Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Gone Mountain Biking

 Are we entering into a new era of off road dominance? 

To some, it's an era we never left.

There was a time when the humble mountain bike covered almost all aspects of non-competitive cycling. A short trip to the grocery store? Check. Your commute to class? Check. A ride around town or to a friend's house? Check. A weekend getaway to your local trails? Check. In the beginning, there was one bike to rule them all. It was not a fancy carbon road bike costing in the thousands. It wasn't even a gravel bike as in those days we've never even heard of the concept. It was the old school, twenty six inch wheel diameter, horizontal top tube, diamond framed mountain bike with optional (not de facto) suspension. This was a time dominated by cyclists who rode the sidewalk where they existed or rode the shoulders of roads in their area. Fanny packs and saddle bags ruled supreme, and helmet use was still optional. Bicycles were simple, analog machines with cable actuated gears and brakes that anyone with a basic set of tools could learn to service from their backyard. Recently, I have noticed a longing for simpler times and the market slowly gravitating towards the kind of riding that most people who don't call themselves cyclists have been doing for years.  For good reason, as the biggest demographic of cyclists has been underserved by the trends that have dominated for so long that it is hard to remember there existed a time before them.

In the past 30 years, the U.S has gone through three cycling popularity waves. This doesn't include the great bike boom era of the 1970's because that era is well in the rear view mirror of time now. The first wave of cycling popularity came around 1989 and lasted until about the year 2000. This is the era that I will refer to as "Gone Mountain Biking" because of a meme I saw a few years ago on a cycling forum on this very subject. This era coincided with Greg Lemond's last Tour De France victory and the rise of Lance Armstrong in subsequent years. The early years of this era counted on some very good marketing approaches such as televised races and appearances of mountain bikes in shows and sitcoms (does anyone remember Jerry Seinfeld's Klein that hung inside his home?). Road biking during this time was both a niche sport and arguably more dangerous than it is today, although in this article we will discuss the return of those dangers that kept cyclists off the roads during that time. During the entire decade of the 90's, I cannot remember one person that owned a road bike. Aside from a few 70's Schwinns that would occasionally pop up at pawn shops there was no trace of any curvy handlebar bikes anywhere in society. One can argue that I was observing society then through the lens of a child and maybe I would of noticed road cyclists more had I been paying attention, but I can honestly say that during that decade I didn't see a single one. I didn't know those bikes existed until the late 90's and only through watching the Tour De France.

Imagine a society that only rode on rigid or hardtail mountain bikes for recreation and in a nutshell you have what cycling was like in the 90's. I was first made aware of road cycling as a sport in the early 2000's, but still had no connection personally to what it meant to be a road cyclist. Around 2003, a friend of mine showed me his Cervelo Time Trial bike he used when he competed in South Africa. That was the first time I got to see one up close and I remember the twinkle in my eye when he told me how far he could ride on that bike. I think I already owned one of those yellow Livestrong bracelets during those years. A few years later, around 2007 I bought my first road bike. My interest in road cycling coincided with Lance Armstrong's return to cycling in 2009 when he rode for team Radio Shack. With an ambassador for the sport domestically, road cycling enjoyed a resurgence in popularity for a few more years. This popularity led to improvements on multi-use trails nationwide and a much larger national conversation about the health benefits of cycling as well as it's use for transportation. All of these efforts came crashing down around 2012, when Armstrong became a disgraced figure in the sport over his use of performance enhancing drugs. This era is what I refer to as the Lance Era, spanning in earnest from about 2003 to 2012.

Since 2012 the popularity of cycling has waned and is now suffering a slow atrophy. Road cycling has traditionally been exclusive in its ability to attract new people into the sport. From it's cost of entry (road bikes being some of the most expensive) to the lack of infrastructure to ride safely it would seem like road cycling is a sport practiced by daredevils and those with a death wish. Instead of local municipalities addressing the concerns of cyclists, the nationwide construction booms for housing have not made any concessions to cyclists on the roads. Many neighborhoods are still being built without sidewalks and many cities are not adding bike lanes or protected shoulders for those who wish to commute by bike. Roads are getting busier while at the same time less maintained. Adding to the difficulty of being a cyclist on the roads, most new truck or SUV grills are on average four feet tall, making it difficult to notice a cyclist riding at about the same height as the grill. The average consumer of road cycling equipment are men over the age of 40. Many who have been at this for a while are now hanging up their road bikes in favor of E-bikes, or simply no longer riding at all. While some Millennials and even some Zoomers are picking up cycling, they are more the exception than the rule and many are chasing the clout that social media showcases them. It is difficult to know whether this new generation of road cyclists that is small in numbers will stick to the sport the way the generations before them did. While the road cycling genre sputters to stay alive, a new movement has been slowing gaining traction and should make it's day view as the next big wave of the sport.

Gravel biking has been discussed in the cycling circles way before the first bikes were marketed to the public. I first heard of it in the early 2010s through cycling forums and blogs, which referred to gravel biking as gravel grinding, randonneuring or underbiking. Before purpose built, race gravel bikes were invented, many would fashion gravel bikes out of cyclocross bikes, old mountain bikes or 70's road bikes with clearances for 650b wheels. Here in the states, some of the first gravel events were held in rural parts of the country, such as the Trans Iowa hosted by it's inventor Guitar Ted. Some of the oldest events in my area are the Texas Chainring Massacre and the Red River Riot. Gravel bikes are constantly undergoing a metamorphosis leaning either towards becoming a road bike or back to a mountain bike. Seeing as how gravel events are similar to early XC mountain biking events, I would say that we are on a return to the "Gone Mountain Biking" era. After all, gravel bikes are marketed as do it all bikes, a trait that they share with some of the first mountain bikes. It seems like the gravel bike trend is becoming a segway as more road cyclists get off the pavement and onto rail trails, country dirt roads and eventually mountain bike trails.

With no "Lance Era" spokesperson left for cycling in the U.S, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the hard fought and delicate space we have created for ourselves on the roads. As the nation reverts back into it's car centric identity, the notion of looking out for or respecting other road users quickly vanishes from the collective consciousness of drivers. Maybe this is a phenomenon only witnessed in new suburbia or other sprawling communities, yet it is impactful to society at large as well as  in the world of cycling. People will always use their bicycles. The question is going to be how they do so moving forward. Many who were once remote workers during the pandemic have had to return to the office, further adding to the gridlock that exists on the roads. Will people who love cycling simply be forced to move to where there is more infrastructure for it, or move so far out into a remote area where there's no cars to worry about? Or will we see a "Gone Mountain Biking" part 2 play out in this decade, with road bikes falling into obsolescence for a few years?  I can only speak from my own experience that I am now using my road bike less and less and find myself driving out to paved trails when I do. I figure since I'm driving either way it might as well be to a mountain bike trail. Also, mountain bikes have bigger tires for all of the rough surfaces I have to deal with when out on the roads. So, in a way I've never left that "Gone Mountain Biking" era and I feel it will eventually come full circle at some point in the next few years. It was nice being a road cyclist while it lasted, but I have always been and will continue to be on a mountain bike.



Monday, February 5, 2024

For Old Times Sake...

 Demonitized, de-incentivized and irrelevant as time has moved on...

...But I'm still here.

    I remember a time when Google would send me a $100 check in the mail every year for my blog contributions on Blogger. It was always a treat to see proof that people were engaging with my written content and it made me feel good as an amateur columnist of the internet. Those were the days when people read instead of scrolled. The modern day chat forums were in their infancy and if most people were interested in researching a topic they would turn to blog posts instead of going on YouTube. 

A lot of good ideas and good intentions have now gone by the wayside. Technology has left them behind as well as the fickle nature of people's constant wandering interests. Every once in a while, something is picked up from the rubbish heap and trended for a few days on social media. A good idea can be acknowledged with a fleeting curiosity, given a self righteous lip service then tossed back in the heap for a few more years. The truth is, all good ideas are filtered through the sea of bad ones, making it impossible for them to prevail. They are constantly tumbling in an ever changing media spin of trends and content that is making the world's head spin. Society is primed and ready for a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, all too ready to stop reading, critically thinking, creating and imagining all together. Here's the thing, if good ideas were allowed to flourish, progress would be made and our society as a whole would be improved. However, only be bad ones prevail because they promote inequality and division instead of collaboration, inclusion and a societal baseline safety net. Bad ideas only benefit a small group of people who hold the most power, instead of giving more power to the people. Social media has become the coping mechanism for the masses, a means of consuming the fantasies of wealth and status (whether real or imaginary) that the privileged few occasionally decide to share with us. Meanwhile, the infrastructure projects that would improve people's lives are quietly shelved or hollowed out of funds on a local, state and federal level so that a bigger football stadium can be built in one town or more parking space for giant SUVs and trucks can be added in another.

Reading the list of transportation initiatives that have failed to thrive in the past ten years would easily read like a eulogy.  Mixed use zoning was a way of property developers to make overpriced, luxury apartments that gentrified long standing neighborhoods. Bicycle transportation networks have resulted in many trails that lead to nowhere. Sharrows no longer get repainted by city maintenance. Rental bikes were often vandalized, stolen or tossed around towns and college campuses as road debris. Whatever happened to that bullet train that was supposed to go from Dallas to Houston? Whatever happened to that trail that was supposed to connect Dallas to Fort Worth? What ever happened to many cities 2030 walkability plans? Was that bond money re-allocated to say, having the nation's largest High School football stadium only to be outdone by another town the following year? How about the policing and fare enforcement of DART rail? How did DART go from being one of the largest rail networks in the country to one of the most poorly maintained, and dangerous to ride on? Why does most new city planning in new areas not include sidewalks or bicycle infrastructure? Why are SUVs and trucks 3 times the size that they were 10 years ago as well as 3 times as fatal? Why do public works projects like installing a traffic light now take a year or more to complete?

The changing landscape that has resulted as bad ideas have taken over have left us in the DFW cycling community with little recourse as our roads have slowly become unrideable over the past few years. The post pandemic population explosion has also added more vehicles to an already strained, unkept road infrastructure. All of these new vehicles have grills and headlights taller than a child's head in the front, resulting in poor visibility to the driver and over reliance on lane and other object sensors. Now, already distracted drivers on their phones are behind the steering wheels of much more fatal weapons. What is a road cyclist to do these days?

The truth is, it is expensive to live near any cycling infrastructure as properties that are built or around existing trails are fetching a premium. In addition to these locations having always been expensive and cost prohibitive, the current mortgage interest rates and property values have deemed areas that once could be aspired to as un-obtainium. For long time locals in the area, moving to another part of the state is simply not doable. The result of all of this is that we now face a grim choice as cyclists if we are to continue doing the sport we love; cycle indoors or quit cycling. In recent years, indoor cycling has enjoyed a resurgence as more technology has been thrown into smart trainers and virtual reality cycling software. I guess when reality sucks the only way to keep fitness gains and be a part of the community is through virtual workouts. As a user of indoor trainers there is nothing I hate more than burning the rubber on my rear bike tire sitting in place or an hour, sweating puddles and giving myself crotch pain trying to push out watts on a traditional trainer. However, with how bad the situation has gotten on the roads I am seriously contemplating buying a smart spin bicycle that can work with virtual riding software. Even with a mischievous toddler and limited space in my home this option seems wiser than riding out of the neighborhood sometimes. 

Driving to the trails isn't much of a better option. The nearest trail to nowhere that is paved is still a good 30 minutes away from my house. To get to a premium riding destination is about an hour drive. I have a few mountain biking trails that are closer, but extreme weather can keep those trails closed weeks at a time. Up until a few years ago, I lived near trails or lived in a bike friendly town. I would routinely get rides in as often as 3 times a week. I had fitness, I had drive and I was in the right environment for cycling. When we bought our first home in many years we were priced out of the areas I had lived in previously. We bought into a new community which was at time a small neighborhood surrounded by quiet, rural roads. In a matter of just a few years, the growth in the area has exploded, but the roads aren't any better. Several neighborhoods are now built or being built in the area. Newcomers who don't respect the slower pace of rural life are tearing up the once tranquil, idyllic roads. The new home we bought as a family has become a money pit of problems caused by rushed construction and rolling black outs in the area. We are in the golden handcuffs scenario as having a mortgage rate too low to refinance and no way of lowering our mortgage payment elsewhere. So unless I leave Texas altogether, there is no moving back to the city or closer to bike trails anytime soon. 

As I get older, the more irrelevant  I become. My cycling peers of a similar age have already moved over to the dark side of cycling, aka indoor cycling. Road cycling isn't attracting a younger audience like it did when I started riding, one could even argue that it has always struggled to find its footing with younger people. The fact that I am choosing to blog about it in 2024, when the written language is going the way of analog film cameras, is my therapy and way of coping with life's changes. We are in a malaise era in a lot of ways, but this is probably the worst time to be a cyclist on the roads of north Texas than any other period of time that I can remember . In the grand scheme of things, my problems are only a ripple effect pointing to a much larger moral bankruptcy in our society today. 

It's official that the millennial generation that I am a part of has finally grown up, peaked and fallen out of style and favor with the generation coming behind it. Despite this, I am still here in the sense that I will continually adapt to life's changes and will do my best to make the best of getting older. I do not really feel like my time has passed. There is very little evidence of change of who I am on the outside as well as how I feel on the inside. I must admit, however that the rest of the world is moving on and away from those in my age group, especially in terms of deeming them a target audience in the fitness community. I get more targeted ads for investing and politics than I get for new bikes. No matter what, I will keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, one pedal stroke at a time.