I Was a Prisoner of the Mudpeople

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1997

I Was a Prisoner of the Mudpeople

It could have been the Fly-Fishians that got me. Or the Marathon Men. Or even the dread Golf-oids. But the fiendish Congregation of Dirtheads had already claimed my soul. From the cults of outdoor obsession, a survivor's tale.
By Hal Espen

His old bike, a powder-blue carbon-fiber Trek 9800 with a parti-colored array of trick aftermarket parts, has been his best friend on many an epic thrash, but now the Trek is on its last legs, and he's in the market for a new best friend. This time around — the next mountain bike will be his seventh — he has his heart set on titanium: a silvery Litespeed frame, perhaps, which he can build up with some spanking-new schwag he's angling for and a few components salvaged from the dying Trek.

Moab Boy, the handle of a friend of mine whose mother named him Dave, is an improvident, perpetually bankrupt graphic designer in his midthirties who lives in California. Dave can ill afford the expense of another top-notch steed, but he's the kind of single-minded adept that Bike magazine recently classified as Homoveloterra tototempo. His lust for a new ride persists like a low-grade fever. To make matters worse, a cruel friend recently showed up at his door with a factory-fresh Ibis Bow Ti, the current dream machine of dual-suspension titanium-frame lovers everywhere and, at $6,700, the most expensive production mountain bike ever. Dave had three delirious days of sampling the Bow Ti on the trails of Marin and Sonoma Counties before his friend returned home.

Ravished and devastated, Dave memorialized his brush with greatness in an E-mail note: "The thing is awesome. It's silk descending and it doesn't biopace (much) in the climbs. You can get up out of the saddle and grind, if not fabulously at least effectively. We're looking at the future of full suspension." This is the closest Dave will ever come to writing a sonnet.

But the mercilessly pricey Bow Ti might as well have been made of nonexistent unobtainium. In the wake of his friend's visit, Dave was left with only a sense of letdown and love lost. "Everything was OK until he showed up," he lamented. "I would ride a little road, a little dirt, and I was happy, but he showed up with that thing and now I'm in ruins. I bought a set of bar-ends and worked on the wreck and went for a good long ride, but it seemed hollow, empty, unfulfilling somehow."

Dave is the most extreme case of fat-tire obsessiveness I've seen up close, but he's hardly alone in bringing such all-consuming passion to his two-wheeled mania. Within the mass of 25 million Americans who pedal regularly exists a tribe of mountain-biking enthusiasts so possessed of hard-core devotion to the heraldry and ritual and lore of their sport, so entranced by the minutiae of equipment and accoutrements, so uplifted by the many-spoked splendor of it all that they might be said to constitute an independent republic. They are the citizens of Knobby Nation, and they are legion. Their love for tires is tireless; gleaming high-end hubs are the hub of their universe. When their rims are shot and their gruppo becomes obsolete they approach nirvana, for it is then that they must upgrade. Some live to ride, some ride to buy, and some, like Dave, fail to see the distinction. Their presence has transformed the landscape: If a latter-day Rip Van Winkle awoke on some lonely mountain and began to wend his way down a narrow trail, chances are his first astonishment would be an encounter with these strange new fanatics on wheels.

And those would just be the mountain-biking nuts. Add to their mud-spattered numbers the in-line skating addicts, the fly-fishing aficionados, the kayaking junkies, the skiing and snowboarding fools, the lens-and-guidebook-mad bird-watchers, and the rock- and mountain-climbing zealots — not to mention the cultists who started it all, the gram-shaving, gadget-toting backpackers — and you have a lot of sleekly outfitted techno-weenie leisure freaks fanning out throughout the land. In the last two decades purveyors of equipment, clothing, information, and adventure-travel tours have gathered around every conceivable outdoor endeavor, driving an ever-intensifying pursuit of gear-engendering innovation, which in turn has given rise to free-spending cargo cults centering on the supernatural powers of equipment and the magical properties of drastic fun. Americans Just Do It, but first they Buy It: We spend nearly $18 billion a year on sporting goods of all kinds, a figure that has risen more than 50 percent in just the last eight years.

Fat-tire races are a cross between a carnival, a medieval tournament, and a field hospital. This is my tribe, I think to myself. These are my people.

But to be honest, people like Dave and me don't spend too much time looking at the big picture. We're too busy thinking about mountain biking. Yes, I too am an embarrassingly gaga devotee of the dirthead cult (though I should hasten to add that I, a late arrival to the mountain-biking lifestyle, am but a lowly Grasshopper compared to Dave's Master Po). My story is a cautionary example of the insidiousness with which the mudpeople virus can infiltrate a person's hard drive. For much of the eighties and half of the nineties I lived in Manhattan, far from the burgeoning fat-tire culture and its lingua franca of bonk and bad biff and its tribal gatherings amid slickrock and singletrack. But on vacations out west I got a taste of the sport, and without quite knowing how it happened I found myself loitering in bike shops and subscribing to three different mountain-biking magazines and nodding off in bed while studying catalogs from Bike Nashbar and Performance, and thus by imperceptible degrees I progressed from casual excursions on an antediluvian three-speed to a demanding new role as a bug-eyed, whooping, slavering maniac bunny-hopping over rocks on a Stumpjumper in the godforsaken hinterlands of New Jersey. Eventually I quit New York and lit out for the territory. It was a life-changing step that I took only after much sober deliberation and soul-searching, but hidden among all my deep, serious reasons for bailing out of Gotham was a shallow, adolescent one: better riding.

I also moved to be closer to my brethren. This spring, Dave was supposed to meet me in Big Bear Lake, California, where we were going to take in the season's first National Off-Road Bicycle Association championship series races, the equivalent in some circles of opening day at Yankee Stadium. But at the last minute our plans got bumped by Dave's dream date with the Bow Ti. Determined to start the year off right, I headed to Los Angeles and drove up into the San Bernardino Mountains to Big Bear on my own.

Mountain bike races and fat-tire festivals are the commercialized descendents of the spontaneous and often disreputable powwows that brought bike freaks together in the early days of the sport. They still provide a chance for people like me to enjoy a marathon wallow in an all-bikes-all-the-time environment — a place where the dispersed loyalists of Knobby Nation can rub shoulders in close quarters and where a mountain biker can relax in the knowledge that there are thousands of other people taking their fixation to the same inane extremes he does.

A broad boulevard lined with pines and faux chalets leads uphill from the main drag in Big Bear Lake to the 8,200-foot slopes of Snow Summit, where the NORBA competition had already started when I arrived. Hundreds of cars, vans, and trucks stocked with a king's ransom in racks and bikes were parked side by side along the curbs on either side of the street. Most of the vehicles were festooned — plastered — with the telltale signs of brand loyalty and biking philosophy: Clif, Yeti, Did You Ride Your Bike Today?, Ibis = God, Scary Fast, Girls ¦ Dirt, Oakley, Grip Shift, Airwalk, No Fear, and so on. Up ahead, the tents and banners and semitrailers of the expo area sprawled beneath the base of the ski-lift tower, and higher still I could see the tiny figures of racers descending the final stretches of the course.

As spectacle, mountain-bike races are like a cross between a carnival, a medieval tournament, and a field hospital. When I checked in with one of the event promoters, the impressively tanned Pat Follett of Team Big Bear, he cheerfully reported that the ambulances and paramedics were on call constantly "because the downhill guys have been beatering in a major way all day." I left him to his walkie-talkie and his triage duty and stepped back out into the sonic soup of an announcer bellowing out race updates and results, which soon segued into the din of Beck rapping about the devil's haircut in his mind.

"You missed the really crazy stuff, man," Hubby told me, reminiscing about the nude tandem ride at Mammoth. "Those kinds of guys are gone."

One of the things that encourages fat-tire fanatics to bond so intensely is that mountain biking is only incidentally a spectator sport, and almost every person at a race comes to ride, either on the course or on the surrounding trails; my collarbone could be the next one to be broken. Heading out onto the expo grounds, I soon encountered the guys and gals who really know how to acquire souvenir fractures: the downhill racers, mountain biking's knights in armor. Some of them were wearing sinister black Dainese form-fitting suits with built-in padding, a look that projects NFL cornerback, Batman, and homicidal ninja all at once. At least half of the men and women and girls and boys promenading through the expo area were wheeling bikes around, and nearly everyone was decked out in jerseys and bike shorts, clomping along geekily with the flat-footed duckwalk of a person in cycling shoes. One senior rider with a long, gray, braided ponytail was dressed from neck to ankle in cotton-candy-pink tights. This is my tribe, I thought to myself, as these unembarrassed specimens paraded past me. These are my people.

I skipped spectating at the downhill races, partly because I resent the event's too-loud echoes of motocross racing and downhill skiing. In fact, if I were really being honest, I would admit that bike racing in general rouses little enthusiasm in me. As much as I admire the tenacity and athleticism of the best riders, I can never really love any two-wheeled endeavor that doesn't make room for lollygagging and frequent rest periods. At Big Bear I was watching part of the professional women's cross-country final when I saw Beth Coats, who was in the lead and had just finished toiling up a long, steep hill, turn to a friend of hers on the sidelines and hiss, "I need Cytomax!" Helmets off to Beth, but my policy is always to get off the bike and lie down well before I need a serious carbohydrate-electrolyte fix.

But I do love the pageantry of racing, and I don't mind having it going on around me while I shoot the breeze with the other dirtheads hanging out at a race. Besides fellowship, however, there is another reason to go to races and festivals: to drool over stuff. Strolling around, I slid in and out of conclaves of riders ogling the merchandise at the booths set up by bike manufacturers and race teams. At other stands vendors were hawking chain lube, sunglasses, derailleurs, rims, handlebar grips, tires, helmets, anodized chainrings, nutritional supplements, bike jewelry, twist our nipples T-shirts. Dazzled by the plenitude, I eventually took refuge from the southern California sun under the awning at the Ritchey trailer, where Ritchey marketing/PR coordinator Hunter Hubby invited me to pull up a lawn chair.

Hubby is still in his twenties, but he spoke like a guy who'd been around in the good old days. In between attending to passersby asking arcane questions about his company's tires and rims and rear-cassette add-on cogs, he told me yarns and tall tales about his seasons on the race circuit. The regulars had a miniature golf tournament going and played a new round in each location, he said; it was a pleasant way to spend part of the year, but still, a certain businesslike vibe had crept into the life.

"You missed the really crazy stuff in years past, man," he told me. "The scene is much straighter now. There were all these guys like Bob Seals, who invented the Cool Tool pocket wrench. He used to drive up in a big hippie bus full of party animals and get into some wild stuff." Seals was famous for competing on a one-speed bike while wearing nothing but a Speedo and sneakers. He was also the main instigator behind the infamous Naked Criterium at Mount Snow in Vermont every year. Seals's fall from grace came last year at Mammoth Mountain, after a late-afternoon keg party led to a nude tandem ride through the expo area and other unspeakable offenses, followed by his expulsion from the course. "Those kinds of guys are gone," Hubby said wistfully, shaking his head as he looked out at the sea of logos. Perhaps he was hoping that at that very moment a posse of nude tandem riders would come slaloming through the tents, howling and hollering and reviving the salad days right then and there. I certainly was.

The "bunch of stoners" who pioneered mountain biking left us something better than techno-weenie breakthroughs: an influx of fresh belief in adventure.

"My bike is better than your bike." so writes Bruce J. Jones, of Barnstable, Massachusetts, in the letters column of a recent issue of a giveaway bike publication called Sketchy Trails. In such low-rent places, far beyond the big races and industry events, you can still find the funk that keeps the grassroots scene from getting dull.

"I bought it for a fire-sale $1,000 as Bridgestone USA was going belly-up," Jones continues. "With minor modifications (Ritchey pedals and tires, a Bontrager ti saddle), it weighs under 24 pounds. It has a beautifully lugged Logic Prestige frame and fork, a full complement of XT componentry (except for Ritchey Logic brakes and crank), Ritchey Comp wheels, light-action thumb shifters, and a pearlcoat white finish that glows like a rainbow trout in the sun.

"Your dual suspension bike cost $2,000, weighs 27 pounds, is mechanically complicated, and — let's face it — it's butt ugly," Jones concludes. "My Bridgestone is the evolutionary pinnacle of mountain bike simplicity, function, performance, and beauty."

Bruce J. Jones, I salute you. Your repudiation of dual suspension has made a distinguished contribution to the rambunctious, never-ending pissing match that enlivens so much of mountain-biking discourse. You have vividly defined the fault line that supposedly divides the lunatic fringe of mountain bikers into opposing camps. On one side, the antiquarians: those who have chosen some arbitrary point in the past when they imagine fat-tire design attained aesthetic perfection. On the other side, the hammerheads: those who will ride any newfangled bike — even one that looks like a cross between a flying-V heavy-metal guitar and a neon pogo stick — if they believe it will deliver the slightest performance advantage.

In truth, most of us have one foot on each side of the line, though we happily exaggerate our preferences for the sake of argument. While secretly admiring the Ibis Bow Ti, I have enjoyed tormenting Moab Boy with my assertion that the bike is a visually unpleasing and insectile object, and he has gently mocked my unswerving antiquarian preference for the stalwart load-bearing reliability of my steel '94 Stumpjumper. (I ought to confess that in the vocabulary of mountain-bike racing, I am officially classified as a Clydesdale. Has there ever been a kinder and more welcoming euphemism for the big and/or corpulent?)

Mountain-bike classicism resonates with me, in part because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where sunburned hammerheads sprouted from the California soil at about the same time that technology gave us the pale computer hacker. In 1971, a computer scientist named Gordon Moore invented the microprocessor at Intel's headquarters south of San Francisco. That year, an only slightly less epochal moment in history occurred: A few miles north of the city, in Marin, a gang of Redwood High School seniors used a set of bootleg padlock keys to unlock fire-road gates on county watershed land, drove up to the ridgetops, and began to illegally race their fat-tire clunker bikes back down, trailing plumes of grit and glory.

In Silicon Valley, Gordon Moore became famous for formulating "Moore's Law," a back-of-the-envelope prediction that the power of microchips would double every 18 months, with proportionate decreases in cost. Something along the same lines has occurred in Knobby Nation over the past quarter-century, ever since Marin County wrenches like Gary Fisher and Joe Breeze began blacksmithing European derailleurs and heavy-duty custom parts onto old Schwinn Excelsiors. Constant innovation has given us index shifting, strong but light frames, reliable front and rear suspension, clipless pedals, hydration packs, V-brakes, and museum-quality helmets, not to mention such absurd add-ons as the Avid Rollamajig, the Ringlë Anti-Chainsuck Thing, KoolGlo Neon Bike Lights, and $250 turquoise-anodized, extruded-aluminum cranksets.

But mountain biking might have become merely the province of solemn nerds if it hadn't emerged from a laid-back counterculture backwater like Marin, where the sixties enjoyed a long, mellow afterlife. The clunker pioneers were a self-confessed "bunch of stoners" with plenty of time on their hands, but they were empowered by the prevailing Whole Earth Catalog ethic of do-it-yourself moxie. Gary Fisher was a sporadically employed slacker who used to put on psychedelic light shows at Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom, an experience that taught him, he says, the "sideways thought processes" that led him (and others) to an epochal brainstorm: the notion of a clunker with ten-speed gearing, a bike you could use not only to bomb down hills, but also to climb and to traverse the wild countryside.

Thus do we inherit not just technological breakthroughs, but also something that comes to us directly from mountain biking's hippie roots: an influx of fresh belief in the availability of adventure. Fat-tire riding has inspired nothing less than a second Great Bike Awakening. Back in the 1890s, in the middle of the first Great Awakening (tragically cut short by the arrival of the automobile), one commentator got a little carried away and called the bicycle "a scientific angel, which seems to bear you on its unwearied pinions." The mountain bike has given us back this zany faith. The gearhead innovations, the goofy subculture, and the bike's power to carry you past astonishing scenery and over obstacles have combined to supply us with a new way to fling open the doors of perception and let grand, endorphin-saturated moments flood into our lives.

The tools may improve and the arguments may rage on, but the trips never get better. Riders who once rode 43-pound Fred Flintstone specials may now carve down twisting singletrack on cutting-edge conveyances made of alloys and metal-matrices that had previously been found only in the hulls of nuclear submarines and the fuselages of Stealth bombers, but it's not the vehicle that carries the day. It's the epic.

What is this thing called an epic? To elucidate and anatomize, I offer up my first pilgrimage to Moab.

With our bikes piled in the back of a rented van, Dave, our artist bud Russell, and I hit the road not long ago with our compass pointed toward southeastern Utah, the Mecca of all who pedal the bare earth. As we passed the time talking trash, I was not surprised to discover that Dave's cyclo-centric world view extends even to the physiognomy of the opposite sex. It seems that the future Mrs. Moab Boy will not only be required to ride, but must be somewhat the worse for wear. "A woman is a little more beautiful with dings and scars on her legs," he insisted. "Knee-surgery scars look pretty on a woman. They say, 'I'm tough enough to do what it takes. I'm one of the Barbara Stanwycks of the world.'"

Russell did most of the driving. He is a seemingly low-key guy who has managed to organize a career, marriage, and fatherhood so that they only minimally interfere with the demands of intense recreational cycling. Behind the wheel, he was fond of pointing out toward some near-vertical slope rising from the southwestern landscape and announcing, "I could ride that."

"But I could do it in the big ring," Dave would invariably shoot back, and then the conversation would drift back to abstruse discussions of past rides and cool gear.

Late in the afternoon we rolled into the red canyon lands surrounding Moab and checked into our motel. There were to be many rides over the next few days, but the one I'll always remember began the next morning. Pulling my socks on by the dawn's early light, I was rudely reminded of Dave's uncanny ability to be ready to ride long before anyone else has even figured out where the hell they put their bike shorts. "Do you guys want to ride or what?" he razzed as he paced nervously, twitching with anticipation. "C'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon..."

A short drive up into the hills brought us to the trailhead of the 21-mile Porcupine Rim route. A brief interlude of sunscreen glopping, lube spritzing, and CamelBak sucking was enlivened by a communal recounting of the grisly details surrounding the recent deaths of a pair of bikers in nearby Negro Bill Canyon. Then, with a rush of adrenaline, we were clipped in and ascending a mountain-goat promenade that led up to a 6,800-foot plateau above Castle Valley and the edge-of-the-world precipice along Porcupine Rim, where we surveyed a vista only slightly less spectacular than a hawk's-eye view of Monument Valley. From this psychedelic rest stop, the trail took us through sandy washes, down giant boulder-strewn staircases, across meringue bowls of slickrock. In an aerobic fugue state we mounted ridgetop aeries and took in dizzying dioramas of Navajo sandstone whorls and sentinel outcroppings and an infinity of fractal cliffs and bluffs. On and on the trail carried us, until we finally began a narrow singletrack descent down toward the Colorado River and the highway that would take us another six miles back to Moab. Somewhere along the way, while trying not to glance at the sheer 500-foot drop three feet to my right, I realized I had never been happier.

The final stage of an epic is the onset of simultaneous exhaustion and ravenous hunger. By the time we started rolling down the highway toward town, I was blissfully done for, but Moab Boy offered final proof of his greatness by volunteering to do the 11-mile climb back to the trailhead to pick up the van. Russell gamely offered to accompany him, but I for one was not about to follow that idiot up the hill again. In the end, Russell and I were content to let Dave finish his greater epic alone. Off he rode on his dusty, battered Trek, while Russell and I made a beeline for the nearest drive-in, where we ecstatically consumed the first of the three dinners we would eventually eat that night. Then we went back to the motel, watered the tree of lassitude with cold beer, and ordered a pizza in anticipation of Dave's return. Reduced to its stupid essentials, life was good.

The point is — and I think dirtheads and outdoor monomaniacs of all stripes will agree — you need to go out and have an epic. The stuff, the equipment, the races, the lifestyle nonsense will only take you so far, and then you must seek out adventure and camaraderie and the opportunity to abuse and break and dirty that expensive gear according to your lights. Up in Moab, I muttered my apologies to the spirit of Ed Abbey, who in his final years was said to view the knobby-tire invasion of the canyon country as a particularly subtle but evil manifestation of industrial tourism — but damn it, Ed, I approve of mountain biking: the landscape-leaping range it gives, the stamina and grace it requires, the way it makes you want to believe you're doing something no one has never done before. That's what all the fancy dross and high-tech geegaws are for.

Moab Boy needs a new mountain bike because his old one has accomplished this for him over and over again. It's at the end of a long trail strung with epics, and of all the possible reasons to break down and get a new bike, that is the best one of all.

Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web