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.
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