Big bikes are rad, and here’s why

Lately Mike Levy at Pinkbike and I (Big suspension and big sine waves) have told you that downhill bikes are too unwieldy and gnarly for average riders. That most of us are best served by mid-travel bikes. Well, that might be true, but let’s look at the opposite side of the travel chip:

Long-travel suspension erases mistakes. You can look at that as a bad thing or a good thing. Perhaps it’s just a thing.

This insulation from calamity can insulate you from learning real skill, but it also gives you the wiggle room to charge harder and have more fun. Which brings us to …

I could ride this section on a trail bike, but I’m way more confident on the big bike. Keystone G3, July 2007.

With the bike handling myriad details as well as the big impacts, this frees you to focus on charging. There’s less chance that you’ll lose traction in a turn, get pummeled in the rocks or — the worst — get bucked over the bars. The bike minimizes violence and maximizes control. Fewer and smaller forces get transmitted to your head, and you feel less sketchy. You feel more confident. You ride the trail in a bigger way, which brings us to …

Big sine waves
To me this is the holy promise of big bikes. Longer travel and higher speeds = greater amplitude and longer waves. Which means you can get lighter longer and heavier longer. Translated to the trail, this means you can skim over long rock sections and raaaiiilll corners.

The big sine waves encourage you to look farther ahead and plan bigger, better pump. They also help you absorb trail violence, which brings us to …

If you watch the best riders in the world — Atherton, Minnaar, Lopes, Peat, Gwin, McCormack, you know the best — you will see clean, consistent riding.

When you watch the next level down — the people who are still freakishly better than us — you will notice a breakdown of core skills and a greater use of the bike. What do I mean? Minnaar will pump and skim through rocks. B riders will slam into them. Lopes will always find backside to land on. The B riders will smack flat bottom. A modern DH bike will handle these moments of imperfection and allow a strong, skilled rider to carry on without disruption. These “accidents” become part of their flow.

Aaron Gwin is awesome for a lot of reasons. Here are two of them:

1) His riding technique is very clean and consistent. That said,

2) He freaking pins it. He pins it past his ability to stay perfect at all times. When things get a little sideways, so to speak, he lets his bike save the situation, then he gets right back to his precision.

Keep in mind that Gwin is highly skilled, strong and confident, plus he believes in God, which cannot hurt! When he gets into trouble, he is in the correct body position to let his bike, arms and legs deal with the situation. He is strong enough to handle the forces. He is confident enough to maintain focus. And he believes, at a deep level, that everything is going to be OK.

So: If you suck, a big bike will help you suck bigger and faster. If you rip, a big bike will help you rip at a higher level. Which brings us to …


Racing the Keystone G3 Super D on the Demo 8 with Fox 40. I could have ridden this stage on my Enduro, but I honestly wanted to ignore technique and focus on freakin’ pinning it.

In most areas of our lives, we are limited. Limited by time, money, talent, skill, teammates, etc. and etc. We go though life in a state of semi-apologetic half-assedness. I hate that.

Bike riding is one of the few areas where we can give it everything. Pin it fully. Dial it to 11.

Flow (capital F) happens at the intersection of challenge and ability. When you surrender completely to the moment. When you are using all of your kung fu in a situation that requires all of your kung fu.

Big, capable bikes give you the confidence to pedal harder, corner faster and jump bigger. You’re not worrying about breaking your bike or body; you are focused on seeing farther and riding faster. You expose yourself to massive amounts of visual and kinesthetic data, and this keeps your brain very busy.

Flow happens when the moment requires so much mental bandwidth that you have no computing power left to consider who you are, what time it is or what your bike is doing. You are There. In the Moment. And it is Rad.

In skilled hands, downhill bikes help you access this state of complete confidence and loving aggression.

This is all relative: The same can be said for an all-mountain bike on trail, a trail bike on XC terrain, an XC bike on smooth trails or a DJ bike on a pump track. When your bike is more capable than the situation and your skills require, it gives you the confidence to ride at a higher level.

Loving my DJ bike and 5-inch 29er, but itching to pin my DH bike!


If you’re skilled, a downhill bike lets you bend the rules in some cool ways. It’s sort of like mastering basic grammar then violating the rules for special effect. Peaty Himself at Big Bear in May 2004.

Know more. Have more fun!

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18 replies
  1. Geoffrey says:

    Even if I’m the only one who notices it, I thoroughly appreciated the amusing irony of the incomplete sentence with which you captioned the final picture.

    I think it all boils down to, “Go have fun on your bike, and, where possible, figure out how to play even more.”

  2. JimV says:

    One way I used my big bike this summer was to take it out to a trail with a drop that was too scary for me to ride on my trail bike. It wasn’t too big for me, just too scary.

    I rode it over and over on the big bike (not scary at all). I dialed in the approach and speed that I needed, all with impunity. Then I rode it some more until I was completely confident.

    Then I came back on my trail bike and now I own it.

  3. leelikesbikes says:

    JimV, very nice.

    I first learned to jump on an Intense M1 (painted like a Mongoose with Brian Lopes on the top tube, to give you an idea when this was). It was way too much bike for the occasion, but I needed the beast to overcome my fear.

  4. Pierre says:

    Why did you have to come back and write what I instinctively knew. I am a expert level alpine skier but an intermediate mountain biker. Every time someone I respect opens the big bike book I must once again find some way to close it. I know all too well what you are trying to convey here. I recommend confidence building skis and then switch back to fun factor skis.

    I am afraid that if I try a big bike I will be damaged goods from then on. Not from the perspective of aquiring skill but from the perspective of lusting to go beyond where I should. I look at the big bikes about the same as I would about cheating on my wife for the first time. I don’t want to cross that bridge, like Hell, there may be no way back.

    When Flow, with a capital F, happens on the mountain bike I begin to move as if I were on skis. Some things DO NOT transfer well from skiing to mountain biking. Clearing the tree on the inside of the turn as if the tree were an alpine racing gate stops the flow right now. The damned handle bars don’t move inward with my inside hand like a ski pole. Five times and counting! That Flow was at relatively slow speed in tight corners with a little bit of berm. I hate to think what would happen were I to point it down a real hill after getting off a lift at a resort. I can vision an irresitable big berm corner into a made for Youtube boulder garden on a very familiar run I have skied many times.

    I just need to remember! I am pushing 60, Momentum = Mass times velocity squared. Big fun bike = more speed = more momentum = multiplying kinetic energy to rag doll ars end over tea kettle…there is no snow, everything is rock hard and You lucky Pierre, are no expert mountain biker!

    When I was a kid, if you got any bright ideas some teacher was going to make you write repetative sentences.

    “I will not touch the big bike”
    “I will not touch the big bike”
    “I will not touch the big bike”……1K times okay ROFL

    Thanks for the post. I can at least dream about it. Big Grin.

  5. Wacek says:

    Pierre – really great thoughts! I was affraid too in very similar way, but once I dared to and I became even more frightened, but on he side a bit disgusted. After three runs in BPark on DH rig I realized that it does make going fast relatively easier and tickling me to try harder. Also speed jumps and drop offs became plain simple even though I rise a 6″ bike for most of the time. On the corners though, I noticed that it takes more skill and commitment to turn. Soon flatter tracks that I used to have fun on Nomad, turnes out boring (and difficult in corner), bike felt made for higher speed. So I hit proper DH track and there it felt right. But! I felt a huge chasm of new world of ridin, waay beyond my comfort zone. I knew it takes more of me to ride that bike properly in element it belongs. A step I wasnt ready for, and Im not sure I am ready even now.

    But i feel the same on my Nomad on my XC trails, from time to time I jump on A XC hardtail and realize how my skills have deterirated a bit, lots of suspension and dropper post fire me up to push harder, but in the long run it makes me sloppy… Self evaluation and tools for it is the key for me. You’ll be ok with the big bike, Just don’t forget that you are mortal and where you come from 🙂

  6. BDKR says:

    Great frackin’ read. This is the kind of level of thinking I was used to getting when I was into motorcycles and Road Racing.

    That said, I’d imagine you’ve heard the terms flow state and situational awareness. It seems to me that this is ultimately where you end up at in your article. This is when you are riding with impunity.

    I used to get this way on Motorcycles and I get this way in races as well. Focus so complete that you’re making decisions computer quick and executing with machine like precision.

    I remember my first race was like this. I absolutely checked out! I was just soaking up input and sending 5h1t!

    To someone on the outside watching you ride while in this state, it’s going to look like absolute fearless aggression, but inside you are in an absolutely relaxed state.

    And this state is why we do this crazy shizzle. Flow states are euphoric! ‘Nuff said! And once you’ve really gone there, you’re going to keep heading back for more.

  7. PaucH del Rosario says:

    nice… i only have 1 bike and that an Orange 223 DH bike which i ride every/anywhere… and its a pig to climb (and push and carry around) sometimes i just change the tires and cassette (1×10 11-34 for most rides; RARELY 12-27 on shuttled DH rides or races).. and i must admit that having 8in in front and 9in in the rear of suspension travel ready can help me rest on downward parts and push Flow and Momentum to maximum, for the next climb.. what you wrote just convinced me that i need not save and spend for an AM Rig.. i think an AM rig will compromise a DH and XC bike just for the thought that its a “Do it All Bike”… i heard someone tell me DH is 50% bike and 50% rider, while climbing(XC) is 90% rider and 10% bike… its all in the head… thanks dude…

  8. Vapor says:

    Awesome writing Pierre! You can do the big bike safely. I think the braking traction on a big bike is underappreciated sometimes. If you can always maintain a good body position and be sure that your braking technique is on point, you can find a big safety zone available. There are certainly many situations where it is not possible to brake. Those are the points you have to commit to using your skills to ride. Always analyze each situation to find a braking zone at the entrance and exit of any section that requires full commitment. Those braking zones give you time and space to regain composure and keep yourself from going over your head. This plan of braking zones also allows one to stay off the brakes when required to ride a section properly. Stay away from single track and trees on the big bike. That is expert territory, just like black tree runs on skis! The wide trails are more fun to get loose on anyway.

  9. BDKR says:

    @Vapor: The stuff you’re talking about concerning brakes is what a lot of people in the motorcycle world called ‘setting your speed early’. In other words, be at the speed you want for a certain section before committing to that section.

    Now I don’t agree you want a braking zone at an exit unless it’s some short chute that sets you up for another corner or complex. I also feel that your composure should remain constant at all phases of the corner. As a matter of fact, I believe composure is the most important thing you’ll ever learn when it comes to going fast. Only through composure will you be able to access flow and make lightning quick decisions when suddenly both ends are pushing as come across the apex of a corner.

    Now if you don’t feel composed at a given speed or attitude then you’re obviously riding beyond your comfort zone, but with practice we all learn how to force back panic when we’ve overcooked something.

    Hope I didn’t come off strong or harsh or anything. 🙂

    And speaking of brakes, how do people here feel about trail braking?

  10. leelikesbikes says:

    Trail braking is a powerful technique in skilled hands. Nico Vouilloz is the master. Interesting that he’s also a top rally driver.

    In my experience (I’ve coached >400 riders of all levels this year alone) most riders have no business even considering trail braking.

  11. Pierre says:

    I appreciate all the comments but I really do not have enough fear, that I why I have caught the handlebars a few too many times. One of my inside handle bar jobs was under a handrail on a bridge. I rolled the bike for the corner hard. I thought I was safe, the underside of that rail was at 25 inches.

    I am a very fast skier in tight trees. You load the trees with stumps rocks and moguls and I am in my element. I feel very slow in tight single track on the bike until I ignore the trees and go for the spaces in between the trees. I think I have finally learned to be cognizant of the grabby stuff that is close to and on the inside of the turn.

    I love to move around the cockpit bit time and that gets me into trouble. Another goodie of mine is looking to far ahead and rolling in while still on a skinny. I just sit there on the ground after one of those and say “You damned old fool, I know it don’t look that fast but it is. When are you gonna fk’n learn. You can’t keep doing this.”

    All summer I have had a constant case of poison ivy. I don’t seem to depart the bike on my feet and I don’t instinctively brace with my arms. My instinct is tuck and aim the roll for the spaces between the trees.

    “Poison Ivy is not snow!”
    “Poison Ivy is not snow!”
    “Poison Ivy is not snow!”

    Hopefully I have learned cuz I just put the cheap entry level bike up and graduated to a Stumpy S Works FSR. Right now I like the damned suspension pretty stiff. The cockpit is also smaller and that is more fun.

  12. cycloscott says:

    I’ll be honest, bigger bikes are more fun. I wouldn’t ride the waterfall portion of Mr Toads on my RaceLite, but I can drop it just fine (fine being a relative term) on my dualie. And I might even consider it on my SS with a 5″ fork. For most people, more travel allows them to ride lazy. Simply point and shoot and the bike does the work over the rocks. No skill required. But we aren’t most people are we? We WANT to improve our skills and become better Riders. I’m sure I could go faster on Toads with a bigger bike, but is my current bike the limiting factor, or is it my current skill level? I’m betting it’s my skill level. So I’ll stick with my 5″ travel dualie and work on my skills.

    I recall a friend selling his crotch rocket because he was no longer afraid of it. Bigger bikes generally mean bigger trails, faster speeds, and much larger penalties for failure.

  13. Clive says:

    What an excellent article. And many similarly excellent replies.

    [checks date. Yep. December 27. This is still topical].

    I remember going through a season 2004ish. I had a pair of matching Meridas, both yellow, except one was a hard tail, and one an 80mm FS. I would alternate between them, building confidence on the FS through Flow, and repeating that ride on the HT to build skills. The FS cracked and that approach stopped.

    As an aside, it was aluminium, not carbon. I’ve cracked aluminium thrice, and never carbon, despite having more of it. I think the whole broken carbon thing is made up by the aluminium industry to protect sales.

    Anyway, the years went by. My HT grew longer, inspiring more and more confidence. August 2014 my HT was replaced with a 120mm Stumpy FSR. Much more confidence building. I was in intensive care about 4 hours later. Too much Flow and not enough Kung Fu.

    2020 I started taking Stumpie to the DH park. It was terrifying.

    2021 I procured a 170mm Enduro, just for park use. The 2019 model that was still built for climbing. Instant Flow, and my skills increased everywhere. Did I say just for park use? It was epic on trails, demolishing everything in sight, then revealing new lines and features that were previously hidden to me on Stumpy. Stumpy was quickly sold on Craigslist like an unwanted puppy after Christmas. It was mid Covid. You could sell anything with two wheels.

    2022 Santa wanted to bring me a 200mm Demo, but apparently the elves struggled to finish it on time, so I’m stuck here reading articles about DH bikes instead. I’m sure they’ll finish building it before the park reopens in April. I’m expecting more Flow. I may find the black trails that only those whom have surely been lobotomised go on become available to me. I may then repeat everything on the Enduro, increasing my King Fu too, to then take the Demo on the double black, red black, and red trails. Well, maybe not. That’s a Red Bull trail, and all the Flow and Fu in the world are unlikely to get me down that one.

    I can’t imagine that one day I’ll use the Demo for trail riding and abandon the Enduro, but weirder things have happened. (I have a gravel bike for light trails and XC). More likely the Demo will render itself redundant by building my confidence such that I only need the Enduro.

    Keep safe.


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