Is downcountry a made-up marketing term or a real thing?

Back in the early 90s, a hardtail like the one I raced here at Big Bear was a downhill bike. As the mountain bike has evolved, the number of categories they fall into has grown, but they don’t all make sense.


By Ron Koch

At a very young age I started learning not to judge people based on their looks, gender or whatever label society had put on them. The truth is that most of these lessons were learned the hard way. I cannot count the times somebody surprised me because I thought I knew what they were all about. And, this can happen in both positive and negative ways. You’re probably asking yourself, what does all this have to do with mountain bikes? Well, the exact same thing can be said for the bikes we ride. I often hear riders judging a bike by its category. And, on the flip side, I have ridden numerous bikes that have surprised me with capabilities outside of their definition.

I cannot count the times I’ve heard somebody call a bike X, Y, or Z based on some sort of attribute like wheel travel, head angle or some blend of component specs. A bike’s character is a combination of a million little things, not just one or two. Even though mountain bikes are made with the same intent—riding trails—categorization is a necessary evil, because everybody’s needs from a ride are different. It can be confusing, though. One person’s idea of a flow trail is another’s enduro, just as a rider’s needs might differ from the manufacturer’s own description. Some acknowledge that certain categories exist, while others don’t, and then some even get it wrong. There are also times when we will disagree with a bike’s category placement after testing it.

While some of these categories can be argued, the main ones seem pretty solid these days—cross-country, trail, enduro, downhill and eMTB. Within these categories are a few subcategories, like cross-country race, all-mountain, park, freeride, dirt jump, fat bikes, eMTB and the newly emerging lightweight eMTB. And then there are hardtail, women’s, and kids’ variations of those.

At the end of the day, your best bet is simply to keep an open mind. You might think your riding style and trails need a certain type of bike, but do not discount bordering categories. A term you’ll often hear in reviews and even brand propaganda is “versatile.” This typically means the bike’s abilities can span multiple categories, and the great ones really do. Now, more than ever, bikes are blurring these lines with incredible capability. That’s why reviews like those found in this magazine are important. We cut through the marketing clutter and spell out what the bike is like to ride and who it’s for. The good news is that it’s pretty hard to find a truly terrible bike these days, but it sure is easy to buy the wrong type. Too much bike can be just as bad as not enough for some. This is also why it’s important to actually ride the bike you intend to buy, as well as some others you might not have considered.

I think that most of us can agree that having multiple categories is great and helpful for riders, but the creation of vague new categories makes me shake my head. I am specifically referring to what some call the “downcountry” category. What started as a joke a number of years ago slowly turned into a thing. The more people joked about it, the more the name stuck. Now, we are faced with products with the name printed on them and marketing campaigns touting such bikes as the new, must-have item.

The thing is, downcountry isn’t a thing. A downcountry bike is simply an evolved cross-country bike. As they have evolved, they have become much better, more confident descenders, no doubt. The intent is still the same, however, with light weight and climbing efficiency as being priority number one and descending capability coming close behind. The word “downcountry” suggests these are magically cross-country bikes on the climbs and mini-downhill bikes on the descents, but such bikes simply do not exist. It’s confusing and unnecessary. The fact that a rather popular website now has “downcountry shootouts” and regularly pairs World Cup short-track-winning bikes against trail bikes tells me they are equally confused about the whole thing. And, the more everybody talks about downcountry, the more it becomes ingrained in our vocabulary. Kind of like what I’m doing now. Shall we talk about gravel?

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