By Dillon Caldwell (Cog Wild Guide and Marketing Director)
As a lifelong mountain biking enthusiast, I have developed a very particular (if unusual) definition of the term “mountain biking”. And as a seasoned mountain bike tour guide, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of other concepts of what exactly it is that the two-wheeled knobby has come to represent for us.
But I’ve become more and more concerned with where mainstream mountain bike culture is headed today. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see greater numbers of friends and neighbors who can appreciate and join in the fun out on the open trail. In fact, a good chunk of my income and livelihood is directly tied to the tourism this industry brings to the table. I don’t think there’s any question that it’s a great thing for our world to get more people excited about getting outdoors and enjoying nature on bikes. But I’d like to take a moment to reflect on this nascent industry and offer a slightly different perspective on what the mountain bike ride truly represents — at least to this native of the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
This sport of ours has finally reached a notable level of acceptance in America. Gone are the days where the blue jean and leather jacket were seen as normal attire for the fringe activity we call mountain biking. The Klunker is a not-too-distant part of our history, but it is little more than obscure history at this point.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that mountain biking has become a part of mainstream American culture at this point — even here in the West. But the balance between mountain biking’s perceived status as being something “different” and the reality that it is now a mainstream sport, one that even rivals more traditional American sports for scales of economy (e.g., golf*) in our region of the country, is precisely why it has become so hip. And it’s becoming hipper with each turn of the calendar. Now a significant part of Western culture, this sport has taken on an entirely new persona and meaning for most of us who call ourselves mountain bikers today.
With contemporary advances in mountain bike technology turning the original steel and rubber rigid “Klunker” into something that more closely resembles a piece of aerospace equipment, it’s not hard to imagine that our experience of what that tool represents for each of us has changed as well. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this change. The 2016 Santa Cruz 5010 that I reviewed last fall absolutely blew my mind. There’s no way I would trade the opportunity to ride that amazing bicycle for a hardtail or a rigid bike from the past. Technological advancements in sport, in and of themselves, are nothing to frown upon. They’ve simply made our sport faster, more technically advanced, and (arguably) more fun in the process.
That said, precisely because of these technological advancements, this sport appears to be turning into more and more of an elitist’s hobby today. A top-of-the-line, brand-new mountain bike cost little more than an equivalent set of golf clubs just 15 years ago. Today, a bike of that stature would cost you at least five times that of an equivalent set of golf clubs. Yet many owners of these new “superbikes” are of modest means, and really stretching their budgets to keep up with the sport they love. It’s hard for most people to imagine putting a “toy”, one which we learned to pedal down to the ice cream shop before we could legally drive our car there instead, on top of that very car when it’s resale value is actually worth more than the car itself. I think about the ridiculousness of this situation as I do it myself all summer long. But such is the nature of this sport today. And I love it.
Still, this is an important contradiction to recognize, specifically as it relates to our sport on the whole and to how it is being represented as a result. For many of us who value the best equipment for this sport that we love with all our hearts, that equipment must take precedence over the more traditionally valued western material bases for everyday life (e.g., the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, etc.). This may seem backwards at face value, but we do exist and we’re not going anywhere. Because the feeling we get when we ride that mountain bike never fails to excite our souls, to balance out the hectic workweek, or simply to remind us of that kid on his way to the ice cream shop.
Despite how far the mountain bike industry has come, they’ve done a standout job of keeping this core group of evangelists in mind and in spirit all along the way. However, there is still an important and growing disparity in this sport between who rides this equipment and who can afford this equipment. That disparity may appear to be pushing out the everyday rider with a non-traditional job (or seven or eight) that is often chosen simply by virtue of its amenability to riding more bicycles. This disparity seems to be favoring the rider who makes upwards of $100,000 per year and can afford to take a weeklong break from work in order to take a destination “mountain bike” vacation on their new $10,000 bicycle.
But then again, maybe that’s not the case. What is mountain biking anyways? Is it the chase for faster and faster Strava times on your favorite local trail? Is it the value of the “quiver” of bikes in our garages? Or is it something else entirely?
Mountain biking is so great precisely because it’s available to the masses, across all lines of class and income. When it comes down to it, we’re all just kids pedaling our bicycles. Whether that be to the corner ice cream shop with our families, or through the lush forests of the Cascade Mountains, this is the beautifully simple essence of our sport. And we need to appreciate that essence in order to preserve it.
To start, we need to reconnect with the basis for exactly what it is we are saying when we tell our friends that we are going for a mountain bike ride. The brief history and development of this nascent sport points to one very simple understanding for life on the mountain bike. It points to an understanding that I think is critical in mountain biking’s ability to continue to grow in scale and economy, yet remember its roots and preserve its appeal to everyone. That understanding is the foundation for what mountain biking really is, on a purely philosophical level. Mountain biking cannot be materially defined, but can be defined only from an experiential standpoint.
To assist with this definition, let’s consider what mountain biking is not. Mountain biking is not trail biking. Mountain biking is not a mountain bike. Mountain biking exists beyond the scope of the equipment we choose to pursue it on. You can ride that knobby tired “mountain bike” on the trails your whole life, and never appreciate the true nature of the mountain bike ride. I see these people, I ride with these people, all the time. And it very much excites me to reframe their understandings of what this sport could be.
Conversely, you can be a pure roadie, only ever donning lycra and slick 23mm tires, and still experience the nature of a mountain bike ride every time you head out on the road. I’ve seen both of these worlds many times. I’ve been on some of the most incredible, eye-opening backcountry experiences on my road bike. Yet there is and will always be far more to explore on the more and more versatile piece of equipment we call a “mountain bike”, simply because of the lack of well-maintained roads that connect our world. Certainly, the piece of equipment you choose for your mountain bike ride is not the essential piece of what makes an two-wheeled adventure a mountain bike ride.
So what is a mountain bike ride then? Have you ever found yourself out in the woods, perhaps exploring a new route, perhaps getting separated from your partner(s) and/or your bearings on the world? Have you ever misjudged a map reading so badly that you were forced to ride the majority of the route with your bike on your back, your water pack all dried up, your stomach rumbling with hunger? Have your lights ever run out, forcing you to spend the night on the trail and continue the journey when the sun rose the next morning? Have you ever wondered why the hell you get yourself into these situations over and over, especially when you’re effectively bankrupting yourself with state-of-the-art gear and supplies only to continue to revert to basic survival skills? If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions (and, to be clear, this list is certainly not exhaustive or exclusive), chances are you know what a mountain bike ride is.
What’s more, I’d bet that many of us know the answer to that last question well. It’s why we keep coming back for more. It’s the beer at the end of the trail that only took 45 minutes to ride, even though we spent seven hours trying to find it. It’s the smiles and the memories that we share with our partners, either on those rides or in the recounting. It’s the shared meaning and value we all get when these real-world, real-life experiences remind us of the easily forgotten fact that (despite the automated and mind-numbing realities of modern life) we’re still just animals — truly amazing ones at that. And it’s the reminder that our place as animals in this vast world might seem pretty insignificant at times in daily life. But when we find ourselves out there amongst the rushing rivers and the alpenglow on the high peaks, with muddy paws and unibrows of dust, our insignificance in this awe-inspiring place is actually quite significant.
That feeling is the one we’re after. And that feeling can be appreciated whether we have drop-bars or knobby tires. It can be appreciated in jeans or in lycra, or in anything in between. That feeling can be appreciated from atop a mountain, or in the river valley below. That feeling can be accessed whether we find ourselves behind the desk at a multi-million dollar international insurance company on Monday, or behind the steering wheel of a garbage truck. That feeling is universal in both accessibility and in mutual understanding. That feeling is the essence of mountain biking. And whenever it’s accessed by two wheels and nothing more than our body’s own power, that is a mountain bike ride.
*Golf economy in Oregon (2008 study): http://www.golf2020.com/media/12695/economicimpact_or_golf_full_report_final_30.pdf
^Mountain biking economy in Oregon (2012 study): http://www.leelau.net/Misc/EIS%20bike/mcnamee_mtb_report%20Oregon%202012.pdf