By Steve Thomas
Shake, rattle & roll; ahh, the fun of thrashing a rigid mountain bike off-road is one of life's great twisted pleasures. Yes, to many, it may seem like a pointless exercise, something akin to going back to wearing a loincloth and running shoeless around the moors in search of your next meal, or maybe even to using dial-up telephones.
Sure enough, there is an element of regression to riding a rigid bike off-road, but that does not have to mean that it's a bad idea. It could be argued that many gravel converts are actually reconnecting with the primal thrills of those early days of mountain biking, albeit somewhat unwittingly and perhaps not so obvious.
There was a time when it was all rough and bone-jarring white-knuckle tumble. It was dirty fun that demanded you learn to read the trail and terrain, showing respect for them, instead of ironing out your differences with 6-inches of plush cushioning on your side, as is the case with many modern-day mountain bikes.
What's it all about?
First off, I'm not suggesting for one minute that you ditch your spangly new carbon trail bike, banish the evil suspension demons from your life, or even take a vow of gravel impurity. No, I would not even do that myself, but adding a little old school rigid riding to your routine could well change your riding for the better.
If you haven't ridden fully rigid in a while, you may well have forgotten what it's like, that no room for errors skin of your shorts sense of purity and connection to the trail.
By design, rigid riding demands that you tune in to read every ripple and rock on the trail. You need to your plot lines with precision, ride lightly, take full control and responsibility, and on occasion, even slow down or hit the ground.
Suppose you've never ridden without suspension before. In that case, it may well be a steep learning curve and something of a backtrack for those who ditched the skinny steel blades of rigid forks for a little wrist reliving bounce back in the 1990s.
You will need to hold on tight (but not so tightly as you do with front suspension) and reacquaint yourself with the traditional art of carving lines with fine detail and added risk, but it will all be worthwhile.
Not only does rigid make for a thrilling ride, it really does hone your technical skills. It will teach you to learn new lines and understand different terrain. It will also develop new skills and techniques – all of which transfer over when you switch back to the relief of suspension or the low hung hum of gravel riding.
There is, of course, also the fact that fully rigid bikes are simple in their being. They're easier to maintain and are versatile enough to be a close match for a gravel bike when it comes to smooth trail speed and climb and hold their own on many trails.
And naturally, there are plenty of great bargains out there in the second-hand marketplace if you don't already have a potential convert gathering dust in the back of your garage.
The right mix
Despite having regular hardtails, full suspension, and gravel rides to hand, I've always had a personal affinity with steel or titanium rigid mountain bikes. They are my preferred ride – especially for travelling when the versatility and simple nature really do come into their own.
For seriously rocky man-made trail centres or even super rough natural rides, I certainly wouldn't advise riding a fully rigid bike. However, adding a no-travel bike to your collection is great for many rides and situations.
Needless to say, you don't need to go all-retro and revert back to 26-inch wheels to ride rigid. It just so happens to be that there are, or were, more rigid fork options in 26-inch, and frame geometry of old was more suited to lower stack rigid forks or to switching between rigid and short travel suspension forks (which I do) from the pre-big wheels and shorter travel era.
If you decide that adding an older rigid bike to your line-up is worth the investment, then I would strongly advise looking out for a steel or Chromoly ride. Why? Simply because there are some real bargains around, and a well-built steel bike will give you that vital microdose of flexibility, which you rarely find with an aluminium frame. If you can find a frame disc-ready, then all the better.
As for the forks, I would again suck up the extra few grams and go for a steel or Chromoly option if you can get hold of a pair. If they happen to have some good old retro rake to the blades, then your body will thank you for it in the long run.
It's also well worth using cross-laced spoked wheels here, with a slightly wider and softer run front tyre than normal. This gives you that extra ounce of plushness without negating any of the thrills or skills involved in riding rigid.
If you do have or can pick up a complete old bike, then I would also advise ditching the old school super long stem for something a tad shorter and swapping out the narrow flat bars for slightly wider risers – and then furnishing them with some well-padded grips.
Should you head out onto a rough trail and smash it much as you would on a bike with suspension, then you're likely to come out of the other end on a stretcher, or at the very least in a cold sweat.
Read your lines well and look for the smoothest overall option. Stay off the saddle more on the downhills; make sure you stay relaxed and with flexed elbows and knees, allowing the bike to float its own boat far more so than you would on a suspension rig. Keep your thumbs fully wrapped around the bars with your hands loose enough to allow some movement.
You never know; you may well become addicted to the slower reality of life on a rigid ride, at least on the technical stuff, that is. You will certainly not compromise on speed when the going gets smoother or the trail points upwards. You will feel a whole lot more stable and free than you would be hanging onto the hooks of a gravel bike when the trail gets down and rough.
Last, but not least - enjoy the intense connection you forge with the trail