One bike to rule them all… I don’t think so

Mountain biking and road riding have so little in common they may as well be separate sports, says Steven Williams

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It’s unlikely you’re a cyclist. It’s unlikely you do anything so vague as simply ‘cycle’. Our collective ability to pedal without slumping to the ground like puppets on burning strings is not enough to put us in one big happy club, yet mostly we accept the idea that it does. In reality, we’re a loose collection of subsets that, at the extremes, only really have a wheelcount in common. Does it really help to be lumped together?

The idea we all indulge in a single sport is a foggy, sprawling one that should only please clueless outsiders. The uninitiated may see roadies, commuters, cross-country racers and downhillers as one and the same, but that’s obviously stupid. It’s far more likely that you, like the best bikes available today, specialise in distinct disciplines.

It struck me just how different these disciplines can be. I’ve been doing a lot of road riding lately, and neglecting my mountain bike, so one sunny morning I set off to put that right. Fearing I’d be rusty and had picked up some bad, road-based habits, I headed for a nearby Welsh trail centre and its known-quantity lines.

While it took me a couple of laps to get back up to speed, what shocked me was just how irrelevant all that road riding felt. The two experiences were so far removed from each other that — despite my expectations — nothing bled from one to the other.

I may as well have gone skiing for all the effect those road miles had on my muscle memory. The subconscious is a powerful thing. If what we did was all just ‘cycling’, it wouldn’t distinguish between riding types.

Your chosen discipline might be ‘1950s tech and 1980s colours’ for instance (otherwise known as ‘urban’)
Jesse Wild / Immediate Media

Subconscious bad habits surely were more of a factor while mountain bikes were just slightly knobbly road bikes, but recent advances in geometry, suspension, cockpit sizing and wheel/tyre design have banished that sadness to history. Well… mostly.

If the current popularity of gravel bikes/adventure bikes/slightly knobbly road bikes shows anything, it’s that the desire for a ‘one size fits all’ machine hasn’t gone away. People still dream of a bike that will, indeed, just do ‘cycling’. But do you know when dreams happen? It’s when you’re asleep.

Wake up! A jack of all trades is a master of none.

No matter what the marketing says, nobody even builds a mountain bike that climbs like an cross-country racer and descends like a downhill sled, let alone a bike that handles both sealed and loose surfaces with aplomb. The demands sit too far apart. The solutions stretch too thin.

It actually seems perverse to want such a compromise at this fertile time in history, when so many well-honed bikes represent the right tool for whatever job you fancy.

Love big wheels, hate rear shocks, don’t like carbon, want to ride all day, live to get silly on the descents? There’s still a bike just for you (this one’s the Nukeproof Scout 290)
Immediate Media

I’m not arguing for greater division — that’s the last thing the world needs now. It’s just time we stopped allowing progress, good design and specialisation to be painted as weaknesses, as if ‘true’ cycling should — or could — be the homogenous, undiluted thing it was in 1885.

The answer to the nostalgic question: “Remember when we were kids and rode one bike to do everything?” is obvious. It was being kids that was great; the bikes mostly sucked.

Cycling today is many things, and hooray, because variety is the spice of life. Better still, all its overlapping parts complement each other beautifully. For instance, the extra strength and stamina my roadie life creates is an obvious benefit on trail climbs, but (far better) makes an unexpectedly big difference on the descents. I can ride harder and faster for longer now, and that’s more fun. (Curiously, despite my new-found love for road climbs, I don’t find off-road climbing any more enjoyable that before. Oh well.)

Meanwhile, mountain bike experience is a definite boon on rough roads, fast descents and tricky corners, yet road riding is an otherwise alien pursuit. These are really two separate sports, and one is perfect training for the other. How great is that?

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So you can keep your generic ideas of ‘cycling’ and your Swiss Army knife bikes… I’ll take the best-honed weapons – the rapier and the scythe – that truly do my favourite sports justice.