There is an oft repeated argument around the ‘perfect mountain bike’. One corner leads with “burly hardtail, fat tyres, sodding great fork, job done,” while the full suspension sluggers fight back with “faster, longer, bigger”. And the argument is never complete until the one geared jihad have waded in with some nonsense, and a platoon of internet warriors boast of conquering the world’s most difficult trails on a skateboard. While blindfolded.
It’s a pointless argument for so many reasons, but let’s start with this – you’re all wrong because I am right. Firstly, taking a bike into the mountains has much more to do with your head than all the technological marvels carrying it. And secondly, if we spent a little less time posturing, worrying and prevaricating, we may find entire vistas of unexplored difficulty opening up. It was in exactly that vein that I took my middling trail bike to a downhill course, mainly in the spirit of seeing what might happen next.
Oh sure, I lamented the sale of my oh-so-capable freeride rig, beefed up with coil shocks and burly gussets, made ready to be hurled down mountains. And I cursed my ever-weakening back preventing a heroic assault on the hill with my little hardtail. Run what you brung, as they say. My Pace 405 isn’t some big-hitting downhill bike, nor is it a whippet thin razor – no it’s a pleasing collection of tubes with some nice middle rank stuff hanging off it. A bit like what you may ride.
It did look a bit weedy on the uplift truck, sandwiched between nine inches of travel and headtubes the width of my head. Which thankfully was encased in a full face helmet and accessorised by as much armour as I could squeeze between me and some savage looking scenery. I felt under-biked and over-sensitive as the truck puffed up a thousand feet of forestry road. Twenty minutes of increasing nervousness was only slightly offset by seeing my usually animated friends quiet and introspective, clearly feeling the same.
Finally we spilled out as the road ended and the course began. Much messing about with kit gave the proper downhillers ample time to rocket out of sight and my sphincter to achieve full travel before we even got close to following them. Two options presented themselves (not counting the third – a simulated pulled hamstring and medical retirement); the super steep and technical black, or the still steep but slightly less lethal looking red.
We took the red and were immediately catapulted into a complex of jumps and berms banging the suspension against the stops and doing something similar to my heart. The fear is now real, not knowing if what comes next will be too big, too fast, too hard for your trail skills. With that fear come adrenalin shots triggering a throwback fight or flight response. And what the next five minutes need are a perfect combination of both.
Stand a little taller on the pedals, that’s six more inches of suspension right there, grip the bars but don’t choke them, let your peripheral vision deal with the here and now while you sweep the trail for danger and cool lines. You’re a searchlight not a laser and however counter intuitive it feels, you have to relax everything, stop holding on so tight, leave those brakes until you really need them and feel the earth move you in ways rarely encountered standing up.
We’re out of mellow now and hunting down six consecutive drops, pushing arms out and hips back as the front wheel transitions from dirt to air. Cushion the landings, stay off the binders, the front tyre has quite enough to do chasing grip from under autumn leaves. A nasty root step is next up and you’re determined to get light and be brave, letting the bike find the fast path down. Steep, consecutive hairpins, remember those Alps trips, drop a shoulder, get inside the corner and then back on it, look up, take a breath.
Now it’s just silly fast, over anti-gravity rocks and perfect lips. You’re not the earthbound misfit you thought you might be, but nor are you a gravity God as the shriek of a shredding downhill bike explodes from behind you. Jesus, that’s insanely quick through there and he’s double the height off that jump. Forget that, get this – three more drops, the last one doesn’t roll even with a bash ring, time to pucker up to Miss Bravery again and let the bike do more than you think it ever could while taking you with it.
So far, still alive with nothing bottled. But if you start taking liberties for just one second, this course will hurt you for hours. Even after seven runs, show the kind of contempt that familiarity brings and you’ll taking your teeth home in a bag. But you’re freebasing that line of dopamine between fear and joy, confidence surging – push harder into turns, run faster into jumps and finally understand what ‘railing’ a berm might feel like.
But you’re not done because the big drop that’s sent you scurrying to the chicken line is coming right up. You’ve done bigger but it’s a blind entry and a rocky transition. Don’t commit and you’re wearing a tree at speed, go big and you could end up anywhere. Although probably no longer co-located with your bike.
It’s time to extend yourself with that extra inch of confidence and push a little harder into the adrenal zone. Seeing a real downhiller switch right to the easy line stokes your ego and you’re accelerating into the entry – big move back, lots and lots of silence before everything bottoms out from forks to ankles. Bit sketchy, you’ll languidly tell your mates, but really you were shitting the bed back there.
Ninety seconds left and it’s all good. Sky the “punter” braking lines with a decisive move over a handy lump, push the bike hard into ten foot berms and feel the tyres first compress and then fire you out of the turn. Don’t lose that speed, let it run you whisper, let it bloody run, if it ends here, it ends but let it run. This is what this stupid sport is about, right here and right now. Touch the brakes and the spell is broken, the magic is gone for good. But the next berm is way too fast for your reactions, nearly spitting you out, but somehow you’ve held it while your mind’s eye is playing the big crash on a loop.
Attack that last jump, grin, you finally hit it right, go high and right, lining up the bridge, take a double deep breath and feel the ground go one way while you go another. Just time to make the berm, swing round the huge double and barrel into the finish. You’ve beaten your best time, been thrashed by all the real downhillers and ridden a rollercoaster of bravery from knowing you’re bottling it to being absolutely convinced you’re about to have a big one. Smooth one second, ragged as hell the next, five minutes that simply define the difference between living and existing. And in those three hundred seconds, not once did you wonder if you had the right bike, the appropriate suspension settings, the pimpiest bar or the best tyres. Because you were far too busy riding.
That’s what it feels like on a trail bike. For me it wouldn’t get much better on a DH monster – my bravery and skill are not the high water mark here. And it doesn’t matter that I am nowhere as good as it feels I must be. That’s where we came in. Mountain biking is mostly in your head, so if you’re having a good time in there, you’re having a bloody fantastic day.
So walk away from the argument, leave the emperor to his new clothes and take your head for a ride down a mountain. Don’t listen to those who tell you your bike isn’t good enough or you don’t have the skills to try something a little different. Forget lusting after what you don’t need and spend the time instead scaring yourself to the point of extreme giggling.
You’ll never be quite the same again.