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.


mike w. said...

First two words that came to my mind for describing Mr. Cupit were "arrogant bastard" followed quickly by "whiny snot-nosed brat."

People like this are the reason i prefer to ride alone these days.

cafiend said...

Mike -- I know, right?