Want to Ride Bikes?

Remember when it was that easy? You rolled up to a friend's house, lowered the kickstand, and rang the doorbell. "Want to ride bikes?" you'd ask. Your friend, depending on homework status, would either meet you near his garage or sadly decline your invitation -- the latter, usually following a brief plea attempt to the Garage Gatekeeper, also known as mom.

Now it's not so easy. Sure, club websites such as the one eternally linked on the right-hand side of this page make arranging for group rides much simpler (I attended two group rides just yesterday as a matter of fact) but it's not enough to hop on a bike and go for a spin anymore. Now we have to make sure we have the right bike.

It used to be that the question "What kind of bike do you have?" got one of the following responses, all entirely legit:

a) a blue Huffy BMX
b) a red Schwinn ten-speed
c) I don't know, it was my brother's bike and I repainted it.

Ask that question to today's riders and you'll listen to a laundry list of tech-specs, material types, dimensions, and various brandnames you've never heard of. Today's riders (and I'm talking primarily about mountain bikers if you haven't figured this out from past articles) spend as much time "dialing in" their suspension systems and cleaning the dirt out of their deraileurs (always with u) as they do riding their precious multi-thousand dollar steeds. Attend a ride with many of today's mountain bikers and you're more apt to hear a discussion of tyre (always with a y) tread designs and thicknesses than you are, say, of the previous night's Monday Night Football matchup.

And although I'm almost as guilty of worshipping at the feet of the bike technology demigods (I tithe to the Patron Saint of Carbon Fiber) as many of my fellow riders, I've always also secretly loathed the conversation as well. I hate discussing bicycle techno-jumbo. I rarely even adjust the height of my seat, let alone worry about making micro-adjustments to the suspension and tyre pressure. I'm a closet wannabe single-speeder with no desire to lose 26 of my gears. Every now and then the conversation shifts to frame materials and I could chime in about riding carbon and how light and stiff it is and how I'm glad the rear triangle is still aluminum. But even then, I would rather be talking about the latest Seahawks victory. Or, better yet, videogames.

This frustration was recently coming to a head for me when one of my riding buddies upgraded from a very lightweight Specialized Enduro with 5 inches of suspension to one of the very swanky, brand-new Santa Cruz Nomads featuring over 6 inches of suspension and all-around general beefiness. You see, I didn't think my friend really had the skills to take advantage of the extra suspension and heft and that his previous bike was already more than he needed -- not to mention, a really nice bike. You see, my bike has just 3 inches of suspension and when it comes to little jumps and drops and technical features on trails, there was nothing that he -- and most other people I ride with -- could do that I can't, depite my limited suspension.

And so he took me to a little place south of the airport yesterday where there are a number of dirt jumps and drop offs. And then he proceeded to put on a full-face helmet, and cloaked himself in body armor. He armored his chest and shoulders, his legs, and his arms. I was in shorts with a fleece sweater over a wicking layer. I wore a basic cross-country mountain bike helmet. I did, however, lower my seat.

Not even thirty minutes later, I knew that I was wrong. That, indeed, there were plenty of things that he could do on that new bike that I wouldn't dare try on mine. And a big part of it was the confidence that being on such a bike -- and wearing so much armor -- had given him. My skinny tyres, my stretched-out racing posture, my limited suspension. Gasp! The carbon fiber! I would break my bike in two if I hit the jumps he was hitting. Not to mention what I would do to myself.

And that's almost what happened. This particular place had different lines through the jumps that would accomodate people of all skill levels, from beginner to expert. After warming up on a couple of smaller little jumps and drop-offs, I started hitting this little kicker ramp atop a tabletop-style dirt mound. Well, after hitting it cleanly a couple times, I decided to try it with more speed. And that's when things went bad. My front wheel touched-down first and slid sideways and I went right over the bars. I essentially catapulted off the top of the transition down into the dirt and rocks beside the trail. My knees were bruised and I had a mother of a headache and my dirt-jumping for the day was over.

So I spent the rest of the time at the jump park photographing my buddy. He had moved up to the very respectable medium size terrain. He was hitting a couple of the larger drop offs and even some of the smaller gap jumps. And he was using every bit of that suspension, every extra tenth of an inch of those tyres, and that relaxed posture to make the most of it. And he looked awesome and you can see his skills improving wich each run through the park. Best of all, he came back out last night for a more traditional singletrack ride through some rooty, muddy, jump-free trails and seems to really love his new bike in all conditions.

I think what had me the most frustrated with his move to the "big bike" club was that I was going to lose a riding partner on those long cross-country epics. But if yesterday's pair of rides with him are any true indication, having a bigger bike doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the long distance stuff. It just means that you can also enjoy the bigger, more dangerous stuff too.

I got to get me one of them things...

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