I’m not sure if you have noticed but the mountain biking world has an addiction to technology. And like most addictions, it takes something that can be positive and starts to turn it into something that can hold people back.
No where does this problem come up like it does in the advice we give new riders, especially when it comes to choosing their first bikes. While this may come across as old-fashioned, when I get asked this questions I tell people I strongly believe that everyone should start out on a hardtail (HT) mountain bike before switching to a full-suspension (FS) mountain bike.
Now, I can hear some of you already – James is just a grouchy old rider who feels that everyone should come up like he did as a rider. And while that may be true, I have some very real reasons for feeling this way that go beyond that.
At the heart of everything I do is the maxim “look at what works best off of the bike and then apply it to the bike”, and this includes how someone is introduced to a new activity and set of movements. It is very important that people spend time with what is know as “self-limiting activities” in order to develop good habits that they can build on for the long term.
And on the trail one of the best “self-limiting activities” is riding a hardtail. In this new BikeJames Podcast I go over the reasons I think that applying this mindset to mountain biking is the best way for new – and some old – riders to progress their skills and fitness.
– I think that everyone should use self-limiting methods as much as possible when learning something new.
– In the gym this means free weight and movements that limit how much load you can do based on your mastery of the movement (TGU and Single Leg Deadlift for example) and on the bike this means a using a hardtail. I’d go so far as to add in flat pedals and 26 inch wheels but that is another topic.
– A hardtail forces you to learn how to use your body to absorb impacts on the trail and how to use skill to maneuver your bike up and over things. It also teaches you that if you didn’t make it then it was something you did wrong, not the bike.
– A FS often teach new riders to rely on their suspension to absorb impacts. It also teaches riders to look to their bike for the solution to the problems on the trail.
– Riding around bashing into everything with your FS bike isn’t the same thing as riding a trail with some style and grace.
– Once a rider has spent some time (6 months give or take) on a HT then they will be able to get more out of a full suspension bike. It will also save them some money on their first bike, which is just going to get beat to shit anyways.
– The problem is that the mindset of putting new riders on a FS bike right off the bat – especially in areas that don’t have a lot of rocky, technical riding – stems from a larger problem in the mountain bike industry.
– At its core, this problem is what mountaineering legend Mark Twight called “replacing skill and courage with cash and equipment. They make the summit, not the style, the yardstick of success”.
– We should be telling new riders that it is alright to suck at first and that we don’t expect anything out of them. They should be taught that building their skill and courage will allow them to make better use of technology when the time comes.
– A FS also gives some riders a false sense of confidence. If someone doesn’t really understand their own riding ability and gets on a high-end bike that can get them through a lot of stuff they will be more likely to take risks that their skill level won’t be able to bail them out of if needed.
– We also forget that riding itself isn’t supposed to be fun. Mountain biking is an oblique path to happiness, kind of like climbing a mountain or writing a book. The act itself is often uncomfortable and painful but afterwards we find the contentment and happiness we’re looking for. Trying to make riding easier in an attempt to make the act itself more fun isn’t the real goal and sends the wrong message to new riders (That climb sucked? Great, it was supposed to! vs. That climb sucked? Have you thought about getting _______ to make it easier?)
– In the end we all want more riders to take up our sport and have fun doing it. But I also think that it is good for the sport if we also teach new riders that it is alright to suck as they go through the learning curve. Spending some time on a hardtail will help new riders speed up that learning curve since it forces them to use proper technique more than a FS will.
Until next time…