Last updated: November 13th, 2022
There’s an off-road arms race afoot. Ever more advanced bikes on ever gnarlier trails, always aiming for “more” in both respects.
It’s kinda fun. But it’s also expensive to keep up with, and encourages pushing limits that might not be worth testing.
Even though today’s super-capable bikes are marvels of engineering, they have a way of reducing the fun factor in your old standby trails. You know, the ones that wore you out on your old 2″-tire hardtail…but your all-carbon 29er with 5″x5″ suspension practically floats over.
But like all trends, this has given rise to a countertrend: “underbiking.”
What exactly is it all about, and why in the world would anyone like it?
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Here’s what underbiking is
Underbiking means riding a bike on more technically demanding terrain than the bike was intended for. Examples include taking a road bike on rough dirt roads, or riding a gravel bike on rocky singletrack. It makes familiar trails more interesting while helping the rider get more utility out of a simpler, less technologically advanced bicycle.
(Keep in mind that your warranty may not cover off-road use. It’s worth confirming so you can decide for yourself whether any risk of non-warranty damage is worth it.)
Sometimes, it’s purely an accident.
But it can also be deliberate, “lo-fi” approach to cycling—and that’s what this article focuses on.
You could argue that underbiking is a Luddite approach that opposes bike technology as a matter of principle. But I don’t think that’s the spirit of it. It’s not a reflexive “retrogrouch” dismissiveness, and it’s more deliberate than merely making do. Rather, it’s about finding the simplest possible way to enjoy our surroundings without being wholly captive to an ever-shifting state of the art. Much like single-speed cycling, on some levels.
Underbiking has become a bit more visible in recent years, and I probably first heard the term in the late 2010s.
However, the label goes back to at least 2002, probably courtesy of this essay (see page 31), which defined it as choosing to ride “one that’s not quite or just barely up to the task.” Recall that the early 2000s was about the time full-suspension mountain bikes with disc brakes became the norm. In some circles, that sowed seeds of skepticism about just how much motorcycle-derived technology the sport really needed.
What’s the point?
I love the experience of underbiking for a few reasons. It’s not for every person and situation, but it has a few benefits that are hard to argue with.
Stop and smell the roses
The overarching point is to slow down and appreciate the intricacies of the trail. When you cannot blast through rocks and roots with abandon, you’ll necessarily slow down to choose smooth lines. This may sound cheesy, but it feels more like cooperating and less like competing with the trail itself.
Avoid ridiculous risks
Pushing our technical limits is part of the fun of riding off-road. But modern MTBs make us so capable that our limits extend to increasingly risky situations. It takes bigger, steeper, rougher terrain to deliver the same thrill. At some point, the risk-reward ratio crosses into “not worth it” territory.
Where’s that threshold? I can only answer for myself, and even then only vaguely. It’s relative and personal.
The point is that underbiking makes tame terrain more challenging, which helps us find thrills with much lower stakes.
A bike can’t prevent silly choices, but it can make them less appealing.
More utility from one bike
Whether it’s a financial constrain or just a minimalist ethos, you might want to keep your stable of bikes on the smaller side.
Living in an apartment for the last several years, that was my only option. Commuter bike + do-it-all gravel bike or similar = no more space.
Slowing down not only benefits the rider, but minimizes damage (and therefore maintenance) to your favorite trails.
Things like skidding around corners and slamming the brakes at the bottom of a drop-in—however necessary and fun—tears up the dirt in a while that trail crews eventually need to fix. I don’t consider that a bad thing, as long as it’s in keeping with the intent of the trail and OK with whoever maintains it. But when we’re on bikes that reward slower and gentler riding, I suspect it helps spread the trail-maintenance resources just a bit farther. (And, perhaps, keep bicycles tolerated in some technically non-cycling, gray-area trails.)
What are the limitations?
The drawbacks to underbiking are clear and simple, all rooted in the fact that taking it easy is your only reasonable option.
Limits your speed
Above all, you’re probably not setting a personal best. At least not on anything approaching technical terrain.
But then again, if record-chasing is your MO, you’re probably not reading this article, either!
Limits the terrain you can ride
Speed aside, underbiking may turn parts of your usual trails into hike-a-bike sections. Even if you were never one to blast through on an enduro bike, let’s just say the trail will leave no doubt as to the extent of your technical skills.
Can get extremely fatiguing
When I’m in a situation that qualifies as underbiking—which is a lot—I notice that it’s just plain hard work. Even compared to taking it easy on a hardtail XC bike with mid-volume tires and a 4″ fork, I finding myself using an order of magnitude more body English and stop-and-go efforts. That’ll wear anyone out in a hurry.
Now, fitness is as good a reason to cycle as any, but there does come a point where the fatigue makes you miss that extra inch of tire width or a bit of suspension travel.
Don’t mind the strange looks…
I’ll be frank. I got strange looks and unusual comments riding this bike:
in a place like this:
Do I care? Not a bit. Now, I’ve proudly ridden my Brompton around town undeterred by the slightly circus-bear-on-a-trike vibe, so suffice to say first impressions aren’t my priority on two wheels.
All the same, you will get comments: mostly good-natured but puzzled, and probably a few inexplicably mocking (go figure).
Bike consideration for underbiking
It’s a little weird to write this section, but experience with search engine optimization tells me Google loves it. The irony of discussing an “underbiking bike” is immeasurable, although part of me wonders how long until Specialized and Trek find an angle.
The point is to ride a bike that’s a bit ill-equipped for the terrain, and enjoy the slower pace and new challenge. More often than not, that means a road-ish bike on a mountain-ish trail. Virtually any pavement-oriented bike with sturdy, non-racing parts is a great candidate. Wider tires are your friend, of course, but I’d say the same even if you’re sticking to asphalt.
Most off-the-shelf bikes are sturdier than you’d think, provided they’re not of the big-box store variety. To wit: