Mountain biking – going downhill, but in a good way….

2012 Apr 15 001editWhen someone as steeped in the world of mountain biking as Andy Waterman suggests that the sport is in  decline, it’s got to be worth taking seriously and, in an article entitled ‘When Did it all Start to go Downhill for Mountain Biking‘ in the Independent, that’s exactly what he suggests. However, the picture he paints of a sport that is a ‘hidden cult’, arcane and mysterious to the newcomer and therefore in terminal decline, is not one I recognise.

Andy Waterman has been a mountain biker since the early days, a journalist for much of that time and patently believes that the sport underwent a stratospheric rise in popularity that has now turned inexorably into a steady fall from grace.  He lays the blame squarely at the door of the manufacturers who have burdened the market with a plethora of technical options, 26″ wheels, 650b, 29″ wheels, suspension of every flavour, tyres that cost more than car tyres and cassettes that set you back the average weekly wage.  He insists that this technical nerdery puts off those who want to have a crack at the sport.

So far and, up to a point, I agree with him.  The manufacturers have got themselves into a right pickle.  Having spent years trying to persuade us that it was perfectly feasible to have one bike that would do everything, they’ve done a smart about face and demanded that we all buy two or three bikes.  So, that’s a hard tail 29er with 100mm fork if you’re going for a quick XC loop, a full suspension 650b if you’re taking part in an enduro race at the weekend or something with 26in wheels and 7″ of travel if you’re heading for one of the growing number of uplift venues in the country.

Beyond that though, I disagree with pretty much everything he says.  I’ve a feeling that the closer we are to a sport, the more jaundiced our view.  It’s terribly easy to fall into the ‘It was so much better in my day’ trap.  I’m not sure that the welter of different bike types and sizes has any affect on those swinging a leg over a mountain bike for the first time.  I’ve just had a brochure through the door from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op (EBC) and it is carefully targeted. Knowing that those who are after the latest super-bike will have researched it to the nth degree on the web and in the mags, EBC concentrate on entry level bikes, hard tails in the main and keep references to different wheel sizes to a minimum.

And everywhere I go I see that policy paying off, I see loads of entry level bikes.  Whether it’s a trail centre or the Peak District on any given sunday, lots of nice shiny hardtails ridden by nice shiny smiley riders.  Even ten years ago, I could hit my local trails on a sunday and get away with seeing only a couple of riders – now it’s a couple of dozen.  Sheffield was once home to one big bike shop and two or three tiddlers.  Now, J E James has been joined by EBC and Evans and a number of independent shops.  All stock lots of mountain bikes and seem to be selling them,

Coincidentally, I’ve just been chatting to a mate who this very morning took three workmates to Bike Park Wales. All three had just bought bikes on the Ride to Work Scheme, two of them Boardman’s and the other a Specialized Hard Rock.  In spite of moaning all the way to the top, they had an absolute blast on the way down and insisted, in spite of the fact that they’re all woefully unfit, on riding back up for a second go.  I’m diametrically at odds with Waterman here because right now has to be the best possible time to start mountain biking.  Along with most mountain bikers of a certain age, all my early riding was done on pretty dull woodland trails.  At the time I didn’t live in the Peak District or the Lakes or Wales and thought that riding along a field margin on a bridleway that had been churned to porridge by horses was as hardcore as it gets.  I almost wish I were starting out all over again.  The blue trails at Bike Park Wales, Glentress and the rest are a superb introduction to the fun of mountain biking and entirely preferable to a muddy field in Kent.

Waterman somewhat shoots himself in the foot when he quotes some quite astonishing figures from Tourism Intelligence Scotland.  Mountain biking is worth £119m to the Scottish economy.  No wonder they’re considering independence.  I’d love to see a comparable figure for Wales where an enormous amount of public money has been spent beefing up the trails at Afan/Glyncorrwg recently and the aforementioned Bike Park Wales at Merthyr Tydfil has also received help from the local authority, Welsh Assembly, uncle tom cobbly and all.  This is politicians giving money to mountain biking at a time of national austerity.  There must be something in it for them.

Last and by no means least, I think the mountain biking scene is in rude health.  There’s a dozen different ways to get involved with racing whether it’s XC, Enduro or Downhill.  Britain is arguably the strongest nation in the world at downhill and there are a number of young riders coming through the youth world cup who will continue the Peat/Atherton dynasty.  Local races are numerous and I think that the mountain biking community is one of the most inclusive in which I’ve ever been involved.  Of course there’s the odd dickhead who looks down their nose at you but most of the riders I encounter are having fun and love to stop for a chat.  The scene in Sheffield is as good as it gets and it doesn’t matter if you’re riding a Raleigh Activator or a Santa Cruz V10, whether you’re 17 or 70, if you ride off road, you’re part of the gang.  

Mountain biking is as good now as it’s ever been, maybe better.  Or am I just a glass-half-full kind of a guy?