Updating our best full suspension mountain bikes buyer's guide last week highlighted two things: A – it’s a good job we have an editor (sorry about that particular analogy Rich) and B – that mountain biking might be having a mid-travel crisis.
Goldilocks ain’t no fairy tale
While the Goldilocks cliche promises the best of all worlds, perhaps we should look at the actual realities of the classic bear burglary tale. Not least because everyone only remembers the implausibly happy 'three angry ursines versus one sleeping urchin' ending. They forget the broken baby chair, the burnt tongue, the wasted porridge and the basic issue of home invasion. Perhaps most importantly they miss the really crucial message that the human determination to declare that what WE personally like most as ‘the best’ is fundamentally flawed.
Because if you look around you’ll see that we look a lot more like a group of different sized grizzlys than a parade of picture perfect blonde criminals. And that definitely applies to mountain biking and mid-travel bikes in particular.
Sweet spot or not?
The idea of the magical mid-travel bike comes with its own set of ridiculous, threadbare claims such as “light enough for XC, capable enough for enduro” or “big hit happy but super efficient under power”. I’ve certainly contributed to that pot of codswallop over the years – and probably more recently than I’d like to admit too. But here’s the reality check. Whatever ‘science’ I’ve seen spouted on other sites, or frame stiffness or anti-squat algebra you want to smokescreen it with, a 14-15kg bike doesn’t go uphill as fast as an 11-12kg one. And all the linkages in the world can’t hide the fact that the average 150/160mm travel bike leaves you more margin for error and gives better speed sustain on big bad trails than a 130-140mm travel bike.
It’s all our fault
And the reason that the sweet spot turns sour in so many cases is entirely of our making. Because in the same way that Goldilocks snaps, bitches, squeals and snores her way through a series of unreasonable demands, we do exactly the same with bikes.
We want pop and agility. But we also want lifetime frame warranties and rims that stay round in rock gardens. We want tires that are sticky on descents and don’t pop on drops, but somehow roll like climbs are actually escalators. We want more reach, stiffness and storage but less weight. Longer droppers, coil over or piggy back shocks, adjustable geometry, electric gears, fatter fork legs, on-board telemetry. Want, want, want, want, want. When what we actually need is a slap in the face.
Actually, it’s mostly 'our' fault
And I’m fully aware that when it comes to demanding the impossible, bike reviewers like me are the royalty of the unreasonable. Clinging onto ideals we think should be possible in the same delusional way we promise our editors that we’ll definitely have those words done by that deadline.
Oh the outrage of a bike that weighs more than they say it should. The shame of a shorter travel bike with the same mass as the longer travel one with the same spec. Even though the only major difference might be a linkage. And the truth is that shorter travel frames actually need to be stronger because less suspension means more force transmitted into the structure.
Especially when short/mid-travel bikes are often pitched at ‘progressive, aggressive riders who want to get maximum feedback and reward from their bravery or badness’. And yeah, I probably wrote that a bunch of times too. But TBH that is actually true, because if you've got the skills to pay the bills, you don't need (or want) extra travel to bail you out.
Halfway to hell
And it’s not like I don’t know the almost impossible balance we’re talking about here. Most of my chats with bike designers and brand managers end in the sentence, “but if we did that the shops and our warranty department would hate us”.
In terms of personal bike builds, I’ve tried to lighten mid-travel bikes with XC tires and wheels, then flinched at every rocky water bar. Pushed long reach, featherweight downcountry bikes to the point where they’ve flung me into the far distance like a ‘shatterproof’ ruler. Smiled at the scales and then cursed when front ends have been as accurate as a toddler trying chopsticks. Hated when the balance said 13.5kg not 12.5kg but not wanted to give up the 36 forks or the piggy back shock. Salivated over carbon wheels then realized they weigh more than alloy.
Where mid wins
But the good news is that amongst all the unsuccessful dieting, overweight expectations and a category that seems to be in crisis there are some brilliant bikes. Or to be exact brilliant compromises.
Carefully curated component selections that all freak out at the same clearly communicated point as the frame, rather than one weak link ruining it for everyone. Bikes that skip and sidewind to survive rather than taking a crippling punch to the gut. Mid-travel forks or suspension systems that manage to do magic exactly when you need it, then act all XC the rest of the time. Tires that look like textured inner tubes but somehow sling a corner like a Swing Ball if you dive in on them not doubt them. An MTB misfit/underdog movie where nobody is perfect but they all gang together to bring out the best in each other and beat the bad guys.
And while this clearly doesn’t apply to the clumsy, the Clydesdales, the casers and the ‘hold my beer’ brigade what you’ll often find is that you don’t need nearly as much bike as you think you did. And that having less bike, will often make more of you. And that’s the whole reason why, when a lightweight mid-travel or even lighter ‘downcountry’ bike syncs perfectly with how you ride, that’s probably the best feeling you’ll get on a mountain bike anywhere.