I was reading an interview with Mert Lawwill on the beginnings of bicycle frame suspension last weekend and how he was one of the pioneers in early suspension design of mountain bikes. He got the idea for suspension around 1986 when bombing down a fire road on a rigid bike on Mt. Tam (about the time I started riding on Tam) and thinking to himself how he could go twice as fast downhill if he were on his motorcycle. That’s when it hit him to design suspension into mountain bikes.
I know I have a different perspective than most mountain bikers on this topic, but that is the last thing that goes through my mind when bombing a downhill (on any bike). Actually, i can’t say that I’ve ever had that thought. Yes, he was referring to the suspension part of the motorcycle, but still…why is speed the ultimate goal? For me, mountain biking is not just about the down, but all about the up AND down, and all around.
People have been trying to make mountain bikes go faster for the last 30 or so years. Trying to make them behave more like motorcycles when they are pretty much the opposite – human powered. Two wheels? Check. Handlebars? Check. That’s pretty much where it ends. Oh, they both have seats.
Mountain biking to me is more than just speed, but about the experience of the ride. Going farther than you can go on foot in a shorter amount of time (unless you’re an ultra-runner possibly). I think most of you will agree with that, and we all have different things that make that experience fun. But with suspension as the focus to make mountain bikes more fun…i don’t know…downhills are pretty fun no matter what bike I’m on. Hell, try riding singletrack in the drop bars of a cyclocross bike! It’s crazy how much fun that is! And it’s amazing how fast you can go on a rigid hardtail with practice and experience.
I grew up looking for the occasional hitchhike up up Tam with my bros to bomb down the fireroads on our first generation steel rigid hardtails. “Shuttling” was not termed back then, but it’s pretty much the same idea. But now I look forward to those long climbs and extended technical uphill grunts. I look for places to stop and check out the scenery, have a break, take it all in. On the downhills, I’ll get dropped because I’ll stop – even in the middle of a fun descent – when I see something cool, whether it’s a view, a big tree, a cool flower, or anything that’s unique. Some rides I stop a LOT.
I have nothing against those that love to purely go fast. I understand it, trust me. Even though I have never owned a full-suspension bike beyond a Moots YBB for a couple of years while racing, I understand why people ride them. And I may too some day especially when my back can’t handle a hardtail any longer (actually, i’ll just get a Thudbuster). I can count the number of duallys I’ve ridden on one hand (Santa Cruz Blur, Trek 69er, Fisher Superfly, Specialized Enduro…i think that’s it) and yes they were fun on the downhill…a lot of fun! But that’s not only what I’m about. They also really sucked going uphill. Mostly they seemed to suck my energy. I like to feel the ground, stand up and pedal, and I love to steer over and around obstacles on the down, not plow over stuff without steering. I know I sound like a retrogrouch, and I probably am even though I’m only 39 years old. But who hey…who gives a crap. To me, bikes are not just motorless motorcycles but utilitarian vehicles that are made for riding more than just the down. Pivots, who needs them!? I’ve got my own – elbows, knees, back, and low tire pressure on the 29″ wheels.
The faster I go, the less I see. The less I see, the less I experience of the whole reason I went out for a ride in the first place – to get away from the hurry of life, from cars, from work, from stress, and the stupid computer screen that is making me nearsighted and less able to see those long views of the world I want to explore. So I guess I’m one of the only members of the slow-speed movement, but that’s cool with me.