Technical Difficulties: Has cycling lost its wild side?

by
April 13, 2016


I found myself watching a biking video on my girlfriend’s phone this morning, featuring the adventurous, eccentric and eminently likeable Lael Wilcox talking about her adventure racing experiences. It’s here:

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Surprisingly, it turned out to have been linked from an article arguing that cycling’s had the adventure and eccentricity knocked out of it. If you haven’t read the article already, or can’t be bothered to click this link, here’s the gist:

Cycling has been squeezed into close-fitting Rapha kit and is withering away like Vince Noir’s legs, leaving all the fun and non-conformity behind. Instead of going out and getting lost, riders are going out and targeting Strava segments. The only right bike is a light bike. Plagues of sportives buzz round the roads like angry wasps, ruining the otherwise joyous experience of cycling in London. And the people driving it are shadowy cabal of grasping capitalists known as the bike industry, constantly looking to sell us stuff so they can afford to buy bikes of their own, develop the odd new product, and feed and clothe their families. The selfish bastards.

 Also, thank god I took my own cake.

Now I recognise a lot of the stuff he’s talking about, and it’s not really turning my crank either. I’ve done one big-name sportive, and it seemed to mostly involve sharing open roads with a bunch of over-keen numpties who had no idea how to ride in a bunch, and all turned off at the short distance cutoff. Also, thank god I took my own cake. But I can’t agree with the conclusion that cycling’s being ruined.

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I bet those ponies use Strava

Cycling’s always had an overly serious side – think of blokes in the 70s taking a drill to every bit of their bike in pursuit of weight savings – but if you don’t like it, there are alternatives. If you don’t explore these, you just end up sounding like someone who complains that their mates are boring, but keeps going to the pub with them anyway. Even sitting here at my desk, it’s obvious that there’s more adventure in cycling today than ever. Sometimes it seems like there’s more out there than I’ll ever being able to ride in one lifetime. But you won’t find it if you only ever do laps of Richmond Park. In short, the author of that article needs to get off road.

Leave the tarmac (or at least the rigid confines of the club run) behind, and there’s a bouillabaisse of adventure biking out there, mashing up MTB, fat biking, touring, cyclocross and sprinkling it all with a big pinch of the original “rough stuff” spirit that pre-dates the invention of tarmac. There are folk like Cass Gilbert exploring remote South American deserts, capturing the unending horizons in beautiful photographs that make me want to drop everything and book a plane ticket.

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No adventure here. Nope. Pic by Cass Gilbert

He’s even started taking his family, which makes the “kids stop you cycling” argument seem pretty silly. In the UK, there are people organising (often in the loosest sense of the word) events like the Welsh Ride Thing, the Dorset Gravel Dash, and the Dirty Reiver, all of which are about as far away from a hamster-wheel road sportive as you can get. And venerable challenges like the Hell of the North Cotswolds, with its lovely rolling hills and even lovelier mountains of bread-and-butter pudding, are selling out in 5 minutes flat. Would any of these be happening if cycling had turned its back on adventure?

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Riders are sharing advice and experience more than ever before, thanks to the wonders of the web. There are ready-made routes like the Capital Trail or the Sandstone Way that anyone with an internet connection can try out for themselves. If that sounds too much like someone else’s idea of fun, there are free resources like OpenCycleMap, which lets you plan your own rides in any corner of the world. If you need equipment, there are sewing machine magicians using their kitchen tables to make super-light luggage that’ll fit your bike like a glove, and there are folk on forums hacking up £15 Sports Direct tents. Even the big bad corporate bike companies are adding bikepacking/gravel/”all road” bikes to their line-ups as fast as they can. It’s diverse, it’s democratic, and it’s a bloody brilliant time to be an adventurer.

It’s diverse, it’s democratic, and it’s a bloody brilliant time to be an adventurer.

So why all the concern about the state of cycling? To me, it’s always been a capacious bouncy castle of a sport that happily accommodates po-faced misery and unbridled joy, even if it’s not great at keeping them separate. And the problem is, of course, as soon as you start moaning about how miserable the miserable bit of it is, you add to the misery. My theory is that a lot of people in cycling, as in life generally, think of their way of doing things as the correct one, and adhere to a series of unwritten rules, whether it’s wearing a certain colour and height of socks or stopping at the pub after a ride. Break those rules and their world is thrown into turmoil. Are we really so insecure that someone doing the same thing slightly differently is a fundamental threat to our identity? Yes, of course we are. But there’s something particularly ironic about claiming to be all for the spirit of freedom and then lashing out at people who don’t fit your ideal of it.