Monday, September 17, 2007

Mountain Bikes: Who Needs Them?

Mountain Bikes: Who Needs Them? An Inveterate Roadie Provides a Techno-Backlashian Perspective

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Bicycle Guide Magazine, February 1993. Photos by Bob Schenker.

I routinely dust every mountain biker I encounter on the trail. And I ride a road bike.

Furthermore, I think, no, I know, the mountain bike is the most over-rated, most improperly used, most over-built, and most greedily promoted piece of hardware to hit the sport and fitness industry in modern history. Ninety-nine percent of the miles ridden by 99% of the mountain bikes could, and should, be ridden on the first and only real all terrain bike, the 'road bike.' More bluntly, a road bike is equal to or better than a mountain bike if ridden with skill like I have.

Blasphemy, you say? Don't think you could possibly ride off pavement without monster knobbies, suspension, enough titanium for an ICBM, and enough gears for at least two whole bikes? Don't be a trained parrot by thinking this and don't let the greedy hawkers control your thoughts and your pocket-book! Simply put, invest in some skills, some style, some finesse, and some balls (girls included), not more over-hyped bike junk.

Read it, learn it, and live it: 'Technique beats technology any time, anywhere.' And that's what I deadpan to every nimwit mountain biker who asks me how I managed to blow him away without tweaking my wheels and cracking my frame.

And before you write in that I'm just some elitist roadie with a penchant for ATB-bashing, let me offer my credentials for having a credo worth splashing across this page: I've raced the Alaskan Iditabike three times and have set solo and tandem 24 Hour off-road cycling records. Off-dirt I've raced the Race Across America twice (9th in '87), two Ironmans, and broken numerous distance records, including San Francisco to Los Angeles. Importantly, I practice what I preach.

And guess what? For 99% of the riding I do off-road, I'll opt for a 'road bike' over a 'mountain bike' any day of the week. And while much of my off-roading is on fire roads (like 99% of you, as you too live in metropolitan areas where single track is banned or non-existent), my dirt rides include gnarly tree roots, sand, gravel, exposed rock slab, insane uphills and downhills, and other 'challenging surface irregularities.' The trick is that I know how to ride and I don't separate myself from the riding surface with a bunch of unnecessary technology.

You see, unlike most cyclists, I can distinguish between 'want' and 'need' when it comes to choosing equipment for my daily training and adventure excursions. I also have a healthy enough ego that I don't need to try to outdo the next guy or gal by having the latest gimmicky bike gear. (Beauty is only skin-deep, but studly goes all the way to the bone.) By the way, I almost never get a flat and I've never needed to true my trusty Wheelsmith wheels.

Here's why you should park your mountain bike at least some of the time and start venturing out on skinny tyres. If you don't have a road bike to do this, then at least install 1.15' or 1.25' slicks or inverted tread tyres and set your derailleurs so you can't use the wimp ring (granny gear) or the cogs bigger than 23 teeth. (By the way, these tyres, along with bar ends and multi-position bars, clipless pedals, not to mention whole ATBs that weigh only 20 to 25 pounds, are all evidence that mountain bikes are techno overkill. These are simply efforts to roadify the mountain bike!)

10 reasons to get skinny in the dirt

1) You'll get used to a little slip and slide under your tyres; then when you hit the pavement or return to the trail with knobbies you'll be astounded by the traction and confidence you suddenly command.

2) You'll be forced to actually pay attention to your line, thus developing better seeing skills and eye-body coordination.

3) This forced attention span will educate you immeasurably about trail surfaces, sands, soils, erosion, even geology, flora, and fauna. In other words, you'll learn to ride with the land, not over it.

4) Your skinny tyres will leave less of an imprint and impact on the trails.

5) You'll marvel at how much faster you can ride on flats, rollers, and most uphills, compared to your full-blown ATB, once you shed all that excess weight, rolling resistance, and weird positioning. I.E., you'll dust the fat tyre 'flyers' like I do all the time.

6) You'll realize that you really can soak up the bumps and dramatically alter your bike's riding characteristics on demand, rather than having your suspension (try to) do it all for you. This is called Body English and it's about time that you really became fluent, rather than only packing a few token phrases like some 'Ugly American' tourist.

7) You'll discover that there's more to the fun factor than seeing how fast you can blast a downhill in a park overflowing with hikers, equestrians, and forest rangers. In so doing, you'll dramatically increase our common survival potential in a world that abhors the mountain bike and all its connotations.

8) Gone will be the days that it's a total drag, literally, to ride to and from the trail head. No longer will you be smoked by the roadies while plodding the pavement, nor will you pollute the ecosphere by driving to the trail head anymore.

9) You'll actually have the nerve to venture down a trail that you discover while out road riding. In fact, you'll quit even thinking of 'road rides' or 'dirt rides.' A ride's a ride and a bike's a bike. It's what you make of them that counts.

10) Finally, you'll learn once and for all that technology is a crutch, not an asset, and that it truly detracts from your life experience on and off the bike.

Here you have it, my friends. Take off the blinders and see the truth in what I have presented to you here. Become great cyclists and develop skills that you won't believe. Then when you do that 1% of your cycling that actually requires a 'real ATB' (say, Slick Rock or Pearl Pass), you'll have the skills to accompany and match all that over-priced technology beneath you.

Get skinny. I dare you!

Sidebar: Customize Your Road Bike

Originally published with "Mountain Bikes: Who Needs Them?" in Bicycle Guide Magazine, February 1993 under the title "Kostmanize Your Road Bike" (That was not MY title; the editor, Roy Wallack, did that, just to get further under the skin of all the mountain bikers. It worked.)

Kostmanize Your Bike

Stock: Ride your stock road bike, exactly as is, off-road. Use minimalist technology and maximal skill for ultimate fun and technique development. I did this for a full year with an Alan Carbonio with Kestrel EMS fork, Aerolite pedals, and Scott Drop-In bars.

Pro-Stock: Slightly modify your road bike with bar end shifters, an extra wrap of bar tape on the drops, clips and straps on regular pedals (remember those?), and 28mm tyres. Your steed will be significantly more functional, both on and off road, and no slower, just like my Bridgestone RB-1.

Super-Stock: Trick out your road bike usefully and increase its durability dramatically by getting Wheelsmith wheels (32 hole is plenty) with Ritchey rims, sealed hubs like Specialized or Ringlé; sealed bottom bracket like Grafton; and an equally service-free headset by Chris King. Utilize sensible technology; eliminate maintenance. Get stuff that's built to last. Own technostuff actually worth drooling for.



Mutai said...

My bro rocks the cycling world again!

Anonymous said...

You are either seriously nuts, or wrote this whole thing tongue-in-cheek.

Michael Ballard said...

Today, I went for a ride in the Mt Laguna area. I started in Pine Valley, rode up Pine Creek Road, then up the Noble Canyon Trail (not from the bottom, from lowest road crossing), then up to Sunrise Highway, then back down the Big Laguna Trail through to Sunrise Highway again, then back down to Pine Valley. I ride a cyclocross bike. Freedom isn't really known until you have realize that you DIDN'T have it before, and riding a cyclocross bike gives you freedom. I don't consider road conditions anymore. I just ride. I may even sell my mountain bike.

kfg said...

I just came back from a ride that wasn't the least bit epic, but it was a Bit-O-Fun. Up a bit of river valley gorge on a one lane dirt and rock road that's pretty washed out at the moment; then back down again. No logs across the way, but a Bit-O-Treeage from the very self-same storms that washed it out.

It's a shame I was the only one out, because it mighta been a bit of a hoot to see people's reactions as I blasted past them (both up and down) on today's mount.

A modern "Dutch" style, rigid fork city U frame, with Grip King pedals, high rise bars and good, old fashioned, white wall cruiser tires. One speed, one coaster brake, one mind. That's how the whole "mountain bike thang" started, remember?

Total investment so far, with everything purchased NEW; hunert'n fifty bucks (the post and saddle are, for the moment, borrowed from my Redline 925, which I also do the dirt on, often shod with 28mm slicks).

I'm having a real hard time trying to figure out why I couldn't ride the thing in the GDR, and to reasonably good effect even. It's not about the bike.

San Diego Neanderthal said...

It's all about riding. Not about conformity. Ride a unicycle if you want. Or a road bike. Or a tricycle. Or a downhill bike. But enjoy the ride and tolerate others' choices.

wolfe23 said...

Jes be sure and use a cassette rear wheel, and not a freewheel if ye can... Last month, I missed a ride down by LadyBird Lake (in Austin, Tx where I used to live, and be visitin again)... I was on an olde 80's Raliegh I had ridden up from Houston (on which I may have already bent thee rear axle)... I decided to go around thee hike and bike trail, when I ended up near thee trailhead for thee Barton Creek greenbelt... this is where my adult love of biking really all began back in thee early 90's... I had to take it... got quite a ways too before finally bustin thee rear axle in two... was seriously tranportation limited for thee next 3-4 days afore I got it fixed back up at Yellow Bikes...

Johnny said...

Real interesting perpective on off road riding you have there. I have sold many an old steel bike and never thought about just throwing knobbies on one of them and taking it out to the trail. We have some flat singletrack out here in Texas hill country. I personally would stay away from the rocky terrain and steep dips and crossings on a road bike. These are things I would normally ride on my mountain bike without giving it a second thought. I'm not sure I could say the same on skinnys.There would be alot of dismounting involved. I plan to get a singlespeed cross bike this year or throw knobbies and fenders on my 10 speed. Let you know how it goes.

Unknown said...

Yeah... me and my buddy Doug invented mountain biking back in 1976 in Tucson, AZ. We rode everywhere, desert, roads, gravel, singletrack on road bikes with the fattest tires we could find and our drop bars up 180 degrees... totally hearing you man.
Although, I must admit I dig my rigid Niner MCR - rather run skinny's on that one than offroad my road machine.

Anonymous said...

Invented underbiking?
You and many others before you "invented" it. I think discovering it is far more likely for all of them. What did kids with hand-me-down ten-speeds do?
Rode them on trails in the woods!
And the they keep doing it.

Unknown said...

yeah, yeah, yeah... and I'm sure Michael Jordan thinks any nitwit can dunk a basketball, and swish a 3-pointer with 3 defenders hanging on him. Obviously you're very talented - I commend you. But to think that 99% of people can (or would want to) do what you do is very misguided. Fact is mountain bikes (and mountain biking) has brought many people into cycling (both total newbies and folks that gave up on road riding years ago because it was either viewed as unsafe, or was uncomfortable) and that is a very good thing. Road bikes are indeed the best tool for road riding. Can one ride technical trails on a road bike? Sure, just watch the Martin Ashton Youtube videos. I'm sure there are people out there that can fell a tree with a hammer (or should I say herring?). Me? I'd prefer to use a chain saw...

Graham Austin said...

I've been riding farm tracks, canal tow paths and even sheep tracks across the moors on my bike since I was a kid. I guess it was a road bike because MTBs hadn't been invented then. You talk a lot of sense. Of course there is a place for MTBs on technical courses but most mountain bikes get ridden on the road in the Uk or on the tracks I use my everyday bike on.
It's a bit like all those folks who "need" a 4x4 when a normal car will usually do the job quite adequately - except in extremis.