We called him Straight-A McKay, and it came as no surprise to us, the neighborhood ne'er do wells he hung out with, that Warren McKay would grow up to do great things. We were thirty-something when he mentioned in passing that he (now, "Doctor Straight-A McKay") had developed a special needle and delivery system which allowed anesthesiologists to isolate areas of the body by targeting a centralized nerve plexus - rather than using general anesthesia to knock out the patient. Warren, who prefers to speak in uncomplicated sentences, said that it was foolish to poison the entire body if one drop in the right place could do a better job.
I was in the zone, so to speak - the meditative state that occurs sometime after one passes the two-hundred-mile mark on a road trip, when the physical sensation of being attached to a body that is operating a machine is dissolved by the hum of the engine, the growl of radial tires, and the white noise produced by one and a half tons of steel as it barges through the atmosphere at 79 miles per hour.
I thought I saw a storefront sign that read: "Painless Tattoo," but I must have imagined that. In the zone, tangible objects drift past the windscreen like ghost figures - undefined pastel shapes that are recognized only by the subconscious. Paradoxically, with driving chores delegated to basal brain functions, the mind becomes sharp and imaginative. I recalled Warren's invention and I visualized how the creative use of anesthetics could be commercialized to create an upscale chain of pain-free tattoo parlors. I laughed out loud.
The concept burst forth in its entirety. Artists would be harvested from recognized fine arts institutions and then professionally trained for the needle to ensure that customers left with the highest quality images. With names like Humanarts and Dermascape, studios would be staffed by certified medical professionals, and attended by attractive, youthful assistants. Interiors would be poshly appointed, providing a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere where clients would consult and interview artists, then shortly after, enjoy a pain free interactive tattoo experience.
Freed from the anxiety and time constraints imposed by the once-painful tattoo process, client and artist could converse during their session and make alterations as the graphic takes shape. Sessions could be as long as necessary and the finished product would be sure to please. Best of all, the use of anesthetics would remove the barrier of entry for throngs of people who would love to flash some ink, but have aversions to pain.
A constellation of brake lights shattered my pipe dream, but my story would have ended as quickly as I brought the Volvo to a stop. Suffering is the sacrament of tattoo culture. Use an anesthetic and you cross the line. You wouldn’t have a real
tattoo. Being a cyclist, I should have known that.
Cycling is also a pain culture and as a whole, we seem to like it that way. No race story would be complete without the contorted face of a rider near exhaustion or the image of a brave soul shirking off a crash. We are supposed to earn our turns. We aren’t going fast if we aren’t falling. We demand that newbies bounce around on hardtails until they learn to ride properly. We act as if we must bleed to fully appreciate the experience. And, we initially attack almost any new technology that makes it easier or more comfortable to ride a bike.
Cycling is a self-powered activity which presupposes that there will be times when we may be throwing down efforts that only masochists could describe as pleasant moments. That said, I believe that most of us were drawn into cycling because no other form of locomotion can convert muscle power into such an intoxicating brew of speed, flow and freedom. But, somewhere along the line, as we worked our way towards its more elite levels, our conceptualization of the sport transformed into a celebration of suffering, with its ultimate expression being the Tour de BDSM in France.
Exclusive clubs can’t exist without a barrier to entry. Once, mountain bikers faced a tough learning curve to join up, and perhaps the hard core cyclist inside us enjoys that exclusivity. Presently, however, mechanical improvements have all but eliminated any barriers to newbie mountain bikers. Beginning with 29-inch wheels, a chain of technical improvements has made it a heck of a lot easier to join up. Big wheels; lightweight, long-travel suspension bikes; electric shifting; dropper posts; one-by drivetrains, tubeless tires, and lightweight carbon frames have transformed the basic mountain bike from the badge of an adventurer, into a user-friendly off road appliance. One must wonder, especially old-school riders, if the contemporary all-mountain trailbike has become the sport’s painless tattoo?
Enduro bikes have become so capable that trail riders are crowding big bikes off of popular DH lines, and now, the dawn of trail bikes designed specifically for low-pressure plus-sized tires may make it possible for just about anyone to ride the punchy climbs on famous trails that that were once the exclusive domain of bike-handling heroes. Plus is still in its infant stages, but after riding a few bikes based upon 27.5-plus wheels, I can say for certain that they will allow a new rider to roll around on terrain and trails that require an evolved skillset to negotiate on a conventional trailbike. With low enough gearing, plus bike riders may be regular sights, plying their way up dedicated gravity trails (I imagine that’s going to spark some ire). And, plus is just the beginning.
I have recently been privileged to pre-test a handful of innovations in the areas of suspension kinematics and electronic controls (some of which must remain in strict confidence) that promise to dramatically reduce the skills necessary to ride a mountain bike and nearly eliminate the volume of technical knowledge that have been the sport’s barrier to entry since its inception. All of which begs the question: “What constitutes a true mountain biker when bikes become so easy to operate that any Joe or Jane can buy one and enjoy the sport without earning a substantial degree of proficiency?”
We could make trails harder, climbs steeper, jumps higher, and races longer, in an effort to force newcomers to pay similar dues to gain entrance to our community of suffering (a suggestion which has many supporters). Or, we could embrace the possibility that future mountain bikers will not have to endure the challenges that we faced in order to fully enjoy the wonders of our sport. I’ve witnessed first timers on borrowed long-travel trail bikes who were keeping up with seasoned riders and boosting doubles on day one. It’s a testament to cycling technology that today, anyone with a measure of fitness and a modicum of athletic skills can hop on a mountain bike and start smashing the blue trails. That would have seemed like pedaling into a fantasy novel when I first started riding mountain bikes.
Revel in the pain if that is what you
need to embrace the sport, but there is no good reason to poison future members of the mountain bike community with ritual suffering now that bike designers have made off-road cycling so easy to enjoy. I never asked him, but I am sure that Straight A McKay, a man who has spent most of his life making difficult lives seem easy, would probably shrug his shoulders and say: “If you ride a mountain bike, then you are a mountain biker.”