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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