A lot of riders are investing extra cash in stiff wheels, racey suspension, an aggressive set up and a ride feel that demands precision handling, writes Kath Bicknell. But it might not be making them as fast as they think.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

I recently caught up with a bunch of mates at a club XC race. It had been a while since I'd checked in and there was much to catch up on.

About 80 per cent of conversations I had with people were about their bikes. Bikes, plural. Actually, mountain bikes plural. The hardtail, the XC duallie, the singlespeed, the old 26'er.

Many riders love picking out the next ideal bike and dreaming up constant modifications to the one they have. We readily consume information about what the pros are using and mull over the finer points of this new technology, its advantages, the dates it will be released to the general public. And many of us are in a position where we can purchase that same equipment for ourselves.

But here's the thing: For all the upgrades, and weight saving, and agonising and repairing…is it really making you faster?

Keen for a new challenge I've swapped my blinged out race bike with my partner for a month. I'm now happily discovering the pros and cons of a 120mm travel 29" trail bike. A few fast laps on a well-loved trail at a club XC race seemed like a good way to build some skills, and get used to moving with this larger, heavier machine.

I basically did stuff all to set this bike up for the track. I could feel the knobby 2.3" tyres sap speed when I pedalled and I was aware of the extra weight climbing the hills.

I used the descents to experiment with the dropper post and the different cornering styles it enabled. I caught myself braking ahead of some rougher sections before remembering that on this plusher bike, line choice wasn't so important and I could just mow right through the middle.

I reached a technical climb where I usually concentrate and only succeed if I get my handling spot on. On this rig I didn't have to worry about getting knocked off line with the odd rocky step up, so I steamrolled my way to the top using a lot less energy there as well.

I felt quick but not blindingly fast. I was aware of places I was gaining speed and conscious of moments when I was losing it.

A few things happened that, in terms of racing weren't ideal. Most of these point to the fact that I hadn't finished setting up the bike.

Control was reduced due to not winding in the brakes for my smaller fingers. My Garmin mount was loose and at the end of every descent I had to reposition it on the bars. The dropper post wouldn't return to normal seat height. Every time I dumped it, I had to wait for a section of trail that would allow me to pull the seat back up with my thighs. I later learned that it just needed some shock pump love and a little bit of air.

Effort wise, I felt like I was trying, but not 'trying trying'. No pain caves, no deep motivation, no gasping for air, just looking forward to each corner, dip, rock and descent.

Once back home, I compared my lap times to my previous PB on this track. The difference? About a one minute in twenty.

Given the room for improvement as I get to know this new rig, or even just set it up properly, the potential for reducing that gap is huge. But that's only part of the point that I want to make.

This bike got me thinking. For all that we consume information about race-weight bikes with bling technology and pin-point handling, where are the voices about the pros and cons of this technology for your average consumer? Voices grounded in the riding habits of people wanting more from their equipment than qualification for the next world champs. We talk about different levels of bike in terms of cost, but what about experience?

Have you thought about spending less so you can holiday more? Or how the weight added from good suspension might impact your lap time and momentum in ways that are more positive than you think? What is 30-60 seconds a lap really worth in the bigger picture of your life? If your lifestyle has seen you reach the limits of your fitness, what can you do to extend the impact of your skills?

There's a lot to be said for investing in a bike that allows you to tackle some big goals and hit up some key events. But before taking it to the extreme, as many riders are, consider what other experiences you want from riding as well. That super blinged out race bike might not be offering the advantages that some people think it is.