Why we need to distinguish between Fire Road Racing & Mountain Biking

I was waiting for my riding buddy to get ready for a ride and started thumbing through a local outdoor magazine. I came across something that made me stop and take a closer look – it was an ad for a race series called Fire Road Racing and it contained a quote from a high level tri-athlete that I thought was very honest and telling.

To paraphrase, she said that she liked Fire Road Racing because she loved getting out and riding on the dirt and the non-technical courses were perfect for her lack of technical skills. She literally admitted to having little technical skill and that played a role in her decision to do the Fire Road Race series.

She was, in effect, saying that her cycling fitness and skill set that she built through road riding were more suited to pedaling intensive, non-technical trails and she wanted to race on venues that played to her strengths.

I loved it because it was so honest. This may ruffle some feathers but the truth is that a lot of “mountain bikers” fall into the same category and aren’t willing to admit that their taste in bikes and trails is shaped by the fact that they have the fitness and skills of a roadie, not a mountain biker.

Mountain biking demands that you are blending fitness and skills that are different from what you get from riding a road bike. Standing pedaling, low RPM grinds, terrain and trail features, cornering, manualing, jumping, drops and body position are all fitness qualities and skills that you need on the trail in different proportions than what you need on the road.

Bring the roadie fitness and skill set to the trail and don’t be surprised when you start looking for ways to apply them, like riding fire roads and featureless trails and riding a fat tired road bike.

This is where people in today’s PC society get squeamish because we shouldn’t point out differences and make distinctions but I think that this subject needs to be addressed. There is a large influx of roadies into mountain biking for various reasons and their money is shaping the direction that XC Racing and mountain biking are going.

For example, last year I spoke with one of the course builders for the Super D track at Bootleg Canyon when I was out there riding. He told me that a lot of racers had threatening to pull out of the last race because they felt that some of the switchbacks and other features were too technical. The course was changed to make it easier so that they didn’t lose the money from those riders who were complaining.

I had another report from someone about how all of the roots and rocks were spray painted bright orange on a local trail when it was used as an XC race course. Apparently there was enough concern from riders who were not used to dealing with them that they had to be highlighted.

On some level I know, who cares, everyone is just trying to ride and have a good time. And on some level I agree with you – as long as you’re riding your bike on dirt and having fun then who am I to say anything about it.

However, in Oklahoma we have a saying – Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. In other words, please don’t insult my intelligence. What I described above is not mountain biking and while I’m not passing judgment, don’t tell me that it they are the same thing.

The reason I care about this is because I think that it causes confusion when you are talking about the types of bikes and training you need to excel at Fire Road Racing versus Mountain Biking. Its kind of like Cyclocross Racing – it is its own category because it is neither Road Riding nor Mountain Biking and if you did not distinguish those differences you would have trouble developing bikes and training plans to excel.

I feel like the Fire Road Racing branch of mountain biking has developed to the point that we need to do the same thing with it. I would love it if we could add another category in the Road – Mountain Biking Continuum:

Road Riding – Cyclocross – Fire Road Racing – Mountain Biking

That way when you tell me that you want to get better at Mountain Biking I’ll expect that no matter what your specific discipline you will need to navigate technical trail features, grind up steep and loose climbs, know the basic trail skills and work on core and upper body strength. Pedaling is important but it is not going to be the end-all-be-all of what you need to excel.

If you tell me that you want to get better at Fire Road Racing I know that strength and skills don’t need the same emphasis and that your ability to sustain a higher RPM pedaling cadence will be important. Also, strength and mobility work will need to focus on off-setting the long hours in the saddle as much as it does on performance enhancement.

I’ve often said that mountain biking is not road riding on dirt and I think that Fire Road Racing helps make that distinction. It will help riders filter advice based on what type of riding the person giving the advice likes to do. If we could make a better distinction between mountain biking and the less technical, more road riding influenced side of things it would benefit everyone.

Of course, at the end of the day this is just one man’s opinion so take it for what it is worth. I’d love to hear what you think, though, so please leave a comment letting me know your opinion…

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  1. shane says:

    Great post James. A lot of people think that being a good mountain biker is just being in good shape on the dirt. In actuality it is so much more than that. I’ve taken some new guys out this year that are in great shape that talked a big game but once out on the trail they were humbled pretty damn quick. All the physical and cardio strength in the world can’t make up for lack in skills.

    Reply • September 28 at 10:01 am
  2. Rick says:

    You nailed it! Riding technical terrain (roots, rocks, etc) is totally different. You can have the endurance to go long, but if you don’t have the strength/muscular endurance for the technical stuff, you’ll get dropped by riders that do.

    I race XTERRA’s and I totally prefer the technical courses because it sets the good riders apart from the fit people that can crank up double track/fire roads only…

    Reply • September 28 at 10:12 am
  3. Jerome says:

    100% agree. I understand everybody wants to play in the dirt but I’m desperate to find competitive events (mostly in the US) that would reflects the kind of trail I enjoy (and probably trails most mountain bikers really enjoy). For me the perfect XC WorldChampionship would be at the Moab slickrocks or maybe some trails at Sedona !

    Reply • September 28 at 10:49 am
    • Joey Tavares says:

      In California you have Big Bear Grizzly 100k,75k,50k,30k,20k.
      Also hear alot about Mammoth being a great place to ride Mountain bikes. I rode 1st time in big bear on 20k course and had a blast.

      Reply • August 28 at 2:12 pm
  4. Jason Murray says:

    Spot on James. In the advocacy arena I already have enough challenges explaining the difference between road vs MTB to non-cyclists, that riding a cruiser on a crushed gravel trail is not MTB, that we want single track not fire/farm roads.

    This “road riding on dirt” mentality is exactly why I got out of racing. I was getting beat (badly) by people who could put the power down on the long climbs and flats. But as soon as we hit the first single track, a simple rollabel rock “drop” slowed them all down, and they wouldn’t let those who could ride it (me) pass.

    Reply • September 28 at 11:16 am
  5. Rick Sharp says:

    James you nailed it. When I got my first Mountain bike all I ever rode was these fire trails not knowing the difference. After trying to ride some single tracks trails in South Mountain in Phoenix last year it became very clear. I jumped on the internet and found which is designed to teach MTB skills. Gene Hamiliton taught me how to ride technical single track which has involved into wanting more sweet single track like those found in Crested Butte CO. Cant wait to meet you next weekend at your camp.

    Reply • September 28 at 12:00 pm
  6. Totally agree. Your point that different riding requires different skill sets is right on. We tend to generalize (which is a generalization in its self) that anything off road is considered mountain biking. It makes it easier to pigeon hole what type of biking you do. We have an event out here in SoCal which is called The Vision Quest… put on by The Warriors Society. It is roughly 56 miles, 11,000 ft of climbing. It combines both fire road and backcountry trails. The fun is in applying the different skill sets required to sucessfully complete this event. You need to be a “complete” biker and even then you may not finish.

    Reply • September 28 at 12:01 pm
  7. Jason says:

    Absolutely agree, have been saying the same thing for years. Mountain and fire roads are Not the same, much to the chagrin of those fire roaders.

    However, one question came to mind while reading your post. In reference to ‘type of bikes’ for mountain biking and fire road. Please explain. It’s not the bike, it’s the rider. AKA Operator error.

    Reply • September 28 at 2:18 pm
    • bikejames says:

      While it is more about the rider than the bike, there are some things that lend themselves better to Fire Road Racing than Mountain Biking. For example, longer stems would help on a long fire road climb but make steering slower on a trail.

      Reply • September 28 at 2:32 pm
  8. moron says:

    There seems to be a tend even with single trail now days. riders expect smooth, groomed trail where ever corners is bermed.

    Trails that you can ride fast first go without thinking too much about line choice…

    What happened to the joy of finally nailing the rutted tree root section or railling that off camber corner after practicing it over and over to get it right?

    Anyone can rail a berm so these groomed,bermed trails detract from the skill level and turn it into a race of who can pedal the hardest for the longest. Ie a dusty road race.

    Reply • September 28 at 4:00 pm
  9. The Real Rob says:

    I hope there are gaps, drops, step-downs, and rock gardens at the XTERRA Maui… but of course there won’t be. All my buttery AM travel will be wasted on those pineapple roads.

    Reply • September 28 at 6:26 pm
  10. Phil says:

    I agree totally. Some of the races I’ve done are more pedaling and that is the part of the races where I get beat but let the trail get rough and start getting steep uphill or downhill and then I begin catching people. One comment above touched on something that i have noticed though, it is much harder to pass on a rugged climb or narley downhill than it is on a wide smooth section of trail or a fire road. It gets a little frustrating when I know that I could leave someone behind where my strength is and can’t do it because the person in front of me is just trying to keep from crashing and won’t let me by. I also agree on the PC society comment as well. I’m thankful though that I live in an area where there a few true mtn bike races that test your skills as well as your endurance. Anyone interested check out Thanks for all you do James.

    Reply • September 28 at 6:28 pm
  11. John K. says:

    One of the trails at our x-c spot had a great steep climb with some tricky rock moves and ledges to hop over. Folks would go and just session that hill, trying to hone their technical climbing skills. It was tough to put the whole thing together, but it felt awesome when you got it. Imagine our disappointment this spring when someone went and removed all the rocks on the climb because they couldn’t climb it!

    Looks like lots of people are on here with similar frustrations. I agree – we need to get away from being PC.

    Reply • September 28 at 8:09 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, we’ve seen several signature moves “sanitized” at the Lunch Loop Trail over the last couple years. You’d spend months or years getting something tough dialed in and then someone comes along and takes it out for no reason than because they can’t do it. Pretty sad…

      Reply • September 29 at 2:54 pm
  12. Ole says:

    James, its so true.
    However whats your advice for those of us who do both?
    In Norway Birkebeiner is the biggeste race with 25.000 people and its 95K of fire road. We also have local XC races and some really technical ones. I generally train for both but I always get beat by the roadies in the Birkebeiner. I feel that its hard to get that kind of endurance from riding trails. However trails is where the fun is so I wont quit that kind of riding.

    Reply • September 29 at 1:06 am
    • bikejames says:

      Tough to serve two masters and there is no real way to train for and excel at both since they require different skill and fitness combinations. Spending some time working on your Fire Road Racing fitness so you can do well in a race and letting your trail endurance and skills go down a bit may be the solution, and once you prove your point you can go back to riding the fun stuff.

      Reply • September 29 at 2:51 pm
  13. chance says:

    Wow this is the best post you’ve put up! I have felt this way since I started riding MTB and really getting serious about it. I have started helping with trail building and maintenance here in MN for that reason specifically. It appears they always simplify or dumb down the courses so the the lycra clad single speed ridged 29er roadies can ride it as fast as possible. Sorry I dont want to offend anyone but 29ers IMO are a roadies version of a MTbike and xc is in a sad state in MN. You can cross the boarder to WI and get a lot better race. Also I was really sad to hear that all the smack talk about US super-d being weak is true. I know the stuff by me isn’t that gnarly but I was trying to get out west but now I’m not so sure its worth the trip to race might just go ride the trails. We need more Enduro/european all-mountain like the trans- provence! I’ve been trying to get a real super d here and we have some good spots but people are like I think thats to gnar/dangerous. No its not it’s real MTB and it shouldn’t easily be won by some roadie on a hard tail carbon 29er because they are fast. If you choose to ride that kind of bike in a real mtb race you probably have to walk some sections or you will break it! IMO
    Totally agree with adding the different designation to the list all the point to point races in my area have become this way, 80% fire road and the rest easy to mild single track. One of the best trails for pure raw, unadulterated mtb is the Centennial trail in the Black Hills of SD. It is a multi-purpose trail, mtb hike and horse but it truly tests your skills going up and down!

    Reply • September 29 at 11:44 am
  14. Richo says:

    I personally agree with this article but would like to offer another point of view.
    Think about it from the roadies point of view. It is safer riding on fire roads than sharing roads with cars, and the air is fresher and the scenery better. After getting used to the feel of tyres on gravel they may after years get better technical skills.
    Having large numbers of MTBers means more shops and more variety of bikes and products for us. Plus we become a larger group in terms of politcal influence. This can help get more single track approved and built, but if only some people want to ride it, more for me!
    It is annoying when fitter riders gap you into the technical sections and then slow you down. Tactics can help here: bust out a massive sprint leading into the technical section while they are braking on the approach, then carry that momentum into the rough stuff. Race organisers need to find solutions with A and B line tracks that reward technical skills.
    I have a reverse tactic that has infuriated many roadies competing in XC: zoom past them on a A-line or a technical section and then slow to a crawl on the following single-track climb where they can’t pass. Then hammer down the descent on the other side. Repeat until they get to a flat section or climb wide enough to pass me.
    If you want to win XC races however you’ll need good technical skills AND great fitness. If you can gain fitness faster than roadies can gain technical skills, strength, reflexes, balance, and confidence, then you’ll get ahead of them in the rankings.

    Reply • September 29 at 3:35 pm
    • bikejames says:

      While I understand that point of view, I have my own thoughts. Like I mentioned in the post, I don’t have a problem with anyone getting out on dirt roads and pedaling the day away. I’m sure that it is more fun than riding on the road battling cars and the scenery is better. But, we’re not serving anyone’s best interests if we tell them that what they are doing is “mountain biking”. How will they even know that there is something else to aspire to if there is no distinction between riding technical singletrack and featureless dirt roads?

      Also, I’m not a big fan of making deals with the Devil to get more trail and influence. Sure, we may be able to lobby for more trails with a bigger political base but the types of trails that will get approved will not be what a mountain biker wants. I’ve already seen the influence this group has on trails – we’ve seen several trails around here sanitized in order to make them more friendly for the Fire Road Racers who venture out onto real singletrack. And the bike industry will cater to the money, meaning that we’ll be force fed fat tired road bikes. Mountain bikers need to get their shit together, not rely on people who don’t share out interests to help us gain influence.

      Again, let people do what they want but just don’t tell me they are the same thing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

      Reply • September 30 at 9:22 am
  15. Anne says:

    Awesome post! I love sessioning and riding technical stuff more than the smooth bermy stuff that everyone rides. Having big balloony tires and a Fox 36 and 150mm travel is very much overkill for most of my weekday riding, but for my weekend riding, I want to hit something technical and fun.

    When I learned to ride 20 years ago on the East Coast (North Carolina and Northern Florida), there was a lot more technical riding and sessioning I would do than here in Northern California. Seems like the big thing here is to cover distance rather than ride the technical. Which is a bummer, because my technical riding as suffered a bit for it even though my climbing has improved.

    Reply • September 30 at 1:52 pm
  16. electric says:

    Spot on and to be an even larger shit disturber i’d say 99.99% of those guys walking up a tech hill or STOPPING in the middle of a fast tech downhill(in the middle of a f’n race) are doing so to UNCLIP and walk. I mean, come on guy… u work so hard to eek by me on the fire-road and now it’s this garbage!! Get outta the way u deliberate cock blocker!

    🙂 Yes, riled up!

    Man… fire-road racing is probably fun, CX is fun, but it’s not what i’d call MTB. I’ve argued this point to death elsewhere and all I get is we have to be inclusive and beginners need to be accomodated and we’re selfish for not babysitting… f that. watered down and boring! It was sink or swim when i hit the trails for the first time. How about some techy stuff that will get the ticker going and get those people riding out of the f’n box.

    Reply • September 30 at 3:18 pm
  17. Heath McCombs says:

    I agree that there is a difference. I did my 1 st dirt road race this spring and it was great being able to pass a lot of other riders on the 1 technical downhill and small section of single track. Doing mostly Mt. Bike races was a great plus through those sections.

    Reply • September 30 at 3:59 pm
  18. Olivier says:

    Fireroads have always been a part of mountain biking, and will continue to be. Repack Road. The Kamikaze DH. Both 100% fireroad and both legends of the sport. In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with fireroads for MTB racing. But as racing and mountain bikes have evolved so has our notion of “technical” riding. What I find ironic is how so many people get upset about the “roadie” on their hardtail beating them in an XC that isn’t technical enough. Could that be the modern trail bike is what we’re talking about when we say, “They replace skill and courage with cash and technology?” While I too prefer a technical trail format, I still think there are more technical XC races out there than non-technical ones. If you own a hardtail anymore, go out and rip your local trail and see how fast you are, or how much you now suck on the harder technical parts. I love riding my trail bike and it has helped me push my technical limits, but it doesn’t mean that XC needs to cater to a trail bike. Go watch a World Cup XC on Freecaster and you will be impressed at the level to which these guys go up, and down, on bikes meant to win XC races. As much as I’d like to wish otherwise I can’t fault racers for using the tool that will give them the best chance to win. And if you expect to compete without fitness, sorry, there isn’t a race format for you anymore. Even DH will require you to pull the best out of your mind and body. I love racing Super D but again, fitness wins, and now that everybody is on a “cash and technology” machine the technical parts make less and less of a difference. A 6″ bike that “pedals like a hardtail” is the equivalent of taking the rocks out of the trail. Hope this doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, but I think there is a place for all types of mtb racing. The more the better. If it isn’t your style, don’t sign up. In my experience people like the triathlete mentioned in this article do a dirt race or two and then they start to improve. As they improve they tend to enjoy the same things we all enjoy in a good trail. So why can’t we all accept that and welcome those riders into the community? (As for taking rocks out of the trail, I consider that vandalism.)

    Reply • September 30 at 5:45 pm
  19. Geoffrey says:

    At the risk of being contrary, I have to say that doing jumps and flips in a bike park is also not mountain biking. That also falls under the category of “groomed trails.” Riding a lift to the top is also not mountain biking. The descent may be, to be certain.

    What about riding the skinnies above the forest floor in Whistler? Should that count? At what point does a trail become disqualified?

    I’m not sure where I would draw the line, or if I would at all. It does make me sad when trails get sanitized. I have challenging portions of trail, that I never had a chance to clear the old way. That said, having places whereeople can take their kids mountain biking is important.

    I enjoy challenging myself. Also, I’ve seen my road speed improve over the past year.

    All this to say, go out and work for trail advocacy and help with trail upkeep and maintenance if you want to have say in trail conditions, and, more importantly, trails staying open. I am blessed to ride a mountain bike I own in the dirt, for the sheer joy. ‘Nuff said.

    Reply • September 30 at 8:03 pm
  20. bradleycloud says:

    Well, I am going to buck the trend here a little. I often wonder if any type of racing is truly “mountain biking”. I will do a few XC races a year and find some enjoyment in it but it is not the “soul riding” that I truly feel that mountain biking should be and typically is for.
    There is a whole more than just being the fastest or clearing the biggest gap.
    When I had my anckle issues this summer, the Dr’s and Pt’s kept talking about me changing my training routine. I was realy fustrated that they could not understand the differnce between a stress release and training plan.

    Here in the Southeast, I get to mix it up with both smooth flowey trails and old techinical hand cut stuff as well. Some days the buff stuff has me laughing like a kid and on others cleaning a section of techinical great trail is extremely rewarding as well.

    So I think if people are riding for the right reasons (not just to catch and drop others), offer help to others when needed, are socialable, ect then they are mountain biking andI see very little value in judging them.

    Reply • September 30 at 8:56 pm
  21. electric says:

    @Oliver … where to begin.

    i don’t think anybody is faulting some roadie for going faster… i’m not. I should to mention all those “roadies” or fitness riders we’ll call them, all crashed or clipped out(on uphills mostly) on the singletrack. This is my annoyance, it’s not a “skill” they posses to sabotage you will while a bicycle uphill. Maybe higher skill riders should weave allover the doubletrack when somebody is coming if sabotage is a skill. Race how you want.

    Not everybody rides the 6″ travel bicycles you derided either nor is the 6″ travel bicycle going to turn some gnarly downhill into some magical carpet ride. Or help you finesse up a super-tech uphill. I’m sure the brochure says otherwise though!

    If the “roadie” can beat you fairly at your game that is cool, but what I’m talking about here is the comparably large fitness crowd game changing and dumb down trails and sport, with spray paint sometimes. The aim here is to make mtb resemble the road game so event organizers can make more money. Certainly you can see how that feels like people ruining the sport. If “fire-road racing” scorches our singletrack and becomes the majority of what is available to a mountain biker you may be sorry.

    Citing the footage of UCI XC pros is a good example because LOTS of those guys engage in serious training for downhills. It also shows who doesn’t. Comparing those pros to your average plum smuggling triathlete who dabbles on a bicycle and just wants some fire-road is unjust. Two different athletes and sports.

    Reply • October 2 at 7:23 pm
  22. chance says:

    @bradleycloud there is real mountain bike racing… not so much here in north america but that trend looks like it might be changing hopefully. It’s called enduro- check out the trans-provence. The only timed sections are 60-90% dh but there are climbing and flats and you ride a trail bike and you have to pedal to the next section. So there is everything and its more of a group ride to the start of the next special stage. BC bike race is similar.

    I agree that fireroad was a big part of MTB to begin with heck the X-games use to have the elimiator, but like some mentioned the sport has progressed and so should the courses. I’m not sure about your trial but most trail around her have different color indication for the different skill levels and people should ride within those limits and not F with the trail. That people worked hard to build. The worse thing to me is people making illigal ride arounds because they can’t do it. That hurts the enviroment. Maybe they should have different courses or ride arounds for dirrent levels of racers and give them a skills test prior to issuing there license and as electric said WC pros are not anywhere on the same level. Some like adam craig go home and win Local DH races. They can rideand they are not rodies going to dirt.
    I do agree to a point that MTB has turned into a arms race for tech superiour equipment that does to a point make a difference in a persons riding ability i use that word loosely becasue flying down a hill on a 4inch bike is a way different ball game then a 8inch dh bike. and a 6inch trail bike will definately smooth outa rock garden apposed to a hard tail but bikes a side becasue they can’t replace earned skill. A roadie shouldn’t expect to come to a MTB race pick up a hard tail carbon 29er and expect to be able to simply pedal there way to victory with no tech skills and thats what a fireroad race allows them to do and then they think they are a mountainbiker

    Reply • October 3 at 11:33 am
  23. bikejames says:

    I’d like to make a couple of points – first, I hope that we can agree that World Cup XC pros who race on WC courses are outliers in the argument – they are great riders in more than one area. I also don’t recall anyone saying that real XC racing isn’t mountain biking. I think what most of us are lamenting is that Fire Road Racing has become mistaken for real XC riding and racing.

    Second, fire roads have been and always will be a part of mountain biking, but Fire Road Racing is not the same thing as screaming down Repack or the Kamikaze downhills. You can ride it or you can rip it and mountain biking is more about ripping it – at least that’s my opinion. Make the style as important as the summit, as Mark Twight might say.

    Sanitizing trails and spray painting roots so that a rider with the fitness and skill set of a roadie can show up on his carbon 29er and feel like he’s competitive at “mountain biking” is not fair to the riders who have built their skills and fitness on the trails. On a race course that favors the skills and fitness of a roadie they are at a disadvantage. If it is mountain biking it should somehow favors the skills and fitness built on the trail, not the road.

    Lets have both and no one needs to judge anyone, just don’t tell me that they are the same thing. We can make distinctions without being judgmental.

    Reply • October 3 at 12:00 pm
    • Nolan says:

      The high school league in Utah has somewhat technical race courses that tend to favor high endurance and DH and the only “road” sections are for mass starts and passing.

      I think our spray paint and caution signs are so that we can keep our league insurance. Some XC is road riding on dirt. Not all 😉

      Reply • November 6 at 8:16 am
      • bikejames bikejames says:

        I agree, which is another reason why we need to distinguish between the two. I love a good XC ride and some of the WC courses are really hard.

        Reply • November 6 at 11:29 am
  24. WAKi says:

    I agree with what you say, but for me personaly off-road roadies are not the only ones who don’t fall into mountain biking bucket.There are some fullfaces needing smashing as well

    In general I hate distinctions, I purely hate them. Downhiller, XC racer, trail rider, Freerider, slopestyler. Are you going skiing and telling someone “I’m going to Aspen for giant slaloming”?! WTHell? Sorry, A-Line kind of trails have as much to do with MTB as a Fire road racing. This Mammoth mountain trails with pavers, asphalt, WTF… and all these bladi fkn bla it’s so dry there so you need them, then it’s not a good venue for a-line kind of trails. Do somethign else, be distinctive – oh it’s easy for you to say you don’t make living form working there bladi fkn bla – Few more years and MTB is going to be like a Californian waterpark. If people would stop building these A-Lines everywhere maybe sketchy rocky approaches to jump lips would scare off those “thrill seekers” (they deserve that lame name) and make them create fireroad downhill racing series – every rescue service would be very grateful

    So if you ask me it’s poor “extreme MTB” riders that screw it up for most of “elite pricks” like me, they take their Dh bikes to the mountains when they hear the call of “epicness”. They rarely respect trekkers, destroy trails riding with the locked rear wheel, and crash needing rescue teams to scrape them off some rocky face. Forest administration love them as reasons to put more and more bans. Then Me having pretty ok skills and fitness, then knowledge about mountains, respect to other users, meet all these restrictions and need to pay fines.

    Reply • October 4 at 2:00 am
  25. chance says:

    @ Waki It’s true there shouldn’t be a distinction between riding styles but to be honest there aren’t that many John Tomacs left out there. Just like skiing, I dont know if you ever have raced or comepeted in skiing but if you talk to racers its just as segregated as mtb is. Everyone doesn’t race everything and they let that be known when you talk. The sport of MTB on the competition level has like every other sport become so specialized that unless you are a rec rider which I feel would be a trail rider you probably are only riding one or two factions of the sport and that probably depends on where you live in the country and what turns your switch. as for hating on the full face dh riders that pretty rediculous since the majority at least in the US are riding on purpose built bike parkes at privately owned ski resorts, so they can have lift access. And they are designed with non natural product so they can last longer and not have to be maintained as often to keep costs down.

    Reply • October 4 at 5:24 am
  26. chance says:

    I’m also sorry that you don’t like DH as it is one of the fastest growing facets of the industry and the pro riders in gravity driven MTB make a lot of money for the sport, have the most spectators, and demand the biggest sponsors such as Red Bull which does a ton for the sport. Don’t make the same mistake as UCI and ostracize gravity driven MTB like they did to slope style/free ride and now 4x as like I said they are big spectator sports, as now freecaster has started to make the move for DH to pull out on its own offering a differet circut with bigger money! Maybe you should give it a try, you know walk a mile in there moccasins, you might like it. I know UCI will regret turning their backs on Gravity, because in my opinion XC and their new alternative XCE are about as exciting to watch as the Tour De France

    Reply • October 4 at 7:38 am
  27. Rodney says:

    To be good in XC (or any other endurance sport) requires you to put in a lot of hours on the race or XC-bike (say like 5x2h), which is almost impossible if you also have a family and a fulltime job. It is more or less just a matter of putting in the hours.
    It takes a lot less time for an average weekend warrior practice your skills with a single weekend ride and do a training program like James advocates during the week (say 2h + 3x45min). I myself would favor a race format which would suit those types of riders (me 😉 and require some skills and a resonable fitness level, but in a balanced way giving both the skilled and the endurance type rider a fair chance.

    Reply • October 4 at 8:19 am
    • bikejames says:

      I completely agree 100% with you on this and I’m not the only one. There are a lot of cool new race formats that favor more than just 1 type of highly honed skills and fitness. Some of the Super D series, the 12 hour DH races and multi-day/ event enduro races are all examples of events that have give the everyday rider something to compete in.

      Reply • October 4 at 8:50 am
  28. bikejames says:

    @ Waki – Its not just DH riding that has a lot of posers. I’ve seen some pretty ridiculous stuff living here in Fruita – guys on $5000 bikes riding around every rock and widening the trails, people riding off trail across sensitiveness environmental areas and people who honed their fitness and skills off trail getting wrecked and having to get dragged out by medical services. That really opens up a whole new can of worms, though, since what we’re talking about now is that just becuase you own a mountain bike doesn’t make you a mountain biker.

    @ chance – I could be wrong but I don’t think that Waki was hating on DH as much as he was hating on the poser DH riders that give the rest of us a bad name. I totally agree with you, though, on the lack of respect shown to the more aggressive disciplines in mountain biking but I think that actually reflects the image that the mountain bike industry wants to project to potential riders. Fire Road Racing under the guise of XC Racing is probably going to attract more people than DH racing and slopestyle. The fact that DH racing is even considering doing its own thing speaks pretty loudly that there is a rift in mountain biking.

    Great points all around, this is a conversation that needs to be had…

    Reply • October 4 at 8:45 am
  29. WAKi says:

    I don’t hate on Downhillers in general. And I am not talking about any kind of poser, I don’t care if someone is a poser or not, it’s his choice, caring too much about posers simply means you think you are better than someone. I haven’t expressed myself clearly. I don’t like people who are amateurs and do something that makes them feel good at something. It’s the same mechanism with whatever DHers feeling they are the ones that are good technical[y as well as whatever XCers feeling they are strong. How many times I’ve seen different people ridign together and XC guy saying, oh if there was an uphill I would show that guy, or DHer that says oh I will show him when trail gets sketchy. Both attitudes are wrong, both mean that a non allround guy sucks. Most best racers, no matter XC or DH can smoke the average guy in every kind of race. Julien Absalon will kick the arse of that fast guy you know in DH race. Aaron Gwin will kick many arses on XC race – I don’t know them but I’m sure of it. To come to such level you have to be great in everything. So even good one-discipline guys of any kind suck i general, no matter how good they are.

    Unfortunately many like that, go into environment that they have no idea about, sure that their skills from one subject will make them kick a´s big time – and this is where I come to mountaineering. Mountains, proper big mountains require allroundness, because trying and training different things teaches you a lot about your body and about different environments. Hardship is teaching humility and therefore respect. Equipment makes it more fun yes, but also silences your awareness. Mountains are no place for arrogance. And I believe that a proper Mountain biker is a person who can ride well on any side of any mountain. All the good riders I know, can do it effectively.

    Finaly I just wanted to say, that if we pick on roadies, and fireroad racers there are some fullfaces needing face slapping as well.

    Reply • October 5 at 3:26 am
    • bikejames says:

      I guess we just have a different definition of a poser because what you just described is what I call a poser – someone who “poses” as a real mountain biker but doesn’t understand the true spirit mountain biking.

      I also think that you may have missed my point – I am not trying to pick on anyone, as I said in the original post I don’t care what you do. I just think that the skills and fitness you need to ride on a fire road is different than what you need on a trail, no matter what trail riding discipline you participate in. Someone who has good trail skills and fitness will be able to do well riding DH or XC.

      We can make distinctions without being judgmental, which is what I was trying to do with this post by pointing out the difference between Mountain Biking and Fire Road Racing. If you want to talk about riders who pose as real mountain bikers and make excuses for why they can’t ride certain types of terrain then that is another subject and one I’m certainly happy to discuss because I think that they are a problem as well. I don’t disagree with what you are saying, it is just not the same thing that I am talking about here.

      Reply • October 5 at 8:05 am
  30. chance says:

    Word, Wiki, I can’t argue with that point. You’re right to be a proper Mountain Biker you do need to be able to ride both parts of the trail and we shouldn’t take sides as it is causing a rift in the sport. I also think we got a bit off topic. I do strive to be the best all around rider I can,try to race both XC and DH but I’m currently trying to do more Super-d as i feel its more like real mtb and trying to get an enduro race going some place near. I think the point that james was trying to make is that a Mountain Bike Cross Country race should be more like the trails we ride day in and day out. Technically challenging as well as physically demding and not a road race on dirt, smooth and fast and not technical. Unfortunatly much has gon that way. He is just saying that if it is to be that type of road race on dirt it should be a called a fireroad race and not a mtb race and that type of racing does favore a roadie not a technially sound fit mtb guy. I’m glad this topic came up. lots of great insite and opinions were shared. Now its time to go for a ride and earn some turns !

    Reply • October 5 at 5:32 am
  31. Sol says:

    James’ post said something really important, that I didn’t even realize needed to be said. But is still entirely lost on people that use their mountain bikes to get ice cream on sunday.

    Reply • October 5 at 7:16 pm
  32. Randy says:

    Great discussion. My two cents:

    I am in awe of anyone who has endeavored to master a sport – I have just as much respect and admiration for Hedjdahl’s ‘roadie’ performance in the tour de France as I do for Emily Batty in world cup XC – or Gwin in DH. My jaw drops in amazement at Crankworks and I re-watch Rampage many times each year while diligently swinging a kettle bell or spinning away on a trainer.

    I am right there giving what limited advice I can to the amateur roadie who is truly trying to improve his technical skills and get into mountain biking. Conversely, I’m all ears when a seasoned DH rider is doling out advise on cornering technique or a particular line through a challenging stretch of trail.

    IMO, people who very good at what they do are always anxious to help others get better and will always listen to others in areas where they perhaps are not an expert. What drives me nuts are those that do the opposite – don’t want to or can’t elevate their own skills in a particular category and instead try to bend the category to favor the skills they currently have.

    The Canadian Rockies are my backyard – young, pointy, steep terrain. I’ve watched DH riders on 8″ bikes get run down by a blur of spandex on a 4″ XC race bike ON A DH COURSE. My point: our XC race courses are TOUGH and more often than not will include pretty nasty DH course segments. Our MTB community is extremely open and inviting and I’m all over having ANYONE come out and try out an XC or DH race – as long as they respect the category and are there to learn and not just whine. Drives me nuts when DH guys piss and moan about the lack of challenge on an XC course – truth is they’d find the flats and climbs much more challenging if they could peddal them faster. Conversely, drives me even more crazy when the ‘roadie-on-dirt’ crowd starts organizing to ‘dumb down’ MTB in general (mostly affecting XC). (don’t get me wrong, it also drives me crazy when XC guys whine about how the DH’ers are ‘pussies’ because they don’t ride the trail up to the start – same guys who brake and pee their panties at the first drop or gap in the trail).

    I was on a local trail just the other day and saw all the wee little rocks and roots painted bright orange. I thought the local powers were in preparation to convert the trail to “pavement like” for the wheel chair and stroller crowd – which is fine – plenty of mountains for everyone. However, when I found out that a local (road) bike club had done the painting for an “XC Race” I was on the edge of angry. “OK – perhaps it’s a ‘fun’ race to get roadies to dip a toe into the world of MTB”. Nope. Turns out that they were seriously on a rant and were lobbying on “safety” grounds that all XC races should have “hazards” on the course clearly identified. WTF???

    Respect the category. Don’t blame the trail or the bike or the phase of the moon for that matter. If you don’t have the skills – fine – get them. There are plenty of people eager to help. If you still want to race, fantastic – that’s what the novice class is for – shut up and learn. But spray painting bumps in a MTB race so you don’t break a nail or scratch the clear coat on that nice new 10k$ carbon rig is simply insulting.

    Reply • October 7 at 10:10 pm
  33. rogo says:

    well written article that seemed to me to express a very valid point. i dont see why it provoked so much ranting and ‘hating’ in the comments that some people left. same old “cant be a man cuz he doesnt smoke, the same cigarettes as me” attitude is what i see from those people. i got into mtb’ing by going into the shop and telling them that i was looking for a bike to ride the fire roads in the mountains. turns out that i am now mostly riding on more hybrid type trails and attempting to pick up skills necessary to manuever the ‘technical’ pieces i encounter. it’s a slow process and i doubt that i will ever be a ‘true mountain biker’ by the definition laid down in this thread. but i will still take to any trail i have a desire to try. lose your attitudes and share the trails. it is not always a race…sometime it is just a ride.

    Reply • October 9 at 9:27 am
    • Jonathan says:

      Rogo, you’ve hit upon a key distinction. You are “attempting to pick up skills”. I see mountain-biking as being partly about progression. We tackle trail challenges and get better at them. That is very different from someone who simply won’t even try. And when those who won’t try become in charge of trail building, well, you end up with painted rocks.

      Reply • July 31 at 5:36 am
  34. chance says:

    @Randy- Props! great 2 cents!

    Reply • October 10 at 6:06 am
  35. Larry Treul says:

    Hi James,
    I ride a lot of fire roads because that is what is here. Riding is good for my health both mental and physical. I do ride some singletrack but not as much as I should. I agree that I need to develop better skills. Been trying to convert some of the riders here to flats but no success so far. Larry Treul

    Reply • October 10 at 7:58 am
    • bikejames says:

      Right on Larry, enjoy what you have access to and have fun. You should check out sites like and for some great tips on improving your skills.

      Reply • October 10 at 8:42 am
    • Jonathan says:

      Larry makes a good point that to a large extent we are shaped by our local terrain. It’s like “run what ya brung” applied to the dirt: “ride what ya got”.

      Reply • July 31 at 5:44 am
  36. john w says:

    Nice post. I agree. I am a mntn biker @ heart, but have done the whole Ironman triathlon thing, Xterras, NUE series races etc. The best example of your analysis is when I did the Leadville 100 in 2010. Now, many would say it is pretty much a fire road race (except going down powerline you better know what the hell you are doing). But, there were people on the start line who proudly stating that this was going to be their very first mountain bike race….Something just didn’t feel right about that….Anyway, happy trails!

    Reply • December 7 at 1:55 pm
  37. Jonathan says:

    Just came back after many months and reread this excellent post. James is on the money. Having different terms is not about hating. Respecting a style of riding enough to carefully and thoughtfully name that style is a first step on the road towards respecting and recognizing the needs and desires of that style of rider.

    Reply • July 31 at 5:50 am
  38. JP says:

    Check out the WIsconsin Off Road Series (WORS) series here in Wisconsin. There are plenty of races and none of them favor roadies on dirt. Sure there are the guys with the 29 with their seat jacked in the air that fly past on lap 1 on the double track.. Good luck getting that down the gnarly rock gardens and up the root traps, These tracks have been designed just like you guys describe. I did not know I was so lucky as this is my first year racing a mountain bike. What you are wishing for, Natural single track, creek crossings, roots, rocks, wicked steep hills, balance sections, a couple of down trees with small branches laid down to create a “ramp” all awesome stuff. Get out here and ride it!

    Reply • September 30 at 7:30 pm
  39. Sal Ruibal says:

    The Gravel Grinder is a different type of animal, for sure. Here on the East Coast and Appalachians we have an abundance of both excellent technical singletrack and maybe even more gravel-dirt-mud country roads. The best riders out here — Gunnar and Betsy Shogren, for example — do both types of racing. They also do road racing and cyclocross, and probably unicycling, too. In the Washington D.C. area, we have two tremendous county trail systems in Montgomery County, MD, and Fairfax County, VA. The wide and smooth dirt trail systems connect a network of MTB parks that offer the entire gamut of experience from Flow Country to skills parks to nasty, gnarly rooty and rocky. There’s something for everybody and I don’t think that variety has reduced the amount or number of trails, to the contrary, it has created demand from riders who learned on easier trails to build more technical trails. I can rip my quads to shreds on the black diamond rock gardens and skinnies on Sunday, then jump on the cross bike on Monday to spin out my legs on the County Connector Trail, Tuesday ride my road bike to the county fitness center where I’ll do some strength training, swim and then ride back home. I don’t see a problem here, except figuring out which really cool thing I want to do every day. I’m blessed.

    Reply • November 30 at 7:36 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The only problem is that what it takes to excel at one thing is not the same as what it takes to excel at another type of riding or even to be good at all of them. Without drawing some lines it makes it tough to target what you really need to improve. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy all types of riding, we just aren’t doing anyone any favors by pretending that they are all the same thing.

      Reply • December 3 at 9:47 am
  40. wily_quixote says:

    So what IS mountain biking then? I am old enough to remember the nascent sport which started on the gravel roads of california. using specialised, if crude, bikes to tackle mountain terrain. Were Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher not mountain bikers?

    The last MTB race i did was a bunch of circuits of a track. yes it was technical but don’t kid yourself that it is anything but groomed, that is designed specifically for riding an XC bike upon. Not what Joe breeze would have ridden in the 80s and not the terrain that I have seen on a mountain anywhere. Completely artificial terrain – no different than a velodrome for a track bike.

    Would I call downhill riding mountain biking ?. They refuse to ride up hills. That’s half mountain biking.

    would I call pump track riding mountain bike riding? it requires a completely artificial track that you don’t find on any mountain that I have come across.

    Yet I wouldn’t call these disciplines ‘not mountain biking’ because they retain the spirit of the sport and, well, they necessitate mountain bikes to perform.

    Mountain biking should encompass not just the terrain that a cyclist rides upon but the spirit and purpose for which they ride.

    Mountain biking is any riding that requires a mountain bike to perform safely or most effectively. It’s also a spirit of friendliness,collegiality and non-arrogance.

    Me, i have ridden the occasional MTB race but my technical skills are terrible and I have no interest in learning how to manual, ride berms accomplish massive dropoffs etc. My idea of mountain biking is long exploratory rides on fire trails by myself in the woods – occasionally mixing it up with off track and hike a bike. These rides are technical enough that a hardtail is the best bike for the job. But that’s not mountain biking apparently, and I’m not a mountain biker – just because shredding a groomed singletrack park doesn’t interest me.

    One of the reasons I got into mountain biking was the refreshing lack of arrogance and the incusivity. Thanks for excluding me.

    Reply • January 29 at 4:47 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I think you may have slightly missed the point – I’m all for getting together after a ride and having a beer as “mountain bikers”, but as a coach it makes it hard to design training programs for people if we are talking about two different things. This isn’t a judgment on which is better, I’m just saying that training to ride on fire roads is not the same as training to ride on singletrack – often with technical features – and by admitting that there is a difference we can help both enjoy their chosen expression for the art better.

      Reply • January 30 at 8:41 am

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