The Search for the Perfect Bike: Context is Everything

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Context is everything.

Every single person on this planet has a unique context; just like the cut of a door key. Except, with people, context changes and adapts through time as opposed to keys, which stay the same.

So, the search for the perfect bike is the search for a key to fit the locks that are binding the current state of your context. The really fun part is that each choice we make goes on to shift that context and thus, maybe, rendering a previous choice to become a key without a lock to call home. Bikes become dispossessed by changing context. 

The only real thing that experience offers is a longer span to try more stuff out and to have had more adjustments to the context of a life that’s always on the move. I don’t subscribe to the myth that age brings wisdom or an innate superiority in intelligence or more knowledge to impart; in my experience, the opposite usually applies. Most folk end up grabbing on to ever more rigid rails with a death like grip until death, indeed, does part the grip… Most of our early life is in search of a rail. Or a rod for the back. The lesson is, only you can find the key for your lock; only you can find the perfect bike. Or wife, or husband, or dog, or place to live…

I guess if you are just starting out, committing to a choice is like finding an island in a sea through which to avoid drowning. Which is kind of why so many younger folk are so vulnerable to picking the wrong lock through which to focus one’s choices. They end up in the wrong place.  That’s been my experience, and I can only speak for me; I am not validating any choices I might have made through the offering up of advice. 

Speaking of context, when I am referring to a ‘bike’, I am equally interested in both motorcycles and bicycles. The insights are the same for both. Which might seem a bit out of character for a blog that’s supposed to be about bicycles and cycling. But for as long as I can recall, I have always had a passion for both. It is, though, amazing how similar and parallel bicycles and motor bicycles are in terms of sensations derived and the character of the choices involved. And no, I am not talking about e-bikes here. I put those things in the same place as wheel chairs and other devices for the disabled. If you want a bike with an engine, get a motorcycle. End of.

It’s a monumental tragedy that so very few people interested in the one dimension (cycling) are interested in the other (motorcycling), and vice versa. We should, though, remember that both came from the same source: the velocipede. People have always tried to stick engines on bicycles; that’s where Harley Davidson came from, and Ducati. From the very beginning, when you install an engine in a bicycle frame, you get something else: a motorbike. NOT a hybrid of both, as is the case with E Bikes. There’s supposed to be a Y intersection at the point of engine meeting bicycle: one path is cycling and the other is motorcycling. E Bikes are a nasty perversion of both parents (like in-inbreeding). That’s a good place to ditch E Bikes from the rest of this discussion. You might think differently on this, but I am reflecting my own context here (what else can I do?).

The fundamental context that needs to be thoroughly deconstructed when choosing a first bike of either kind is the kind of use to which that bike is to be deployed. This is the point that most people get seriously wrong. Here is the basic question: do you want to ride on sealed roads, on unsealed roads, or both?

Once your basic choice is made, we can then cascade down the path we pick. If you want to ride the roads, you are going to need a road bike. Rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people can’t even get to this point in the decision tree. If you want to ride off-road, a whole universe of choices opens up. But if you want road and off-road in a single package, you absolutely must be fully versed on the nature of the compromises you are about to be making. 

On the bicycle front, most people seem to avoid any kind of reasoning and simply insist on a mountain bike. They go from start to crash without recourse to intellect. That’s because nearly everyone who picks a mountain bike as the starting point has almost no intention of ever riding that bike off-road. Wrong! That’s kind of analogous to choosing a KTM 790Adventure R as your first road bike. You can ride the thing on the road, but why would you if that’s your real intention? Or to really emphasise the stupidity of taking the wrong first step, how about choosing a Harley Davidson Fat Bob 114 as your bike of choice for mustering up the sheep on your farm? If you think I am overstating peoples’ poor decision making here, just observe how many tragic types are riding mountain bikes on sealed roads these days? Riding a mountain bike on a sealed road is like trying to canoe with a bunch of boat anchors deployed out the back. It’s a nasty experience. Yes, you can ride a mountain bike to a trail for trail riding provided the trail bit is the bit that matters most. Which is analogous to riding a road bike on the trail to get back to the sealed road enroute to home. You can do it, but one bit of that trip won’t be much fun and will be severely compromised. Which is OK if you are clear about the exact nature of that compromise and are willing to wear it (no-one is going to have fun on a downhill trail riding a Pinarello F10. No one. But he or she might still enjoy the ride home once on the tar again). 

If all you have ever ridden is a mountain bike, you won’t know how astounding it is to ride a road bike on a sealed road. Going from the former to the latter is very much like the transition to flight. Most people who ride a road bike after enduring mountain bikes on the road tend to look back to the rear wheel wondering where the engine is. Most people who have only ever ridden a road bike on their local trails will be amazed at the performance they can get from taking up a mountain bike once the trails get serious. Suddenly, the trails open up and go on for ever…

My first ever motorbike was a case study of wrong. I purchased a Harley Davidson two stroke ‘trail bike’ as my solution to riding the sealed roads of Sydney! Two thousand spark plugs later, I ended up with a Ducati Pantah 650. Until I moved to the country and the right choice turned to wrong as soon as I discovered the realities of neglected rural roads. But I did get my first bicycle choice just right: a Vitus 979 decked out in glorious Campagnolo Super Record. I wanted to take up bicycle racing and racing is what I did, and loved for over ten years. Until, as I said before, I moved to the country and discovered rural roads. And gravel roads. 

Gravel Roads. Now there is a context in need of technology adaptation. 

I live right at the trail head of an infinite network of gravel roads. I could ride for ten years and not see out all the choices I have for great gravel road rides. The trouble is, when I first landed at this trail head, no-one had come up with the concept of a gravel bike. Actually, even mountain bikes were experimental back in those days. I was the first to buy a mountain bike in my local area: a nasty steel Shogun with no suspension and 1.5 inch kind of off road tyres. It weighed about 20kg…

Fascinatingly, way back then, in the late 1980’s, the off road motorcycling domain had this gravel road thing pretty well covered. The solution was the trail bike and everyone had one and there were thousands to choose from. I went through a pile: from a series of DR Suzuki’s, a 450 Italjet (nasty rubbish), a Montessa Cota, a bunch of Honda’s, and even a Yamaha WR450F. I am still luxuriating in this endless choice, the latest being a Honda CRF250Rally. Why did it take so long for the bicycle industry to introduce it’s first suspension mountain bike?! My first was a Cannondale with an ‘aheadset’ sprung fork and a single spring out the back. It worked until hardtails started to enter the scene. Though I did spend a while playing with cyclocross bikes as an interim gravel biking solution until the bike industry caught up. The best gravel road bike I ever had until Gerard Vroomen came on the scene (I reckon he is the real inventor of the bespoke gravel bike) was a KTM Myroon. Fast and lovely, almost as much fun as my Yamaha WR250R trail bike I also had back then.   And then came the Open. The world’s first genuine gravel bike. And I don’t care who might claim what as an alternative first ever in this regard. Gerard Vroomen got this one so very very right. And then came his 3T Exploro. And now the floodgates have opened… Everyone is doing gravel bikes these days. Why? Because riding a mountain bike on a gravel road is ugly in terms of performance, comfort and pleasure. When the context is a gravel road, the right choice is a gravel bike. It’s taken twenty years for gravel bike tech to catch up to my needs here and I am not about to take to mountain bikes on gravel ever again. Try a gravel bike on the gravel and then try it on a mountain bike and you will see! 

Which leads me to that other amazing parallel universe of Adventure Bikes. Adventure Bikes are motorised gravel bikes in my books. Most Adventure Bikers tend to do most of their adventuring on gravel roads rather than across single track and paddock bashing, which all remains the proper domain of trail bikes. Again, I was there when the fad began. My first Adventure Bike was a Honda 650Transalp. Yes, there were others around at the time (Cagiva and Honda’s first Africa Twin) but those were not readily available in Australia at the time. The Transalp was pretty much akin to the Open Upper: perfect for the gravel and capable on the tar. The compromises from all this dual purpose crossing over were and are all kept nicely and precisely in check. So long as you don’t abuse the context and shift too far down the off or on-road tracks to stretch the design brief into territories where more dedicated road or off roaders would be the better choice. 

Adventure Bikes have become absolutely fascinating. This is the biggest growth area in contemporary motorcycling all around the world. It’s not just a bunch of fatties out for a last fling before moving on to the nursing home (despite the fact that this is kind of what most Adventure Bikers seem to look like these days…) Some might claim that the impetus for Adventure Biking came from the Paris Dakar race, and that would be reasonable to assume because that’s where much of the technology has come from. The deal is to ride unsealed roads with a bike that can handle big distances with big bump compliance – which is exactly the same deal that pertains to gravel biking in the cycling domain. To ride big distances you need a bigger bike to take the extra fuel and luggage you will need for camping out (which defines the nature of an Adventure for most). Which led me to my first motorised tank – the Honda Veradero 1000 cc of top heavy biking insanity. I absolutely hated that thing; a whale in pigs clothing. I traded it in on a Triumph Tiger 1050 (slightly less bad) and then a BMW F800GS, which defined the Adventure Bike for me for nearly ten great years. Until I moved back to Ducati again via the new Scrambler Desert Sled and an over-the-top essence of magnificence known as the Multistrada 950S.  So now I have a Scrambler and an Open Upper to do, essentially, the same thing: to enjoy long rides on gravel roads.

I only wish I had decent sealed roads to ride around where I live these days. My Vitus fell apart thanks to the local Bogan Council’s contempt for road maintenance outside of city limits. My Pinarello’s nearly broke my wrists. My Colnago’s nearly sealed the deal (never designed for roads that are maintained once a decade or less). I’ve been through three Specialized S-Works Roubaix’s with the latest doing the trick: it’s Head Shock is the weapon with which to respond to local council malicious neglect. You see, context shifts all the time and always will. It’s exciting to participate in the wake of technology change by way of response. If you get the context right, you can really focus on tuning technology choices to suit. Just don’t do it the other way around! Enjoy the ride. And, if you are a cyclist, give motorcycling a go. The sum of both cycling and motorcycling is much more than just one plus the other. All gravel bikers should give Adventure Biking a try. All Adventure Bikers should give Gravel Biking a go. The cement of synergy from the latter to the former is the extra fitness you will get to advantage both. And the slower more purposeful pace of cycling is a genuine compliment to over indulging 113HP on your favourite gravel roads. The synergy I, as a cyclist, get from Adventure Biking is total indulgence in distance and ridiculous comfort without real exertion – a luxury akin to lots of ice cream without the guilt (which is contained by all that cycling I also do!). Plus, you just don’t get to hear that glorious thundering you get from a Ducati twin when all you have is a bicycle, no matter how much carbon it has or how light it might be…