Science is still picking its way through the concept of play and its importance for us as humans but one thing is for certain, play isn’t just for kids


Describe why you ride a mountain bike and you’ll probably not be able to avoid using the word fun. Because it is. The reason we do this sport is because it makes us feel good.

But do you remember the point when playing on your bike became going for a ride? A ride sounds a bit matter of fact, ordinary, stale. It doesn’t sound particularly fun. Playing on your bike sounds fun.

So how come we call it riding and not playing? While our frames and wheel sizes might have grown up most of us haven’t, mentally at least, and when we say we’re going for a ride what we really mean is mucking about on our bikes with our friends. But, justifying going for a ride is somehow easier, both to others and ourselves, than going for a play,. Play is perceived as frivolous and without value, while a ride is a more worthwhile undertaking. I think it’s high time to reclaim playtime.

The concepts of play and fun are intertwined. If you’re having fun chances are you’re playing, if you’re playing then you are, by definition, having fun. And riding bikes is definitely fun. This shouldn’t need saying but if you start to prod and probe what that means something as simple as fun starts to become quite complex.

Science is still picking its way through the concept of play and its importance for us as humans but one thing is for certain, play isn’t just for kids.

Specialized Stumpjumper Evo 2021

Let’s get more neotenous

Mountain biking can be a serious business but mountain bikers, of all ages, rarely are, so neoteny should be a word we’re all familiar with. Meaning the retention of immature qualities into adulthood, humans are the most neotenous, the most youthful, flexible and playful creatures on the planet. It’s an evolutionary trait that gives us an advantage when it comes to adaptability and play has been mooted as an important factor in our survival as a species.

Even in a species as neotenous as ours mountain bikers stand out. We thrive on getting covered in mud, falling down hills, goofing about and being proud of the fact. We excel at play.

Which is a good job as when it comes to survival as mountain bikers, play is essential. Time spent sessioning familiar corners, lapping the local pumptrack and chasing friends down our favourite trail isn’t just a good laugh; it also means when we venture into unfamiliar territory we’ve got the skills to ride it out. Riding can get us into trouble but play can get us out again.

Doing stuff purely because it makes us feel good often comes with a side-order of guilt

Play is born out of curiosity and exploration, but it has to be safe exploration. Messing about on your home trails with mates is play, dropping into a World Cup DH track blind with a timer going isn’t, but with experience gained at home through play you have a fighting chance of getting to the finish line in one piece.

Play has a strong effect on the brain

Play isn’t to be thought of as some kind of dress rehearsal though, it’s very much the real deal and hugely important in wiring, shaping and stimulating the brain. Nothing lights up the brain quite like play, so it shouldn’t be something we relegate to fitting in around the rest of our lives.

The National Institute of Play says that play is critical for children and improves well-being for adults. Play encourages exploration, bonding, problem solving and more.

That all sounds very worthy and purpose driven but play doesn’t have to have a purpose. In fact, if its purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play. This is the point where playing on the bike becomes training. It’s maybe here that that transition from play to riding has occurred, where a grabbed two hour ride on a Saturday morning has to have a definite outcome and goals to make it feel justified or worthwhile.

It’s why jumps, skids and wheelies feel good and hill-reps don’t

Play is something we recognise and are naturally drawn to in others. Watching a barn-storming race run might have us on the edge of our seats but some of the internet’s favourite mountain bike videos take place well away from the race track and put the focus on play rather than results. Riders like Danny MacAskill, Kirt Voreis and Josh Lewis show that the value of playing on bikes is as important and impressive as any podium and, arguably, more relatable – creative play is also a sure fire way of a video going viral.

We might not all have Danny MacAskill’s moves but we all know that playing on our bikes is an outlet for our creativity and our emotions. It’s why jumps, skids and wheelies feel good and hill-reps don’t.

As much as you can make the case for a Scandi-flick being the quickest way round a corner, the truth is that we do it, or try to, because it feels good. And that’s okay. Doing stuff purely because it makes us feel good often comes with a side-order of guilt, one that’s difficult to overcome but we should be embracing it. It’s not pointless, it’s just the point doesn’t really matter.

Danny Milner at the Santa Cruz Megatower launch

Danny Milner at the Santa Cruz Megatower launch. It was clearly fun.

Can you engineer fun into a bike?

Play is an identifiable activity but putting a label on fun is tricky. Riding may or may not be fun, depending on your attitude whilst riding. What defines fun is a very personal thing and that extends to our riding. Some of us love nothing more than long days in the saddle whilst others live for technical downhills, the steeper the better. Mountain biking is a wonderfully varied sport. All kinds of fun and play are valid and our bikes reflect that. They are the instruments for our play and how and what we enjoy riding influences the bikes we ride.

When it comes to choosing a bike, fun probably appears near the top of the list of things riders want and brands are well aware of this. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday may still be a thing, but for the rest of the week it’s fun that sells bikes. It follows, then, that fun and play have become an essential part of the cycling industry’s marketing lexicon.

Back in the 2000’s Freeride was marketed as the antithesis to racing – a branch of mountain biking dedicated to play that didn’t take itself seriously.

Like-minded little people can add an extra spark of motivation

As a sport we loved it, Freeride epitomised a carefree attitude to riding bikes that we could all relate to. Freeride slowly got absorbed into the mainstream and its spirit lives on today with almost every brand making reference to play in their marketing material. Swiss brand SCOR use the tag line Play The Mountains, Rocky Mountain have their PowerPlay range and Stanton Bikes talk extensively about the importance of play in the design of their bikes.

But are fun and play concepts that can be engineered into a bike?

Fun can mean different things to different people. So – and arguably not – if you’ve ever ridden a bike that feels just right chances are you and the designer share similar views on what fun is.

While a fun bike is tough to define, a playful bike is something that’s a bit easier to reach a common consensus on. Bikes that are easy to move around on the trail and provide plenty of feedback to the rider are generally considered to be playful, and for many riders that also equates to fun. By manipulating the holy trinity of materials, geometry and suspension kinematics frame designers are able to dial in characteristics that imply fun.

Dan Stanton from Stanton Bikes has spent a lot of time thinking about what constitutes a playful and fun bike. He explains that often twenty niners will have low bottom bracket heights for stability but this makes them harder to lean over and slower in turns. By raising the bottom bracket the bike feels more alert and eager to change direction. Coupled with progressive suspension kinematics and manipulation of tube profiles, Dan is able to build a frame that accentuates that feeling of a bike that’s alive.

Camaraderie and fun bind the mtb community together

Play equals progression

Why does any of that matter? According to Stanton, a playful bike is a joyful bike and one that also helps with riding progression – quite simply the more you enjoy riding and the more comfortable you are on it the more you’ll ride it and the harder you’ll push yourself. Play equals progression.

While some bikes might feel more playful than others it’s doubtful that any of us are having more fun entirely because of the bike we’re riding – the material that really makes riding fun is grey and in your head.

E-bikes have helped redefine and rekindle play for some riders. Electric assistance has allowed them to carry on having fun on two wheels when they might have had to stop due to age or illness. For others they have opened up a whole new way of playing that isn’t reliant on strength, experience, ability or time.

Some will maintain e-bikes are cheating, but if you’re riding one and having fun then who is being cheated? Mountain bikes are there to make us smile, technological advances should exist to keep those smiles growing.

Working out square roots is no chore when your classroom is a trail

Find your favourite playground

More important than what we play on is where we play. The woods have always been the preferred playground for mountain bikers – out of view we can mess about without interference or judgement. Playing down the woods is still a hugely popular and important part of the riding scene but the increasing popularity of bike parks proves that we love nothing more than having our own custom built playground. Designed with fun as the first, second and third requirement, bike park riding is in some respects the most pure form of mountain biking.

Again, there can be a feeling of guilt for getting an uplift and not earning your turns but it doesn’t take long for that to be forgotten once you start riding.

The more gnarly tracks at bike parks might get the most media attention but the tracks that are best loved are the flow trails. Perfect singletrack is hard to find but we all know what it feels like and the new style of flow trails aim to replicate that feeling. Smooth with floaty jumps that have little penalty for failure and big berms that let you carry your speed they are designed to flatter all skill levels. These are feel-good trails whose only requirement is that you stay off the brakes and trust the trail builders. Flow doesn’t just apply to the name of the trails though.

Dare Valley Gravity Family Bike Park

Dare Valley Gravity Family Bike Park

Play will help you find that flow state

The feeling of flow is actually one of the signs that you’re playing. Flow is a mental state in which you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing. It’s characterised by a feeling of energised focus, total involvement and success in the process. That feeling of almost flying down the trail and your movements happening almost automatically is peak play.

It’s an incredible feeling that experienced riders can access at will and less experienced riders are constantly searching for. The less you think and the more you play the easier it is to achieve.

Flow might be a heightened state of play but it’s very much a spectrum and the opposite of play isn’t work, as you might expect, but depression. If you’ve ever had a prolonged period off the bike and found your mood dipping you’ll know that’s certainly the case. Playing on our bikes makes us happy and healthy. Play can be transformative. So, it seems odd that despite knowing the importance of it and how we feel when we don’t get enough of it we’ve collectively decided to diminish the importance of play.

Playing on our bikes can seem frivolous, a luxury, a distraction from more pressing concerns but it’s actually a lot more important than that. The science is clear; play is a biological necessity, like sleep and dreams, so there’s no reason to feel guilty for going out on your bike for no other reason than to mess around and have fun in the woods.

Skids really aren’t just for kids, so just get out and play.