Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You may submit questions or comments to Kurt at firstname.lastname@example.org. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.
“Uh, excuse me. I’d like to pass please.”
The words came from behind as I was climbing Hurl Hill at the Sea Otter Classic this year. Not that I was riding super slow or anything, so the polite request came as a bit of a surprise, especially considering the dude didn’t even sound like he was breathing hard.
Not being one to block someone else from passing, I pulled over to the side and looked back to see a guy in his early 50s with his saddle way too low, knees practically knocking him in the chest, effortlessly cruising past me uphill at a clip that even Nino Schurter couldn’t maintain for very long. The guy passed and sheepishly apologized, almost as if he was embarrassed about it.
“Thanks, heh heh. Sorry. I guess I’m cheating. I’m not really this quick.”
As a parting gift, the guy’s low hanging baggy shorts prominently showed off his exposed butt crack. All I could do was shake my head and laugh in amusement. Of course the guy was on an electric mountain bike. It was the first time I’d been passed by one on the trail.
Two weeks later, I was back home in Reno, Nevada, out on a solo trail ride. I approached an uphill switchback and saw a cheater line blazed into the earth, shortcutting the corner. Two turns up from that I saw another cheater line. I grumbled aloud about the fact that someone was “Biebering” the trails, and not 30 seconds later a Lycra-clad speed freak came railing downhill towards me.
The guy couldn’t be bothered to slow down even for a moment, let alone yield to an uphill rider. I held my ground and kept cranking uphill, narrowly clipping bars with other rider as he whizzed by, chasing a coveted Strava KoM segment I guessed. Unlike the passing eBiker, I was not in the least amused by that near collision.
The rise of technology in mountain biking has created a lot of amazing advancements such as composite frames and wheels, high performance suspension, electronic shifting, and hydraulic disc brakes. Without a doubt, mountain bikes are better and more capable than ever before. But technology has also given birth to more controversial innovations such as Strava and what I like to call MORBs (motorized off-road bicycles), of which both have some very vocal detractors. So which one is can cause more problems? Strava or MORBs?
One of my personal biggest gripes with Strava is that it’s had a significant negative impact on the social aspect of mountain biking. Before Strava, if people wanted to compete with one another, they’d either do it in a race or they’d bang bars with each other on a weekly group ride. Whoever was the fastest was the first up or the first down on that particular week. If you wanted to challenge the fastest, you showed up and went mano-e-mano with the reigning champ. It was a healthy, social way to get out those competitive urges.
But ever since my friends started using Strava, the social nature of our weeknight rides changed. What used to be a mandatory 20-minute warm-up and social chat before hammering each other became an instant race against some ghost rider, with people disappearing off the front, some never to be seen again for the rest of the ride. The reason?
“Sorry man, I was going for the KoM on that segment.”
But when it comes to MORBs, the social element is different. Although MORBs enable a novice, unfit rider to climb uphill at the same speed as a professional, eBikes can actually promote a more social environment because it levels the playing field, enabling less fit riders to hang with a group longer at an exertion level that still allows conversation. Sure, some riders in the group might not like it that Joe Beer Gut is “faster” than them, but who the hell really cares? Is your ego really that fragile?
And unlike Strava, which sometimes lures people into racing downhill faster than they should, MORBs don’t really make riders any faster on the descent. Depending on the terrain, the much heavier and more cumbersome MORB is actually slower downhill. I’d never choose a MORB over a well-designed trail bike for a long, challenging descent.
On the bigger and more controversial issue of trail access, I also believe that Strava can cause more damage than eBikes. Why? Because people riding MORBs don’t advertise to the entire world that they’re poaching a non-motorized trail. The function of a MORB is not to track and display where someone rode, it’s simply a technological enhancement to allow someone to ride longer distances at a pace they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The core function of Strava is track where one has ridden. Not only can Strava show the world that someone just poached an illegal trail, but it also shows they are the fastest idiot to poach that illegal trail.
Land managers aren’t using MORBs to get trails closed to mountain bike access, at least not yet. But there have already been incidents where Strava was used to either prove mountain bike trespassing, or show peak rider speed numbers to justify why a trail should be closed to mountain bikes. The latest example was earlier this year in Los Altos, California, where Strava data was used to ban mountain bikers from Byrne Preserve. So when it comes to the topic of trail access, I personally think Strava is more likely ammunition for anti-mountain bike advocates to justify trail closures.
And the third aspect has to do with trail damage. I’ve done several rides on a MORB that’s purely pedal assist and I still haven’t been able to make the bike roost like a throttle-twisting dirt bike. Despite what MORB haters say, in my experience, pedal assist MORBs don’t cause any more trail damage than a traditional mountain bike.
If I could only say the same for Strava. Now of course Strava itself isn’t causing trail damage, but because of the inherent competitive nature of the app, it’s encouraging riders to go out to their local trails and Bieber the hell out of them. What is Biebering? It’s taking a trail that used to be challenging and technical and making it lame by shortcutting or removing obstacles, all in the name of going faster to capture that coveted KoM.
Now this column isn’t some push to get MORBs legal on non-motorized trails. I still firmly believe that MORBs should not be permitted on non-motorized trails. At least in the foreseeable future, aligning mountain bikes with MORBs in the United States is advocacy suicide for our sport. However, if mountain biking didn’t have such vocal detractors, I wouldn’t see a problem with pedal assist MORBs on more trails.
But I personally believe Strava has had a significant negative impact on the social nature of mountain biking, its data tracking capability has been used by land managers and mountain bike opponents to close trails, and its competitive segment aspect has altered existing trails. And despite MORBs receiving a lot of hate from mountain bikers, there’s an undeniable positive aspect of them, especially with people who also hate Strava. MORBs are the ultimate KOM killer. Once people start riding MORBs while using Strava, nobody will know which segments were truly human powered. If for whatever reason MORBs don’t end up gaining widespread acceptance, if they can at least kill the competitive segment aspect of Strava and make it irrelevant, in my eyes MORBs will have been a huge success for regaining the social nature of our sport.