Sunday, February 24, 2019

How Mountain Biking has changed in the last 20 years

Dropper Posts, Attitudes and Full Face Helmets...
Is This A New Sport?

The truth is, mountain biking is barely recognizable from what it was in 1998. Back then, bikes had 3 chainrings up front, bar ends, grip shifters, 26 inch wheels with the widest tire width being 1.95. Most people still did not ride with suspension, elbow or knee pads or any mountain bike specific clothing. People did thankfully wear helmets back then but these were poorly designed and made the wearer look like a bobble head doll. 

It was an easier sport to get into 20 years ago. Sure, there were still premium bicycles back then too, as there have always been since people started riding bikes. However. there were more bikes priced for the masses. $400 was a serious chunk of change that could buy a decent and durable bicycle from an LBS. Most people did not even splurge that much on a bike. The average person had a $75 to $100 bike that they bought at Sears. The limiting factor back then was technology. Bicycles today are far more capable of handling rough terrain without the same set of skills needed to ride the same terrain 20 years ago. In fact, trails are being designed with more jumps, drop offs and other technical features that most people had to walk around back in the old days. So the trade off is that now bikes are more capable, but they are no longer as affordable as they were back then .

The image of the stereotypical mountain biker has also changed. 20 years ago mountain bikers were daredevils or unconventional hippie types left over from the seventies. Make no mistake, these guys could still shred on their old bikes and they were sending their bikes off of big obstacles before "sending it" was even a thing. Since technology was so primitive back then they knew there were no shortcuts to being a good mountain biker. Popping a wheelie and being able to lift up a front wheel, as well as using your body as the suspension where essential skills that had to be learned before taking any serious risks on the trail. As a result, people in general weren't going as fast on the trails or "sending it" off  big jumps like they are now, at least not without extensive amounts of practice and skill building. 

People that are getting into mountain biking today have a big expectation on their bikes and equipment to bail them out of sketchy situations or error-correct a lot of their skill deficiencies. That's because many people are coughing up some big bucks to get into the sport. Some mountain bikes can cost as much as $5000 and even upwards of that. A lot more people are buying bikes at this price than they were in the 90's (as a point of reference, a new car in the early 90's cost the same as a new bike does today). The ensuing carnage due to lack of skills on the trail has opened a new opportunity for the bike industry to make more mountain bike specific apparel. However mountain bike specific apparel today looks like a typical motocross outfit; full face helmet, pads and sometimes body armor, full fingered gloves and goggles.  In addition to that, a lot of riders strap at least 3 GoPro cameras on their bike so that they can record themselves "sending it" whenever they can. While I can appreciate that the fun factor hasn't left mountain biking, there is an underlying corporate culture and emphasis on branding that has been creeping into the sport in order to make it more exclusive, premium pastime. 

Recently it dawned on me how clueless some new mountain bikers were when riding a section of my favorite trail, Northshore. Experienced riders know the safest line of passage when weaving through rock gardens or going down drops and rock beds. I had approached a rider planted dead center of the trail, with a full face helmet, pads and a full suspension bike, contemplating whether is was going to roll of a giant boulder to land on the other side. "Take the drop to the left, that's the best line" I said, trying to alert his attention as a was getting closer to the drop myself. "Says who?" the guy retorted. "Says the guy not wearing a full face" I snapped back. We were on the notorious "West side" of the trail, known for it's rock gardens and technical terrain. I grew up riding this trail and there are still sections of it that I am not ashamed to walk. Sometimes there can be a problem when someone overly relies on their bike or their gear to cover for their lack of experience. Case in point the guy at Northshore.

In another instance I heard a guy referring to a mountain bike ride as "A no drop group ride". I nearly fell of my chair. Group rides are roadie (road biker) events where everybody rides together in a paceline (also known as a pelotón) and people get dropped when they can no longer hold the pace of the group. Not only would riding in a paceline on a mountain bike trail be impossible, no one would or should be getting dropped. If some riders are faster than others, they are simply faster. Discuss this in your group and determine where on the trail the group needs to stop and wait for the others to catch up. Mountain biking is awesome fun to do with a group of your friends, but keep in mind that there is more individual effort involved and speed and skills come eventually. Don't get mad if you're the slowest in the group. Be humble enough to admit it and ask the group to re-group at certain junctions along the trail. 

These are my observations (and my latest beef) on how mountain biking has changed in the last 20 years.  

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