How Much Bike do You Really Need?

[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.

How much bike do you really need? Blister Gear Review
Marshal Olson, Glenwild Loop, Utah.

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.

8 comments on “How Much Bike do You Really Need?”

  1. I’m based in Vancouver, BC so I see a fair amount of technical riding. Even here, there are very few trails that you would pedal up to that push a 160 mm bike to its limits.

    I picked up an inexpensive 29er hardtail that had all the right ingredients where it counts (Kona Taro) and found I was chasing down my buddies on their AM bikes on any trail that wasn’t too rough. Compared to the Cannondale Jekyll I had, I found I could push the hardtail harder into corners and work the trail better. And the hardtail was far more responsive.

    I have switched out the Jekyll for a Kona Process 134 and couldn’t be happier. It combines the responsiveness of the hardtail with enough suspension to be confidence-inspiring on the more challenging trails. I have found the Process 134’s limits on steeper and rougher terrain, but for 95% of the riding I do, it’s more suitable than the 160 mm bike it replaced.

  2. This is exactly why I own a 26lb ASR5 alongside my 34lb alum Nomad. The Nomad is great for rough trails (ie Porcupine) and crossing over into the bike park (Keystone), while the ASR5 is perfect for those smoother jumpier rippable trails (ie 18rd). one bike to push my ability, another to push my speed.

  3. About a year ago, frustrated by close calls on my road bike, I moved full-time to off-road riding, and subsequently to a Specialized Crave SL. The bike is a single-speed, rigid hardtail, outfitted now with carbon bar and seatpost. It weighs slightly less than my old road bike, and less than any mountain bike I’ve owned — by far. That said, it’s a joy to ride because it’s light, sturdy, and absurdly simple, and I really enjoy riding on it in a way I’d forgotten.

  4. Optimizing for the downhill is fun, but the reality that you have to go faster/bigger to progress (and the risk that goes along with that) started to sink in for me. I went thru the same thing you did with ski gear a few seasons, ago and applied it to my mountain bike last season. Sold my Norco trail bike and picked up a carbon 29er hardtail. The uphills are fun now, I get to ride more trail in the same amount of time, and it’s fun to pay attention to my line rather then just rolling over everything.

  5. I spent the first 10 years of my mtb time racing up to 30 races a year. It was all about weight and efficiency. The last four years have been just riding for fun with very little time spent with a race number. I tried to upsize thinking that the xc bike wasn’t necessary any more, but ended up going back to a 4 inch travel bike with race geometry and suspension and a ti hardtail. Even if I am not going against the clock, i still want to feel quick. As strava can attest I’m not losing anything on the downhills. A fatter front tire, ergons, and a bigger rotor up front are my only upsized features now. Both bikes are a hoot, and unless im riding something like porcupine, i never want to pedal the 6 inch beast again.

  6. Marshal,

    At Outer Bike last year I was blown away with how much fun I had on the Camber EVO. I’ve been riding an Enduro 29 Expert for the past year and while I love the bike, I’m unsure that I have more fun on it than I did on the Camber. The other big surprise was the Niner ROS, it was a perm-grin machine!

    Now I’m taking a step back and reconsidering what I should really be on for a bike. Bottom line is that we (me definitely) ride bikes to have fun, smile and the bike that is the most fun generally means I’m flowing on it and therefore fast.

    Great little write up, stoked to hear what else you come up with in your exploration!


  7. For me, it really is an “it depends” question and, like skis, there are definite trade-offs for different types of gear. I have a Rocky Mountain Altitude and have gone through a variety of changes on the bike. Wide carbon rims added the perception of better stability. I currently run a 2.35 Has Dampf (front), which I enjoy better than most lighter and narrower tires. I just changed my fork from a 2013 Float 150 to a 2015 Pike 160. There was a noticeable and positive difference in how I feel after five hours of riding (less beat up) and no perceived difference in climbing with the bigger (but lighter) Pike. Having said that, I recently rode my older Ibis MOJO, which has a steeper head tube angle and is 26 rather than 27.5. The MOJO felt substantially quicker in the climbs and is more fun on flatter snakey trails, but less fun on fast or technical DH. The biggest thing that I noticed; however, is that the MOJO ride was not as plush and I felt more “beat up” after a two hour ride. I currently live in the Canadian Rockies and a few of our local trails are smooth. The Altitude works well for me here. I might move to Bend Or, in which case a lower travel, hard tail 29er might be more fun.

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