Thursday, June 08, 2017

Gravity's Revenge

Mountain biking in the Wolfeboro area has had a tiny little scrap of a hint of a renaissance in the past couple of years. Not to say there have not been a faithful few who dutifully dumped their 26ers for 29ers and abandoned us without a backward look when a cooler shop opened in a nearby town, but those are the kind of people who will give up a marriage before they'll give up adventure recreation. They follow the gear.

Our new mechanic, Jumper Dude, was an instructor at a downhill park. He described the riding style of the 1990s as "roadie." The idea of riding point to point or on large, meandering loops that covered many miles, he said, was a result of roadie influence. As suspension evolved to make downhill riding smoother and huge tricks more feasible, riders gravitated toward that style. "People were just tossing their cross country bikes to get a downhill bike," he said.

We see little business from the resurgent ripple of mountain biking, but we did sell a full-suspension Specialized to a guy who used to ride with our group in the 1990s. He always favored the downhills, though his inherent cheapness kept him from investing in full suspension's early incarnations. He'd just let it rip on his moderately decent hardtail Stumpjumper. While the best climbers in the group would do their best to survive the downhills, the gravity crowd would launch into them, after we let them catch their breath for a few minutes.

Jumper Dude's observation about roadie influence has some merit. When our mountain biking group broke up, it was because the climbers had decided they would rather ride on the road. The downhillers flaked away to things like fly fishing, and paying more attention to their families. Our technical mountain bike business evaporated in the course of a single season.

The road crew has either stuck with the road or developed medical conditions that keep them from riding much at all. Or there's me: I quit the road group because it was cutting into my commuting. I lost interest in mountain biking because it was starting to seem like a good walk spoiled.

Unseen by us, mountain biking was becoming the province of Red Bull athletes and their ilk. The riding style changed from cross country to stunt man. Jumper Dude credits the BMX influence brought in by a wave of riders who entered the bike world through parks and tricks. Add them to a culture that already had a love affair with gravity and you get the bikes and riders of today. None of them will put up with some aerobic monster schooling them on a climb. It's all about the descent and the aerials you can pull off on the way. Ha! Take that, lycra snobs!

Hey, I'm just commuting and exploring here. The hard-core roadie crowd sneers at me just as much as  the technical mountain bike crowd does. I'm fine with that.

I rely on field observers and researchers to keep me up to date on the latest ways to abuse yourself on a bike. JD confirms my own observation that people seem to get into intense forms of cycling only as long as they can sustain that flame. Gear up, go all out, burn out, quit. Logically, lower intensity levels are much easier to sustain. I've seen it in road riders who went mad for the sport and then dropped it. And some of it is driven by the human propensity to blow up any interest into a fad. A fad is just one letter away from a fade.

When it comes to mountain biking, you can fade or you can crater. JD tells some gruesome tales of mutilation when landings did not go well. He describes some riders as "crashing out" of the sport. They took one hit too many and walked -- or in some cases wheelchaired -- away. They're as bashed up as NFL veterans. Gravity giveth and gravity taketh away. Or sometimes a regard for personal safety and a new awareness of a dwindling bank account inspires a more orderly retreat. In either case, cycling loses a rider. Maybe they'll sidle back in later and take up a different form, but the most intense participants seem to disappear pretty completely, except for the ones who get into course design, or some other supporting role.

For me in my greasy lair, age guarantees that I will never establish credibility with the "intense" crowd. When I could drag them out and put a hurt on them, riding up the many nasty climbs around here, they would overlook my caution coming down the other side. If the climbers had treated the rides as a race, we would have rolled over the summit without a pause, and made the downhillers chase us.

I rode two long mountain bike races in the late 1990s. One was 35 miles. The balance of climbing and descending was such that I could stay ahead of riders I caught on the climbs, and make it to a third-place finish in my category. In the Vermont 50, however, the descents were long enough to let the downhillers either latch back on or pass me outright. Course configuration makes a big difference. The riders who were fit enough not to blow up completely on the climbs, and skillful and daring enough to capitalize on the gift of gravity could have their revenge. I finished somewhere deep in the anonymous rabble that arrives late to the barbecue and makes do with stale rolls and dried-up hot dogs.

Mountain biking has broken into categories as badly as every other sector of the pedaling market, so the compleat mountain biker will need the downhill bike, the enduro bike, the trail bike, the dirt jumping bike, and a couple of different tire sizes for optimal performance in varying conditions in each discipline. Just as gravity took its revenge on the climbers who rode high in the 1990s, so has the industry taken its revenge on everyone's wallet. We have seen the future, and it is "categories." Of course the rank and file will not invest in several bikes.

Gravity's ultimate revenge is a bike with a 25-pound motor and a 10-pound battery attached to it. We've already been informed by a member of the Millionaire Motorbike Club that he will be dropping off his smokeless mopeds on a specific date and that we will have them tuned and ready for him by the next day. Summer's heat (if it ever gets here) brings with it the usual trickle. It runs downhill, getting licked by countless parched tongues as it passes.