Friday, January 31, 2020

To see ourselves as others see us

Hard to believe that anyone in the technical mountain biking community bothers to read any of my rants, but apparently some do. Hey there.

Things written or said for rhetorical effect will focus on specific aspects that support the central thesis. It’s the basis for editorials, legal arguments, and marketing. The benefits of a drug are repeated loudly and clearly in the commercial, while the side effects are recited in a hasty blurb in a low tone.

When I say things that are true, bluntly summing up actual events, it might compose a picture that looked different from someone else’s angle. This is the unsettling effect of seeing ourselves as others see us. That doesn’t mean that everyone sees you that way, only that the dots can connect to create that image. But I went too far, and I apologize.

As an unsociable person, I lack the instinctive understanding of the needs and desires of sociable people. In every activity to which I was exposed growing up, advancement in the activity itself was primary. The social aspects were secondary. It was an unrealistic point of view. For a few hard chargers, achievement is a primary goal and benefit. But among normal people, the social side is much more crucial. It explains a lot about where I’ve landed, and the rough and desolate landscape in which my life will end.

In the case of off-road biking in any season, I’m not alone in my laments but I’m certainly in the minority. Around here I’m definitely alone in criticizing the avalanche of expensive and complicated equipment burying small shops and cutting the tech support cord for riders trying to get a long service life out of their stuff. I don’t see that it generates much public support or sympathetic interest for cycling in general. But I suppose that nothing can do that. We might as well each ride in our chosen style and let the world burn if it's going to.

As stated in the post before this one, cycling is being gentrified. Its greater value as a tool of social evolution is falling victim to its short-term attractiveness to an industry bent on exploiting it as a consumerist bait station. The technofascist element has its hooks into every category. It has the most to work with off-road, followed by high end road and its offspring, “gravel biking.” But the collateral damage shows up in the reprehensible quality of middle and low end componentry as seen on a lot of path bikes, hybrids, and entry level mountain bikes from companies that should be ashamed to have their logo on something like that. Like an asteroid on a converging trajectory, nothing can stop it. Actually, more like the deferred consequences of environmental destruction, it would take too many people to understand and agree all at once. We would prefer an asteroid, that we could maybe blow up with one quick nuke and go back to enjoying ourselves.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Victim of a Badass Image

Mountain bikers have had to deal with trail closures and public censure since their segment of riding became immensely popular in the 1980s. With its roots in "clunker" bikes that were often built by crafty roadies looking for some alternative fun, it began with a sense of humor and a touch of bravado. But by the late 1990s it was taking itself seriously. Bravado evolved into foolhardiness. You had to be increasingly crazy to achieve respect.

The evolution was gradual. It began with bigger and bigger risks, and intensified with converging streams of influence that had little or no road riding background. Where early offenders were mostly just too high spirited, mountain biking specialists developed their own brand of self righteousness that's just as offensive as the shiny Lycra snobbishness they abhor in roadies.

As big air and moto-style courses came to dominate the public image of mountain biking, the image of the rider changed with it. Fitness became secondary to skill. Skill became synonymous with the ballistics of managing your machine and body on a gravity-fed plunge through a field of obstacles.

Google fed me this blog post by Josh Cupit, from 2018, titled, "What happened to mountain biking?" Knowing nothing about the author, I went to see whether his observations echoed mine. Instead I found that they represented quite succinctly the ferocious attitude that has purposely made mountain biking less inclusive and more vain about its bloodthirstiness and masochism. For instance:

"The core of mountain biking, for me, has always been the challenge and the danger. If I wanted to insulate myself from any hazard or pitfall, I could take up road biking, or gravel riding, or jogging. Or golf. Mountain biking is an escape from the mundane and unyielding predictability that life offers. It’s the only place I can feel a sense of danger, and that’s what I love about it. And it’s not synthetic danger, or theoretical danger; I experience the thrill to the fullest because I’ve experienced every conceivable ramification of my own failure to control my bike."

The fact that he cites road biking as devoid of danger is laughable considering how many mountain bikers I've talked to who are phobic about traffic. But paradoxical assertions are a common affliction among humans. You know: "The food's lousy here, and you can't get seconds."

The kid was born in 1994, and started mountain biking in 2006, so he missed all of mountain biking's early evolution and its attempt to be a unifying and attractive activity for cycling in general, not a fortified enclave of trail warriors seeking honorable wounds. Every young generation finds its good old days in the years in which the previous generation has already seen everything going to hell in a handbasket. He went from good old days to handbasket by the time he was 24. It's so cute that he considered 12 kilometers a long trail. In 1994, the group I rode with regularly knocked off 12 -17 miles of trail on a ride after work. And most of us were old codgers in our 30s.

I could dismantle the lad's essay point by point, but there is no point. Anyone who follows the link and reads it will interpret it through their own sympathies. Only a handful of people will probably ever know if he grows up and what he grows up into. Instead of just bitching about the fact that his idea of the sport has fallen victim to the disposable income of people he considers athletically and philosophically inferior, he should be bitching about an economic system that considers that kind of disposable income normal and desirable.

The current problems with trail closure on the Kingdom Trails system in Vermont are a direct outgrowth of the badass attitude that leads some riders to be offensive punks. Take away their trails and all they have is craft beer and an attitude. These are the kind of rider who hurls obscenities at slower riders on a recreation path when someone asks them to slow down and pass more discreetly.

The fact that mountain biking has become resource intensive and highly dependent on control of land access means that a few assholes can ruin it for everybody. A few assholes can ruin any activity, but certain activities expose their assholes more than others. Assholes riding on the road create a bad image for all pedaling road users. Anywhere large numbers of people interact, abrasive people will leave their mark. But mountain biking made more of an effort than any other branch of bike riding to cultivate a badass image. It now reaps the consequences.

Competitive people tend to be more self-absorbed and offensive than the average person. Complaints abound around roadie venues where young racers exhibit what they consider to be a European sophisticated casualness about changing clothes next to the car, and public urination. Cycling brings out competitiveness in a lot of people, and stimulates it in anyone already inclined that way. "I'm not a racer, but I can get up (or down) this hill faster than you." The elation of small victories accumulates into an unconscious sense of superiority. Arrogance follows. To quote young Mr. Cupit again:

"This is why I’m so disappointed in the current state of mountain biking. Having worked in bike shops for years, I’ve heard the company lines about inclusiveness, and how “more riders is good for the sport.” But it’s not. It’s a clever marketing line to sell expensive carbon bikes to people whose doctors only recently informed them that golfing isn’t a sufficient form of cardio.

So I’m not the slightest bit sorry that I don’t want to give up my source of adventure so that Phil the golfer and his buddy Pete (who nearly ran a 10k that one time) can feel sort of adventurous for the three rides they go on before realizing that they’d much rather be at home watching the game. I don’t accept that the trails I bled into as a kid should be sanitized so that people can feel safe while participating in a sport that, by all rights, should be anything but.

Unfortunately, it’s not up to me. Forces larger and more powerful than I am have steamrolled my local trails to the point that I can (and have) ridden them on a ‘cross bike with slick tires and a 53/39 crankset. I passed a businessman on a carbon Santa Cruz down one of the descents, and nothing about the experience was the slightest bit exciting. My local trails are dead.

This lament proves my point that most mountain biking is inspired by fear of the road more than a desire for the challenges of the trail. Cupit laments the gentrification of his neighborhood without recognizing it as such. The genuine badass wants his personal battlefield to keep its deadly potential, while the larger forces of social and economic evolution demand that the frontier be tamed and settled. You can't stop the spread of settlement. You can only try to direct the style in which it is done. This is why humans have to learn to get along on this planet or annihilate each other in an orgy of violent refusal to do so. So far, we have been encouragingly unwilling to go to that extreme. But we have to find things for the badasses to do, so that they'll leave the rest of us alone, and feel sufficiently cleansed to behave themselves between adrenaline fixes.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Do we need spike mats?

Between ignorance and arrogance, fat bikes present a growing challenge to trail system managers everywhere.

Singletracks published an article on the closures of major parts of the Kingdom Trails and included this significant paragraph:

"To make matters worse, the organization has already spotted fat bike tracks poaching into the closed trails that are marked with signage, so it doesn’t look like mountain bikers will stop shooting themselves in the foot anytime soon."

Yesterday, on Wolfeboro's Sewall Woods trails -- closed to biking in the winter -- a ski renter reported seeing a fat biker with a dog. The fat biking "community" had recently gone to considerable effort to get trails opened to them on town land, but Sewall Woods is not town land and was never included in the negotiation. To make matters worse, yesterday was decidedly soft and sloppy, so the shared use trail was closed to biking anyway.

A member of the mountain bike trail group dropped in last week. Because he has been driving the Wolfeboro Singletrack Alliance's new grooming machine, he shared his observations on how time consuming and difficult grooming is, and how frustrating it can be to see people stomp it up and abuse it afterwards. He also showed us on a map where he and others want to put in a network of new trails on the town land, to improve the prospects for fat bikers.

"It's only about four miles of trail," he said. "But you don't have to ride very far on a fat bike to be tired out."

You don't have to ride very far on a fat bike to be tired out. So much for its heritage as an expedition bike. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the sport category of fat biker seems to be throwing down a couple of grand a pop on a bike that they'll ride a couple of miles at a time, between visits to the brew pub. 

Money in the economy is money in the economy. It's not like they're engaging in child prostitution and opioid dealing. The proprietors of the beer joints act as a conduit for funds to the rest of us. Considering the amount of liquid involved, and the insistence with which it leaves the body, it would appear to accelerate the "trickle down" aspect to a point at which it sort of works. Now all we need are pay toilets to monetize the entire process. But then you just end up with yellow snow and every sheltered alcove smelling like piss as the outlaws simply evade your trap. We just can't win here.

Fat bikers go on the list with walkers -- with and without their dogs -- occasional errant snowmobilers and ATVers, and kids who build forts and campfires, as chronic and incurable irritants to ski trail managers. Our only consolation is that they tire quickly. Let's just hope they don't start tag-teaming.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Disposable Income

Watching a recorded video of the Wolfeboro, NH, selectmen's meeting from Wednesday, Jan. 8, several things struck me about the public comments regarding the shared use policy drawn up to accommodate fat bike riders in the winter.

Several skiers made excellent points about the negative impact that bike riders will have on the ski experience. I made the point before about the irreducible width of 31-inch handlebars. There's also the emotional impact of having to share trails with people working way too hard to go way too slowly, getting incomplete exercise while adding sizable flotsam in the form of their oversized bikes.

A couple of people in support of the bikes made the comparison -- almost entirely incorrectly -- between fat bikes on Nordic trails and snowboarders on downhill ski areas.

First off, alpine skiers and snowboarders are both gravity-dependent sliders on snow. Throw fat bikes onto a downhill ski area and then you have a comparison. By the way, alpine skiers were none too fond of Telemark skiers either. The rhythm of free-heel skiing, within the limits of the gear of the time, made our paths a bit more meandering than your locked-down, fully-mechanized alpine skier would follow. We didn't gouge things up the way the one-plankers did, but we still got in the way of modern progress. Telemarkers cured the problem by turning their gear into what was essentially alpine skis and boots. Snowboarders cured their problem by simply being too numerous to ignore. Needing the money, the downhill areas caved in and sold out. The snowboarders do have a negative effect on the snow surface, but downhill areas are such a mosh pit anyway that lift riders have learned not to care. It's just a theme park.

Proponents of the fat bike revolution tell the cross country skiers that they will be fine just as alpine skiers were fine. It's a nice way of saying that your time is up and you have to watch yourself being replaced by this new thing that is really different from your thing, that requires all the concessions from the skiers, until skiing finally dies out. This is the wave of the future. Resistance is useless.

It's a bit like deciding whether to go ahead and welcome the Panzer battalions or let the invaders machine gun and shell a bunch of you first.

At least two commenters referred to Wolfeboro as becoming a mountain bike and fat bike Mecca. They contend that this is the only thing that will attract "a younger demographic with more disposable income" to the area.

Actually, some jobs would be a really good start. People came here in the 1980s in droves and hordes because land rape was going full bore, and anyone even pretending to be a builder was basically printing money. But many of the people who moved here became super commuters, driving hours at each end of a work day to get to their jobs in Massachusetts and the southernmost parts of New Hampshire. You have to be young to pull off a schedule like that. Other jobs proliferated in the school system, to service the kids that accompanied the influx, which drove taxes up sharply. Peripheral trades, notably landscaping and property care, also saw a boom. Year-round residents use fewer of those services than the second home crowd does.

People quit mountain biking around here around the turn of the century. A few continued. Others have resumed it as various midlife experiences impel them that way. But disposable income had become much more of a requirement.

In the 1980s and '90s, you didn't need a huge amount of money to ride mountain bikes. A mountain bike used to be something you could use to go somewhere. Now it's something you go somewhere to use. You can drop a thousand bucks just on a car rack to carry your fleet of behemoths to your chosen venue. Or you can fake something up, if you're handy with tools. But you'll need more than a thousand dollars per bike per category to get a bike that's reasonably well made and sort of durable. Two thousand a bike is a safer estimate. When everyone was mountain biking in the late 20th Century, it wasn't about the money, it was about the fun: accessible fun that anyone could join. Mountain biking is definitely no longer that.

The people who are riding now, or have returned to riding, are earning comfortable salaries at various things that pay comfortable salaries. They can afford to sit and chat for hours in a place that charges $6 for a single glass of beer. In a way, it's always been true, that the well-off only have to wait a little while for poor upstarts to fall away. Being really good at riding your bike does not provide a pathway to secure long-term income. So the well-funded hobbyist reigns supreme at the recreational side of riding.

The unanswered economic question is whether there are enough well-funded hobbyists to offset the costs of trying to pander to them.

The bike addicts can't level the same charge at cross-country skiers. A crazy top-end ski set might run you more than a grand, but you can do quite well for less. Then it's just a matter of stick time. Go out every day you possibly can, for 30 minutes or an hour, and you can put a serious hurt on posers with expensive gear and no training. Or, if you're not afflicted with competitiveness, you can just enjoy the benefits of the world's most complete exercise and let the neurotics chase each other around.

I guarantee that the median income of our old mountain bike group was half of what it is for the current group, even adjusting for inflation. No one says "whoever dies with the most toys wins" anymore, but they certainly exemplify it.

Here's the thing about a young crowd with disposable income: they get older. You look at the cross-country ski trails, you see people of all ages. Yes, a lot of the them are pretty darn old. But whole families can take it up and keep doing it with fairly minimal investment for decades. How many people in their 60s and up will be spending what's left of their disposable income on mountain biking? And who will replace each wave of the young and affluent as they age out?

As consumer society and car culture flame out in their final frenzy, all forms of human powered transportation face deadly competition on the public right of way. Human powered transportation and recreation would have provided tremendous lifestyle benefits for those of us with lesser means, if we had acknowledged as a species how limited our means actually are. But we're still drunk with the excesses of more than a century of expanding resource exploitation, reinforced and amplified by our collective fantasy life played out on screens large and small. What is the true cost of that disposable income?