Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Rigid 'Better Rider': Myth or Legend?

There are some well known mantras in cycling that are often thrown out there and not questioned once the words are laid down. Things such as 'thinner tires are faster off road', 'steel is real', etc. Here is another one: "Riding rigid makes you a better rider". The thought here is that suspension, especially full suspension, covers up a multitude of sins and allows for a rider to perform way above their abilities. Riding with less allows you to learn to do without. It also is a bit of a positional statement in that it allows the rider who eschews the modern benefits of squishy-ness to be a 'bit above' the less enlightened peons of the lower class.

Let us concentrate on the first statement and leave the posturing for another day. Does riding rigid really make you a better rider? Let us set the Way-Back Machine to the days before Doug Bradbury and Mert Lawwill and folks like them had the idea to add some shock absorption to mtn bikes that went beyond an aired down Ground Control tire and bent knees and elbows. Back then I remember having discussions on what rigid fork rode the nicest (some things never change). Suspension? Never heard of it.

So everyone rode rigid or they did not ride. We rode everything that we ride now and I often have the illusion that we rode just as fast as we do now with FS and disc brakes. Illusion, indeed. Without anything sitting between us and the trail other than a 1.95" knobby, we needed to be pretty smooth and careful. Pinch flats were a way of life until you learned how to unweight the bike at the right time. If your timing was off, *bang*...snakebit. So you spent a lot of time looking for the right line, but sometimes even the right line is messed up and rowdy. The end result was a bit of a cowboy routine where you took a lot of abuse, worked the bike for all it was worth, and tried like crazy to end up in the direction you were intending to go.

I learned a lot about bike handling. Having no suspension components to get in the way meant we had a pretty good 'feel' for how the bike was hooking up or not. Your tires felt a lot closer to your brain center without being isolated by 4- 5 inches of telescoping, articlulating parts.

Did riding rigid make me a better rider? Well, yes and no. I learned some very valuable skills that I carried into FS riding. But FS allows me to go further, use those skills in new and creative ways, and have a lot of fun doing it.

Let me take this one part at a time, trying to address some of the things I hear pitched out there as the gospel according to rigid.

  • You are better because you can feel the trail better: Well, there is something to that. You are keenly aware of your traction limits or where the tires are working or are not. But, the flip side of that is your limits are not buffered by suspension's ability to absorb irregularities in the trail. A tire off of the ground has no traction. Suspension is better at keeping your tire on the ground than your bodies wild gyrations to accomplish the same thing. Put them together and magic happens...body AND suspension.
  • You are better when you need to choose the better line instead of letting the bike do all the work: True. But...sometimes the best line is not the smoothest one. Maybe it is the line that uses one rock in the trail to pre-load the suspension, using it to unweight the bike and slide it in the air over to the rut that is a nice berm for a few feet until the next rut requires a quick hop and transition to the ledge dropoff that puts you on the line you really want to be on for the next corner. Can that be done on a rigid bike? No. You can't preload one unless you count your body and the 1/2 inch of tire deflection. The rut you land in will just as likely bounce you off line as the tire does its best to hook up and your own weight transfer tries to mess that up. You only have to be off your mark a little bit in a few places to be waaaay off your mark at the end of the billards game. There are lots of times that suspension gives you more reasons to have it then just being able to point, shoot and survive.
  • Riding rigid builds skills that you will not obtain if you have always ridden FS. Well, perhaps. You would be a bit keener on learning how to manual or bunny hop stuff that would be just a minor inconvenience on a bike with decent travel. However those same skills are still required to be a better rider on an FS, it just typically happens at a higher level of speed and commitment. Watch a video of a pro DH guy. They are working that bike for all it is worth.
  • "There is this guy who rides rigid that smokes all the guys on their all-mountain 6" - 7" travel bikes, even on the rough trails." Well, I can imagine there are individuals that are so skilled that they may able to pull this off. But I bet that they are working their butts off to do it, it is taking a big toll on their bod and their bike, and the guys they ride with are likely so-so riders. The amount of fellows in the world that can truly sustain this level of performance without destroying bike and body is a tiny one, I'll bet. Maybe less than one.
So, this is what I think. I think that line gets blurred when the emotional thinking of 'rigid is closer to heaven' gets in the way of the practical truth. Remember when I said earlier that I have the illusion that we used to go just as fast as we do now without all the goodies of today? Nah. Got a stopwatch? Cuz without that you have only your seat of the pants impressions. If it is true, then the route is not all that rough to begin with and you are still working pretty hard on the rigid bike to do it. Do this, keep going faster and faster...push it and see which bike limits out faster, or more likely you limit out on your ability to retain control. You know why crashing on an FS hurts more? Cuz' you iz goin' real fast when you hit the rev limiter and need to bail.

So, does the FS mask poor skills? Yeah, somewhat. I have had the FS save my sorry butt a few times, times that would have likely pitched me on a rigid bike. But a sucky rider will be a sucky rider on whatever he or she is riding. An FS allows them the illusion of being better than they are, but it will catch up to them sooner or later. Will going back to a lesser bike make them a better rider? Maybe. Maybe not. They may just crash more, but at least they will be going slower when it happens! If they truly want to improve, they will need to grow some skills regardless of what they choose to ride.

I do think that having more than one bike to ride is a good thing, especially if one is a hardtail or rigid. I would go rigid on my SS but my wrists are pretty junky from years of falls off of skateboards and whatnot, my shoulders are scarred up and my back is held together with glue. If I lived where things were less rutted and rocky, I would do it cuz I love the way it feels climbing and I enjoy threading the needle on a bike with no squishy parts. Maybe some day I will do it anyway just for fun, but I will have no illusions of grandeur about it. I will just enjoy the ride like I do on my FS.

My thoughts anyway. Yours may differ.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

Good article and glad I stumbled across it.

As a 75% rigid single-speed rider who bounces from bike to bike depending on the terrain I'm doing, I equate starting out on a rigid to learning to drive a manual vs automatic. Starting on one or the other doesn't make you a better drivers, just conscious of different things and you take those experiences to learn from as you migrate from one to the other.

I don't fault people for starting on FS bikes, just as I don't hype up rigid's being the way you should learn. You're going to learn different things on any type of bike that will apply to all types of riding. Getting good at all of them is my goal and my focus is to have fun, no matter what bike I'm riding.