I started mountain biking and riding the Sope Creek trails in late 2013 and have been progressively getting better. My rides used to be filled with full-on panic braking going into drops and hard corners, falling off after getting stalled going through a rock garden and whacking my shoulders or handlebars on trees. Over time my riding skills improved; I was reading MTBR and watching some youtube videos and taking notes. I felt pretty good for most flat riding or climbing but was embarrassed by my descending and would usually not go downhill very aggressively.
So for most of 2014, 2015 and 2016 I was just kinda blundering about. Randomly getting better but not really improving in a focused direction. In late 2016 Georgia was in a pretty heavy drought and I went back to riding Sope Creek almost everyday but what changed was that I was riding it on three different types of bikes. I was riding a 700c rigid steel cross bike with 40mm tires (monstercross bike), a 26″ drop bar mountain hardtail and a regular 29″ mountain hardtail.
What I noticed was that every time I rode my monstercross bike, the next time I was on my regular mountain bike was like my skills had improved ten-fold. Riding a monstercross bike is so much harder and everything happens so much faster that when I went back to a flat bar hardtail it was like the world had slowed down. Everything was slower and easier and I could find the lines quicker and more consistently. With a monstercross bike to go really fast you need to find the golden path through all the rocks, ruts and roots. It’s still a chain-rattling, tooth-jarring ride but it’s fast. When you try to take the same path on a hardtail it’s like hitting warp speed. I was flying through the woods.
I went from just meandering around to getting much faster and riding much cleaner really quick. I was hitting descents like a dive bomber, flicking the bike around obstacles and just going really fast all the time with high efficiency.
It wasn’t just monstercross that helped so much it was also paying attention to the two big skills – trail braking and bike lean. These two things were hugely responsible for the improvement but they were spurned by riding different types of bikes. If you can take a technical turn at speed over rocks and roots on a monstercross bike, you can do it significantly faster on a mountain bike. Well no shit, but what I mean is that monstercross forces you to ride well and when you get back on your mountain bike you bring those skills back to the forefront of your mind. It’s easy to get lazy riding the same trails on the same bike, changing to a vastly different bike is a great way to stay fresh and develop skills that often atrophy with suspension and huge tires.
After feeling under-gunned at the Assault on Mt Currahee I decided to get something a little bigger/more aggressive than the small block 8 tires I was running. There aren’t a lot of options in the 40c size so I ordered one of the cheaper options and went with the WTB Nano with wire bead. After I ordered the tires it occurred to me that I might want to measure the fork clearance and I found that it might be pretty tight with a large tire. I was a little stressed by this but one I got the tires and mounted them it was obvious I had more than enough room.
The tires are reasonably aggressive and mounted easily. They measured out to 37mm on my 24mm outside width rims. Not really having anywhere else to ride these I decided to take then onto the Sope Creek trails. These trails are fairly technical and rocky/rooty so I figured I would end up going pretty slow. Turns out I was mistaken, the bike and the tires performed really well and I was slower than my MTB but a lot less than I originally expected. My ride ended up be about 20 miles with a little bit less than 4 miles being on trails/gravel, the rest on pavement. I had the tires around 60 PSI and this is obviously way to high for MTB trails but it seemed to work fine, if a little jarring. Toe overlap is a major issue and apparently I love swinging around my front wheel as I had to constantly keep an eye on what I was doing to avoid crashing due to foot/tire interference.
Here’s an example of the lower loop at Sope Creek:
I guess this was technically a monster cross ride so that’s something. In the past I’ve been enamored with the concept, having a kick ass bike that you can take anywhere. In my mind I’d be blasting down the road, see a cool trail and just hop the curb and start shredding some serious gnar. In reality, you’re going have to adjust your tire pressure, run compromise tires that suck as both road and trails and deal with poor human/bicycle fit (toe overlap) or run some weird geometry. The main things I noticed were that the tires were really too small to be fun on the trails and the knobs were too aggressive to be fun on the road. Cornering felt like shit as the bike got all squirrelly due to the knob-flex. I also noted the center rib tended to grab the painted lines and any raised lines in the road. It wasn’t a major issue but it was kind of disconcerting when it happened. Maybe Atlanta area road paint is just exceptionally thick?
Monster cross is probably better for a different environment but after riding my road bikes on gravel and some short trails and then this cyclocross bike with monster cross tires, I’m not quite sure the latter is really needed. I mean, you’re not going to be tackling sick mud pits on road slicks but you can ride pretty much anything that would be fun on a 28c tire, I think.