By Vernon Felton
We mountain bikers spend an inordinate—no, make that a ridiculous—amount of time obsessing about gear. You can say that's true of any male-dominated recreational pursuit, but our staff works in a building packed with magazine editors who write for similar "action sports" rags and our sheer geek-i-tude simply eclipses all others.
Yeah, surfers are particular about board shaping and snow sport types are about as clannish as it comes (will the snowboarder/skier feud ever really end?), but the many surfers, skateboarders, skiers, snowboarders, kayakers, paddle boarders and sundry assorted sporty types in our office are befuddled by the way we mountain bikers can quack on about compression damping, the size of our thru axles, the durometer of our favorite tire compound and the exact amount of sweep and rise in our favorite set of bars.
No one can waste their life away, debating whether or not angular contact bearings are actually superior to radical cartridge bearings in hub shell applications, like a mountain biker can.
We are crazy about gear. Crazy being the operative term here.
And I'm not going to pretend that I am an exception to the rule. I've spent the past 17 years pinpointing tiny flaws in product design and then kvetching about it from the tallest mountaintops. I've basically made a living of being that jerk. I can spend several days arguing over whether 8-speed XTR was actually superior to the 9-speed version. Shoot, I've been resigned about the inevitable domination of 650b for three years now, but the demise of the 26-inch wheel still keeps me sleepless some nights. And, no, I'm not exaggerating…I can be that pathetic.
But none of it actually matters. Here's the truth—and it's a simple matter of math—a shitty bike plus an awesome trail equals an amazing day of riding. Conversely, a great bike plus a crappy trail equals a day that would have been better spent flossing your toenails.
This is formally expressed:
ƒ (SB + AT) = HY
Where input SB equals Shitty Bike, input AT equals Awesome Trail, & output HY equals Hell Yeah (alternately, "an amazing day of riding").
THE NEXT GREAT THING…IS SOMETHING YOU BUILD
Mountain bike technology advances at an amazing pace these days. It's a truly awesome thing. Who'd have imagined five years ago that we'd have 34-pound, carbon-fiber downhill bikes with 10 inches of travel? The prospect would have seemed an utter impossibility, yet that bike exists today and it shares space with countless magic carpet-plush, yet tough-as-nails, race-rocket enduro bikes and all manner of truly mind-blowing chunks of technology.
These bikes are great.
Believe me, riding a well-sorted, state-of-the-art wünder-toy is fun as hell. But you could also take an absolute pile of shit down Porcupine Rim in Moab and (assuming the brakes work), still have the time of your life. It's a great trail and while it'd be nice to ride the latest-greatest rig down that famous swath of dirt and rock, the truth is many of us had the times of our lives riding that slice of Moab on crappy, rigid bikes saddled with spongy cantilever brakes and nightmarishly awkward geometry.
Think about it: Did your own pivotal moment aboard a bike—the one that first Shanghai'd your soul and transformed you into a cyclist—occur while you were pedaling the best bike possible? Probably not. Most of us were riding wobbly hunks of crap… and yet we still managed to fall in love with fat tires and the greasy chain.
It was never about the bike.
It's about the dirt, the friends, the thrill. And perhaps most of all, it's about the trail.
I was reminded of this the other day as I rode Dog Patch, a relatively recent addition to my local trail system. I'm not sure why I love this particular bit of singletrack so much—maybe because it's a bit of a throwback. Dog Patch is not steep. There are no drops or doubles or other currently cool trail features. Dog Patch, however, has this great sense of flow with just the right amount of twists and turns that'll keep anyone on their A-game. The trail is awesome on a singlespeed, and on a cross-country bike…and a trail bike and well, any bike, really. You could cruise Dog Patch with your mother-in-law at walking speed and have a great time. Or you could absolutely hammer the whole thing at race pace and be just as happy with it. But really, it doesn't matter what you're riding, so long as you are riding.
Every time I finish riding a trail like that, it gets me thinking: If most of us mountain bikers invested as much time improving our trails as we did shopping for that next upgrade or tweaking our suspension or obsessing over the latest trend in wheel size, all of us would have great trails to ride. I don't want to get too touchy feely and all kumbaya on you here, but what if each of us committed ourselves to spending one solid weekend this year improving our trails?
It's still early in the season. Many of the Mother Theresa trail crew types are really just starting to crank it up in most corners of the country. Now is the time to get out there and help them out. Volunteer. Do some digging at the local dirt jumps. Improve the drainage on that one section of trail that's always a boggy mess. Help transform that shitty climbing turn into a proper switchback. Here's my proposal: Let's stop obsessing about gear for a couple months and let's focus on what's truly important—our trails.