Like most gear-obsessed sports, mountain biking has seen its fair share of fads, trends and dead ends. Is the current trend for longer frame reach and slacker angles one of those? Editor Jon feels rather strongly about the topic.
I've been riding mountain bikes for quite a while now. I can't claim that I was one of the originals shredding down Mt Tam or larging it up at the Malverns Classic before competing in a whole load of disciplines on the same bike, but I like to think I've done the rounds. Ridden a lot of bikes, spent an awful lot of money and yes, fallen victim to the odd fad here or there.
I was there at that time when everyone decided that 24" wheels running 3" rubber was a superb idea. One set of Alex E-wall rims and a Nokian Gazzaloddi later I too was enjoying a number of kilograms more of rotating weight and the drag that only a huge volume, thick sidewall tyre can create, despite the fact that my local trails had barely any rocks in them and my teenage self only weighed eight stone, dripping wet.
However, sanity soon prevailed before a generation wore their kneecaps out and we went back to the standard 26" rim size once more, just with slightly fatter rubber than before. Any similarity to what's going on with Plus size tyres today is entirely coincidental, by the way. That's the way it stayed until the 29" wheel came along, which was much loved by singlespeeders but this time many people were wise to the game - or so they thought - and roundly slagged the wheel size off without trying it, which then drove it into the arms of the extremist fringe - singlespeeders - which probably didn't do it any favours.
Around that time, the world became aware that people on the West Coast of Canada had been building trails out of wood to get them up and over obstacles and boggy sections. Soon, they graduated to making stunts and jumps out of split logs and North Shore riding was born. It quickly spread across the pond and soon you weren't riding a proper UK trail centre unless it had sections of up and down boardwalk covered in chickenwire snaking across otherwise perfectly serviceable terrain.
Bikes soon became adapted to ride this sort of thing. You needed loads of suspension for doing hucks off the end of a ladder, a super high bottom bracket and a bashguard in place of your outer chainring so you could bump up and over logs and a nice short frame reach and steepish head angle so you could go round super tight skinnies without falling off the edge. The freeride bike was born and they sold like hot cakes.
The only issue was that they were utterly shit at doing normal riding. The high bottom bracket, short reach and steep angles combined with the long, plush travel conspired to fire you straight over the bars under heavy braking, on steep plummets or indeed anywhere else that it could. Once people realised that their freeride bikes weren't doing much freeride, the fad passed and things once again normalised, but we had bikes with more travel meant for doing bigger jumps yet still riding up the hill. Then came more wheel sizes, more tyre sizes and everything else.
There are two ways of looking at all of these things. The first way is that the evil marketeers had brutally conned poor riders into buying things that were rubbish for them so they could sell them another one in a bit, inbetween going and rolling in their giant stacks of cash they'd made after they were bored of hookers and blow. While it's certainly true that some companies occasionally try to force sub-par products onto riders using the full weight of their marketing machine, this tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
The second way to look at it - and the one that bears more relation to reality in my experience - is that the people building and selling bikes look at what is making riders excited, themselves included, then go and make a thing that they think works and then they try and sell it to the rest of us. This inevitably leads to products that miss the mark or situations where people become convinced of the rightness of an idea despite all evidence to the contrary. It also leads to forwards progress, as people keep the ideas that work and ditch those that don't.
Okay, so most of us have suffered the indignity of buying a bike or bit of kit, only to be told a few short months later that it's out of date because there's a better one on sale, right now. This leads me on to the main drive of my little rant: just because the industry is susceptible to fads and fancies, doesn't mean that some innovations or trends aren't an entirely positive thing for riders.
I think the current trend for longer frame reach is one of those. There are plenty of people who look at bikes getting longer by a few millimetres with each update and it leads them to believe it's just a new way for manufacturers to milk them for a new bike. Their old bike works just fine - something I genuinely don't doubt - so this is yet another con job.
Well, I'm sorry, it isn't. Finally riding bikes with geometry that's designed for actual biking on mountains, rather than being a vestigial road bike has made a greater difference to my riding enjoyment than pretty much anything else. Really clever suspension, sticky fat rubber, dropper posts; all these are good things that have made mountain biking more fun, faster and accessible - but I could do without them if I had to choose between that and good geometry. By that I mean long reach figures, slack head angles and steep seat angles, preferably with a low bottom bracket in there to boot.
I've ridden an awful of bikes doing this job - some great ones, some average ones and some utter dogs - and it never fails to surprise me the difference solid geometry makes. Bikes with great geometry can make up for an awful lot of shortcomings in both equipment and rider. A tyre might be made from hard rubber, it might have a cheap and not-very-sensitive suspension or the kit on it might end up with it weighing a couple of kilos more than a rival, but those are much easier to overlook if the basic shape of the bike puts you in the right position to be able to compensate for all of those shortcomings, whether you're riding uphill, downhill or along.
It's telling that there are very few bike brands out there that haven't adjusted their reach figures significantly upwards in a number of years. One of those would be Mondraker, who helped start the long reach, dinky stem movement off in earnest with their Forward Geometry concept. It's still the case that one of their medium frames has a longer reach that some brand's extra large bikes, which boggles the mind somewhat.
That concept has been taken on-board by people such as Whyte Bikes in the UK, Finland's Pole Bicycles and pushed to an extreme by Chris Porter with the Nicolai/Geometron bikes, which go quite possibly to the absolute limit of what a person can physically fit on. Surely that's the way to do it - go the extreme of what works, then dial it back a couple of notches? Otherwise, it rather seems like we're in the dark, feeling blindly in front of us as we take tiny steps forwards. Of course, it's understandable that big brands can't boldly step out into the unknown, trip down the metaphorical stairs and end up in A&E, but I'm constantly surprised by how many many times people in the bike industry profess not to have tried bikes like this, write them off as 'extreme' and still make the same tired assumptions about how they'll ride.
The greatest irony is the fact geometry is essentially free. Making a bike with a decent reach figure that doesn't have you sat on top of it like a bear and a head angle that doesn't have you over the bars at the first sight of a lump costs no more than making one that doesn't - you just keep the tubes a bit longer and stick them together at a different angle.
So why do people persist in sneering at longer and slacker bikes as some kind of fad? My guess is that they've probably not spent any decent amount of time on one. Yes, there is a bit of learning curve but once you realise that the front end of your bike isn't to be feared then it's a game changer. A slacker head angle means more stability on steep descents, as the wheel is further out in front of you and much less likely to heave you over the bars if you mess up your line or slap on the brakes in a hurry. I have no doubt that many people who get really freaked out and nervous on steep descents have their bikes to blame, not just their skills or confidence.
The same goes for a few myths of how long bikes behave - namely that they don't go around corners and that they can't climb. Neither is true in my experience; quite the opposite in fact. A longer reach and wheelbase means a more stable place to climb - well, as long as the seat angle is sufficiently steep to keep the front from lifting - and if the bike is stable then you'll need less of the moving about as on the saddle as you attempt to find traction.
As for cornering, a slack, long bike tends to break traction much more progressively and predictably. I'm yet to find the switchback I can't make it around. If anything, the long wheelbase means a less offputting weight transfer as you hook around the corner and not worrying so much about being thrown out the front door makes for a much less nerve-wracking experience.
Having a bike that encourages you to ride sections that you've feared with a greater margin for error has to be a good thing. Some people trot out the whole 'skill compensator' line when talking about this - or bikes in general. Fair enough, if you don't want any compensation at all, piss off and ride a penny farthing down your local black run and see how you get on. You can wear your hair shirt with a chip on your shoulder, I'll gladly go off and have fun on a bike that helps me have fun. Deep down I suspect I'm not the one that feels like they have to compensate for anything.
A bike's geometry is the very heart of the machine. You can change pretty much everything else on the bike, tweak your suspension to your heart's content, but save the mildest of tweaks, there's not a lot you can do to alter head angle or reach significantly. That's why people really should pay it more attention when thinking about their next bike rather than whether one widget is shinier than other. Whoever came up with Cinderella story had the right idea - better to have a correctly fitting glass slipper than buggering about chopping your toe off trying to make the wrong thing fit.
Okay, I might have dipped slightly into hyperbole, but my essential point is this; give this whole longer and slacker thing a fair go. Borrow a bike, ride it a couple of times. I'd be very, very surprised if you went back to a shorter and steeper bike and didn't suddenly feel much more precarious riding exactly the same trails. You don't need to throw away your current bike and go and buy an Extra Extra Longest Geometron with a 550mm reach and 62.5-degree head angle even if you're only 5'2 high after reading this, just don't write this one off as a fad - I beg you.