Who’s a real mountain biker?
I belong to several mountain and gravel biking Facebook groups, and recently, on the same day, I came across two posts that struck a chord in me. The first one was a question from an older female rider in a women’s mountain biking group that asked, “Am I a real mountain biker if I don’t do big jumps and steep descents? I just like riding.” The second one was a comment in a general co-ed mountain biking group, also a female rider, but younger, that was responding to a thread about e-bikes on trails. Her comment was “Most of the e-bikers I see on trails are elderly, and elderly people don’t belong out on trails”. Both of these comments struck me because they both address a common problem that many people have when beginning a new activity or when participating in an activity that may be considered out of the norm for their demographic. This problem involves the recurrent and nagging questions we all face throughout our lives…”Where do I fit in?” or “Do I fit in at all?”. Who is a “real” mountain biker?
A few weeks ago I attended a Zia Rides endurance mountain biking event, “24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest”, in New Mexico. I was helping to hand out number plates and got to see the huge variety of people who had signed up for this race. Out of a total of 459 entrants, there were 20% women and 8% older than 60. There were several kids as young as 9 and one man at 79. There was a grandfather racing in a duo team with his grandson for the first time. There was a quad team of septuagenarians ranging from 71-74. There were people representing every race: Black, Asian, White, Hispanic, Native… There was every body type from sleek greyhound-style young guns to portly folks you would never expect to see at an athletic event. There were people on cheap big box bikes and people on $14,000 race machines, people riding single speed bikes, fat bikes, hardtails and carbon full suspension bikes. There were people wearing everything from shorts and Hawaiian shirts to people in full race kits. The trail doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t care who you are. The trail is the trail and is the same for whoever rides it. It’s the same rocks and climbs for a black 79-year-old man or a native 9-year-old girl. It’s the same distance for a 42-year-old beginner carrying a couple dozen extra pounds or a ultra-competitive 24-year-old with 5% body fat. The trail isn’t there to judge, the trail has no compassion for sore knees or a pending divorce at home. The trail is the trail, and is there to guide everyone from start to finish and round again. What makes the trail different for every rider is what the rider brings to the trail. A less experienced or older rider will ride more slowly, take descents with extra care, and might walk over some more difficult portions. A young go-getter is willing to bomb down technical rocky slopes and will pass you with an “Excuse me, on your left” as if you were standing still. The 79-year-old mentioned earlier finished 2 complete 14-mile laps while the top 18+ rider did 16 of these laps. Is one of these riders more of a “real mountain biker” than the other? I say no. If you are out there riding your bike, no matter the situation, you are a “real mountain biker”, so stop questioning yourself. If you are a slower beginner or just like to cruise along and smell the flowers, you might not want to go on an “intermediate level” group ride in the same way that I would never enter a race based on speed or attempt to fling myself down Sunrise, but you are a mountain biker, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Who belongs on the trail?
I have to say, that when the person posted her comment about “elderly” people not belonging on the trail, I’m guessing, as a gen X-er, she was thinking of another, stereotyped, category of “elderly” people. Someone who is 80+, frail, and has never ridden a mountain bike, should probably think twice or more about mounting a powerful e-bike and tackling a technical trail. I have to say that I have never encountered this category of “elderly” while out on the trail and most of the “elderly” e-bikers I see are people who have been riding for decades, have great bike-handling skills and who now are utilizing an e-bike to help them continue their love of the sport as their bodies begin to slow. When I was in my 20’s, I never in my wildest imagination would have seen myself at 60, riding a mountain bike over rocks, for miles on end and down slopes that are steep enough to give a hiker pause. Now that I’ve made it this far, I see others in our bike shop and out on the trails that are much older than I am, doing just fine, and I know I have at least a decade, maybe two, to continue loving this sport. When I was in my 20’s, e-bikes didn’t exist, and mountain biking as a separate discipline was in its infancy. Back then, to me, “elderly” meant over 50 and the picture in my mind was of me barely getting around and probably spending a lot of time in a rocking chair. Boy, is my take on life different now!
We all belong on the trail however we choose to take it. Again, the trail doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t care who you are. If you have been riding the trail for decades, and now, because of lost muscle tone with aging, you are using a peddle-assist e-bike to be able to continue riding as you have, I say go for it, you belong on the trail. If you just want to cruise around to get great nature photos and enjoy being outdoors, yes, by all means, get out there and love life. If you are a beginner and want to keep up with your friends as you build skills, I say take advantage of the technology of an e-bike and go for it! Whether you are someone who rides every day or someone who rides a few times a year, you belong on the trail and you are part of a much larger community of people who can call themselves mountain bikers. If you are a rude entitled jerk on a throttle bike, out bullying people off the trails with aggression and speed, you are not welcome in my world, but life is the same way. There are those rude entitled people in every walk of life trying to bully the rest of us, but I have no time for them in my life and I just count them as one of the technical obstacles on the trail, work around them, and move on.
An endurance mountain bike race is like life in that most people are following their own trails in their own ways and are happy to know and help others of all varieties passing along the same trails of progression. As we start out, we move with a little more abandon and a little less care. We learn along the way that sometimes its’ painful when we go full throttle without paying attention to the details that can derail us, but we learn. As we take laps around the sun, those laps may slow and we begin to be more attentive to the things we submit ourselves to, but we keep on going. We take a little more care on the road and make more selective choices in how we spend our time and money, but we keep on going. As we enter old age, we all begin to slow down. Maybe it’s time to retire, maybe its time to use an ebike, maybe its time to rest between laps and maybe its time to walk around some of life’s obstacles rather than attempting to just fly over them, but we keep on going. Whether it’s a 12-hour, 24-hour or 100-year event, there is ultimately an end, but until then, keep on doing laps, keep on making the best of each day and keep on being a mountain biker because yes, you matter and yes, you belong.