If I Never Saw a Skinny Again, That’d be Okay

One of mountain biking's earliest technical features was the skinny. Travis Reill can't stand them.
A rider on a high skinny in a bike park. Photo: Hannah Morvay

I started mountain biking in the early 2000s. My first “real” bike was a Specialized P2, first-generation if I’m not mistaken. This was around that time when mountain biking had left its racing roots and developed a new subculture—freeride.

And, like many who were all in on the freeride scene, I consumed the content of the time: New World Disorder and Cranked. There were moments when I stood completely motionless, staring at the TV in the corner of my local bike shop while one of these film series played. After 20 or 30 minutes, an employee would snap me out of it and direct me to a display case where I could buy a copy of that movie.

As good as they are, the movies, especially the earlier ones, followed a similar pattern. There was always a part for the DH racer. Then a part that showed crazy freeriding at some cliffs out in Utah. A dirt jump part was in there. Gaps to banks and big drops to flat were prominent in the inevitable urban freeride part.

My friends and I watched these movies again and again. Then, we rode our bikes, trying to emulate what we saw. After a day of drops and jumps, we found wallrides and stairs to gap in downtown as the sun went down. 

But, as we lived our freeride dreams, thinking we might be featured in the next film, there was one movie segment I never cared to recreate—skinnies.

Skinnies and this place called the North Shore

Densely wooded, wet forests came on the screen. Here, mountain bikers left the perfectly good loam and rode the narrowest of planks. Fallen logs became a puzzle for trail builders to piece together. 

The skinnies alone weren’t enough. Many of them ended in drops. Significant drops. Seesaws, some that pivoted, were added to the complexity of these log rides. Skinnies climbed high up into the trees and often went on for eternity. 

And all of this took place in some fabled land called the North Shore. And if I couldn’t make it up to Canada to try my hand at this style of riding, surely my friends and I would build our own, just like we had done with jumps and drops. Well, not really.

While the skinny riding that we watched was technical, it didn’t set our worlds on fire. Watching someone ride slowly on a narrow strip of wood didn’t inspire us as much as the fast-paced dirt jumping and drops scenes.

When we did finally string a couple of 2x4s together on some firewood rounds, we found more frustration than adrenaline. Our time seemed better spent building new jumps rather than taking this style of riding to the next level. Plus, with no access to a chainsaw, the work seemed impossible.

So, we kept all of our fingers and moved on with our preferred styles of riding.

Fast forward

Jumping forward nearly twenty years brings me into a more balanced state of mountain biking. Hell, I even intentionally set out to become a better climber. This desire to become a more well-rounded rider led me to tackle the feature for which I have the least desire or interest: skinnies.

This took me out to one of the few trails in my area where I know there is more than one skinny to ride. The trail, appropriately named Funner, is indeed “fun,” until you get to the spider web of skinnies that cross a mess of fallen logs. But, being a “well-rounded” rider was my goal, so this was where I practiced my deficiency. 

I knew that I had changed as a mountain biker–matured if you will–when I realized I didn’t mind climbing. I took something I absolutely hated when I first started riding, found the challenge, and formed a desire to improve my abilities. I did something I thought I would never do on a mountain bike—ride with the intention of cleaning a climb and actually enjoy it.

This “maturation” process didn’t translate, however, to riding skinnies. Skinnies still sucked. Getting on them sucked. Staying on them sucked. Falling off of them really sucked. 

Somewhat similar to my process to conquer a difficult climb, I set out with hopes of improving my riding of skinnies. Unlike the climbing, I never seemed to get better. Sure, I could occasionally make it to the end of one but, when I really thought about it, I wasn’t having fun.

I think I know why.

Progress vs. luck

One of my initial thoughts on why I didn’t like skinnies was the speed I rode them. It was slow. Boring. Slow is rather counterproductive to one of the big reasons I enjoy riding mountain bikes. Therefore, going slow seemed like a good reason for me not to like skinnies.

However, I realized that despite going slow while climbing, I genuinely enjoyed my time working on my climbing skills this past winter. I even had a ride or two where I only worked on climbing, never making it to the top for the descent of my regular lap.

So what was the big difference? Looking back on both the climbing and skinny processes, I think I found that the biggest thing separating the two experiences was the gap between progress and luck.

When I set out to build my climbing skills I began to see progress somewhat quickly. It certainly wasn’t an overnight thing but as I began to break the trail and the moves down, I stopped having issues with particular sections that were giving me trouble. As I progressed in the days and weeks following, I was blowing by those sections with ease, moving upward to the next part I needed to conquer.

Sure the climbing was slow, but the progression was evident.

This was not the case with riding skinnies. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for how well I rode across any planks. I had a plan together, things were broken down into steps, and I would actually successfully cross the skinny. Progress, right? No. Attempts to repeat what I had just done were unsuccessful every time.

I couldn’t successfully complete a skinny twice in a row. I chalked any success I had up to temporary luck. 

What could be there…

Although I am not a trail builder, I can’t help but see the terrain for what mountain bike features could be there. I have zero skill or know-how to build those features, but I visualize them nonetheless.

So, when I see some skinny option sitting trailside I can’t help but wonder what better features could have been put there. What could that log have been made into? Or, hey, maybe that log should be cut up and used to keep a fire going as trail builders shape a berm going into a double on a chilly, autumn afternoon.

I do understand that sometimes skinnies just work. One particular skinny on my local trail, Funner, was formed after a tree fell on a hillside, landing on a small rock outcrop. The now flattened top of the log makes a nice skinny ride ending in a three-ish foot drop. That drop would be perfect if someone would just hammer some planks on the log.

Obviously, it is a personal preference. Obviously, I don’t have much room to speak because I’m not building any trails. All I am saying is that I would much rather see building efforts on jumps, drops, berms, rock rolls—anything other than skinnies. Use the wood for literally anything else.

Let’s face it, skinnies are damn scary

If I’m being honest, I am also afraid of skinnies. I have no desire to ride multiple stories off the ground like we see in YouTube edits or old videos. No, I’m talking about being afraid of 1 ½ feet off of the ground skinnies.

Skinnies around where I live are often awkward and have unexpectedly larger consequences for mistakes than you would think. Take the one on Funner that I just mentioned, the one that ends in a drop. Falling off that one has a rider landing on jagged lava rock after a 2 or 3-foot fall. That sucks.

Hopping off other skinnies has the rider landing in a mess of fallen trees and branches. If you don’t turn your ankle or twist a knee, you’re at least coming out of there lacerated. Taking gnarly slams is terrible. Taking a gnarly slam while you’re moving 2MPH is worse.

My last attempt on a skinny was on a ride I didn’t intend to try any skinnies on. I was heading up the climb trail when I passed a skinny coming out of the treeline, creating a drop onto an embankment on my left. With hopes fading of improving my skinny riding ability, I hiked up to the top and lined up my attempt. 

The entry to this skinny is a bump up through the root system. Once on, the width narrows from a comfortable eight inches down to about four. I bumped my wheels up the roots and started making my way down the log.

Despite my wanting to end this story with some tale of success that had me rethink my feelings toward skinnies, my back wheel slipped off a few feet down the log. My bike slammed down on the drive side chainstay, bending at least ten links of my chain. 

My ride was over for the day. My time with skinnies was over forever.