The Best Mountain Bike For Learning Skills?

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky’s take on long travel “trail” mountain bikes:

Recently, a friend of mine rode one of the latest “longer travel” trail bikes (around 160 mm of rear wheel travel) and was blown away by the bikes capabilities on the trail. He couldn’t come up with a reason why he shouldn’t have one and he asked me what I thought.

I told him that I may not be the best guy to talk to when trying to make the decision on whether or not to buy a new bike – of course you need one of those! Who doesn’t!

But he asked me another very interesting question about having a “bigger” (more travel, slacker angles, heavier – more “all-mountain” or “free-ride”) bike versus a “smaller” (lighter, less travel, steeper angles – more XC race oriented) bike, and which would be the best bike for skill progression.

I think that most riders believe that the smaller bike would be. It would require more skill to ride: it would force better line choices, near perfect riding position, etc, and therefore, make a rider learn proper technique. While with the big bike, one could simply plough into obstacles, and the bike would do all the work – no skill required!

But I actually feel that the opposite is true: the bigger bike is more likely to give the rider the tools necessary to learn proper technique while the smaller bike may actually inhibit the learning process.

Why?

First, we don’t learn very well when we’re scared or in “survival mode”. With many bikes that are very much on the XC racing side of the spectrum, the combination of things like tire choice, stem length, the geometry of the frame, the rigidity and strength of the parts (or lack thereof) – especially having the seat jacked up to the climbing height when descending (no adjustable height seat post) – can all add up to a pretty dicey ride when trying to negotiate difficult terrain. Will the thing climb like a rocket ship? Yep, probably will. But as soon as these bikes get pointed downhill or into tough terrain, a lot of riders end up in the “just-try-not-to-crash-mode”. And this is obviously not a very good environment for learning and applying new techniques.

On the other hand, the bigger bike will instill confidence. The rider will now have a controlled setting of sorts, and have the ability to focus on specific aspects of riding instead of simply “just-trying-not-to-crash”.

More importantly, the larger bike allows for higher speeds in the tough sections, thus, allowing the rider the opportunity to process the trail at these higher speeds and get accustomed to them. This is huge.

Anyone who has ever taken BetterRide instruction comes away with a new understanding and respect for how important vision is on the bicycle. We spend a lot of time on vision, breaking down the techniques for using vision on the bike, how and why they are necessary. We stress that if you can only learn one chunk of the instruction of the three-day camp, make it vision because it is the most important thing when riding the bike.

Though very few do it properly, most riders do understand the importance of seeing the good lines and putting the bike in the right place on the trail. This aspect of vision is obviously very important (and kind of complex and counter-intuitive). But there is way more to vision and bike riding then just that.

Of our five senses, vision is giving us nearly all of the information about what is happening with our ride. If I am scared, it is because I see obstacles that Iook intimidating or maybe because I’m going – what I perceive to be – too fast. The way we see the trail and its perceived dangers affects us psychologically and this determines the decisions that we will make.

Again, a bigger bike gives you the opportunity to learn how to see and process the trail at higher speeds. You become comfortable at these speeds and therefore confident. Now you are able to work on techniques and learn skills and apply them at speeds and in terrain that would be very difficult to do with a smaller bike.

Yes, you will eventually find your limits on the bigger bike. And, yes, you do have to pedal the thing to the top (usually). But now, even if you do go back to that svelte XC race machine after being on the big dog, you now have the ability to process at those higher speeds. Speeds that used to be intimidating, no longer are. Of course you will have to slow down for stuff on the small bike that you didn’t have to slow down for on the big bike, but now that decision is more academic and not driven by fear and intimidation.

A few “for instances”:

Speeds on my XC/trail bike don’t seem fast because I’m used to the speeds of a downhill bike. Obstacles on an XC trail aren’t intimidating because I’m used to the obstacles on DH track.

Most of us have probably heard the story of someone’s buddy, who is a dirt bike rider and went on a MTB ride for the first time in his life, and was extremely fast on the descents – right away! Well, this person is used to processing the trail at dirt bike speeds (that are usually much greater then MTB speeds). He’s not intimidated, he’s seeing good lines; he’s doing this part of riding – the most important part – very well.

The above is also a big reason why many pro downhillers ride a lot of motocross in the off-season.

And, if we put an average DH racer on an XC bike and point her downhill, she’ll ride the wheels off the thing, only slowing because of the perceived limitations that the bike imposes on her – but not because of perceived limitations of her skill!

So, if you were on the fence about getting into a longer travel trail machine, jump off and grab that credit card! Not only will you have a blast, but also you’ll own a great new tool for developing skills that will transfer over to you XC race bike very nicely!

For Gene article on finding a confidence inspiring bike click this link: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/the-ideal-confidence-inspiring-mountain-bike/

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27 replies
  1. Geoffrey says:

    When I bought a full-bounce MTB, I chose longer travel, for ZERO of the above reasons :) Reading your reasons makes me even happier with my decision.

    My reason was, I test rode a long travel bike, and came backed refreshed, instead of feeling beat up. It wasn’t that it enabled big air and huge drops; it was that it was more like riding in a Lexus. 30 mile rides are quite comfortable this way.

    Reply
  2. Brete says:

    I started MTBing last year. I went from a hardtail, to a 4″ to a 6″ in about four months, and haven’t looked back. Sold the smaller bikes and smiled while I did it. I’m looking closely at adding a DH bike to the mix, because I’m getting to a place where even the 6″ bikes has some limitations.

    Great article, guys

    Reply
  3. Dan says:

    I learned simply from attempting a skill, on any bike, but for some specific trail skills, you just don’t feel comfortable even attempting it unless you had a big bike. I can’t say I mastered skills on a big bike, but once I became smooth at doing the skills on a big bike, they easily transferred over to my lighter XC bike, which I considered mastered if it was also smoothly done on that smaller bike.

    I can say I’ve done some things smoothly on my XC bike when I didn’t have a bigger bike, though it wasn’t consistent and/or I stopped doing it once I had a sketchy attempt. I would usually seek to recreate that magical smooth and fast run in my mind, but in practice would rarely ever get it. I totally can relate to the “survival mode” feeling. After getting it smooth on a bigger bike that I was more willing to push harder, it took only 2-3 runs to see me consistently doing the smooth and fast run on my smaller bike.

    This article speaks the truth. It totally smashes the myth that you learn faster on a rigid or low travel bike. It’s more like you’re limiting your learning on one and are forced/limited to fine-tuning what skills are used on what you already ride. Possibly poorly executed skills that turn into the bad habits that BetterRide aims to fix.

    Reply
  4. Gene says:

    Brete,

    6″ bike has limitations?! You have only been riding a year. Before you plop down $3,000 or more for a downhill bike don’t you want to learn the correct techniques? 20 years of riding won’t teach 50% of what we can teach you in 3 days (no, you won’t have what we teach you mastered in 3 days but you will know the correct skills and have dills to master them) instead of mastering self taught bad habits why not learn the correct way first. It will save you tons of money and time (believe me, it isn’t the bike that is limiting you). The only way to master any sport is to learn the core skills and do drills to master them! I you can’t lean them on you own because they are not intuitive.

    Reply
  5. Brete says:

    LOL, Gene, you forgot — I’m the guy who rides Fire Swamp on a 6″ bike. ;-) And, I forgot to mention, I’m a student of, your very own, Coach Don Bogardus.

    Reply
  6. jake says:

    I agree. My wife had a short travel hard-tail as her first bike. On that bike she was to scared to ever even really try riding. Then she got a great deal on a 6″AM bike and really got into riding and improved considerably.

    Reply
  7. Gene says:

    Hi Brete,

    I did forget that! Wow, riding less than a year and riding Fire Swamp! On a six inch bike! You rock! I take back what I said, that bike is limiting you on that trail. You are a very brave man! and that is the kind of dedication we are looking for!

    Reply
  8. Brete says:

    Thanks Gene! However, I’m 49 years old and “stupid” seems more descriptive than “brave.” ;)

    Nonetheless, I haven’t had this much fun in decades. Appreciate all you’ve done for the sport.

    Reply
  9. John says:

    At the instance of my riding buddies, my first mtb was a 2007 Kona Coiler, which I rode every where for two years – before I bought single speeded Chameleon with 100mm fork.

    And I’m still using both, although I no longer use the Coiler for commuting or XC racing.

    What amazes me is how forgiving the Coiler has been for technical riding. Recently I lost my lights on a night ride and had to rely on my buddies for illumination. The plush suspension of my ride allowed to negotiate technical sections which I might otherwise have had to walk.

    Reply
  10. Ron Wipp says:

    WHO IS THIS GUY!!! Brete. I mean the skills this guy has with only a year on his bike! Crap, he makes me want to put mine away. Living in northern FL doesn’t make for DH skills, but what does/did this guy do? Race motocross or enduro? At 49 years of age (I’m 65) you figure he is not someone young and dumb. Whatever he has I want some of it.

    Thanks for the emails Gend … Wippr

    PS: If things go right, I’m hoping to attend your school in Asheville this fall. Its gonna take some luck.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hey Ron,

      I hope you can make the Asheville camp! I have had quite a few students you age and older and it really inspires 45 yea old kids like me.

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply
  11. Chris Cornelison says:

    Great article. Andy, I did go ahead and get the Enduro. Most fun bike I’d ever ridden. Ride it everywhere, even the flat trails when I was back in Iowa this week. Took it to Oregon for a Western Spirit trip a couple of weeks ago and had so much fun ripping 20 minute descents, you’d need sand paper to get the smile off my face.

    Only ridden the Epic once since I got the new bike, but as you said, I felt a lot more in command of the small bike after riding the bigger one for a while.

    Reply
  12. Martin says:

    Absolutely right about speed. I’ve been riding hardtails for the last six years and recently got a full sus. While most of the skills are transferable I find that I am totally unused to the speed I can now carry and the extra looking/processing I have to do with it. Getting there slowly. The FS also gives me a couple of Get out of Jail free cards when practicing drops and jumps. This lets me build confidence that I can then take back to my hardtail.

    But it does come with a price tag attached. For the same spec hardtail and FS the FS will cost more to buy and to run.

    A hardtail is a great intro to the sport, but once hooked get yourself a full sus.

    Reply
  13. Dan says:

    I rode a twitchy hard tail for years and always pushed to lead my buddies on suspension (usually with success). When I finally upgraded to a LT, AM bike it occured to me that I had wasted several years holding on to a relic. The relic was fun and I have good memories, but bajaing in a Yugo is never going to be as good as a real buggy. So save the hard tail and short suspension bikes for bar hopping.

    Reply
  14. Andy says:

    Thank you, Chris! Our conversations on the topic inspired me to write the article!

    In all these posts, I think there is a common theme: FUN! We’re not scared when we’re having fun. We also are loose and confident on the bike. This is where we need to be in order to learn and progress.

    Reply
  15. Alon says:

    Does a 29er qualify as a big bike, even though it usually has shorter travel? It’s pretty good on the obstacle part.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      29ers are great over obstacles and the few that have slack head angles (68.5 or less) are confidence inspiring on the descents. As more and more 29er builders move away from 71 and 70 degree head angles and move to 69-67 degree head angles they are becoming much more fun to ride.

      Reply
  16. Andy says:

    Alon,

    I will say any bike that makes you feel safer and more in control will give you more opportunity to learn and progress your skills. I wrote about bicycles in this article, but this could also be said for protective equipment, trail choice (we’ll learn more readily on easy trails), etc.

    I will be a very able to learn, apply, and progress cornering technique on a nice soft, loamy, flat turn, with soft manicured grass on each side of the trail … Take the same turn, put it on the side of a cliff, no protective gear, and a 22 lb, steep head angle (twitchy) bike with narrow bars and a long stem (not much control) and I’d rather walk. I won’t learn much in the latter situation.

    The safer and more confident you feel, the better you will be able to learn.

    Reply
  17. Phil Marsh says:

    Rode a hardtail xc type bike for several years and then made the switch to a stumpjumper last year. Had no idea how much I was being held back. Been thinking about an Enduro lately but thought I was just probably crazy. Now you’ve got me thinking about it more. Already signed up for the Asheville clinic. Looking forward to it!

    Reply
  18. Julie Kanagy says:

    Gene,
    ARGH! I hate this blog post! (or my finances do, rather)… I have been lusting after and demoing the Mojo HD. Now I feel like getting one is not just an optional luxury, but a necessity.
    :-)
    Julie

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Julie,

      You will love that bike! It will give you a lot more confidence descending with it’s slacker head angle!

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply
  19. Anne says:

    While a slack head angle does help, bottom bracket height can also affect the twitchiness and a person’s riding confidence on the bike.

    Since switching to a bike with the same HA (67 degrees, not necessarily slack by today’s standards) and a much lower BB (From 14.2 to 13.4), I’m much happy and off the brakes a lot more.

    Reply
  20. David says:

    Just come across this article. As a total MTB beginner who’s been scared riding a 1990′s rigid bike with canti brakes, high saddle, and low bars, would you recommend a long travel full suspension bike? I’m not very confident on even mild descents. I was thinking about buying a new rigid bike, but tried a few XC FS bikes and think they’d give me more confidence. However, would longer travel be even better for a mix of mountain trails? Budget is limited, but been looking at Santa Cruz Superlight29 (100/120mm) but maybe should think about a 160mm bike – or there’s the Ibis Mojo Superblend in the middle at 140mm – although it has 26″ wheels. I’d need the bike to cope with long cross country days with lots of climbing/descending, and some ‘bike-packing’. However, I do need something which will help me to relax on the rockier descents. Thanks!

    Reply

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  1. [...] the more XC leaning StumpJumper EVO. Andy Winohradsky, the Head Coach at BetterRide has written a blog post that gives solid reasons on why an all-mountain bike is better for skills progression. The gist of [...]

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