Sunday, June 14, 2009


Chris took this picture of the bike that a bunch of us kicked in money/effort for as a birthday present. It's a 5" travel, 26" wheel "freeride" bike. Really fun setup, with a nice slack/aggro geometry but not so much travel that it's going to wallow through in situations where you need to aggressively move the bike around under you (ie, hop a log, whip the rear end around a tight corner, etc).

A lot of people think the attribute that distinguishes downhill or freeride bikes is the amount of travel - and this is just nonsense. A lot of folks will ride faster and smoother, and have more fun, on a bike with 4 or 5 or 6 inches of travel than 7 or 8 or 9. Riding a DH sled to it's full potential requires serious skills, commitment, and the courage to risk broken bones and worse. Many people don't really want that, but they buy a DH bike anyway and end up unable to get the wheels off the ground or really have as much fun.

So really, the main trait to look for in a bike that's intended to go downhill (whether you want to pedal it up or not) is the geometry - you want 90+mm of trail (but exactly how much is going to depend on where and how you ride), clearance for fat tires, good fit both while standing and sitting (word to the wise, you do NOT want to slam your seat all the way down to ride difficult terrain), and appropriate brake/shift/pedal options. With bars too high, you'll get lazy and straighten your legs when descending - likewise with them too low, you'll have a hard time with steeper lines. If you can't bunnyhop on flat pedals, you should stick with clipless (or learn to j-hop). I could go on and on, but the bottom line is this: pick a bike for freeriding or DH riding based on an honest assessment of your skills and what you want to do, and ignore the travel numbers in favor of picking a good geometry for your preferences and terrain. Unless you're a very skilled rider, a super long travel bike is only going to hold you back.


tristan said...

Great post. I'm always amazed at the number of young-ish kids riding big freeride and DH rigs - the bikes are so big and heavy that they can't handle them and are just passengers. There was one 100lbs kid riding around on a Stinky with Monsters....he couldn't even lift the front to huck off a kerb! Needless to say even the spandex-clad XC boys would tare him up on the downhills which was not good for his self-confidence. The solution? More travel: An M3 was purchased....

taryn said...

Can you teach me to ride one of those?

Matthew said...

In some respects I agree with you entirely, in specific areas I strongly disagree.

I ride DH mostly on a hardtail in technical terrain. I'll be the first person to tell you travel by itself does not a good DH bike make. In fact, for learning DH, plopping onto an 8" bike is just about the worst thing you can do (you just learn to slam through things instead of learning line selection, body language, and the skills that would let you take an 8" to stupid fast speeds while keeping control).

Trail is the best number to use to describe handling, but it is hard to get from most manufacturers. Headtube angle is a close second, but much easier to get (every frame builder advertises it). 65 or slacker is a sled that rides super fast, but suffers side-to-side flop at lower speeds, and 69 or more degrees gets really twitchy at speed or on steep bits. Things between make for a good DH/FR rig depending on what the individual rider wants.

So - I agree with your argument.

I, however, disagree with the comments about slammed seats and pedals (thought these are aside to your main argument).

I keep my seat as low as possible. When riding a full squish bike, I keep the seat as low as possible without interfering with the suspension or contacting the rear wheel at full compression.
The lower seat lets you really tip the bike forward so that you can still have equal weight distribution while going done some incredibly steep grades.
I never sit on my seat while downhilling. On a DH/FR bike, the seat is there for when you are resting (or just cruising), and for when you screw up. Every pound going through your seat and not through your legs is less direct control of your bike. If you are so tired you need to sit, pull over and take a break, your arms probably need a break too. There's no shame in pulling over and taking 30 seconds to breathe and talk about how much fun that last section was.

Regarding the comment about flat pedals; firstly falling clipped on a DH is risky business. If you can't lift your rear wheel (learn to!), then ride the chicken lines when you reach a point that requires it. If that isn't an option, walk the section. If you can't ride a section on flats, the danger of riding it clipped in should give you pause to think.
Secondly, most people riding DH initially suffer some apprehension. Adding the fear of "can I get my foot out in time" only complicated matters. If someone is a die hard clipless user, this point is moot, but for the vast majority of people, riding flats will reduce the apprehension and the associated last-second-brake-grab. Too often people reach and pass the point of no return only to slam on the brakes, causing crashes and injury. Most moves in DH require commitment. That commitment is easier to muster if you know that you are attached to your bike if things go south.

My two cents (less after exchange rate),