Mountain Biking Grows Up

Once upon a time, a new sport was born. And men as well as some women took part in it. It started out as a low-rent activity. Road cyclists would scour junkyards for old cruiser bikes, and thought it might be fun to climb to the top of Mt. Tamalpais in Northern California and see if they could ride these klunkers to the bottom of the hill. This wasn’t cycling, just a fun thing to do after riding. An adventure.

From there, mountain biking took some strange turns. This little article isn’t trying to be an exhaustive history (though if you’d like one, I’d be happy to write it up and post it somewhere!) but suffice to say that bike companies caught on and started selling these ‘mountain bikes’ for big money. It’s a little hard to believe now, but there was a time in the nineties when bike shops seemed to sell nothing BUT mountain bikes. Everything was bright colors and it was all about adventure. And then the late-nineties happened.

I came into the story at the end of the exploration period. I had ridden BMX bikes through my teenage years, mostly in the guise of freestyle tricks. I rode mostly in parking lots doing what were called ‘flatland’ tricks, but there was a constant undercurrent of the ‘awesome’ ‘big air’ worship of danger way of thinking that would one day result in the X games. I grew tired of this aspect.

So when I came to mountain biking, it was a relief to me. To combine the ruggedness of BMX, the exploration of the road bikes I’d started to ride while working at the local bike shop, and the nature I’d always loved simply flipped a switch for me.

As I said, then the late-nineties happened. You can predict what that was: the danger-uber-alles mindset of my generation of BMX riders had followed me to mountain bikes. More and more, mountain biking began to be about danger. How big of a rock, log, or cliff could you drop off of? Can you ride along that log—the one ten feet off the ground? If it wasn’t dangerous, it began to be thought of as worthless. Because WHAT ARE YA, SCARED? It felt a bit like little league all over again to me.

There was one bright ray of sunshine in this sea of testosterone. A former racer named Jacquie Phelan started a group primarily aimed at women who were put off by all this chest thumping. The group was called WOMBATS—the women’s mountain bike and tea society. One of the first things I remember seeing from them was a tea-towel embroidered with their name. Something else was going on here, and despite my maleness, I liked it.

Which is all a long-winded bunch of explanation that allows me to now actually get to the point I came here to make. I hope you’re sitting down for this: it’s not an absolute sure thing yet, but I think cycling in the USA is actually maturing. Our little sport is growing up. (We haven’t even talked about road cycling during this same time period. But you know what was happening, you just may not realize it. Two words: Lance. Racing.)

I’m not quite sure when or how it happened, but it has something to do with two things: Rapha clothing, and a bike show called NAHBS.

If you know me at all, you know of my love for Rapha. I simply can’t stop talking, linking, and being a fan of it. Though they stick to road and cyclocross cycling, Rapha’s definition of a road cyclist is quite a bit broader than the average roadie’s definition. Think gravel roads. Think adventure. Think races where you compete with a team of friends, rather than as an individual. And I don’t know how they did it, but Rapha has begun in the last few years to put forth the idea of the gentleman cyclist. And somehow, it’s a notion that is gaining some traction. Now, don’t take that just at face value—plenty of women fill this same role of “gentlemen.” A loose definition would involve hard, long-distance cycling, but with an emphasis on rest stops to savor life. (link to Rapha continental)

At the same time that Rapha was putting forth this new romantic notion of cycling’s suffering, the small-time builders (led by one of their own) of the United States were starting and growing a show called the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Even the big companies, the Treks and Specializeds, are starting to make bikes that look like the bikes shown at NAHBS. What does this mean? A short definition is “details.” Unique bikes made by an artist in a garage workshop, rather than assembly-line bikes that all look alike. Think matching painted fenders. Think Brooks leather saddles. And above all, picture paint jobs that are perhaps worth more than the bikes themselves. There is no doubt that these bikes are the outer swing of the pendulum as far as ornateness goes, but their influence on the average enthusiast cyclist is undeniable. The bicycle has begun to be looked at less as a semi-disposable consumer commodity, and more as a statement of the cyclist’s self, worthy of serious (usually monetary) commitment.

Another side-effect of these NAHBS bikes, and to me an unexpected one, is the swelling influence of utility bikes. Whether that means luxurious cruisers to ride to the coffee shop, or extra long bicycles capable of carrying an entire load of groceries with ease, at the same time that these super-ornate bikes are being displayed, there is a growing replace-the-car, bikes-as-tools contingent that somehow also traces itself to NAHBS.

It may seem that I haven’t mentioned mountain biking. But the effect of all these other bikes swirling around cycling in the USA inevitably had and continues to have its effects on the formerly testosterone-addicted sport of mountain biking. The Rapha ride-as-adventure ethic has inevitably begun to seep back into mountain biking. The idea of actually going for a ride that doesn’t endanger your life but pushes you, nonetheless, is back.

Like I said, our teenage hellion is growing up (sorry teenagers, no offense: but if you take offense at that idea, I assure you, you’re in the minority. As I’m sure you’re acutely aware).

And I’m sure its mother, Jacquie Phelan, and father, Joe Breeze, couldn’t be prouder.




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