Caste Away

Adventure sports are more factionalized than religion. And I'm feeling like a heretic.

    Photo: Andy Potts

A Personality Test for Active Types

YOUR HEADWEAR
A. Half-helmet with RedBull stickers
B. Peruvian hat with earflaps that smells of pine pitch
C. Giro bike helmet

YOUR CAR
A. Often doubles as your home
B. Has both four-wheel drive and a turbocharger
C. Was totaled

YOUR SCORE
AA: You owe someone $20
AB: AA owes you $20
AC: You grabbed your boat and hitched a ride to the put-in
BA: Make that a double latte
BB: No, that's your dad's car
BC: Clean everything out before the cops get there
CA: Your married friends secretly envy you
CB: A lot of your "friends" secretly hate you
CC: Was the Trek Madone on the roof rack?

Podcast Version:
Listen Download

I WAS SHOVING my full-suspension mountain bike into my car after a recent ride when I heard a couple of guys on aluminum hardtails ping into the lot. They didn't know each other. They just happened to be finishing at the same time. Both riders wore black Lycra shorts and colorful cycling jerseys, the same stuff road racers wear. Their handlebars were flat, favoring speed over comfort and handling. As I was turning around to smile hello, they greeted each other in the fashion of their tribe: "Dude, it's nice to see another hardtail out here!" said one. "Yeah, right on!" said the other.

As they bantered, one of the hardtailers sized me up in a glance: baggy shorts, heavy but comfy trail bike, loose-fitting jersey. I could see the disdain in his eyes right through the rose lenses of his sport shields. I was dead to him. Just as I was dead to the freerider (long-travel shocks, nylon pants, pads) pedaling his squishy bike to the trailhead. Ditto the pair of single-speeders (tats, eyebrow studs, skate helmets), standing on their pedals and heading to the fire-road climb.

There I was, a mountain biker surrounded by mountain bikers—with no one to talk to. I was invisible, excommunicated, estranged, and in dire need of a hefeweizen. It wasn't always so (except for the hefeweizen part). When I started mountain biking, in 1987, it felt like I knew just about every rider in northern New Hampshire. The sport was a community. Now it's a caste system determined by tire width and wardrobe. And the stratification isn't true only of mountain bikers. As core participants pursue ever more obscure niches and subsets of their respective sports, the social fabric that once tied us all together under the broad header of "outdoor athlete" is unweaving.

Go to the ski hill and it's the same. New-school skiers (twin-tips, crocheted beanies, pants below the ass) sit in the terrain park—on powder days!—waiting for the halfpipe to firm up. Tele skiers (duct tape, peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos, self-righteousness) work the trail edges for soft-snow scraps. And freeskiers (jaw guards, fat skis, angry vibes) are out straightlining untracked fluff. They don't ski alike, nor do they talk alike: What the hell is a "cork nine," and what do mutes have to do with it? Snowboarders don't even talk to each other. That sport is so segmented into youth-focused cores that they kick you out when you hit 30. Sorry, Pops, you're bad for the sport's image. Try golf.

Kayakers have been sniping at each other since playboats were invented. I was running a river in Montana once with a friend when we stopped at a standing wave to surf. Oh, were those freestyle boaters pissed. Again, I could read their thoughts: "What are these downriver boaters doing surfing our wave? Dudes, your boats have convex hulls. Go on an expedition or something." We left when a dork on a boogie board jumped in. He may have been bludgeoned.

Rock climbers are still more cliquish. Boulderers don't talk to sport climbers, who don't talk to traddies. And free-soloists don't talk to anyone. "What—you use ropes? Please."

Much of this specialization-induced nihilism is gear-related. On the one hand you have the tech-crazed futurists who view every innovation as an opportunity to get freaky: "If I had nine more inches of travel in this fork, I bet I could ride over that heifer"... "Blending skateboarding with BASE jumping is taking the sport to the next level." Then you have the anti-tech Luddites who revolt against not only innovation but the technological present as well: "The telemark turn is such a pure form of skiing"... "Unsuspended single-speed mountain bikes are elegant in their simplicity."

It's high time somebody called out all those who relegate their sports to the extreme fringes. So here goes: Stop polishing your eyebrow studs and get over your bad selves. It's not that I don't love the diversity. As a cyclist, I'm a fan of all iterations of the sport: BMX, freeride, road racing—even those recumbent bikes are kind of cool. Same with skiing. I used to be a mogul skier; now I'm a powder skier and a nordic skier, but really I'm just a skier. The core bros who are driving innovation in outdoor sports are doing good work, but their self-reverential attitudes turn new participants off.

Why insulate yourselves? Narrow definitions hurt us. Baggy or tight, stiff or rigid, tats or a beard—just fashion choices. And the mountains, trails, rivers, and oceans where we play don't give a marmot's ass about fashion. Neither do the land managers who control them. Imagine if all the trail users in your town got together over several kegs of Fat Tire and said, "We want more trails." Something would actually get done. It all starts by reaching out to people who don't look like you, even if what they're wearing offends you on an almost spiritual level. I'm not looking for hugs here; even one of those subtle little nods would be an improvement. I'll start: "What up, brah?"

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Comments