[Editor’s Note: We recently published a Q & A with three of our reviewers – Tom Collier, Noah Bodman, and Marshal Olson – about short travel vs. long travel on trail bikes. In that conversation, Marshal expressed his growing interest in riding bikes with less travel—bikes that fit in the XC class rather than the very popular Enduro / All-Mountain segment. So we thought we’d have Marshal say a bit more about his movement toward smaller, lighter bikes. Take it away, Marshal.]
I might be having a midlife crisis.
I participated in 2-3 races each summer for the last 15 years, but I never bothered to take them very seriously. I’d spin a few practice laps, take my race run, then kill a few beers with the homies afterward. Results have been modest and never too embarrassing.
But for some reason, sometime last season, I re-gained a competitive streak. It wasn’t intentional, it sort of just happened.
I started to ride as if I was practicing to race, and I started caring about things on my bike that I had never cared about before. It was fun and invigorating.
In large part, I attribute this shift to the nature of the trails I moved away from three years ago, to the type of trails I now frequent. These new trails are simply less technical than the trails I spent the previous ~15 years riding.
Initially that was a pretty serious buzzkill for me, and the past two years, my motivation to ride took a big hit.
But my zest for riding has been rekindled by trying to keep up with the quick cats, paying attention to the amount of vert and distance I cover on a ride.
I enjoyed riding a Specialized Enduro 29er last season. It’s a great bike that picks up speed and holds a line insanely well; pedals respectably with the rear shock’s climb switch engaged; and is generally well suited for a crash test dummy like myself.
But it can also ride like a tank on flatter trails, and I found myself braking to prevent blowing corners that were too tight for the bike’s slack head angle.
Then, for grins, I put together a light carbon hardtail for days of putting in more miles, and I immediately noticed that unless the trail surface was exceptionally steep, rocky, or rough, that hardtail was every bit as quick and fun at descending on “normal” single track as my Enduro, and notably faster while heading down smoother trails. The hardtail maintains speed more efficiently through short climbs (where the Enduro’s suspension can sap momentum) and handles more responsively, requiring less brake input and only slight adjustments in body position to slice through turns.
That hardtail allowed me to knock two minutes off every fifteen minutes of climbing, letting me sneak in an extra mile or two on my rides without being late to get my little girls from daycare.
And that got me thinking…
If the hardtail is way faster to climb on and is every bit as fun as the Enduro on 90% of the descents around the Salt Lake and Park City area (on predominantly smooth, flowy trails), then maybe I could find a bike that fits in between the two, maintaining their positive traits and avoiding their weaknesses.
So I picked up a bike that seemed to fit the bill, the Specialized Camber. It might not be Specialized’s most talked about rig, or its most sexy, but its stupid fun, and it ticks all the boxes I was hoping it would. It’s quick on climbs, nimble and responsive through tight sections of trail, and offers enough suspension travel to handle almost all of the roughness encountered on trails around here.
The Camber reconfirmed a fairly obvious point that I had kind of forgotten, or at least, discounted: little bikes can shred super hard and are wicked fun to ride.
Over the next several months, I’m going to continue to try other, similar rigs, so look for regular reviews and articles that detail my experiments in “downsizing” to smaller, lighter bikes with less travel.
With all the 160mm trail bikes, fat bikes, and super wide rims out there, I realize that some of this goes against the gain of what’s popular these days, but my goal here is to share (a) where and how I’ve found new stoke for riding, and (b) get a bit clearer on how much bike I (and maybe you) really need.
I am curious to know what others think about all this, and to hear about your own experiments in downsizing. So please pass along any thoughts or ideas in the comment section below.