What the Heck is a Down-Country Bike? - Opinion


What if I told you about a type of bike that's easier to ride faster in many (but not all) settings, allows you to cover more ground, maybe even have more fun while doing it, and all with less effort required than what you might be riding now. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Would you believe such a thing exists, or does that sound like a pitch line from an out of touch marketing department?

It's not a sham, I swear, and there aren't even any motors involved, either. What it is, however, is an emerging category of mountain bike that's a strange, hard to define fusion of cross-country, trail, and possibly even the all-mountain segments. For lack of a better term, and because I like names that are easy to remember, I've been calling them 'down-country' or 'fun-country' bikes with the aim of making things as confusing as possible. My other option was the obvious 'black-diamond cross-country,' but I don't think the sarcasm shines through quite as well with that one. As dumb as it sounds, the tongue in cheek down-country tag also does a pretty decent job of explaining the intentions of these rolling contradictions.
Looks like fun, right? No, probably not, but the bikes these guys are on can be turned into properly capable, fun machines.
So, what exactly is a down-country bike?It's not a downhill bike with a full-length seat tube that some goober has bolted a 100mm stem onto, but rather a bike that approaches riding from the opposing point of view. They're short-travel, quick handling rigs with a large majority of their DNA coming from the cross-country family but with a clever component spec that adds to their descending and technical abilities without also adding too much weight. A doped-up cross-country bike? Sure. The idea is to create a package that, while sporting a minimal amount of travel, quick handling, and maybe even race-day intentions, is still far more capable than what the classic view of cross-country-ing would have anyone guessing.This is not a new concept, of course - clever people have been piecing together such things on their own for many years - but it's only in the last few seasons that we've seen big-time brands look at cross-country in the same light as these forward-thinking riders.

If you've read any of my drivel before, you might already know that I'm a huge proponent of all-around short-travel bikes that are built to cover ground quickly while also being able to take some abuse, which is exactly what I'm getting at with this whole down-country spiel. I'm fully aware that I'm an ass for suggesting that we need another category of bike, but keep an open mind for just a few more minutes while I try to make my case here, and then you're more than welcome to call me names in the comment section.

If we're talking hard to define short-travel bikes, we can't go any further without giving credit where credit's due.

There's always been a small handful of forward-thinking 'little bikes' to choose from over the years, but Kona's genre-smashing Process 111 (pictured at right) is a somewhat recent example of a bike that made a lot of people sit up and take notice.

The stout 111 wasn't perfect (it was heavy-ish, there was no bottle mount inside the front triangle, and the seat tube was actually too short for some riders), but it was an eye-opener for a lot of riders who had assumed that more suspension equals more capabilities, a fallacy that's easy to go along with.
Kona Process 111 Photo by Amy McDermid
It didn't fit into any single category, but it was fun as hell.
With a long (for the day) reach of 460mm for a large-sized 111, but a relatively slack (for the travel) 68-degree head angle, a short seat tube, and more standover clearance than a Razor scooter, Kona's under-sized 111 was capable of some very up-sized riding. There were other companies who used the same basic recipe before Kona, no doubt, but Kona was among the first to use the right ingredients, at the right time, to offer an off-the-shelf short-travel rig with the now de rigueur progressive geometry. The 111 outclassed its travel and outperformed expectations, but it was also a hard bike to pin down in 2013. I mean, what the hell was it? With cross-country travel, angles from an all-mountain bike of the day, and a porker of a frame and build kit, the 111 was difficult to categorize. Then again, that's partly what made it so special at the time - it was a niche bike that didn't neatly fit into any particular section of Kona's catalog. When other riders asked me what it was at the time, I called it a down-country or fun-country bike, shrugged my shoulders while looking just as confused as they did, and then went off to do a bunch of skids and manuals on it.Sure, the 111's frame was about as cross-country as an e-bike is a real mountain bike, but it's an important benchmark because it underscored the fact that travel doesn't need to define intentions, and that unruly intentions don't require a bunch of travel. And now, in 2018, we have off-the-shelf bikes that have cross-country race intentions (and weight) but with angles and sturdiness that allows us to be as unruly as we dare.
A light, racy bike no longer has to be sketchy on the descents. It's never been easier to earn those turns.
It's hard to believe that the 111 debuted five years ago, but many riders have seen the light since then and pieced together their own oddball down-country bikes by choosing parts that make the most sense and hanging them on a cross-country frame. That's exactly what many in my 'hood have been doing for years now. If you were to show up for one of our local rides, you'd see what looks like a herd of pure cross-country race rigs under a confusing mix of Lycra, baggy shorts, platform pedals, and maybe even some goggles. Take a closer look, however, and you'd see that our steeds are anything but flimsy, lightweight off-road road bikes with deathwish semi-slick rubber, high posts, and stems so long that they're bordering on assisted suicide. Picture a Specialized Epic, Trek Top Fuel, Rocky Mountain Element, or Cannondale Scalpel; all bikes would be at home toeing the line of a cross-country race. And now picture them with wide handlebars, 50mm stems, long-stroke party posts, and big rubber inflated to maybe 20psi on relatively wide rims. In other words, capable cross-country instead of cross-country chintzy. The result of that admittedly irresponsible blending is a bike that you'd still be happy to hammer out a new PR aboard up your local monster climb, but it'll also be just fine absolutely railing the descent, taking all the silly lines, and just being a hoodlum in general. If you've ever spent any time on a lightweight cross-country bike, you already know that their low weight and sharp steering can make them unbelievably agile in the right hands, and their capacity for tomfoolery only increases when you choose your components wisely.
You decide: Did I ruin a perfectly good cross-country bike, or does it actually makes sense?

The irresponsibly modified Rocky Mountain Element that I featured in my Staff Rides article last summer is a good example. While designed as a 100mm-travel cross-country race bike, the addition of a set of relatively wide rims, burly tires, and a cockpit that you'd usually see on an enduro bike created a machine that's ready for whatever you might want to do on it, within reason, of course. One needs to be smart when it comes to suspension - the less travel you have, the better it has to be set up, and this type of bike definitely requires a much firmer spring rate all around if you're riding it above and beyond what it's intended to see. Sag? No, not much. Or any.

And that brings us to one tiny issue: less suspension and steeper (than a true enduro bike) angles means that there isn't a lot of bike under you to save your ass when you make a dumb decision. The line between getting away with something dumb and getting scorpion'd so hard that your shoes come off is thinner than a North Shore skinny, and a rider has to be smart and precise when it comes to his lines. It's a matter of constantly micro-managing the bike; while an enduro rig can be left to do its thing beneath you while you plan well ahead, a down-country bike requires much more awareness. Factor in some rowdy terrain or low traction conditions and things can get dicey. But it can also get really, really rewarding when you do make it look easy or, depending on what you're doing, simply just survive. A win is a win, but it can feel like an upset victory for the championship when you pull it off while over-confident and under-gunned. And when you do get tossed, at least you can use your silly monstrosity of a ''cross-country bike'' as an excuse; it's a win-win!
Santa Cruz's Blur is new-school cross-country bike that can do far more than your typical cross-country riding.
Of course, it'd be careless of me not to mention that fact that most companies don't intend their purebred cross-country race frames to be home to the components required to turn them into down-country bikes, and especially not the type of riding that big rubber, a longer-travel fork, and the obligatory enduro-style cockpit allows. At least not yet, anyway. I'm picturing more than one product manager cringing while reading this, and warranty departments everywhere shaking their heads while using words like ''irresponsible,'' ''reckless,'' and ''Levy is a f*cking idiot.'' Hey, I won't disagree with them, either.

Bike companies are catching on, though. Santa Cruz's new, 100mm-travel Blur is just one example of a cross-country whippet sporting longer, more relaxed geometry that's able to shrug off abuse that might have killed a flimsy race bike from a few years ago. Scott's Spark is also a decent specimen of an off-the-shelf short-travel rig with geo that makes sense for a hooligan who wants a sporty bike that won't kill him on a rowdy trail, as is the just-released Yeti SB100. Again, this is far from a new phenomenon, as riders have been building their own fun-country atrocities for many years, but it's only recently that we're seeing stock bikes become a real option.

I have Yeti's new SB100 in for a long-term review, but the handful of rides I've put on it so far can be summed up like this: Small travel, real tires, and much fun.
I propose the silly down-country label only to mock how two-wheeled world tries to be neatly classified, but I do believe that we are seeing the emergence of a new type of bike. Maybe it's brands finally applying what they've learned from developing their all-mountain and enduro designs over the last few years. Maybe they're simply responding to the ever-evolving skill sets of riders. Maybe this is just the evolution of the trail bike, minus 4lb and with a whole lot more sportiness. Whatever it is, it's clear that a cross-country bike doesn't have to only be a cross-country race bike anymore. Truth is, I'm mostly just taking the piss with these down-country and fun-country labels - the last thing any of us want is another slogan or catchword - but I do believe that there really is something to these souped-up cross-country bikes. Call them whatever you want, but I think I'll just call them fun as hell.