by Mark Alker
April 17, 2014
One of the longest serving UK bike journalists, and Singletrack bike tester and columnist, Steve Worland died of a heart attack while out running on Saturday 29th March. This week’s Throwback Thursday features his thoughts on the virtue of ignoring the gear and just getting on with the ride, which was originally published in Singletrack issue 72.
As a regular magazine bike tester I’ve probably spent far too much time over the last couple of decades trying to compose reader-friendly new ways of describing how bikes feel. But how much does it really matter?
Don’t expect to learn a lot from this. It’s a stream of consciousness that might be more confusing than revealing. But if it makes anyone realise that getting out on a bike, any bike, is better than worrying about whether the bike is good enough then I’ve achieved something useful.
There was a time when any collection of mountain bikes could be separated into good, bad or average… with value for money thrown in as an afterthought. But most mountain bikes are good these days… at least, good in varying degrees… so the job of a mountain bike tester, and of the bike industry at large when their marketing spiel is honest, is to try to describe bikes in terms of what sort of rider they will suit. And that’s where difficulties begin, because a lot of us tend to be several types of rider all rolled into one. Given half a chance is there anyone out there who wouldn’t honestly choose to have a quiver of different bikes to suit mood swings and trail types as well as their real or aspirational ride abilities?
The minutiae that sets one bike apart from any other is crucial to some riders and totally irrelevant to others. Each attitude has merits, but I’ve always been quietly aware that all that really matters behind all the clever sales spiels, the technology, the expense and the brand status of any bike is whether the rider is enjoying the time, the place, the company and the buzz of the ride itself.
Provided your body shape and your ride of choice are a reasonably good size match you can enjoy riding almost anything you can pedal, and a few things you can’t. Those fat-wheeled scooter things cropping up in Alpine resorts can deliver almost the same buzz as a decent downhill bike once you’ve got the hang of staying off the brakes and learnt that rapid-step-count ‘breaking into a sudden run’ bailing technique in panic scenarios.
The minutiae that sets one bike apart from any other is crucial to some riders and totally irrelevant to others.
Granted, aspects of enjoying a ride involve enjoying how the bike is behaving. But it’s amazing how quickly you can start getting used to a bike that feels all wrong when you first get on it. That’s the bit that gets really complicated to put into words, or even understand. How can a bike that feels so weird when you first set off on it start to feel okay halfway through the ride? And how is it that a bike that feels amazing to one rider can feel underwhelming, intimidating or even down-right scary to another. I’ve been on many group ‘test’ rides where a bike that I feel inclined to describe as superb seems to develop an inexplicable personality clash with a particular rider in the group, sending them sprawling into the undergrowth at every opportunity.
Actually, it’s not that remarkable that every single bike still feels a bit different, because most of the small differences that you feel instantly are down to tyre types and pressures, ride position and handlebar shape, and fortunately such things are easy to change regardless of whether a bike costs £500 or £5000. If any of those small differences are upsetting the way a bike feels, it’s usually because you’re used to something else. Only you can decide how long you’re going to persevere with something that initially feels odd.
You can go through a whole life of cycling setting up every bike to feel exactly like the last one, or you can keep an open mind and persevere with stuff that feels different. My feeling is that persevering with stuff that feels initially odd is well worth it. You haven’t lost anything if you try a handlebar with a 45deg backsweep, because you can always go back to something less radical. But I know riders who’ve felt very uneasy with radical changes in handlebar shapes at first but have then grown to love them, sometimes finding that they can for the first time in years finish a ride with no wrist and back pain. The handlebar thing is only an example. The same can apply to saddle shapes, stem reach, tyre sizes/pressures and any number of geometry tweaks.
Actually, geometry tweaks are the strangest opinion-splitters of all.
Most of us have read and absorbed a fair few opinions about geometry and, for example, what head angle is thought to work best for particular purposes or with certain suspension forks. But a working head angle that’s a degree or two slacker or steeper than the 69deg you may be used to riding is almost irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. By the time you’ve finished the first outing on a new bike you’ll be completely used to the slight difference in the way the bike feels compared to the one you initially judge it by.
So what am I saying? I started off by claiming that the bike itself doesn’t have to matter, now I’m going on about the tiny things that might influence your ride experience. Well, it’s a ‘degrees of mattering’ thing. You can have a great ride on any bike that’s roughly the right size if everything else about the ride is good. But there are times when you can, and should, be obsessed about tiny detail on something that’s as important to you as your bike is.
Just as it’s the tiny differences between bikes that affect the way you instantly feel about them, it’s the tiny shifts in your position on a bike that start to make it feel good again. Those shifts don’t have to be adjustments. They can be as simple and subtle as the way muscle structures slowly relax to accommodate a new posture that’s different to that of the bike you’ve just climbed off. Think about the way your mind and body are forced to adapt if you swap between a mountain bike and a road bike, or between a rigid single speed and a medium travel full susser. No sane rider would argue that those bikes should all be set up with the handlebar, stem, saddle, pedals and frame geometry the same.
Of course, a lot of the ‘how the bike feels’ thing is in the mind. I’ve noticed that some riders who still proclaim to hate big wheelers are often those who love the way small wheelers allow you to duck and dive with the maximum amount of body language. Look at the best of those riders performing and you’ll soon realise that a lot of that body language is exaggerated for maximum effect. A little exaggerated body language can be a good thing: for example using your arms and legs as extra shock absorption will help you to deal with the bumps, even on the best full suspension bikes. But some body language is for effect. It makes you feel good and look good, provided you don’t get it all wrong and end up launching yourself over the top lip of the berm whose radical pout you are trying to match. I’m thinking here of various magazine cover poses, where the rider is looking just a little more animated than strictly necessary.