The Magic Bullet Syndrome

One thing that holds most riders back is the search for the “magic bullet” – that new bike or upgrade that is going to help them make a quantum leap forward in their riding. This is somewhat understandable since every where they turn they are bombarded with messages from the bike industry about how equipment is the answer to everything.

Want to climb faster? Get some fancy new clipless pedals.

Want to smooth out the ride? That new fork or rear shock will do the trick.

Want to ride farther with less effort? Bigger wheels will practically do it for you.

Want to ride like your favorite pro? You just have to buy the same bike they ride and you’re all set.

There is a huge difference between a good rider looking for a slight edge or a new challenge and an average rider trying to use equipment as the answer to all of their problems. In fact, this has been my biggest issue with the proliferation of 29ers – they are being billed as significantly better than regular wheels to prey on desperate riders looking for a way to significantly advance their riding. The truth is that wheel size is such a small part of the equation that it is laughable.

Don’t get me wrong – at the highest levels the small differences in shoes, suspension or wheel size do matter. However, like I detailed in my article on the 4 Quadrants of Training, 99.9% of riders are not at that level and instead need to worry about improving their skills and fitness, not their equipment. They are so far away from taxing the abilities of their current bike that getting a better one doesn’t really help as much as they think.

You end up spending a lot of hard earned money on a relatively small improvement and, what’s worse, that improvement is only available with that new equipment. You did not actually become a better rider, the equipment simply helped cover up more of your lack of fitness and skills. To me this is the easy way out and results in equipment dependent riders – take away their fancy shoes or big wheels and they are psychologically crushed and aren’t half the riders they are with “their bike”.

Another drawback to this mindset is the lack of sustainable progression from it. There is a ceiling to how much equipment can help and once reached then what? If equipment is your answer to improving as a rider you will stop improving pretty quickly. In fact, most riders I see on the trail have failed to improve much for years and ride the same trails the same way time and time again. After the initial improvements brought on by upgrading their equipment they fail to make any significant progress because they don’t realize that becoming a better rider is much more than buying new stuff.

Two of the best riders I have ever known would school our riding groups on bikes that most riders wouldn’t have thought possible to rip it up on. One guy I rode with when I lived on Kauai rode a piece of crap Iron Horse that was cobbled together with a mis-mash of parts and weighed 40 pounds or more. He would show up to ride in his old helmet held together by Duck Tape and leather work gloves and blow our minds with the stuff he rode, both up and down.

Another riding buddy from Texas rode a Specialized P3 hardtail and would win downhill races and XC races on it. He finally snapped the headtube off pioneering some big dirt jumps and had to upgrade to another bike but still kills it on whatever he throws a leg over. I ran into him at Winter Park last year and he let his buddy borrow his downhill bike so he ripped it up on his Yeti 4X slalom bike (which he used to race XC on as well), riding trails most riders wouldn’t touch with less than six inches of travel.

Most riders look at those two examples and say that they are just “natural riders” and while that may be true to a point, what makes them natural riders is a skill and fitness set, not some voo-doo black magic. The truth is that through training anyone can close that talent gap between them and natural riders and that this path results in sustainable progression that can be applied to any bike and any trail. However, this path is not easy and can’t be sold through slick marketing showing shiny bike parts and great riders ripping it up on bikes they are paid to ride and promote.

Does equipment matter? Of course it does. But if you find yourself trying to buy your next big step forward as a rider then just understand that you are not really improving as a rider. A good rider has the skills and fitness to ride anything and simply uses better equipment to help them dispay their talent, not as a magic bullet to make up for a lack desire to put in the work needed to improve the most important part of the equation – the rider, not the bike.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Wade says:

    And for some reason, I keep thinking about getting new shoes and platform pedals – wonder if they could improve my riding… (couldn’t resist)

    Great article (as always).

    Reply • December 16 at 7:03 am
  2. chance says:

    This is so funny, as after your interview I did a similar write up on my blog, haha, yours is better of course. Great write up as always

    Reply • December 16 at 7:28 am
  3. Lisa says:

    There is a balance of riding and learning the best skills you can. I have riddin a POS bike and only was able to go so far, then I bought a well built, well balanced bike and I did improve greatly, I was able to go farther and I am still learning, a great bike is better. I do agree that a bike dosnt make the rider, but it does help.

    Love your articles !

    Reply • December 16 at 8:45 am
  4. John K. says:

    You’re preaching to the converted here, James. This website has always been about improving your riding from within, and so it attracts a certain personality type. I really like the Taoist philosophy “the answer always lies within”, and you seem to really embody that. Personally, I find it much more satisfying to improve from within, and to know I have control over my success as a rider.

    I find it interesting that whenever I show up at the trailhead, everyone’s always talking about the latest gear, new bikes, etc… You rarely hear a spirited discussion on cornering technique! In fact, I find some people get threatened when I try and talk technique with them – it’s almost like they feel I’m criticizing them!

    Reply • December 16 at 10:07 am
  5. chance says:

    @ john, I totally agree, I tried to explain a proper pedal stroke and how it shouldn’t change from clips to flats and I almost got banashed from the local trail! haha people hate change and they don’t like if they feel threatend and most people take critisism or suggestions for their technique as a threat and immediately become defensive. I’ve given up, unless someone approaches me or I know them really well I don’t say anything, Just shake my head and move on.

    Reply • December 16 at 11:52 am
  6. cookie says:

    Good luck getting the masses to drop their faith in the “magic bullet”. If a bike salesman or magazine can sell them a fancy bike that they “believe” will make them faster with no extra training or effort they will do it..

    At our club races its rare that anyone discusses technical ways of riding faster and yes, you sound like a wanker giving unsolicited advice on peoples riding technique.

    I use both clipless and I have a 29er hardtail.. I also have used alot of time in the past learning basics and work on fitness and technique. Its very satisfying beating the young guns on my 29er being 40+. Its all relative 🙂

    Reply • December 16 at 3:34 pm
  7. Jason says:

    One thing I have learned is only preach to people that want to be preached to. I am just getting back into riding after a 5 year sabatical and all my riding buddies have been riding the whole time. In that year they have watched me go from the guy that can barely keep up to the guy they can barely keep up with. I did get a couple new bikes and no doubt it helped but they all know I have made no huge life changes and when they ask how I got so fast so quick I tell them. Technique. Its a point they can’t argue cause they can’t catch me to talk about it. LOL

    Reply • December 17 at 4:46 am
  8. Pollyanna says:

    I totally agree with working on skills and fitness, but I have found that sometimes equipment can give a psychological advantage by increasing confidence and making individuals push their riding closer to the boundaries. However once this psychological advantage is achieved then fitness and skill are the key to moving forward.

    I agree people can get defensive when giving them advice on technique. However within my club we do talk about technique but that is usually through my curiosity and the need to understand the finer details. It also might be because I am a coach and I want to know everyone’s perspective on how to do something. It is very interesting what you can pick up to help coach different people and I find that a limiting factor particularly in smaller women is strength (less weight) to move the bike about with.

    Reply • December 17 at 9:34 am
  9. Dave Everson says:

    Equipment surely is nice but the latest technology can’t make you fitter. A couple weekends ago I didn’t feel like getting my full suspension bike muddy. So I rode my 21 yr. old rigid Klein. I’m 50 years old. I rode with college kids home on Thanksgiving break. And I still smoked them. Only because I’ve been doing the dumbel combos since the first one came out. They work. They build great power from the hips. The whole routine builds great balance. Technology cannot give you power pr balance. Soon enough I’ll be using all the power I have from the ol workout to climb frozen waterfalls! Cuz it works.

    Reply • December 17 at 6:32 pm
  10. Peter says:

    I totally agree but………… don’t tell the wife!

    Reply • December 18 at 1:31 pm
  11. BikeJames says:

    The tough thing is that equipment does matter, it just quickly becomes a crutch and the “industry” exists to make money, not to preserve the soul of a sport. If you’ve ever read The Book of Five Rings, Musashi talked about dealing with the same mindset about training to be a Samurai. I think its just part of the human condition and we just have to be mindful of it in ourselves and take the opportunies thatcpresent themselves to help other riders as well.

    Reply • December 18 at 3:13 pm
  12. Lisa says:

    My group always works on technique and form etc, the riders who dont get left in the dust. But how we ride, we cant do what we do on a garbage bike. Just saying, but I still couldn’t do what I do with out proper training and fitness. I have gotten better just in the few weeks I have been doing your program ! I dont agree with going out and getting a 29r just so you could climb better, learn the technique, it really works.

    Reply • December 19 at 6:38 am
  13. Tim says:

    While I agree with most of your comments, I must say as 56 year old rider that went from a 26 to 29 my fun meter went off the chart with the 29. Now I am not so dumb to think it was just the wheel, but something has to be said for just the thought that if you think it helps it will. Just the same as if you think a hunk of junk will work it will.

    Reply • December 20 at 7:16 am
  14. Anne says:

    James, you speak the truth.

    With pedals, I started out in toeclips (in 1991), moved to SPDs, then flats, then SPDs and back to flats. Haven’t been back to the SPDs since the beginning of this year and I can spin better on flats. Really enjoying the simplicity of it.

    I ride a 33.5 lb aluminum bike with coil by choice with 160mm travel. Everyone keeps pointing out how I need carbon, 29 inch wheels, air shocks, etc., etc. While I may not beat them up the hills or even down the hills, but I’m enjoying my ride especially down hill and starting to jump trail obstacles. I’m having fun with the big heavy bike, but that’s what I like to ride.

    I don’t think the 29er wheels are for me. The larger the wheel, the easier things get. I’d rather learn to ride a BMX 20 inch or a BMX cruiser (24″) and work on nailing down my handling there than buy a bike with road size wheels. JMO.

    I’m also training, specifically to improve my strength and speed on the bike, not to mention cross-training (which a lot of people do not do) and that’s just as important.

    Keep the rubber side down.

    Reply • December 20 at 10:26 am
  15. Jim says:

    I think you jumped the shark on this one. I understand the premise of your article, however, there is a huge leap in trail riding or racing (not downhill) with 29″ wheels. All things being equal I am faster on my cheep 29er than on my enduro on the same course, and its not just me look at Lee McCormack’s reviews of the 29er he used for a period of time.

    With the pedal issue I assume that you have used both. I do and have taken your and Lee’s advice and have improved by using both. Have you spent any time on a 29er to see how much different the experience is? My son and I have all but abandoned our trail bikes for 29er hard tails that we bought on a whim to try them, and they cost less than half of the trail bikes.

    Usually you do your research thoroughly, but I think you skipped a step here.

    Reply • December 30 at 4:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, the Magic Bullet Syndrome is exactly what you are talking about – you did not become a better rider, the bike made things easier. There is a difference. I never said that 29ers or clipless pedals can’t help, I am simply pointing out the difference between earning your performance increase through hard work and practice and buying a piece of equipment.

      Reply • December 30 at 5:16 pm
  16. Wacek says:

    Great article but you keep on nagging the same group: clipped-in owners of sub 20 lbs 29ers that took a bike fit an roadie trainin program to race on fireroad. I know you mean EVERY kind of going for “equipment-based-performance-enhancement” but please do mention the DH side of the spectrum as well; people going for anglesets, +750mm bars, tripple compound tyres, multi-piston brakes, carbon fibre frames just to get slightly less tired of hanging their arse over the rear too much, after hours on lift seat. In general DH bikes are as good for “non racing” riding as narrow bared XC race bikes. There are plenty of people drowning their lack of skill in too much travel (often setup too soft), plenty of brake burners who would progress faster on smaller bike.

    Reply • January 2 at 1:24 pm

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