Aug 22, 2012

'Tis The Gift To Be Simple


'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right

-Elder Joseph

A disclaimer, first- this is about bikes, snowboards, rock climbers, and that sort of thing.  I have thoughts about simplicity of life, and I've shared them before, and shall again.  But not this time.  If outdoorsy philosophizing bugs you, stop now.

That understood, my idea is this: most outdoor pursuits look upon a simpler way as a higher attainment. So why does mountain biking think it's different? Why do we alone seem to think we need  technology and mechanism to save us from the very trails we love?

To start with, even road riding and cyclocross, our first cousins, see clearly that it's the rider and not the machine that matters. Surely you wouldn't say to Sven Nys that he doesn't face obstacles when he rides? But year after year, the materials may differ, the seatpost configurations may vary a little, but by and large, the bikes stay the same, with no foreseeable change coming. And I think that's as it should be. Sure, they've both been around just a bit longer than MTB, but it's not as if they tried mixte cyclocross bikes that looked like electric guitars there at the beginning.

But let's stray just a little farther afield, shall we? What about rock climbing and the idea of aid climbing and clean climbing? The mechanical aids are there for those that need or want them. Ascenders come readily to mind. And in some situations, they're very necessary. But they're certainly looked down on for the actual climbing. The same feeling for protection bolted into the rock brought about the clean climbing revolution in the 60s. No, the real heroes, it seems, use as little protection as they can get away with, and climb with the bare minimum of equipment.

Snowboarding is another interesting example. Few think of these baggy-clothed masses as purists, but if we look at their equipment rather than their general attitude, it's easy to see that they prefer the simple. Shimano came out with clipless bindings. I have a set. But on the whole, they amounted to nothing, because the preferred binding is more simple. The mass of snowboarders clearly prefers to simply attach with traditional strapped bindings. From MTB's point of view, it's as if they prefer toeclips to clipless pedals. Can you even imagine a downhiller (because that's what snowboarders are) with toeclips? My point exactly. They do love the snow machines though! (but even there they prefer simple 2 strokes to more complex 4 stroke engines)

Fine, you say, snowboards and climbers, but what about more manly sports like fishing and hunting? Would you not agree that fly fishermen are held in the highest regard precisely because their form of catching a fish is harder, yet more simple, than worms and bobbers? Is a deer hunted with a bow and arrow considered more worthwhile than one killed with a .30-.06 cal. rifle? Of course it is.

Isn't the skinniest tightest kayak the province of the most skilled kayaker, not the wide comfortable one? Isn't it the most experienced backpacker that uses a tarp instead of a tent?

Getting back to bikes, it is very interesting to note that bmx bikes are rigid and remain chromoly steel. Haven't they heard how strong aluminum is now? :) It's worth a look through a bmx magazine to realize just what is being done on these rigid steel bikes. It seems that if anyone could use some suspension, it might be these riders. And yet they persist in believing that riding technique is most important.

Now let me say at this point that though some older people and women do ride BMX bikes, I am well aware that it's a young man's game. I also am very well aware of the mindbending things that freeriders are doing now with suspension's potential. But does that honestly apply to you? Really?

But speaking of freeriders also brings to mind another discipline, one that the uber-tech among us might wish to forget for the purposes of this discussion. Trials. Rigid bikes. Some with no seat at all. Flat pedals. A slap in the face to the technology camp. And these riders put most of us to shame when it comes to skills. I've seen a trials rider bunnyhop nearly five feet in the air, not like his placement on the box he was mounting, then bunnyhop backwards off back to flat ground. Not something I generally run into on the trail. And with these people, you cannot argue that they do what they do because they're young. They do things the rest of us only do in our best dreams, and they don't do it because of the latest carbon-fiber suspension link, because they don't have one.

So, if that is true, why then are we so often made to feel that we must have a new full-suspension mountain bike every year or we're hopelessly behind and don't really care about our sport? How does the Cannondale Simon system even exist - let alone in a world where the company has stopped making bikes in the USA? Confused priorities, wouldn't you say?  How about the new FOX double-suspension lockout control?  GPS?  Strava?

This is where things turn very slightly darker. Don't get my wrong. I know some of you reading this work in this industry. I know the bicycle industry on the whole is much "gooder" than average industry. But I also know that bikes have to be sold. When the market flattens out, a new niche has to be "discovered". Just like with other products, consumer have to be made to feel incomplete without "X" product. This year it's the 650b bike. Last year was cargo bikes and/or Pugsley bikes. The year before was 'cross bikes. Before that, singlespeeds. Ad infinitum

But you know what's funny? Those BMX bikes don't seem to be suffering from low sales. They seem to sell better every year. Come to think of it, snowboards don't change much, and they seem to have an almost vertical growth each year. Why? And what about the fixie trend that is going on right now?

Are we all missing something? Snowboarders even have to go to a hill and pay more money to use a lift. And still they sell. Why?

I think that what's going on can be attributed to two factors. It involves experience and equipment.

First, snowboarding sells culture and the act of doing the thing. Snowboard companies sell the idea of a snowy hill, blue skies, and gracefulness (I think this gracefulness applies to fixies as well). Whether you think of spinning 720s or boardslides, it's all graceful movement. Smoothness. If you watched me snowboard, you'd quickly see it's not all like that!

Oh, but what does mountain biking have to sell? We don't have snow, or railslides. Oh, right, we do have the whole riding in the beautiful woods thing. What? We de-emphasize that? Oh. What do most people see of our sport, then? Jumping off cliffs with no trees in sight?

Secondly, snowboarding has simple equipment the average person can understand, that doesn't change much season to season. Think about snowboarding vs. skiing. 2 skiis vs. 1 board. 2 poles vs. empty hands. And softer boots. You can imagine which one attract most people.

Now think of mountain biking. I love Specialized. I have their helmet, their handlebars. And they're always near the top of the list when I buy stuff. But they typify exactly what I think is wrong with our sport, with their Epic.

Every year it's a new game-changing innovation. (In fact, this is their current ad for the Epic, but if I did this I assure you it was subconscious.) And their marketing department does a good job as well. So the bikes are the ones that get seen. Anyplace that new riders might get a glimpse of our sport- think Men's Journal or Nat Geo Adventure- there they are. And no matter what the text says, what a game-changer review really says is "Did you think this was easy? Oh, no, pal. The woods are a dark, scary, dangerous place, and the only thing that can possibly save you is this bike. In fact, maybe it would be better if you just stayed home." It's a little dis-empowering.

I really think that what would do our sport the biggest favor on both a personal and cultural level is to 'put away the toolbox' and focus ourselves more on the fun and beauty of our sport and it's natural habitat. Come to think of it, our sport was  less technological when it was huge in the 1990s. Hmm.

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