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.



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