Recently I was out on a ride where I planned to rendezvous with friends. Before locking the Previa I made the decision to leave my phone in the car. [This is another conversation but briefly do you take your phone with you when you ride? Just don’t, at least not every single time, it’s a nightmare or at least it’s adding to the nightmare. It’s like taking a screaming baby/boss/tyrant and forcing it to travel with you during the modicum of time you’ve been able to carve out wherein you hope to bank a few shillings of rapturous memory tokens to ensure that you can limp through another sad week of meetings and other social interactions centered around screens.] I embarked upon the trail solo but quickly caught up to and fell in with a group of strangers. Introductions were made, we exchanged pleasantries, and discovered that we had friends in common. I assumed that these strangers knew what they were getting into. The particular trail system on which we were riding is steep, aggressive, and is in no way fettered by the grade and cutback constraints of IMBA dogma. The riding public in my area doesn’t know about this spot and its continued obscurity is the result of obvious and menacing “No Strava” signs combined with interpersonal promises of secrecy, vehement internet scrubbing, and the occasional swear laden critique of strangers that could, in certain contexts, be regarded as localism. This dual edge of secrecy and a ferocity has its benefits and helps to regulate the trails, ensuring that whomever shows up to ride has, in some sense, been vetted. Yes this reads and reeks of exclusivity and privilege, I won’t deny it.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Our entire culture is built on the allure of exclusivity and privilege. Why the need to share our pictures of our feet in repose the sand as the sun drops behind the horizon, why put rims on our cars, covet carbon wheels, why else would we have the brand Supreme? Scarcity. This isn’t new, scarcity was once honest, and in many places around the world is still terrifyingly so, in caveman times it meant not having enough protein during the long iceage winters, then we stuck sticks in the ground developed surplus and all of a sudden we’re lusting after gold. We know now that gold is a great conductor for electricity but for thousands of years the only reason people wanted gold was because there wasn’t enough of it. Otherwise it didn’t do shit. But in our culture there really isn’t enough of it so we’ve manufactured scarcity. You know this, or at least have some sense of it. We are aware of the puppet master, yet still we dance. So yeah I keep the trails secret.
However even with these precautions there’s always the outside chance that you could run into a friend of a friend, someone’s cousin, or a radom jabroni who found his/her way here through Clouseau style sleuthing, but this would be the exception to the rule.
Typically whomever or whatever the root cause of the invite at least each rider has received a disclaimer which could be loosely transcribed as, “the trails here are steep, rough and without forgiveness, much like the housing crisis of the late 00s, the pharmaceutical industry, or John Kreese.” I suggested/inquired that I might join in with this quartet of strangers, “so long as you don’t go about setting the pace,” the bearded Porthos of the group rejoined. We were now a five fold sortie laboring up a mucky forest road engaged in the pithy small talk and the pleasantries of near strangers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that these trails are maintained by a handful of dedicated individuals and that those without the skills to ride them reliably cause considerable damage to the trail system and more importantly put themselves at high risk of grave bodily harm. If you’re not prepared to take a 15 foot drop after shooting through a narrow section of trail during which time your handlebars are forced to weave slalom style through a gauntlet of trees then you’re probably going to hurt yourself, spend a lot of money on healthcare [Obviously this is just for you American readers. In most other countries; From Canada to Cuba healthcare concerns would be moot, or at least not a financial disaster set to accompany your physical one. If you’re in the States. Well let’s be sure to keep applauding the crafty accounting acrobatics of those too rich to pay taxes.], and perhaps get these trails shut down for the rest of us. To put it another way, unless you’re a complete asshole, showing up at a birthday party uninvited and then crashing through the cake table like a backyard wrestler isn’t a life goal. Then again half the videos on youtube… Point is this party is cool, we like this party, don’t ruin the party.
It is more than likely that the initial conversation with a strange group of riders is going to be similar to the initial conversation with any other strange group of people; unfulfilling. I am not talking about meeting someone at a friends party. I am talking about the type of conversations you have at airports or in line at the DMV. Risky conversations with very little upside. Maybe you both have dogs, or kids, or perhaps you find that most of you like watching shows. Don’t judge, being unfulfilling is the whole point of small talk. This is the leveling of the ground on which a foundation can be poured that done right might be used to construct a real and meaningful relationship. Its a foot in the door. But here we were exacerbated by the duress of physically exercise, our conversation governed by the shallow reserves of air hastily stored between pedal strokes, each thought a telegraph translation. This combination of banal and fettered conversation requires an emphasis on visual observation.
As an agent of my environment I have been inculcated with years of market and consumer awareness, see scarcity, and my social wiring has been manipulated, my product radar honed. My gaze takes in the choices and conditions of their bikes, gear, and clothes. [Yes, yes all though it may seem that I am advocating a fucboi sychophancy of the latest and greatest and I believe within reason it’s the rider not the bike. Functionally however the rider that is interested and skilled in the mountain bike arena will also put a degree of thought and effort into the build out of his bicycle as no amount of skill or finesse will make riding 26×1.95” tires more fun than 27.5×2.35” tires on contemporary DH focused terrain. Its reasonable to make a judgement from the type and condition of a bike and its components to determine a riders passion and dedication to our sport. Tech forward as it is. For instance a stem longer than 60mm is very likely a dead ringer for “bro is going to wind up with body punctures after today’s ride.”] What I am hoping to discover is a sense of each rider’s palmares, physicals clues that may be helpful in tackling the know inevitable and nerve racking crucible that is THE formal problem in the social chess of this particular lifestyle sport; the question of what position to take in the cue before we start the descent.
The goal is simple. Line up so that the fast person starts first and the slow person goes last, everyone else should fall in line along this spectrum. The nature of most single track mountain bike trails are such that passing is difficult and frequently fraught with calamity. While necessary during a race, the recreational ride pass is a risk only rarely worth the effort. But the time spent climbing compared to the moments spent descending mean that each descent is valuable and feelting each descent is scarce. We only have so much time, energy, nerves. That’s what we’ve given up to be here, at the top of the hill. Done wrong you’re either slowing down someone behind you, thus ruining their experience or someone is slowing you down, which fuck them. This process is much easier said than done. Inevitably after the helmets have been strapped, the knee pads positioned, and the goggles adjusted comes the inevitable braying and stamping accompanied by a chorus of go-ahead-mans, you-sures, and m, etc. These awkward feints are the gestural prologue of most any descent. There is only one value in this moment and that is speed. However the understanding of this currency is fiat, it is plastic and pliable, bent through prism of each individuals experience. Even among long time riding buddies there can be a considerable degree of a jockeying. But in the company of relative strangers the pageantry of this event is farcical pageantry. Such is shame, such is social mores, such is sport.
For those who don’t ride or those who do but who have never had the awareness of this feeling recall the uncertain discomfort that can result from trying to buy a round of drinks or simply holding the door open for a stranger. Rare is the occasion that doesn’t carry the weight of an implied transaction, of a balance sheet now off kilter. For those of you in disagreement, and inclined to believe that action can be non-transactional please refer to the story of George R. Price and the tragic outcome following his research into empathy. Awareness goes along way in unpacking these moment of passing shame. I mean the transactional nature of these interactions more or less explains the golden rule, which is to say a pan-human web of connections that tie us all together, do unto others can simply translate to you fuck this up for me, I’ll fuck this up for you.
Existence is difficult but at least its something. We have sport to echo culture which echoes humanity which echoes life which is–at least as I understand Darwinian–simply a matter of survival boiled down, you kill or you die. Human’s have spent the memorable part of our evolution perfecting the first and succumbing to the second and recently we’ve been able to deceive ourselves into the idea that that we have created a realm abjured from these binary plot points. It’s fun to pretend at an existence outside of biological impediment and thanks to the spectacle we here in the first world, we of the land of plenty, of milk, honey, clean water and streaming entertainment can enjoy years, decades of our lives ignorant of annihilation that stalks fringes of our awareness. Ignorant of the reality that like all other known creatures, we are nothing but the lame captives of fate.
Sport is a pantomime of life’s struggle: while we are all losers we can hope to be winners too, if only for a moment. It’s a race against the clock. These are the stakes. In sport, as in life, those who manage to distinguish themselves have a chance to cement a facsimile of immortality in the form of trophies, record books, and acclaim. Stories become legend and these ideas impact and hijack the minds of others and focus their attention on the revered victor’s past glory. In so far as we have yet been unable to transplant consciousness from brain to brain this form of viral group memetics holds the championship belt for best proxy of immortality. This happens intuitively on the macro and micro level; Anne-Caroline Chausson or Joe Whothefuck that jumped the gap in the rain. In the absence of saber tooth tigers and the mortal consequences of a bison hunt, the millions upon millions of years of naked kill or die programming that is the iceberg whose tip is the idea of how we keep of ourselves engaged has conspired to create sport. The impact and resonance that we once saved for the legends of the hunt are now channeled into making legends of our leisure activities. Stripped down to sinew and bone, our transference of existence on to sport carries an enormous weight.
Why all this heavy shit? Aren’t we here to talk about mountain biking? About the ill-conceived, wrong thinking, bad habits of our sport’s culture and its technologies? Let’s thank culture; the rank or wonderful, thriving or stagnate, for diffusing these abysmal existential challenges. The entire point of ordinary experience is to wash over these questions. Late-capitalism is a Where’s Waldo map of entertaining diversions and these meaning of life inquiries are hidden and submerged under the weight of interpersonal interactions, mating rituals, hierarchical entanglements and the day-to-day tedium of work, food, shit, and sleep. Modern existence means that we’re no longer flint knapping obsidian in our free time in hopes of making it to our 20th birthday. But under it all, under the architecture of our contemporary psyches flows the river Styx, its black waters feeding the culture of our minds, blooming emotions behind our ideas. So when you find yourself agitated by cultural anxiety while jockeying for position with a group of strangers at the top of a mountain bike run know that it is natural, a result of the eon’s coded into our culture.
The effort and time required to gain the top of this run in comparison to the brief amount of time it takes to get back down means that getting stuck behind someone slow or holding back someone fast is, within context, disastrous. What did I do? I avoided the issue altogether and rode off solo while the others were busy adjusting their goggles and smoking joints. So what’s this say about me? Load’s I am sure. But at least no one was going slow on my behalf.