The other day we went for a ride that gave us plenty of time to yak about mountain biking.
Usually we get into a long and complicated discussion about trails - that subject provides plenty of material for hours of slow climbing, which is when most of the talking gets done.
This time though, we gave the trails a rest and got into a session about the culture of the sport, and what is happening to it.
First of all, what were we talking about? Is there a mountain bike culture?
There are possibly dozens. It certainly isn’t one thing. Under the general umbrella of ‘mountain biking’ there are trail riders, downhillers, cross country racers, and adventure-style expedition riders. We could tack on some sorts of bike packing. Dirt jumping. Single speeding. Klunking.
Parsing things further, within ‘trail riding’ there are people who shuttle, people who don’t, people who stick to the beaten track and people who like to roll their own lines.
Downhilling includes some of the shuttlers, and the full-on racers. Cross country has casual types training for an event and people aiming at the Olympics.
Single speeding can be a low-budget way of protecting the flash bike from the worst of winter wear, or a semi-religion.
And a further complication is that many people will be in more than one camp. Most people I know are, and many of them do other bike stuff besides ‘mountain biking’. Gravel. Road. BMX. Track. Cross.
But let’s say there is a mountain biking culture. Let’s, for argument’s sake, bung everybody we have listed above into a broad category and call them mountain bikers. Are they homogenous enough to call a culture?
What got us started on this topic was turning up at an area where people sometimes congregate, and stopping to fill our bottles. While we were there, a posse of e-bikers arrived. They were all on e-mountain bikes, pretty slick ones. They had the basic gear required, they all had fit-for-purpose shoes, shorts, backpacks, gloves, etc. So far, so good.
They also had hi-vis raincoats. All five of them. In the forest, where they don’t need to be seen and it wasn’t raining. All their seats were too low, and all their gears were too high. Well, too low and too high for anybody who knows what they are doing. Saddle height and correct gear selection don’t matter much if you have an extra couple of hundred watts on tap, so they weren’t doing anything ‘wrong’.
It just didn’t look ‘right’.
The sight of this gang made both of us happy - they were out in the woods, on bikes, having fun.
It also made us raise our eyebrows, and wonder what it meant for the ‘culture’.
The reality is probably nothing.
In past years, people got into the sport as individuals, and identified with one or other of the subcultures. They learned the unwritten rules, and adopted the appropriate gear. By the time they had developed enough to find their niche, they really fit their niche.
People who are getting into it the last few years are doing it in droves - little gangs of people appear to have taken up bike riding en masse - the posse of e-bikers that sparked up our discussion were all on the same brand of bike, all on the same model year. They had their own culture, which they had created themselves. They didn’t pay any attention to us, or even say hello. They were doing their own thing, in their own funny-looking way.
A couple of days later I was sitting in the doorway of my van, and a woman nearby was racking her bike for her trip home. She had a big e-bike, and she was a tiny woman. I offered to help, but she reckoned she had racked her bike many times and proceeded to do it quickly and efficiently.
We got chatting. This woman was the leader of three bike groups from over at the coast. One of them comes ‘mountain biking’ on a weekly basis. There are enough of that group that they split into smaller pods for their lap of the woods. I got to see a few more members of her crew, the fast bunch who go further than the beginners or what she called ‘the pedal bike group’.
They were all very similar: late-model high-end e-bikes, all looking slightly odd to my eye. Even the ones that had the basic layout looking the business had been accessorised with things no ‘mountain biker’ would add to a trail bike, e or otherwise. Carriers. Phone holders. Odd mudguards. They wore odd riding outfits - but oddly consistent.
Much as downhillers look different to XC riders, this new mob look different again. But among their own, they fit.
They are another mountain biking faction, not sure what to call them yet.