I Was a Prisoner of the Mudpeople
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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.
“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
“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
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
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
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
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”
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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