by Antony de Heveningham
June 7, 2016
By Antony de Heveningham
Mountain biking is great, isn’t it? So simple. So child-like. Just go out, get covered in mud, and be back in time for tea. For a lot of people, riding a bike is a happy regression to an earlier period of their life: a time when you could spend a whole day exploring on two wheels or building jumps in the woods. But occasionally I find myself wondering whether the infantile side of mountain biking is being allowed to dominate more than it should.
Let’s start with an obvious one: riding facilities. It’s very rare for kids to design their own playgrounds. Instead they have to pretend, relying on their imagination to convince them that a cardboard box is a tree house or a pirate ship. Mountain bikers do sometimes roll up their sleeves and create amazing places to ride, but much less often than the internet would have you believe.
Instead, we make-believe that three jumps in the woods are a DH track, or that a neglected, fragmented rights of way network is great natural riding. All too often, rather than making things happen ourselves, we sit around waiting for someone to build us a clubhouse. People are always trotting out the “cycling is the new golf” line, but if golfers had the same attitude as most MTBers, they wouldn’t bother with fairways, greens or bunkers. They’d just head to the local park and start a game on one end of the football pitches.
Children love to show off, often choosing completely inappropriate contexts in which to do so. We all know someone who can’t resist uploading a video of an unofficial riding spot, stopping everyone on top of a freezing mountain so they can get an epic Instagram, or making a Strava segment out of that bridleway next to a riding school for the disabled. That urge for validation and peer recognition at everyone else’s expense? It’s as much a part of mountain biking as knobbly tyres.
Kids are notorious for refusing to try new things simply on account of their novelty, and mountain bikers have their own equivalents of leafy green vegetables. Take e-bikes, discussions of which always seem to be accompanied by a high-pitched whining sound that has nothing to do with their mode of propulsion. You just know that virtually all of the objectors have had no experience of electrically assisted bicycles beyond reading the first two lines of a magazine article about them, or glancing scornfully at one on a roofrack. Yet none of this stops us from giving vent to our opinions.
The same is true when mountain bikers encounter road bikes, cyclocross, 29ers, XC racing, and any number of other things that don’t quite align with our personal lists of approved equipment and practices. Our first experience of tribal belonging happens in the playground, and a lot of us carry it through to our adult life, whether we’re wearing a football strip or the latest hand-me-downs from the motocross industry.
The relationship children have with money is also echoed in mountain biking. We’re all too happy to blow our cash on toys, whether it’s that N+1 (where N=the number of bikes that any reasonable person would consider slightly insane) or some Kickstarter-facilitated, GPS-enabled, handlebar-mounted berkbauble. While we’re on the subject, many of us, myself included, are more obsessed with technology than any of the ZX Spectrum-programming spods we used to bully at school. Quite frankly, the best way to digitally enhance our riding experience would be to log off Twitter at 8pm and get an early night.
A child with some kind of independent wealth is as likely to be viewed with suspicion as admiration. So it is with the cycling world, where having the temerity to earn a semi-decent living from your passion is considered an act of brazen cheekiness, on a par with demanding a living wage for a paper round. Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t see anything unethical about finding a healthy outdoor activity people enjoy, providing products or services that help them do it, and charging them money. But you still find plenty of people who think the cycle industry is either a bunch of chancers, or a sinister conspiracy with as little regard for humanity’s welfare as the tobacco industry or Union Carbide.
Every parent I know gets a few minutes of blessed relief each day by plonking their little darlings down in front of CBeebies. If you’ve got a fractious, energy drink-addled mountain biker in your life, you can usually achieve the same effect by sitting him or her down with a video of – plucking an example from thin air here – Danny Macaskill riding over some colourful blocks. And if you’ve read this far and you’re still unconvinced, two more words: free stickers.
We live in a society that venerates childhood, and actively encourages adults to give free rein to their childish impulses. And most of the time I’ll happily go along with that. But we’ve got to ask ourselves: whose interest does it serve, and what impression does it create? Anyone who’s been involved with mountain biking for any length of time knows how difficult it is to get people to take the sport seriously. We’re seen as impecunious, hyperactive, and hopelessly disorganised, and we’re often dealt with by the grown-up equivalent of putting some safety gates across the top of the stairs.
This isn’t the way it has to be.
As adults, we should be OK with concepts like delayed gratification, and we’re capable of working together to make complicated things happen, whether it’s sequencing the human genome or building a bike park. So let’s try and bring a bit more of that sensibility into mountain biking, and leave the whining, the foot-stamping and the dummy-spitting to the next generation.