Words: Matt Wragg
Being good at riding bikes has nothing to do with being a mountain biker. That is a truth that many of us seem to forget.
There is a strand of mountain biking where it is crucial - competition. If you want to race a World Cup or throw yourself down the cliffs in Zion, then being good at is really important. But, and this is important, that is not the same thing as being a good mountain biker.
There is only one thing you need to be a good mountain biker - you need to love mountain bikes and riding them. That’s it. When I stop and think of mountain biking through that simple lens, I can’t think of a better mountain biker than my friend Chris.
He would be the first to tell you that he was never the fastest or fittest guy. At school, he was an awkward kid. He didn’t really fit in, seeking solace in heavy metal and even heavier bikes. He took to the woods aboard a Cannondale Super V that he still reminisces fondly over today.
By the time I met him at university, he was riding a Mountain Cycle San Andreas. Hanging off it was a Marzocchi Shiver, Hope 6-piston brakes, and Atomlab Trailpimps. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous and heavy.
Only recently have I truly understood that mountain bikes are not practical things. When you are buying a lawnmower, how it works is all that matters. With a mountain bike, how it makes you feel is at least as important. Chris understood that 20+ years ago. He never cared how fast they could go, he just wanted the biggest, baddest bike he could build because that made him happy. He’d have been a natural in the Ukrainian Steet Etz scene.
In hindsight, my years riding with Chris were deeply important to me. After leaving home I drifted away from bikes into the club and drug scenes, but we started riding together occasionally in between my comedowns. I’d get the text: “Cannock Chase this week?” On a big weekend, we’d make it as far as Wales for an uplift.
After rattling down whichever downhill track we rode, my poor, already aging, Azonic DS1 would be in a bad way. So followed evenings of hanging out at Chris’ flat while ‘we’ fixed my bike. In truth, it was usually Chris who did the fixing, often after I had tried on my own and sheered a few bolts.
I don’t remember much of the mechanical parts of those evenings, but I do remember talking about music, politics and life, endless cups of tea, and Chinese takeaway as payment for his help. When I came to buy my first full-suspension bike, it was, of course, Chris who sold it to me. In fact, he was a huge part of my first four or five bikes.
They were the years when I realized that my love of bikes was something enduring, not just a childhood obsession that would pass with age. He brought me into his world and showed me how to be a part of the sport I had only been able to longingly gaze at from the outside as a teenager. It was all about trying new things, having fun, and spending time with good people - being good at riding was never really something we worried about.
Since leaving the UK, I don’t get to ride with him much - probably not in more than a decade - but we're still close and speak regularly. Working as a product manager in the bike industry, I know Chris sees his work as a chance to share his enthusiasm for bikes with as many people as possible.
Every few weeks I get a text message. Now that his son is old and strong enough, the pair of them are always out as an unbearably adorable father-son combo, riding at trail centers, bike parks, or off backpacking in the local woods. The biggest goal in his life right now is waiting for his daughter to grow a little so she can join their adventures.
Wanting to show his fast-growing son the best things in this world, it melts my heart to know that he is taking him to many of the same spots where we used to ride. His son was born after I left the country, so I have never really got to know him, but somehow I feel a profound connection to him through where he takes him riding. He is not an expressive person, I’m not sure he ever would say it, but it makes me understand how much those years meant to him too.
It is easy to love something you are good at. How many of us spend our riding lives wrapped up in trying to be good at mountain biking, rather than appreciating every single moment for the gift it is? We should try to remember that being good is a barrier, something that puts people off, worrying that they might not measure up. We must not forget that the real heart of sport is in sharing it with others, and Chris is the person who showed me the world that lead to my career, my marriage and so much more.
As someone who felt their social exclusion keenly as a teenager, I know that Chris would tear down every barrier if he could, he would never accept that someone else might be dissuaded from experiencing the same joy he found.
I believe that our sport would be a far better place if we could all be more like Chris.