging by some forum comments we’ve seen that applies to others too. For the huge numbers of potential Jam2 riders who aren’t hovering over the ‘hate’ button on forums, or have the luxury of fresh test bikes being sent to them every week, or the skills or knowledge to use these features, I reckon that Fabian and his team have aced it.
That handling will get you down black triple-black-arrow sections on the infamous Tweed Valley Golfie trails fine but is best suited to the swoop and flow of the red and blues at Glentress, where the steeper angles will help you hook uphill turns with ease and without ‘chasing the wheelbarrow’ wobbles. Huge gobs of traction and easy flow from the suspension mean no worries about knowing when to weight shift or feather the power feedback and there’s plenty of pedal space so it powers up and over almost anything with ease. And while they probably wouldn’t know what to do with those extra damper dials that the Forum falters are baying for, those wireless gears are magic that everyone can appreciate even if they have less than zero interest in your new hobby. They’ll probably like the neat Shimano display tucked behind the bar and the fact the rear brake hose and wires disappear into the bike via the mouth of the unique CIS stem. In fact, they might like how smart bikes are now so much that they’ll start thinking about getting one themselves. Especially after how much healthier and happier you seem after riding yours.
And at the risk of getting canceled by the righteously rad, I’m even a big fan of the tiny two bolt hole tab built into the offside rear dropout so you can fit a kickstand. Because being able to get off a 25kg bike and leave it stood up rather than having to heave it back off the ground every time will be a big deal to a lot of riders whose previous bike experience is probably just a town bike or maybe even a ‘real’ motorbike.
So while the big changes that are happening in mountain biking might see some changes to some bikes that the fanatics might not appreciate, it’s back to playing the record I’m worrying about wearing out. More people of all shapes, sizes and experience getting into mountain biking is an awesome thing in terms of recognition within the outdoor, political and socio-economic sphere (yeah we’re talking the REALLY important things for growing our sport, here). Or as Focus might put it, the more people being able to find their ‘Happy Place’ is something to be really happy about.