With Barney Marsh
In which your intrepid reporter attempts to get to the bottom of certain mountain biking vernacular using the ancient arts of Flannelling and Hand Waving.
This feature was first published in issue 129 of Singletrack magazine. It has been selected as a finalist in the Singletrack Reader Awards 2020 in the Best Author category. The full list of finalists can be found here.
OK folks. Gnar. We all know what this one means, don’t we? It’s tricky stuff to ride. Of course, that can vary according to competence, local geology or flora, or individual testosterone/idiocy levels. So it’s a moveable feast, a bit like Easter – but with more tech. Generally it’s the stuff that you ride with a certain amount of trepidation, but which leaves you feeling elated at the bottom. It’s usually downhill, and for some reason it absolutely has to be ridden. Jumping it isn’t allowed, as frankly sailing over something tricky is just the same as sailing over something easy.
But where does the word come from? Without any thought at all, people trailside will splutter that its provenance is obvious. “It’s a contraction of ‘gnarly’!” They will proclaim. “It came from snowboarding!”
Well, now. Snowboarding. That may well be the received wisdom, I’ll grant you. But received wisdom is rarely right – look at spinach and iron levels. See?
‘Gnarly’, or ‘gnarled’, it is true, clearly means ‘wizened’, or ‘knobbled, wrought and twisty with age’, or ‘possessing the properties attributable to gnar’. Knobbled isn’t exactly a term I’d attribute for snowboarding, after all. And neither, for that matter, is ‘wizened’. Apart from perhaps some old snowboarders propping up the bar, fondly reminiscing about their contracts with Pepsi Max back in 1993.
There are, however, three main theories I think it’s worth examining in detail.
Firstly, let us cast our minds back, gentle reader, to an era before bicycles. Before cars, even. Before trains, perforated toilet paper or the cat flap. The prototypical English language spoken in these isles around the 14th century referred to a ‘knar’ – a knot of wood. Even earlier, around the 13th century, it referred to a crag, or a rugged rock, or stone. “Thou shalt rhydde thee bygger knar” is a line in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Fragment V, the Franklin’s Tale – 1390) which refers to riding the ‘road less travelled’ before he ‘awaykkes the rokks’. The more difficult path. The gnar. Admittedly, it’s unknown what the Franklin’s horse made of all this.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and Shakespeare even used the term in a cryptic allusion to mountain biking. In “Measure for Measure”, II.ii.116, he refers to “thy sharpe and sulphurous bolt splits the … gnarl”. Clearly, the ‘sharpe’ refers to the tread of the ‘sulphurous bolt’ – or tyre (vulcanisation of rubber uses sulphur, of course). ‘Split the gnarl’ is clearly an early attempt to coin the phrase we know now as ‘schralping the gnar’*. Bicycles as we know them being unknown at the time, it’s possible – even likely – that Shakespeare was experimenting with hobby horses, which he wove subtly, but dextrously into a number of his works, from Coriolanus to Timon of Athens.
However, as cut and dried as this seems on the face of it, there are other putative sources for the word that are just as convincing. Ancient Sanskrit texts tell us of a community, high up in the Indian mountains (specifically Saser Kangri in the Saser Muztagh subrange), known as the ‘nahhli’. This loosely translates (precise definition is not possible due to the complex contextual forms required, now sadly lost) as ‘they who are skilled at movement along a troubled path’.
Knowledge as to whether this relates to navigating the vicissitudes of life, or has a more literal meaning, is sadly lost. Nevertheless, it seems that the term may have been brought over to Western cultures by George Harrison, who initially used it to describe Ravi Shankar’s dextrous sitar playing.
The last theory, however, is perhaps the most plausible. It’s much more recent in provenance, but it has also strong chronological components. It stems from the 1990s. Riders then, Lycra-clad and astride rigid bikes with poor cantilever brakes, would cluster at the top of features that you or I, with our modern 150mm full suspension rigs, would casually ride without a care. They would stop there, and they would look. They’d get off their bikes, they’d assess every aspect of the feature, calculate possible approach angles and speed requirements, and then they’d suck their teeth. And they’d go:
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