Technical is Mountain Bikers’ Dirty Word

Technical seems like a strange word to apply to bike trails. Then again, maybe it's not.

The Stoke is an occasional opinion series highlighting the things that get us stoked about mountain biking. 🤘 👍 👏 🙏

If it weren’t for technical trails, we would all be road bikers. Or maybe gravel riders. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those choices, they’re just not for me.

When you think about it, it’s kinda weird how mountain bikers use the word technical to describe challenging trail features. Google, err Oxford, defines the word to mean, “relating to a particular subject, art, or craft,” and in the case of mountain biking, I suppose riding difficult trails is an art and does require a focused dedication to the craft.

Sometimes we refer to trails as techy, which to me has a different connotation altogether. Techy brings to mind software developers, artificial intelligence, and a dystopian future where everyone is living in the digital matrix. Yet in the mountain bike world, the word is usually applied to the old-school, low-tech hiking and game trails that weren’t even designed with biking in mind. If anything, piloting a human-powered vehicle through the forest on a dirt path relies on some of the most retro of retro tech.

Often the staunchest supporters of keeping mountain bike trails technical are the old timers, the Masters riders who are long on both age and experience. Until recently I never really understood why. Was it because the bikes were so bad back in the dinosaur days that riders had to develop mad technical skills just to stay upright? Do they miss the era when builders seemingly had no idea what they were doing and erosion quickly turned every trail into a narrow rock and root chute? Man, those must’ve been the days.

Curiously enough, it’s the youngest riders that provide a clue as to why technical trails still get riders of all ages, and especially older ones, stoked. Perhaps pandemic-related, or at the very least pandemic-adjacent, mountain bike skills parks are popping up everywhere. In addition to mini ramps, tables, and rollers, most skills parks have some rocks or logs to play on in a low risk, high reward environment. When a little ripper finally gets comfortable riding across the baby-sized rock garden, they invariably call out to anyone and everyone they know, “watch this!”

Fast forward several decades, and we’re still proud to show off our skills, even if it’s just to prove to ourselves we can do it. While both fitness and fearlessness tend to fade over time, mountain bikers still want a challenge, and a sense of progression. Considering the alternatives, riding ever-more technical trails is a pretty low-consequence way to rack up badges of honor. To be sure, a low-speed tumble from an off-camber trail can land a rider in the hospital or worse. But that’s likely not as bad as crashing into a tree at 25mph or cratering off a 10ft. jump.

There was a time when I really hated hearing the term technical — a cringe-worthy, dirty word to my ears — applied to bike trails. Back then I would argue that the word isn’t very descriptive or helpful, but deep down I think I was mostly fearful of what I might find, and that I might not measure up to the challenge before me. Technical sections felt like roadblocks to riding fast or getting in a good, consistent workout on the trail. Who wants that? But the more I slowed down, and focused on filling in the gaps in my skills and confidence, the more I found enjoyment in every trail I experienced, no matter how rough or scary, or fast and flowy.

Getting back to the definition of the word technical, it’s clear mountain bikers are in love with challenging trails and trail features. Like students diving into a favorite subject in school, we spend hours watching online videos and consulting with coaches to learn how to ride steep slabs and never-ending webs of roots. We see line choices as an opportunity for artistic expression. We hit the skills park, or session a log hop deep in the forest, to hone our craft.

I still think technical is a dirty word, in the sense that it fits the ethos of riding off road and playing in the dirt, rather than being a word to avoid. At our core, we’re all little kids who delight in our own accomplishments, both big and small. We may not be able to ride fast forever, or keep up with the front of the pack. But the biggest rocks will always be there, begging for one more try. And for that, I’m stoked.