BetterRide founder Gene Hamilton's first mountain bike

Rigid Mountain Bikes Are Better To Learn On? Another MTB Myth?

I read an article last week that claimed that rigid mountain bikes are the best bikes to learn on. I couldn’t disagree a more! While I agree that it is amusing to see riders who are struggling to ride sections of trail on their $10,000 carbon full suspension bikes with carbon wheel sets that cost $2,800 I don’t agree that a rigid bike some how “teaches” you to be a better rider. I bought my first mtb in 1989 and it was fully rigid and I had a blast on that bike! Unfortunately, a bike can’t teach you anything and just riding a bike (without the knowledge of correct skills and drills to practice those skills) tends to get you better at your instincts (which are old, hunter gather type instincts, mtbs have not been around long enough for us to be born with mtb instincts. The biggest example is the idea of getting your weight way back when descending, it is instinctual as a human will instinctively move away from danger. Unfortunately, by getting my weight way back I am now out of balance, out of control and in a non-neutral position (my arms are straight or close to straight allowing me the ability to move in only one direction) so the more I rode the more I ingrained bad habits.

BetterRide founder Gene Hamilton's first mountain bike

Gene Mountain Biking in 1989, When Bandannas Were Helmets!

Reading The Talent Code, Outliers, Talent is Over Rated and/or Mastery all of those books will tell you that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. That means understanding a skill and doing specific drills to master that skill. I spent most of my pro career trying to undo all the bad habits I had ingrained through “teaching myself to ride”. One of the toughest to undo was line choice learned on my rigid bike! Riding a rigid bike taught me to take the smooth line fast (which usually means going around roots and rocks) instead of taking the fast line smooth (floating over those roots and rocks). In short, a bike can’t teach you much. Riding a bike to get better is like fighting to become a better fighter. Ever hear an Olympic skier say, “well I did a lot of my training on old straight skis” or tennis player say, “I train with an old wooden racket” (see Bjorn Borg’s comeback). Another huge thing affecting learning is fear, you can’t learn a skill while scared, when scared you will simply tense up and revert to what ever is most ingrained in you, which for most riders is a series of self-taught bad habits (I know it was for me). Rigid bikes increase the level of fear and therefore decrease the potential for learning. This is because on anything but a buttery smooth trail you simply have less control on a rigid bike versus a full-suspension bike. Control is why full suspension bikes exist, to keep the wheels on the ground giving you more control. Shock absorption is handled more by your body (your arms and legs have a lot more than 8″ of suspension and it is instant and perfectly dampened) while the bike’s suspension is minimal, designed to keep the wheels on the ground and assist your body in absorbing shocks.

Now, once you have the core skills of riding pretty dialed (you have invested the time to learn the correct in control and in balance techniques and spent a lot of QUALITY time doing drills to master those skills) a rigid bike will give you a lot of instant feedback that a full suspension bike either doesn’t give you are doesn’t give as much as. Taking the fast lines smooth on rigid bike really forces you to be smooth and not rely on the suspension to soak up shock. If you aren’t relaxed and smooth you will instantly know it on the rigid bike as you will get eyeball giggle and the trail will feel rougher than it should. Being “forced” to be smooth is a lot different than learning to be smooth as when you are forced to do something it doesn’t mean you fully understand how and why you are doing something and may not even be aware of it.

A great thing about rigid bikes is they make trails that now bore you, fun again. I used to ride a trail near my house in Steamboat Springs (Spring Creek Trail?) that connected to Buff Pass and other than being a good workout is was pretty boring on my 4″ travel bike in 1998. At the end of the racing season every year I would ride my old 1990ish Rock Hopper, (quill stem and all) on that trail and it was challenging! Full on eyeball jiggle at speed and those cantilever brakes didn’t work so hot! That trail went from boring on my trail bike to quite challenging on the rigid bike! So don’t think I am slamming the idea of rigid bikes, they are, simple, easier to afford and take care of, challenging, scary and a different kind of fun. Rigid bikes are not the best bikes to learn on though!

If you want to read the article you can find it here: http://reviews.mtbr.com/the-angry-singlespeeder-youve-got-too-much-bike

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15 replies
  1. Doug Byrne says:

    Great article Gene. As a guy who’s first bike (1994) was a rigid Rockhopper with a quill stem (that never held up well), I feel this article. I wish I had your clinic back then (and a suspension fort and a good stem). I’d have been a lot more enthusiastic as a rider. After fooling around now and then on a mountain bike for all of my 20s I got back into it with a new 29er hardtail and your class. Then I got 3rd place on my first race ever (at age 36).

    I commute on my fat-tired 26er (rigid and 1×9)..which is damn fun. Now i want a full-suspension 27.5….ha.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Angela Moore says:

    I agree I have also found a 29er to be better for learning on especially for the same reason you can go over more things in a smoother fashion. I am also a huge fan of the drop seat!!

    Reply
  3. Gene says:

    Hi Angela, for taller riders or people who really want to ride 29r’s may be better to learn on but they are way more cumbersome than a 26 or 27.5. Many of our students that now love 29r’s didn’t like learning on them for that reason, like me they say, “on a 29r I fell like I am in the bike while on a 26r I feel like I am on the bike”. 29r’s do roll over obstacles easier though so in that regard they are a bit more confidence inspiring. In general, what ever makes someone feel more confident will help with learning.

    We are huge fans of drop posts too, if you go way back in this blog you will see a series of articles on four things you can buy that instantly improve the ability to control your bike and that was one of them.

    Thank for your input,

    Gene

    Reply
  4. Chance says:

    question gene, slightly on topic… how do you feel about learning on flats verses clips or 26 verses 29er?

    i would not disagree that proper training and practice will make you the best rider the quickest… I do think your equipment can play a big role….

    learning to bunny hop or manual on full rig is super difficult, I also feel that learning to bunny hop on clips, you really aren’t learning the proper technique…

    In some instances suspension, larger wheels and clips tend to cover up faults and promote poor technique, IMHO

    Reply
  5. Gene says:

    Hey Chance,

    Two great questions. As for clips vs. flats for learning our response has always been, “what ever gives you more confidence”. We have had students who were used to being clipped in (from road riding) and really like that feeling. Someone had told them that learning is best on flats so they tried it and they said it was really scary. Other students have been told that going from flats to being clipped in is an upgrade and they should start clipping in as soon as possible. Why? How can clipless pedals be an upgrade when they same people said they are scared when clipped in? If something takes away your confidence for months/years how can it be an upgrade? We (Coach Andy Winohradsky and I) have written at least two blog articles on clipless vs. flat pedals here if you want more detailed information.

    That being said, if you are comfortable on flats there are quite a few skills that are better to learn on flats. Actually, let me rephrase that, there are some skills that practiced on flat pedals will give you a better understanding of the mechanics that you have been taught and don’t allow you to cheat. So the end result is they allow/prove to you that you have the skill down. However, many of those skills are easier to learn clipped in if you are more confident clipped in (because your feet don’t fly off the pedals when you cheat/do it wrong. Yes, you might not realize you did it wrong but also you didn’t slam your shin into the pedal and or crash so you didn’t lose confidence and increase your fear). Those skills are: correct bunny hopping (sometimes called the J-hop), rear wheel lifts, trackstands, coaster wheelies (manuals), bump jumping and simply riding smoothly.

    As for 29r vs 26r for learning I feel a 26 or 27.5 is better for learning as they are much easier to maneuver and they give you the feeling of being on the bike not in the bike. Just because the first time you ride a rough trail or have to bump your way over an obstacle (because you lack the skill to wheelie) a 29r will be easier to ride doesn’t make it easier to learn on. The biggest thing to consider is what size bike do you plan on riding once you get good (which is tough to know until you are good at riding!) as a few important skills are done slightly differently on a 29r than on a 26r (on a 26r you need to climb steephills really forward on the saddle with your chest down (how far forward and chest down depends on traction and steepness of hill, see Andy’s climbing body position article here) on a 29r you don’t need to slide as far forward and don’t need to lower your chest near as much.) So if your learn to climb on a 29r you will find climbing on a 26r quite different (and vice-versus).

    Yes, larger wheels and suspension can hide the fact (somewhat) that you aren’t being as smooth or as efficient as you could be.

    Cheers,

    Gene

    Reply
  6. Mick says:

    I’d like to further probe your thoughts and ask you what you think about perfect practice, drills and skills building on a single speed (in my case a single speed 29er). I have lots of experience on road bikes, cross bikes and triathlon bikes, but at 6’4″, I’m having a difficult time finding confidence on my MTB. Would drills and training be the same as a geared 29er? I believe I have found a good gear ratio for local terrain but descending is my big downfall. Any feedback is appreciated. Glad to see you’ll be all over Colorado this coming spring/summer.

    Thanks!

    Mick
    Colorado Springs

    Reply
  7. Gene says:

    Hi Mick,

    Colorado is where BetterRide started, I and four of our coaches live there (I live there in the summer, Arizona in the winter) so we love doing camps in our backyard!

    The short answer is yes, the same on your singlespeed. I love singlespeeds for their simplicity and light weight but unfortunately you are often in the wrong gear (not in the optimum gear for what you want to accomplish) so some skills like wheelies and steep lose climbs are going to be much harder on a singlespeed. All descending skills are the exact same though and the goal of climbing is the same just on steep climbs you are always standing and it is often hard to provide the right amount of power, weight transfer and lifting the front wheel.

    Create your best ride yet,

    Gene

    Reply
  8. Jennifer says:

    I loved your article. My son is just turned 11 and is riding a hard tail Nuke Proof which he loves. He’s doing Downhill, a little young for competitions but we felt this was the best bike for him to improve his skills and learn bike control. He’s a bit of a Crazy wee man having just recovered from a broken collar bone (not that is stopped him at all).

    Reply
  9. Josh says:

    Have you ever heard of an “Olympic Skier” that lacks in fundamental skills? BTW, the “Olympics’” Only happen once every 4 years, and is not quite the pinnacle of Ski Racing. I’d say the World Cup is a far better metric when talking “Olympic Skiers”. To set the record straight on that topic also the FIS has mandated that Giant Slalom Skis, Super Giant Slalom Skis, and Downhill Skis use larger sidecut radius’ basically making the latest “Legal Equipment” for “Olympic” Skiers much more straight…

    So yeah, I disagree with this article on every level. And while riding a Full Suspension bike may ultimately be faster, it does not teach all of the fundamental skills… Furthermore, you could probably throw Steve Peat (or insert your favorite pro here) on a 2×4 with wheels and they will still ride better / faster than 99% of the mountain bike population because they have the fundamental skills to do so.

    Reply
  10. Gene says:

    Hey Josh,

    Thanks for your input. I am little confused by your response as you say “So yeah, I disagree with this article on every level.” Then it sounds like you agree 100% with our “Core Skills” philosophy and that a piece of equipment can’t not make you better (which again I state in the article). I have been trained by US Ski Team coaches (on how to coach) and again we agree, ski racers don’t train on old school perfectly straight skis anymore, they train on the latest, best skis that the FIS allows. Again, really confused by your response, my guess is you missed some sentences or mis-read some because it sounds like we are in 100% agreement.

    Cheers,

    Gene

    Reply
  11. Tim Hamewka says:

    Great article. We’ve had a lot of discussion lately in our local riding circle about weight distribution on the bike. If you ask most riders, 99 out of 100 will tell you that you have to get your butt back behind the seat on steeper downhills. I’ve done this for years. I’m now trying to break myself of this habit. Snowboarding is a perfect example of this principle. When people beginning learning how to snowboard they have a tendency to lean back when starting down a slope, “backing away from danger” as you say. And what happens? The board will start to rotate around because you have moved your weight and balance point towards the back. Same principle on a bike. I must say though, it’s a hard habit to break after riding wrong for years. :)

    Reply
  12. Gene says:

    Hi Tim,

    Exactly! I was a snowboard coach for years before I started BetterRide and in skiing and snowboarding leaning back is nicknamed “the safety position” as lean back instinctually feels safe but it is not!

    Create an in balance ride, (go back a year or two in this blog and I have an article I just updated with a new video, http://betterride.net/?p=675 )

    Gene

    Reply
  13. Andrew Kovacs says:

    Response to the issue of ridgid vs suspension has been interesting and have hit the topic from all angles except one. My son Gabriel turned twelve this year and we have now competed in cross country for three years. Last year I had him on a x-small custom made Titanium frame I bought used for a great price. I mounted an aluminum ridgid fork because I couldn’t afford even a mid grade front end for the bike. This year we mounted a $900 fork and he was immediately a pint sized rocket. But my observation is this. Gabriel is regularly encouraging his friends to go riding with us and his friends show up on big box store 40 pound full suspension (really just springs) bikes. They look so fancy out of the box. It is so difficult to encourage these kids to ride on trails with these boat anchor bikes. One after another they give it up. How do you explain to them or their parents they would be much better off on a better quality fully ridge bike? Thanks

    Reply
  14. Gene says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Good point on the Big Box Store bikes for kids, they often weigh half of kids body weight! That would be like me riding a 92 pound bike! Not fun at all. That might be a weigh to get the parents to understand the value of a more expensive bike store bike. You can also play the safety angle as Big Box Bikes have lousy brakes and are often not really built to take the abuse of true off-road riding. Also their “suspension” usually lacks decent damping which means when you really compress the suspension it can rebound like a pogo stick, launching the rider off the bike.

    Glad to hear you are getting you kids out riding!

    Happy Thanksgiving,

    Gene

    Reply

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