One of my favourite things about doing this for a living is that I get to talk to interesting people. Over the last decade I have been lucky enough to sit down and get to listen to innovators, trail builders, engineering geniuses, world champions and bicycle gypsies, I even got a to call one or two of them friends. Since the rise of the podcast I can’t help occasionally giggling to myself that while most people have to listen to a recording, I can pick up the phone and chat to these people, ask them dumb questions, disappear to down weird rabbit holes chasing ideas.
Recently I have had a few conversations with a lady who at just 19 years old picked up a bike and rode around the world unsupported. The stories she has are in turns fantastic, hilarious, terrifying and humbling; being held up at knifepoint in rural Spain, chased by a grizzly in Canada or high mountain riding in the Himalayas, all at an age at which most people are busy trying to get drunk and laid in their small corner of the earth. While I’ve probably been riding bikes longer than she has been alive, I’m fairly certain that I will never achieve a fraction of what she has on a bike. It is fair to say I am in awe of her in many ways. Of course, those kind of adventures demand a road bike, and it is only recently that she bought her first mountain bike. It was while chatting about this bike that she confessed to me that she did not feel comfortable calling herself a mountain biker, which makes me think our sport has a problem and we need some nice, clear rules so newcomers can easily feel welcome.
For those not familiar with road cycling, there is a mind-bendingly long and (possibly) tongue-in-cheek website called The Rules of Cycling
. These days they are up to 95 entries. I assumed that they were just a joke until I was on a shoot with the owner of a road clothing brand who was mortified that his chainring had left a greasy ring on his leg. Apparently that is a serious breach of the rules and unforgivable for someone trying to peddle fashion to these people. So after several months of thinking about this, reflecting and reading comments on the internet, I have come up with the definitive, definite and incontrovertible rules of mountain biking, everything you need to do to consider yourself part of the family:
1. Ride a mountain bike.
Actually, the slightly more precise wording should be “ride a bike that you consider to be a mountain bike, preferably on trails,” but it would make for a shit t-shirt and 93.4% of my motivation to write this is the merchandising potential. And to avoid any confusion, yes, I think that means eMTB riders should be allowed to call themselves mountain bikers, if they want to.
What I have seen rising up in our sport is an idea that you need to prove yourself worthy to be part of it. A few years ago a failed, self-proclaimed freeracer posted on his Facebook page that you are not a real mountain biker unless you have tattoos. Apparently despite having ridden for more than 20 years and walked away from a promising career to follow this sport, I am still not worthy (and, more worryingly, this same logic suggests Levy is more worthy than anyone else here at PB). It is clearly bullshit from a would-be hipster, but it is the tip of an iceberg, buoyed by a current flowing through our sport, a web of ideas that coalesce to create an environment that people don’t feel welcome to join.
The one theme I see a lot and take particular offence to is calling people who ride eMTBs as “cheaters”, perpetuating the idea there is some notional bar that we all need to pass. If you start to work your way into this logic, you quickly start to see how toxic it is. After all, if we’re purely talking about physical work, then pushing your 28t chainring and 52t cassette up a fireroad is no more physically demanding than riding an ebike, the only difference is that you’re moving at roughly the same speed as a pensioner with a walking frame. But it’s pure, so that’s fine, even if it is mind-numbingly boring. The point is that if someone is out riding and having fun, why does it matter to you how they choose to do that? Who among us has the right to decide how other people should enjoy mountain biking?
What makes me angry is that over the years I have seen mountain bikers feel (often legitimately) aggrieved that other trail users don’t welcome us onto the trails. That if the walkers, horse riders or whoever would just work with us the situation would be better for everyone. Now eMTB riders are coming along and you’ll never guess what? Rather than welcoming these people with an eye on the bigger picture, mountain bikers are perpetrating the same bullshit towards eMTBers that they have pissed and moaned about receiving themselves for decades. After all, eMTB riders are going to need more or less the same things as riders on regular bikes. In terms of trail advocacy, this gets us to the fundamental truth at the heart of every political idea: if you want to get something done, you need as many people as possible who agree with you. So can you really afford to write off a fresh pool of potential allies?
Climbing back down off my soapbox there are probably some legitimate questions you are asking about now. For instance: what about trail etiquette? What about respecting the trails and the environment? And you’re right to be asking those questions as they are important. Everybody who heads out into the wild should be conscientious, courteous and respectful and that should be fundamental. What that is not, however, is specific to mountain bikers. If you break down every rule for your local trail network, I would put down money that they can all be traced back to those three, essential values.
And if you think I am heading down some weird, angry rabbit-hole, I would ask you to think back to the Repack days. There were no rules, regulations or lists back then - you had to show up with a bike. That was it. Every layer people try to add on top of that takes us one step further from the soul of our sport. Because right now an accomplished cyclist was nervous to try and join a sport that brings joy to so many of us, and, for me, that’s heartbreaking.