Squirrels, Dogs and Bikes
By Mike Wirth
Nearly everything in this world is built for a specific purpose, the one it was designed for. Mountain bikes are no exception. I see this concept applied in most every part of life–from the way squirrels are built for doing squirrel things, to the way dogs are made with the perfect sized brain, and the way that most bikes are exceptionally good for the terrain they were made for. Anyone who knows the value of using the right tool for the job knows this concept. Let me back up to that crazy title here…
Squirrels are designed for doing squirrel things. They’re made for jumping tree to tree, sprinting across power lines, and driving my dog insane in the backyard by taunting her from the top of the garage. They’re not built for much more than that, but they are very good at what they do. Given the chance to climb to the top of my garage like a squirrel, I’d likely find myself splattered on the ground soon after… that is, unless I was using a ladder, another thing that’s perfectly designed for a specific purpose.
Whether you’re an inanimate object or my best furry friend, you probably have an intended purpose. Take for example my dog, Kula. She’s the one who will stand by me day and night with unconditional love. But a big reason for that is that she’s blessed with the right sized brain. If you were able to talk to her about what entertains her she’d probably go on about how her favorite part of the day is lying in the sun till she’s way too hot, then going to the shady spot. Other than a bowl of food and a pat on the head, that’s all she needs to be happy. She’s built for dog things… and that’s about it.
When it comes to bikes, most of them are so purpose-built that it’s dizzying to try to explain them to a layperson, and believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Years ago, racers were able to use the same bike for a cross-country race that they would on the downhill course, but those bikes really weren’t all that great at any of the tasks they were meant for. High seats and no suspension for downhill racing or steel frames and 26-inch wheels for cross-country racing are a thing of the past. We’ve evolved, and as a result, made our sport better for it. Cross-country bikes are incredibly light, technological marvels that use more sophisticated materials than those used on spaceships only a few decades ago, but they’re no better at riding downhill tracks than Formula-1 cars are at jumping school buses like monster trucks. In the same vein, a downhill bike is your best friend when gravity is on your side, but pointing it uphill is like trying to drag an anvil to the top of Everest.
The bikes we ride are purpose-built for the trails we ride, and this brings me to my main point: Why would you ride a bike purely for the sake of riding something different, knowing there are better options out there? It simply makes no sense to me. Case in point: fatbikes. These bikes are built to be ridden in the environments for which they were designed. They’re not built for racing, that is, unless you’re racing in a fatbike class. If by some miracle I’m proven otherwise by a downhill or cross-country prodigy frame builder who somehow finds a way to make them work on more-standard trails, I will eat my words. For now though, I will go out on a limb and say that riding a fatbike anywhere other than on a glacier in Alaska or in the frozen tundra around Minneapolis, these bike are at a serious disadvantage to their more conventional trailbike brethren.
Let me back up once again here, before I conjure up hundreds of letters from the “beardo” fatbikers out there who love their bikes. I’m not at all anti-fatbike. In fact, I’ve ridden and loved several of them in the past. The Foes Mutz tested in the July 2015 provided so much traction on the steep descents I typically ride I felt like a superhero. However, it also felt pretty sluggish on the uphill. It’s at a clear disadvantage to the other bikes out there, unless the ride is taking place on snow, or the race is in a designated “Fatbike-specific” class. These bikes, in my opinion, are for those riders who either live in snow-covered landscapes, have a compulsive need to ride a bike that’s different enough to be a talking point among their riding buddies, or simply care more about being out there on a unique and fun bike than the one that’s most efficient, fastest, or best-equipped for the trail. They’re relatively new and cool to talk about but ultimately impractical as an only bike. They’re a sideshow to the main event, and should only be considered by those who already have tried a true trailbike, and know how much versatility they’re missing out on by going full fat.
In today’s world, you can buy a trailbike or all-mountain bike that will come as close as ever to a “do it all” bike. That’s because in either case, the bike was designed to ride trails, all over the mountain. Trailbikes give up a little climbing performance compared to an XC bike, and a little descending prowess compared to a downhill sled, but gain it all back when trail riding, the purpose they’re designed for. Bottom line, I have the utmost respect for anyone who knows to use the right tool for the job, rather than the one that will garner the most attention for using it.
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