What do you call yourself? Your given name, made up for you by your parents? Your job title, which you ironically strive to leave behind? When you suit up for a ride, what’s the title then? Mountain biker? Seems too encompassing, you’d hate to be confused with those XC geeks/downhill bros/enduro slackers/*insert “other” here* because you are absolutely not like them. But really? Let me tell you a story.
The early days, racing single speeds in 1995 (click to enlarge). Photo by Jon Suzuki.
When I was a teen, I was already on the path of righteousness. It was the mid-1990’s, mountain biking was awesome and ascendant, and I would tell everyone, “I’m going to be a pro mountain biker when I grow up.” I was being sold a regular diet of magazine articles that revealed how cool you could be if you crossed it up, wore baggies, and had purple components. I never saw the juxtaposition of that definition of cool, though, as looking back on it all, it was amazingly accepting and inclusive.
Vehicle to Adventure
Remember this was the time when racing “downhill” was just one of the events on the weekend, and it involved dropping your seat by an inch, and the course was the downhill part of the cross-country course (that was your practice, too). If you had suspension it was under 2 inches of travel and you spent serious mental energy wondering if the added weight was worth it.
The ethic of the time was that your one bike had to go everywhere, do everything, and so the best bike riders could climb, descend, race dual slalom and look cool. You just rode, that’s it. Consider the riders that were my heroes. There was actually minimal differentiation between the setups of Wiens, Furtado, Sydor and Tinker — and they all could win on a given day. You had some good rivalries like Overend versus Tomac, which were quite similar to the current Absalon versus Schurter battles, but the difference was Tomac was also second in the world downhill championships in 1991 and 1997.
At some point though, specialization took over. I remember my last downhill race, where I couldn’t pedal fast enough to keep up with the guy on a 6-inch travel bike coasting away from me. Technological advancement was accompanied by a self selection. You had to pick your direction and stick with it, and it drove a wedge between me and some of my friends. They became “those slow guys with the big bikes” and I was that “XC geek” who pedaled too hard. We still rode together, but the rides changed and honestly we bickered more then we laughed. Biking had become divisive to me, and that’s what drove me to try and find new forms of riding.
I had my mind blown at my first Surf City Cyclocross race in Santa Cruz, where it was proven to me (much to my ego’s chagrin) that I didn’t know much about this form of racing. There were guys on road bikes (or so I thought) charging through the forest, running, looking super athletic and fast. And it was HARD. But then I started meeting a few people, and they were roadies, mountain bikers, guys and gals who just rode, and they were all as laid back as you could want. How could you not feel at home with this mishmash of cycling? I loved it.
I still find it amazing that through all this I never even knew about road riding, and all the snobbery tied in and through its rich history. I honestly never saw a pack of road riders whizzing by, or even had much discussion or interaction with roadies, which is incredible because all of the older riders at the local shop must have grown up on skinny tires. But by the time I was in college my eyes were opened to what cycling could really be, while at the same time doubling down on cross country racing. I started road training, and once exposed I thrived on the hard work and cerebral qualities of the sport. Plus, for the first time I had some guys who would mentor me, show me the ropes, and point out my mistakes in a productive manner.
I think a lack of mountain bike racing, the passion and camaraderie of cyclocross, and the gentle crutch of collegiate racing made road racing attractive as a way to pass the time, because honestly I just wanted to ride and by then I didn’t care what the bike was. I was truly enjoying the variety of the bicycle, and my youthful attachment to a “vehicle to adventure” grew up with me.
I could ride for hours, to some long lost end of the county and see that hidden view that so many would pass by, and then return strengthened by the effort. I got to the point where I wouldn’t consider it “a real ride” unless I passed through three counties. But I had the same fundamental feeling of adventure, risk, and accomplishment that hooked me when I was 12 years old.
Fifteen years later, and I’ve done some cool things on a bike (click to enlarge).
I think it’s funny that road cycling made my childhood dream (of being a pro) come true. Actually, I think it’s the road bike that also saved mountain biking for me. It’s precisely because I had progressed so much where I could appreciate the road bike, and use it as a continuation of my dream and passion, that I could just ride mountain bikes again. For fun, with friends, as fast or slow as I wanted.
Racing requires the bicycle to be a professional tool, to be used in self flagellation for improvements sake, so in general you end up not really looking forward to riding. But I always had the mountain bike, the one bike I didn’t race, as solace to keep me through the long trips and rainy races, and keep me looking forward to getting back home and on the trails. Now that I’m not racing on the road anymore and get to be picky about my rides, I’ll be mountain biking a lot more.
I want you to look inside. That feeling you have when you land a drop, high five your friends at the end of the ride, or complete a century, it’s all the same. We all feel it, we love to share it with friends and it keeps us coming back for more. I grew up with one version of it, and kept at it so long that it morphed into something I would never have considered.
I’ve ridden road bikes more miles than I’ve put on all my cars combined, but I don’t consider myself a roadie. I grew up wanting to ride my mountain bike, but I’m no longer limited by that dream. I’m someone who just rides bikes now, who has felt the joy of rolling on two wheels, and I no longer need that path so well defined.