Back in the 90′s, racing mountain bikes was everything I could want. Teenage dreams of a weekend away from the parents in the middle of nowhere with mates, great, great mates with whom adventures were guaranteed. Luck was often pushed as we treated the events like the escape from mudane urban life they really should be. Campfires, country pub investigation and mild anarchy, when overly serious looking middle-of-the-pack-and-know-it were trying to get futile beauty sleep, mixed with beer that always tasted sweet as we’d destroy any chance of getting decent race results in favour of flying high in the ‘living life’ contest instead.
Of course, come the cold, bright light of morning we’d still pull on whatever clothes we’d brought to ride bikes in (if we’d brought any particular clothes to ride in) and delve into the murky world of ‘hoping you’d do well’, closely followed by ‘try really hard’ (and ‘fail spectacularly’ – I remember vividly ragging it past Tony, a mate who’d set off in a different age group race to me, had a problem and slowed so he could ride with the rest of us, shouting “I’m on a flyer, can’t stop” only to add a full stop to that sentence by slamming straight into a rather stout oak tree. The piss taking didn’t stop, even for breath, for the rest of the weekend, then month, then several years after). But the trying only lasted as long until someone with a clipboard stood on the start/finish line and did the magic “get back to f-king about” dance.
Along the last 20 odd years, the mountain bike industry grew up in a similar kind of way to me. Those popularity fuelled races gave way to a much more serious looking industry. Crazy face pulling and ‘awesome-as’ paintjobs in adverts gave way to chisel-jawed pro-poses on bikes with graphics designed to ‘give the impression of speed, even when stood still’ (OK, that was the boast from a car advert, but you get the idea), just as larking about endlessly for me gave way to going to work and ‘trying to get the most out of every ride’. But, as we all know, being a grown up sucks.
Thankfully, despite all this mundanity, the New-Concept-Blandness and the mass industrialisation of a way of escaping from the mass industrialisation of everything else, mountain bike racing still exists.
It’s gone through some rough times, with numbers dwindling to a few hardcore racers who really were just there to swivel round and round between some course tape and go home without so much as raising an eyebrow to anyone else, but it’s firmly back on track as everything it was to me as a teenager, for a whole new audience.
I’m chuffed to bits every time I get to a race site a day or two before the race itself, only to find hundreds of likeminded people already doing just what I used to do with my mates. Chilling, laughing, piss taking, creating the good times to remember in future. You know it’s going to be good as soon as you see it. Then you immerse yourself in it.
The racing is still as furious as ever, ‘try really hard’ is still the order of the day, but that magic finish line dance by the officials is still just as powerful. Whether you’ve had a flyer, or even just hit a stout looking oak tree, the weekend’s only half done by the time the official riding finishes…