I'd like very much to head to a smooth road like this one, and forget about the ten or so reasons I conjured which may cause me to bail. Have you lived through the 90's? ...I mean were you old enough to ride a bike then? If so, then you may recall every manifestation of the affliction known as the "Mountain Bike Craze". This was a feature of the 90's, like SUV's, when we were all told by savvy marketing experts, friends, and neighbors, that cars were insufficient to grab some groceries. "Hey By the Way, That sedan can no longer be relied upon to fetch a pizza", unless equipped with all wheel drive, Traction Control, and some Hella Search Lamps. A Car now had to have a taller stature, wider stance, and a knobby spare on the back. Marketing images abound with a smiling confident middle-class family of four Dad smirks "Watch this" whilst on their way to Disney..., descending into a gulch, confidently rolling over a live tree, flipping the truck -- which would promptly upright itself and place them safely back upon an asphalt route to collect the dry-cleaning, and get cleaned up for catechism.
This is the true analog for what occurred to the Ten-Speed Bike.
Whatever perfect storm of influence was conjured by Cher, and Other witches by merely appearing in films with Jack Nicholson, somehow oozed into the life of the unwitting adolescent brain collective. Trek was buying out Keith B, ruining Klein, Rolf, Fisher, etc... and all the madness fomented in a froth of jowls which were only sinking canines into larger rubber, gussets, and some kid with bad fashion called Troy Lee.
If you wanted a Bike in this decade, you had to first build a fire in your back acre, and set your ten-speed a-blaze, as a sign to the Knobby gods that you'd in-fact taken the "Blue Pill", and were ready for punishment.
Once you copped a feel of a large, slothful bouncy bike, you had to soil it just as rapidly -- even if it meant a mad-cap search for a Mud-puddle at the doggie park. A Mountain Bike Craze had begun, and no sensible human could brave the pavement without 3 inches of heavy black Tioga's under them, and the moist anointing eau de toilette of John Tomac, spritzed about one's neckline. In fact, to keep the spell lasting and the smell fresh, it was likely that you'd wear some odd sweat sopping elastic bandana and a white foam helmet with a mesh cover to prove you meant business. Lest we leave buried the neon Lycra, where is lay.
If you were edgy you'd wear a full face mask, and some football shoulder pads made by some nobody, fashion mogul named Troy. (these were the current analogue to the red and white Japanese Bonzai 'Tee' from the Karate Kid 80's.)
...Me, I didn't wear a helmet nor a sweat band, Just cargo Shorts, and a Camel-Bak; But I must admit to being vaguely intrigued by the Large Brunette PHD in Mountain Bike Action selling Liquid Pheromones.
I had a Mountain Bike, for sure!, ...because by '93 was actually illegal to own a road bike, and I know what you're thinking... It was not actually "against the law"... But well... You Are wrong! To be caught on a bike with a nominal tire size below 1 1/4, meant that you were in fact a surgeon, or other life support personnel, who would look after the rest of us, come the apocalypse or after a good smack into a Tree, whichever came first. The rare air reserved for Doctors, who still were allowed to buy spendy road bikes, was an edgy minority so thin, that access passed through a keyhole in a rainbow lit suburban cult, housed in someone's basement. Secret meeting were held by a group who upheld the tenets of the bike faith which we were not allowed to see for another ten years.
As Road Bikes gathered dust, Mountain Bikes accrued sophisticated doo-dads through the mid-decade, including Carbon, Pivots, Springs, and Purple aluminum bits. rolling past the mid decade the fetishists who were running the show, made it clear that we were in a brave new world. My Pink and Blue linear fade Klein was the talk of the trail, when it penetrated the suburban envelope, a man's steed beset with pink, was a "Sick Fairy" and, "...should get help". BUT, my Klein Attitude, smoked you, Literally it smoked you any place on any trail. Fewer colors were more out of place, in nature than the Mid 90's hardtail palette. Then things began to get weird.
The Hardtail was the last great inventive touch to happen to Mountain Bikes, or to Bikes in general for a while. Surely we can give a nod to the predecessor path racers, and "Balloon Tire Schwinn's", but the word Hard-Tail actually matriculated in earnest in the mid 90's. In fact, once the rest of the Un-Employed Aerospace Genius class came to the party and started making pivots, coils and seals, the fad was wearing thin, and the sad truth was that people were already becoming acutely aware that the really fast grocery getter was their old Ten-speed with the chain pulled tight as lycra, with a single cog. But, Shhh! quiet, -- best not to tell them yet, lest we get ahead of the story, and the trend end abruptly.
Front Shocks, I'll hand you were a cool gizmo, and about 4 years later some of them worked; but the first ones were an abomination like, Pale Yellow tires, and Magura Calipers. We just stood beside them at the party, waiting for them to leave so we could grab another beer a brat and their date. I personally held out without a shock fork for the duration, opting for larger tires, such as the "Death Grip Two Three Five". This was disruptive, adequate, and likely had more travel than the Marzzochi's, Manitou's, and (Gasp) Mag 21's of the latter century. I rode a rigid fork for both my Attitude, and my Adroit, and later spun up a sheer cliff escarpment with a rigid fork on my Proto-type Mantra. (a full suspension pioneer). Shocks sullied my bike's purity, and perhaps denigrated the art-form I was immersed in. If there is a person who rides a bike without a transformative sense of it's innate beautiful form, and simplicity, then that person lives a lie, and is primed for the next falsity. I've rode circles around my friends, and it wasn't me, it was the bike... Or I should say, it's not me, it's YOU. Choose wisely to not to drag another 20 pounds of creaky mechanism, and tread lightly up a washed out creak bed. Point, shoot, go!, was the rule. Later I was intrigued by Horst Leitner, and the Amp fork design, but they faded like jeans, and failed soon enough, so parts became rare. I'm not glad, that mine was jacked, but the liberation of a stolen bike can also be an opportunity to a cleansing by fire, and a new beginning.
Parts were the issue, as with all good design, less is better, and too many parts getting filthy were their undoing. It also so happened that any barn with a CNC, was cutting Aluminum for bike parts rather than forging them, and some things softened up and died below a rider like cream cheese.
So where are we with the "Hard-Tail"?, well we have come around again to the part where history repeats itself, merely because it doesn't have the good sense to sit on it's hands, when before changes things operate well and don't require bedazzlement.
So, (sigh) for the first part of the current Century, we slung Fixies, and Single speeds, which wanted hotly to be fixies, but didn't have the fortitude... We'd finally abandon the maddening plethora of anodized doo-dads and bad pivots, and then we shed ten pounds of rubber, to boil our bikes to a soupy broth more closely resembling the Pure Bicycle Gestalt. The absolute quintessence of the form brought us from the brink of suspension madness, to the purest form of the bicycle revisited; e.g. Two wheels, drop-bar bolted to a diamond.
I bought one of those refined liberations as well... I bought THE actual gestalt form, called the District Carbon, from Trek. I wasn't the largest Corporate bike fan, but this one was nailed. Simple, Clean, and Discreet. It was matte black, sleek, uber light, and silently belt-driven. The pejorative was the "Financial District", referring to it's staggering price, for a low calorie soup without Bits, Chunks, Veg., or croutons, it was merely a clear consommé.
A Beautiful Bike, and a gateway drug to the Road Bike craze again, this time it would log new heights on the charts to stratospheric pricing, as soon as 22 speeds could weigh less than a carbon fixie.
Ah, yes Carbon actually began to make sense everywhere. So where did it happen?, the turning from the hardtail...? Did we burn out from hot bike bits of neon Purple and Blue? Perhaps it was the gained weight of so many bad suspension designs, or the high pitch of a CNC robot rebelling against it's master and then giving up it's ghost, when the Electric bill was no longer paid. Perhaps is was the early 90's mass demilitarization which led to cheap carbon, loads of lab-coat dudes without jobs, and a hankering for something real. If something real is the key, then lab coats just came with the territory, and all of this dropped side-by-side with the DOT-COM Boom! Ah yes, so we could now simulate everything indoors and make good solid products through CAD modeling, which we wouldn't use outside anyway. So we dearly ogle the 10 pound road bike, some lucky ones ride them, just in time to transition back to the heavy tired Hard-Tail again.
The woods are cool, The wilderness beckons, while breezy shade and the cool scent of soil can reset your digital clock to analog, if you let them. There is something oddly thrilling about beating up a path of back-country with a stealth fighter between your legs. We've shed pounds, and our bikes have mocked us, and stiffened up, but we no longer do it in neon.
Matte Carbon moved us toward where we are today, and buoyed us up above the mire of so many bad franken-stems. Without the full springer we'd never get to the core of our story, which is why a Hard-Tail is perfect for trails, and perhaps why everyone still wants one.
Thinking about how far you may be from connecting with nature, would it take you over an hour to be alone in a breezy pine forest? How long does it take and how much bike would you need to find solace sending over some single-track? For most of us the challenge is as thick as the Trees we seek. A visit to the wilderness is something to make time for. A tour of the country-side is nice, but a bit of a sprint through the woods can heal a lot of what your digital life is working to destroy. Even a slow ride will re-anchor you.
Here is the rub... The hardtail gets you though the woods, but for some reason Cross-Country racing was replaced with Epic Downhill, and so the art of actual finesse and pedal-dynamics was exchanged for gravity-fed full-armored descents. Today the Road Bike revolt has firmly supplanted what the 90's did to the ten-speed, and when it's all said and done, we will laugh off the trends du jour just as we wax nostalgic about Tom Ritchey, and the merits of Girven vs Frischknecht .
Today the conversation is on Gravel Bikes, and the elephant in the room is that we have all seen this bike before. The Gravel Bike is the Modern Hard-Tail, perhaps formerly known as the path racer. This indisputable new trend may lead to some silly design permutations. I like innovation, and as shown I own several; Some more successful than others. Today, the Gravel Bike is in the white hot crucible of the Iron forge, and the maelstrom of black Carbon Smiths who are rending new glued shapes really bring a lot of "the same" to the bench. This past week, again I rode my Venerable Diverge through the Moraine, and the ride was beautiful. I Fished, Hunted Morels, Hauled wood, Hung from trees, and Camped out. Like so many people, I wonder if my bits work as well as they used to, or if I'm in need of some improved bits, and tackle, but in general, I am pleased with each and every adventure I endeavor. So my current Hardtail is an S-Works Diverge, and I've given it a licking, and it's happy to give back. It reminds me of my first hard-tail, and how an individual can become one with machine, to forget the tool and enjoy the journey. Performance is measured (I THINK) by how little you consider the tools you use, and how you simply expect them to perform. I never owned a Stumpjumper, but I think that in all the versions Sinyard tightened them up to more approximate their contemporary Klein's I think that the latest Gravels from O.P.E.N, 3T, Salsa, and Now Trek, are the fat-tire craze mach Two.
The modern Hard-Tail is a Gravel bike, which was a Road Bike with wide tires, some plush bits, and the ability to take punishment -- Kind of like my old Schwinn Traveler. One could say that Disc Brakes were the lynch-pin for this arrival, as they allowed things to get fat. Just as my Hard-tail resisted suspension, some things are best left in the oven until fully baked. The term Hard-Tail wasn't a pejorative, but a badge of courage... because it defines a class which set out to reject the elite class full springer. A gravel bike has so much in common with my Hard-Tail, that it's merely "High English" for something we used to get dirty. Today, I ride all sorts of races, friendly's and country trails, and I am trying desperately to not lose sight of my shortcomings. Shall we call it like we see them. If you point it and it goes, and you don't give much thought to the tool beneath you, then either it's working or you're already dead. My Hard-Tail works like that, and it's a "Gravel Bike". So when you consider buying a full suspension Gravel Bike -- then perhaps we will have tipped the see-saw toward the slope again. Perhaps then, the Gravel bike will become the latest descent machine and a new sport will be born called descent racing, only there will not be a grueling grind up to the summit, but rather a leisurely bus ride. The new use for silly full-springers merged with skin-suits and armor, and whatever scraps remain from retired Time-trial bikes, will blister down the road as we navigate the descent upon pavement, and not along the dirt path.
Where we are headed now, I could not begin to speculate. My '56 Schwinn Traveler had cushy tires and a drop-bar, and it's design predated me. So this trend is nothing new. Because we have all been here before, I'm pretty sure that bikes are capable of time travel, so long as you own a Hard-Tail.
Enjoy your Gravel Bike, or whatever you wish to call it.
Age and Treachery will overcome youth and skill.