Above: The author in 1993, from the Bicycle Guide photo shoot. Photos by Bob Schenker: shot on the Westridge Trail above Oakland, CA. Nothing has much changed since then, except the Magnum, p.i. moustache is gone and he's got Hammer Nutrition's HEED and/or Perpetuem in his water bottles now. The pictured Bridgestone RB-1's spirit lives on in Chris' current Rivendell Roadeo.

Mountain Bikes: Who Needs Them?

An Inveterate Roadie Provides a Techno-Backlashian Perspective

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Bicycle Guide, February 1993

See below for related articles. Also, this article generated more letters to the editor than any other article in the history of the magazine. Those letters will be posted here shortly.

I routinely dust every mountain biker I encounter on the trail. And I ride a road bike.

Furthermore, I think, no, I know, the mountain bike is the most over-rated, most improperly used, most over-built, and most greedily promoted piece of hardware to hit the sport and fitness industry in modern history. Ninety-nine percent of the miles ridden by 99% of the mountain bikes could, and should, be ridden on the first and only real all terrain bike, the 'road bike.' More bluntly, a road bike is equal to or better than a mountain bike if ridden with skill like I have.

Blasphemy, you say? Don't think you could possibly ride off pavement without monster knobbies, suspension, enough titanium for an ICBM, and enough gears for at least two whole bikes? Don't be a trained parrot by thinking this and don't let the greedy hawkers control your thoughts and your pocket-book! Simply put, invest in some skills, some style, some finesse, and some balls (girls included), not more over-hyped bike junk.

Kostmanize Your Bike

  1. Ride your stock road bike, exactly as is, off-road. Use minimalist technology and maximal skill for ultimate fun and technique development. I did this for a full year with an Alan Carbonio with Kestrel EMS fork, Aerolite pedals, and Scott Drop-In bars.
  2. Slightly modify your road bike with bar end shifters, an extra wrap of bar tape on the drops, clips and straps on regular pedals (remember those?), and 28mm tyres. Your steed will be significantly more functional, both on and off road, and no slower, just like my Bridgestone RB-1.
  3. Trick out your road bike usefully and increase its durability dramatically by getting Wheelsmith wheels (32 hole is plenty) with Ritchey rims, sealed hubs like Specialized or Ringlé; sealed bottom bracket like Grafton; and an equally service-free headset by Chris King. Utilize sensible technology; eliminate maintenance. Get stuff that's built to last. Own technostuff actually worth drooling for.

Read it, learn it, and live it: 'Technique beats technology any time, anywhere.' And that's what I deadpan to every nimwit mountain biker who asks me how I managed to blow him away without tweaking my wheels and cracking my frame.

And before you write in that I'm just some elitist roadie with a penchant for ATB-bashing, let me offer my credentials for having a credo worth splashing across this page: I've raced the Alaskan Iditabike three times and have set solo and tandem 24 Hour off-road cycling records. Off-dirt I've raced the Race Across America twice (9th in '87), two Ironmans, and broken numerous distance records, including San Francisco to Los Angeles. Importantly, I practice what I preach.

And guess what? For 99% of the riding I do off-road, I'll opt for a 'road bike' over a 'mountain bike' any day of the week. And while much of my off-roading is on fire roads (like 99% of you, as you too live in metropolitan areas where single track is banned or non-existent), my dirt rides include gnarly tree roots, sand, gravel, exposed rock slab, insane uphills and downhills, and other 'challenging surface irregularities.' The trick is that I know how to ride and I don't separate myself from the riding surface with a bunch of unnecessary technology.

You see, unlike most cyclists, I can distinguish between 'want' and 'need' when it comes to choosing equipment for my daily training and adventure excursions. I also have a healthy enough ego that I don't need to try to outdo the next guy or gal by having the latest gimmicky bike gear. (Beauty is only skin-deep, but studly goes all the way to the bone.) By the way, I almost never get a flat and I've never needed to true my trusty Wheelsmith wheels.

Here's why you should park your mountain bike at least some of the time and start venturing out on skinny tyres. If you don't have a road bike to do this, then at least install 1.15' or 1.25' slicks or inverted tread tyres and set your derailleurs so you can't use the wimp ring (granny gear) or the cogs bigger than 23 teeth. (By the way, these tyres, along with bar ends and multi-position bars, clipless pedals, not to mention whole ATBs that weigh only 20 to 25 pounds, are all evidence that mountain bikes are techno overkill. These are simply efforts to roadify the mountain bike!)

10 reasons to get skinny in the dirt

  1. You'll get used to a little slip and slide under your tyres; then when you hit the pavement or return to the trail with knobbies you'll be astounded by the traction and confidence you suddenly command.
  2. You'll be forced to actually pay attention to your line, thus developing better seeing skills and eye-body coordination.
  3. This forced attention span will educate you immeasurably about trail surfaces, sands, soils, erosion, even geology, flora, and fauna. In other words, you'll learn to ride with the land, not over it.
  4. Your skinny tyres will leave less of an imprint and impact on the trails.
  5. You'll marvel at how much faster you can ride on flats, rollers, and most uphills, compared to your full-blown ATB, once you shed all that excess weight, rolling resistance, and weird positioning. I.E., you'll dust the fat tyre 'flyers' like I do all the time.
  6. You'll realize that you really can soak up the bumps and dramatically alter your bike's riding characteristics on demand, rather than having your suspension (try to) do it all for you. This is called Body English and it's about time that you really became fluent, rather than only packing a few token phrases like some 'Ugly American' tourist.
  7. You'll discover that there's more to the fun factor than seeing how fast you can blast a downhill in a park overflowing with hikers, equestrians, and forest rangers. In so doing, you'll dramatically increase our common survival potential in a world that abhors the mountain bike and all its connotations.
  8. Gone will be the days that it's a total drag, literally, to ride to and from the trail head. No longer will you be smoked by the roadies while plodding the pavement, nor will you pollute the ecosphere by driving to the trail head anymore.
  9. You'll actually have the nerve to venture down a trail that you discover while out road riding. In fact, you'll quit even thinking of 'road rides' or 'dirt rides.' A ride's a ride and a bike's a bike. It's what you make of them that counts.
  10. Finally, you'll learn once and for all that technology is a crutch, not an asset, and that it truly detracts from your life experience on and off the bike.

Here you have it, my friends. Take off the blinders and see the truth in what I have presented to you here. Become great cyclists and develop skills that you won't believe. Then when you do that 1% of your cycling that actually requires a 'real ATB' (say, Slick Rock or Pearl Pass), you'll have the skills to accompany and match all that over-priced technology beneath you.

Get skinny. I dare you!

Closely Related Articles

"Any Bike, Anwhere: A Rough Riders' Way of Life," Endurance News, #68, March 2010.

"Any Bike, Anywhere" — City Sports, May 1993 and The 1994 Bridgestone Catalogue, September 1993.

"Mountain Bikes: We Need 'Em!" — The Schedule, June 1993.

"A Rebuttal to Close-Minded Mountain Bikers" — The Bob Gazette, Issue #3, June 1993.

Other Related Articles

"Training Specificity: Who Needs It?" — Bicycle Guide, May 1993.

"The Way of the Outdoor Athlete" — (long version), Triathlete, July 1993.

"Wholistic Training Spurs Superior Skills" —Tail Winds, January/February 1994.

"Planet Ultra: It's Just an Attitude" — Over The Edge, July 1994 and City Sports, October 1993.

"Less Equals More: The one-speed Ibis Scorcher delivers an incredible workout" — Bicycle Guide, November/December 1993 and Wire Donkey Bize 'Zine , Vol.11, No.128, October 30, 1998.

"Never Say Fred" — The BOB Gazette, Issue #8, September 1994.

"When Style Was Effortless And Unmistakable" — The BOB Gazette, Issue #1, February 1993 and Wire Donkey Bize 'Zine , Vol.11, No.128, October 30, 1998.

"Moustaches and Pineapples: Bridgestone's Grant Petersen Speaks Out" — with photos, California Bicyclist, August 1992.

"SCOOP: Darwin Speaks on Bicycle Evolution" — with photos, California Bicyclist, June 1992.

Chris Kostman has competed in ultra sports continously since 1983. Besides producing the Furnace Creek 508 each October since 1990, he also produces a five-day cycling training camp with yoga called CORPScamp Death Valley, plus the Death Valley Century, Ultra Century, and Double Century in March and October each year, Hell's Gate Hundred, Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic, Rough Riders Rally, and the world-famous Badwater Ultramarathon.