I’ve always been interested in the interplay between riders out on a ride, or over a week of riding in the mountains. Mountain biking is a great leveller and it doesn’t matter what high-powered job you have, how famous you are or even how fancy your bike is if you can’t ride it.
On the other side of the coin, mountain biking is a great leveller. It doesn’t matter how scruffy your bike is, or how ordinary your job is, if you can ride, then you can ride.
While it’s possible to overplay your competence on a one-off ride, it’s hard to keep up on the kind of repeated runs you’ll typically see on a weekend away at the bike park, or with a bunch of journalists at a press launch, or a collection of disparate friends on a mountain bike holiday.
The first run of the first day of a mountain holiday is always fraught with drama. It’s where riders, giddy with excitement at being away riding for a week, leap on the bikes feverishly (and occasionally drunkenly) rebuilt from bags and boxes the previous evening and on-sight ride them on hard trails they’ve never seen before. There is inevitably a crash on about the third corner…
On a mixed holiday with a random selection of punters, the pecking order is not established. Riders (and the guides too) spend that first day trying to answer Maverick’s question from Top Gun: “Who’s the best?”
Sometimes the quick riders are instantly obvious. A smart bike, matching kit and a nonchalantly fast riding style quickly identify them as the alpha-rider and the others get in line behind. Sometimes though, that matching outfit displays an over-confidence in the rider’s own ability and the skills that make them top dog on their home trails are found desperately wanting on the unyielding rocks of France or Italy.
Other times, though, the quick riders are harder to spot. Riders will settle into an order as they start to drop into the trail, but after some tyre buzzing and brake squealing, a pair may elect to swap positions on the next run and, slowly, riders go up and down the hit parade until they find the natural order.
Sometimes, though, two or more riders will match in terms of speed or bravado, at which point sheer politeness or lack of competitiveness steps in to give a happy order, as the similarly paced and not-very-competitive riders settle into an evenly spaced arrangement.
After a couple of days riding, that order gets set virtually in stone with everyone knowing their place in the order. There are still variations as riders charge ahead to get a photo, or when the uncompetitive twins swap places, but usually that order stays still until the last day or so.
In those last couple of days before home time, however, lots can happen. Some of the fast, but not fit, riders might tire enough to lose their places; other riders will have been gaining fitness and confidence over the week and experience a riding renaissance that sees them up at the front, wondering what’s going on. And unexpected situations might plague others, like a day of left-hand switchbacks, or exposure on the right-hand side, or too much/too little sunshine (or too much beer the night before), and suddenly the dice are shaken and the order is mixed up again.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter in either the real world or for your enjoyment of a riding holiday. Some riders might be fiercely competitive, in which case they’ve already run out of people who want to go on holiday with them. The rest of us, though, know our place in the line.