Thursday, March 18, 2010

Any Bike, Anywhere: The Rough Rider's Way of Life

Above: The author in 1993, from the Bicycle Guide photo shoot. Photos by Bob Schenker shot on the Westridge Trail above Oakland, CA. Nothing has much changed since then, except the Magnum, p.i. moustache is gone and he's got Hammer Nutrition's HEED and/or Perpetuem in his water bottles now. The pictured Bridgestone RB-1's spirit lives on in Chris' current Rivendell Roadeo.

Any Bike, Anywhere: The Rough Rider’s Way of Life

By Chris Kostman

Originally published by Hammer Nutrition in Endurance News, Edition #68, March 2010. View that version online here.

In the February 1993 issue of Bicycle Guide, I published an article called “Mountain Bikes: Who Needs Them?” which began with this hackle-raising opener:

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

Speaking the truth more fully, I then hooked the readers a little more deeply by continuing thusly:

“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.”

At first, the hate mail poured in, more than for any article ever published in that magazine, with readers calling me “the most arrogant, elitist bastard I’ve ever read” and similar gems. One reader was at such a loss for words that he just sent in a fax of his hand with the middle finger raised.

But then a neat thing happened: Some readers went out and tried my premise. More letters ensued from readers who claimed they had used their road bike to set a new course record at a “mountain bike” hill climb event; others made bigger claims, stating that their lives had been changed, for the better, forever.

Here we are eighteen years later and “Rough Riding,” as it has come to be known, is beginning to come into its own as a particular sub-category of cycling. The motto from my article - “Technique beats technology any time, anywhere.” - has been adopted by innumerable cyclists the world round who have embraced the “any bike, anywhere” ethos. The current bicycle industry, from major manufacturers to boutique frame builders, is beginning to address this niche market, creating bicycles, or even lines of bicycles, under such monikers as "All Road Bikes," "All-Rounders," and "Adventure Bikes." There’s even a Wikipedia page about Rough Riding.

Rough Riding is nothing new, however: Before "mountain bikes," cyclists routinely rode all manner of bicycles on all manner of riding surfaces. They just didn’t know any better, you might say. The oldest known mixed-surface cycling club is the Rough Stuff Fellowship, formed in the United Kingdom in 1955.

That’s not to say Rough Riding is mainstream, of course. In fact, it’s a common misconception that without the "right bike," one simply cannot partake in the wonderful landscape of cycling opportunities. It’s time to set the record straight, though, for any bike can be taken anywhere!

This really isn’t some secret conspiracy that I am blowing the whistle on here, for cyclists the world round take "the wrong bike into the wrong place." Just ride any century ride and you’ll see innumerable mountain bikes and cross bikes being comfortably and happily put to good use in grinding out the 100 miler. (Heck, mountain bikes have even been ridden successfully in 500 mile road races like Furnace Creek 508!)

How does all this work, you ask? It’s simply a case of the rider riding the bike, not the reverse. In other words, let technology work for you or just don’t use the technology in the first place. Think about it: turning cranks in circles is turning cranks in circles. Whether that translates into covering terrain efficiently is entirely up to the skill and strength of the rider. With time, any rider can learn to ride any bike anywhere. The trick is just getting out there and going for it!

Bikes are the ultimate freedom tools: they let you go to more places, more easily, and more simply than any other human invention. But in today’s era of high technology and equipment specialization, they can also seem incredibly limiting.

The Rough Riding philosophy can mean different things to different people. First of all, it can mean that you may not really have to shell out the bucks for a new bike because you only have a "road bike" or a "mountain bike." So this can save you a lot of money. But if you already have both types of bikes, then you can hone your skills for either bike by using the "wrong bike" on various rides.

For example, riding skinny tyres off-pavement will hone your attentiveness, balance, coordination, handling skills, and nerve. Likewise, riding fat tyres on-road will build strength, hill climbing ability, and provide a comfy and largely bullet-proof ride. Rides that combine both environments will become a real treat, allowing you to immediately experience the cross-over benefits firsthand.

Regardless of bicycle choice, the goal of Rough Riding is to tackle any and all possible combinations of trails, fire roads, gravel roads, paved roads, singletrack, and any other possible riding surface - all within one ride, on just one bike. Perhaps the greatest beauty of Rough Riding is that any possible ride route can be created and enjoyed: Rough Riders do not choose between "road biking" and "mountain biking" and subsequently let the bicycle determine the route and terrain of any given ride. Instead, creative, "first ascent-style" rides can be strung together in one epic route which involves all manner of riding surfaces, sights, sounds, and scenes. The Rough Riding goal, perhaps? To see it all and do it all, to truly have an adventure. Try it: your life might be changed forever!
Chris and 99 other Rough Riders will gather in Marin County for the first ever Rough Riders Rally on July 23-25. You’re invited! Info at

Chris Kostman has lived on the endurance path since 1982. Besides competing in races as diverse as the Race Across America, the Triple Ironman, and the 100-mile Iditasport Snowshoe Race, he also organizes endurance events such as the Badwater Ultramarathon and Furnace Creek 508 races, plus a series of four century rides and a five-day cycling retreat in Death Valley. This is his thirteenth article for Endurance News. Learn more at


Dan O said...

I remember reading that article in '93 and was a Bridgestone fan as well. I still have the '91 RB-1 and that jersey in the pic. Very cool.

I'd agree you can do a lot more on a road bike then people realize. On some terrain I'd still agree a road bike (or 'cross bike) may be faster then a mountain bike.

Since that article was written '93 however, the suspension revolution has fully matured and terrain that would fold a road bike wheels in minutes - can be taken at speeds unheard of in '93.

Still - cool concept and fun debate. Thanks.

Alex said...

My son comes mountain biking with me on his redline racing BMX and does quite well. It looks like so much fun. I was thinking of getting a larger BMX bike and trying it myself. Any other Adults done this?