A rough stuff machine as I see it.

I have a number of bound collections of Cycling ranging in dates from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. A frequent voice in these issues is that of man using the nom de plume Wayfarer (aka W.M. Robinson). The Wayfarer was very much a super-tourist and a staunch advocate of leaving the tarmac and chip seal behind for rougher tracks and pass storming...broadening one's exploration and deriving great pleasure from the challenge and experience. In other words, 'Type 2' fun like we all know and love. He inspired many and his influence eventually led to the formation of the Rough Stuff Fellowship (RSF) in the 1950s and is still in existence to this day...even as 'getting off the beaten path' has gained wider acceptance with the advent of mountain bikes and their continued technological development.

In the North American west (and certain other mountainous regions), having enthusiastic pockets of population surrounded by large swaths of public land definitely tip the balance towards riding a mountain bike from the door...and in a short distance from the door the pavement can be left for rougher terrain that rarely crosses settlements or highways. Full-suspension and a 20:36 low gear to crab around challenging switchbacks facilitates a different kind of play, the mountain biking notion of staying on the bike no matter what. It's apt for the sphere. 

Riding a skinnier tired machine, or even a rigid MTB or hardtail or whatever, off-road requires a greater degree of humility and much more from the rider. You better be ready to do some walking/hiking as well. Whether this is "good" is subjective. We all have to find our own way.

In more populous areas, like where I live now, mountain biking can sometimes be put in the same Venn diagram circle as paddling or climbing. A special trip is concocted, facilitated by vehicular escape from development. This was my modus operandi living in Atlanta in the 1990s, aided by sub-$1 a gallon gasoline and an existence less constrained by "connectedness." Things are different now for a lot of people. Work supercharged by the ability to stay in contact, kids, pets, aging parents, additional bills (internet, mobile, etc.), and never ending distraction has had somewhat of a damper on our more wanderlust tendencies and maybe the paradigm has shifted towards closer-to-home and ride-from-the-door cycling. Road bikes have certainly made a comeback (helped by Mr. Armstrong no doubt) and I'm pleased to see a glacial shift over the last number of years towards more mixed surface, do-it-all-kinda-OK-if-you're-willing sort of all-rounders. To me, I thought these bikes were/are super fun and emblematic of simpler times when choice was much more constrained and if you wanted to do something, it was necessary to just go give it a go. Bike riding.

My own path of riding road-ish bikes off-road started early in my serious cycling phase, which was smack in the throes of the mountain bike revolution. I managed to fall in with a group of people that, outside of the scope of the then infant internet, were influenced by a weird amalgam of classic cycling films, road racing in all its forms (bicycle, motorcycle, automobile), BMX videos on VHS, rallying, and mountain bike culture. The resulting bikes reflected this...oddly hacked road, hybrid, and touring frames sporting shortened + burnt stays, BMX platform pedals, repositioned braze-ons, mountain bike components (always STX-RC or lower), and cheapo 27" or 700c tires in some hybrid/commuter-friendly iteration...usually with gumwalls. Gravel gaps in North Georgia would be ridden with black socks stuck into Vans or Converse One Stars. Unbridled contrarian pedaling backed by a Leth-inspired dissonant minor chord taped down with masking tape on the Moog, played in a loop on an answering machine cassette tape...the kind of thing that happened before everyone was watching each other through a computer screen. The kind of thing that occurred in a measles-like dot distribution across the map, corresponding to bike mechanics weary of roadie vs. dirtbag dichotomies. The cinematic soundtrack wasn't Vivaldi or Wagner....more like Slint and the Cows.

Ten+ years later, such non-race exploits have been commodified into a jillion different "citizen" road and MTB events, tidy websites, and heavy paper stock. I like looking at the pictures. Some people rag on it. Putting anything out there these days will result in haughty counterpunching from a legion of wounded souls, regardless of circumstance or context. An inherent love for crossing territory unsuspended on skinny tires doesn't have shit to do with people filling up Gran Fondos and 100 mile MTB races as a way to tick something off an Outside magazine list or some British guy with a nice old camera taking a rakish picture of the antlers and mailbox lettering on the wall of the rural post office while doing a long ride amongst the Star Spangled logging trucks. I don't understand this constant need to dismiss someone's work or preferences with some flippant, Gallic wave of the hand. It's always possible to be kind or just move on.

I guess what I've always liked about riding a bike with 700x35c tires or smaller off-road is...the tires. It's hard to verbalize. I like a "gappy" frame, one where there's plenty of air around the tire (it hasn't necessarily always worked for me this way though). There's a psycho[somatic] feeling that the bike is "freer." Larger tires are no doubt more comfortable and "better" for rough applications, but to me anytime I rode something like a 700x47c Top Touring or larger I felt like I was riding on a twisting corpulent walrus intestine. I'd always be the idiot that treated his fat tires like a basketball as far as air pressure. I also liked the feeling of being able to take micro-lines with skinny tires too. It was like a mechanical pencil over the topo map rather than a magic marker. Singlespeed and then fixed wheel came from mechanical apathy rebranded as minimalism free of chainslap. In other words, nothing that was performance-oriented pragmatism in any way...hence shrugs for answers when a Primal/Oakley/Nike-shod start line adventurer would want to know "what's the advantage in that?"

I've developed some general preferences for my own rough stuff machines:

- My favourite brake is still the plain old standard reach dual-pivot sidepull (47-57mm reach). You can run up to about a 35mm 'cross tire on there depending on a few factors (fork crown, brake hole placement, etc.), but a 32-33mm tire can be done all day long. This can run contrary to my "gappy" tendencies depending on the fork but sidepulls are just so simple and problem free. Single-pivot sidepulls give better clearance but require more effort. You can end up bending the hell out of brake levers (especially older ones) when used with flared drops as the travel of the lever isn't always dead straight depending on how you set things up.

- Fenders/mudguards are great for pavement/solid hardpack, commuting, group road rides + brevets, etc. They are polite and work well, provided you've taken the time to set them up well. But, I hate them. I very rarely ride with anyone, especially in foul weather, and if I am they are generally on a mountain bike since that's the crowd you run with riding a fixed wheel geared in the 50s. I also don't ride to an office job. My bike suffers as do my shoes and pants...but it's my mountain bike psyche that was seeded early that causes it. I like seeing my tires (more psycho[somatic] action). I fear sticks and catching edges trailside. Stopping to clear debris (mud, stones, snow) from them and changing flats makes me want to hurl them into the woods. I don't like the bending/tweaking/resultant fouling that can occur when dropping/leaning/portaging/crashing the bike or chucking it into a station wagon or pickup truck (bikes = tools). I've tried it, even with partials (XL RaceBlades) and I'm over it. Foul weather for me = unfashionable but "gappy" backscratcher off the seatpost to somewhat hinder the personal mess.

- Tires mean being mindful of sidewall tenacity. Cramming 500g of weight into a 700x35c tire? Right on! It doesn't pay to take this to the extreme otherwise the bike rides like an obese buckboard (on the road sections), but you still need to be conservative. Hybrid/commuter tires will generally fit the bill, certain 'cross tires too. Don't get too hung up on knobs though. Once you get to 32c tires and below, it really is better to get as much tread on the ground as possible in the form of a (mostly) slick or file tread. I learned this riding kitty litter covered hardpack in Colorado. Largish 25c tires are pretty much the minimum if you want to venture out, but once you start getting 28c and're getting into pizza cutter territory in the loose, especially with tires that have notoriously rigid casings (read: Armadillos, belt-and-suspenders touring tires). My favourite = Club Roost Cross Terras if you can make them fit, despite their paddlewheel-like tendencies in the wet. Continental Cyclocross Speeds for a file tread, and they run small. YMMV, as it should.

- Everything else is 'whatever' as long as you've come to it with mileage...but simplistic drivetrains with (when applicable) friction shifting capabilities + single/fixed bailout options are rad in case of mechanical mushroom cloud.

One thing that Wayfarer said in his writings, as noted by RSF Chairman Steve Griffith in outlining the club's history, is his statement: "As little bike as possible." Griffith says: "This meant a fixed wheel (in his case usually a 63" or 57"), single brake, and no unnecessary accessories." That, and a resolve to stay at the trailing end of advancement, which reaps great benefits in reliability (and cost). 

"As little bike as possible" is a statement that resonates with me more than any other in matters of cycling. As alluded to before, how another might interpret it is a personal matter, perhaps resulting in a freewheel, simple multispeed capability, or other concession away from the notion of bare asceticism. The idea is to yaw towards self-sufficiency and simple independence in a way that is motivating, embracing the experience through acceptance versus a warring frustration to crush and "overcome" what is ultimately an empty universe.

I feel some level of sadness sometimes when I read up on what people think they feel they need or want. I don't mean that as judgment from a high horse. It isn't my place to say anything outside of my own work, but I have some feeling of trepidation knowing the impending dissatisfaction or fall from grace that their theoretical pet project may eventually suffer. All sorts of stuff that generally takes wing behind a keyboard rather than in good trim behind a handlebar.  You need less than you think you do. Always. Action over time will help you cull and I've lived squarely on both sides of the coin.

The "it" never really ends up being one. Just go do stuff.

See also: The multi-part 'Isolation for revelation' posts.

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Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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