By Vernon Felton
Try as you might, there's just no fighting some things: death, taxes, a dozen or so enjoyable activities that the Old Testament tried to kibosh and, when it comes to cycling, technological progress.
First, allow me to state the obvious: The bike doesn't make the rider. The rider makes the rider. Somewhere right now, a guy on a creaking heap equipped with nothing fancier than a set of rainbow spokey-dokes is absolutely humbling another guy on the latest carbon-fiber wonder machine.
Legs, lungs and courage are what truly matter, not gear…though it's becoming easier to lose sight of that with every passing day.
We live in a world of constant upgrades in which today's Next Big Thing quickly becomes tomorrow's Lamest Thing Ever. It wasn't always this way. For the first decade and a half we all basically rode burly road bikes with flat bars. The big innovations? Clipless pedals, indexed shifting, mullets and neon paint jobs. Technological evolution moved at a snail's pace.
Somewhere back in the mid 90s, however, that all changed. Why? Some people have argued that the Clinton-era slump in the military industrial complex left a lot of smart guys unemployed and that some of them steered their slide rulers and big brains over to the bike industry. All I know is this: Mountain bikes have been in a state of constant flux ever since.
As a consumer, this can be frustrating as hell. There's no end to the press launches–which happen all year long now, constantly ushering forth something new and awesome every few months. For some riders, however, it all sounds less like "Hey, here's something new and great!" and more like "Remember that new and great thing we sold you last year? Yeah, that was complete shite. Good luck finding replacement parts for it, but here's something else really expensive for you to blow your wad on!"
When you dump between $2,400 and $9,000 on a high-quality mountain bike, you may not expect it to remain The Pinnacle of Bitchen-ness forever, but you probably didn't expect it to become the butt of jokes within three seasons. Sometimes it's hard not to feel like you got, you know, a little screwed. Screwed by the manufacturers who told you that you just bought the best bike they ever created and by the magazine/website hacks who screamed like little girls that your new bike was the best-est thing they'd ever, ever ridden.
But here's the thing. Speaking as a writer who's penned my fair share of both damning and effusive reviews, when we hacks write that a bike has blown our minds, we mean it. It's not that we're starved for experience or are easily impressed by anything with a carbon-fiber handlebar or Kashima-coated shock, it's this: Bikes really are evolving at a phenomenal rate and they really do keep getting better.
Example: When I moved up to western Washington six years ago, I knew my daily rides were suddenly going to get a lot steeper and rockier. I'd need a rig with more travel, a long-travel fork and the kind of bombproof build that could withstand month after month of being ridden hard and put away wet. I got a Giant Reign X and it was an excellent bike–6.7 inches of travel, a piggyback shock, Fox 36 fork–all the trimmings. I think it weighed 34 pounds, which was considered lightweight back then. I slogged it up hill and dale. I was happy.
Today, I'm riding a Giant Trance Advanced SX. While it doesn't boast the sheer travel of my old Reign X, it is just as capable on the descents, absolutely humiliates the Reign X on climbs, rolling terrain and, well, anytime I'm actually turning a pedal and—get this—it weighs 8 friggin' pounds less.
Eight pounds is a hell of a lot of boat anchor to cleave off while somehow also making the bike better in every possible way. What's more, the Trance Advanced SX isn’t even trying to compete on the same playing field as my old Reign X–my new rig is an uber-capable trail bike that just happens to descend as well as my old lightweight gravity rig. My new bike, in other words, is so good that it actually transcends what a trail bike was supposed to be capable of a few years ago.
You can see examples of that all the time. Guys riding 4-inch-travel 29ers on North Shore trails that were once strictly the domain of obese freeride rigs, racers getting to the podium in downhill competitions aboard all-mountain rigs. Bikes aren't just lighter, stiffer and sexier–they improved so much better that the best of them allow you to do things you'd never thought possible.
And there's no slowing the technology train. Go ahead, buy a fixie, start lubing your bolts with bees wax and invest in a pair of rigid forks and mustache bars. You can protest all you want, but you can't fight the march of technological progress. Just wait–in five months the 2015 Buyers Guides will start hitting mailboxes and they'll brim with bikes that boggle the mind with their utter rad-ness.
This may piss you off. Maybe you just bought a new bike a month ago and are annoyed that it's now loaded with the ‘wrong’ wheels, or a shock lacking Indy 500 technology or a crank with one too many chainrings. If that's the case, breathe deep and repeat after me: The bike doesn't make the rider. The rider makes the rider.
Go out. Ride your bike. It doesn't matter whether it's new, old, singlespeed, geared, rigid or rocking monster-truck quantities of suspension…Are you having fun? Cool, you're doing it right. That's all that matters.
But when you do decide to upgrade somewhere down the road…here's the good news: bikes, brakes, forks…they'll all be better. I, for one, don't see any reason to fight that.