It’s not bragging if you can do it.

Posted: July 27, 2015 in Outside on a bike

In case you weren’t aware, I ride bicycles. A lot. And have for a couple decades now.

We started in the late 80’s/early 90’s (That’s the official time frame. In reality, we’d been bending the rims of Ross 10 speeds and shattering the plastic mags on Kmart BMX bikes since the 70’s). At that time, the term “building a trail” wasn’t invented. Not here on the East coast yet, anyway. We simply got on our bikes, pointed them into the woods and pedalled.

Our trails were and remain a combination of overgrown former mining and logging roads, ancient deer trails and hiking trails cut into the forest floor by generation after generation of adventuresome kids ( the latter now cherished relics, as no new ones are made. Because there aren’t any iPads in the woods…but that’s a story for another day).

Roots worn slick as grease by years of passing boots and dirtbike tires, running across the trails like angry wooden snakes, poised and ready to bring you down in a flash or sink their fangs into you innertube should your arse be sufficiently fat.

And between the roots, there were rocks. Rocks varying in size from chickenheads, to babyheads, to “that’s a big fuckin’ rock dude!”. Some buried deep enough to behave in much the same manner as an entire wall when it came to stopping ones forward motion, “Gravity checkers” as they were known.

Others scattered loosely, sometimes piled a foot deep, making traction an impossibility and prompting one to pedal frantically before hitting them in the hopes that inertia would get you all the way over before your front tire washed out. That worked. A little.

And, most prevalent in our neck of the woods, black coal silt. A fine, abrasive cloud of dust that blackened your toes through you shoes and socks and wore bearings down to misshapen blobs of sobbing steel with lighting speed!

And the bikes…oh baby! Personally, I rode a 1987 Trek 800 Antelope I had modified intensely. I’ve mentioned before how Gopher and I pulled the rear dropouts as far apart as possible while forcing a wheel with a 7 speed cassette into an area designed for 5.  It was an unwieldy beast. Steel, rigid, 26″ and way too long a wheelbase for what I did with it. But I did it.

My friends Gopher and Nukes were a little more advanced. The had shocks. With a (then) remarkable one inch of travel! Steel. Heavy. Twitchy geometry that todays riders would immediately kill themselves trying to maneuver in a straight line. But they whipped around the always startling turns our woods continually surprised us with.

And with narrow, NARROW bars to accommodate the equally narrow area these trails allowed.  All neatly capped with bar ends. What’s a bar end? Im glad you asked, sonny!

Bar ends were devices that aided climbing by offering a better riding position to prevent spinning your rear wheel out and screwing your momentum. However, conversely, they acted like angry, evil hands that randomly reached out and grabbed passing brush. Usually when you were approaching 20 m.p.h.

Ah, but today! Today there are dropper posts that everyone “must have”. Despite the fact that the technology is so new that ALL of them break, FEW of them function at all and NONE of them are necessary if you have hip joints. Because if you do, you can lift your ass OFF the saddle and hang it over the rear wheel (as opposed to just LOWER over the bottom bracket) where it actually makes a difference when bombing downhill.

There are not only suspension forks with obcene amounts of travel (upwards of 210 mm!), but myriad versions of rear suspension with as much or more travel, totally eliminating the need to learn how to navigate. When you can just barrel over anything, there’s no need to waste time learning finesse. Besides, with rear suspension, you can’t feel the trail anymore, anyway, so what good would finesse do you, right?

There are new, larger wheel sizes that are specifically designed to make surmounting obstacles easier, while simultaneously dulling the agility of the bike. A custom design to dumb the rider down.

New “standards” (the MTB industry calls every single new idea, no matter how obviously useless or doomed to rapid extinction as a new standard”. This thing you keep saying… I do not think it means what you think it means…) are being foisted upon riders and some supposedly objective publications may actually be getting paid to give some of the most useless crap since teats on a boar stellar reviews.

Here’s some insight:  http://www.churchoftherotatingmass.com/2014/01/07/are-we-not-journalists/

All the while, the ‘experts’ continue to sound the death knell of all things non-brand spankin’ and smacking of status symbol priceyness (whatchya compensating for there, sport?). If I had a dime for every time some trust fund tech weenie told me hardtails, steel frames and 26″ inch wheels were “dead”, I’d have a titanium 26″ hardtail. Nyah!

There are now full suspension fat bikes, 29plus, and lets not forget the baggadouchios who hog the trails and endanger everyone because they need more “über gnarly GoPro footage, brah!”. There are shuttles and chairlifts taking riders to the top of a mountain to ride back down… that’s just stupid, yo. There is ZILCH satisfaction unless you ride up, first. And that’s coming from a 47 year old, “I was at Lollapalooza ’92” card carrying old schooler (with a ‘ch’, not a ‘k’), junior! Man up, ya doughy pansies!

It seems a lot of built trails are all ‘flow’ and very little challenge and many historically natural trails are being homogenized in the name of preservation. I love, love, LOVE flowy, hard pack trails. I love a day full of 17 m.p.h. meandering and getting low and carving hard on manicured berms. But not ALWAYS.

Those are vacation rides. Riding the Allegrippis system at Dirt Fest this year was just such a pleasure. It felt like riding on a cloud and I couldn’t believe how little pedalling had to be done to preserve forward momentum. But I can’t do it every day. I don’t have any DESIRE to do it everyday. I get bored without constant challenges to my resolve, endurance and ability. It’s about always learning, always improving. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Period.

Todays rider, and todays American society, it seems, have no compulsion to achieve. No lust for conquest over themselves and nature. “Easy, man. Gotta be easy or I’m not doing it.” It’s appalling.

I can relate in no way whatsoever to a human being who takes no pride in being able to do something today that they could not do yesterday. As Gopher so succinctly put it “Why compete when everyone who shows up gets a trophy?”. Today’s riders mentality makes the ancient Roman senate look like Geek Olympiads by comparison. And I simply do not understand.

I’m all for getting more people’s butts on bikes. But what caliber person do we want on the trail is the question no one seems to be asking. Much of the sport has been reduced to aiming bikes as opposed to steering. It’s been made so utterly unchallenging that nearly anyone can do it. And if anyone can do it, anyone will.

As more morons with no grasp of trail etiquette bombard trail systems with their lack of consideration and wonton destruction of terrain, I promise you that trail access restrictions will promptly ensue. Even bike licenses and subsequent licensing fees aren’t out of the realm of possibility when a desperate attempt to stem the tide of kooks on two wheeled missles bent on destroying the culture is deemed necessary. 

I think my belief that there is no reward without toil has a lot to do with why I respect singlespeed riders. Personally, I don’t ever want to have to pedal a single speed bike up a mountain, but I have mad respect for those who do. And it’s based solely on knowing how much more difficult it is to ride than something with gears.

But I digress…

Yesterday, myself and my equally ancient hetero life mate, Gopher, decided to revisit some of our original singletrack runs. Me on my 26″ hard tail 2013 Motobecane Fantom (that’s right, kids, Bikes Direct! I don’t need a big name, I need quality at a blue collar price and I do my own wrenching, so Pffffft!) and Goph on his 1992 or ’93 Trek 930 Singletrack (which I powder coated a triple-fade from white’ to purple, to blue in ’95 or so), although he usually rides his ’92 Mongoose, on which the only original parts remaining are his front derailleur and a brake hanger.

These trails would be, to a modern rider, impossible to navigate on the bikes we chose.

Granted, there were decent sized chunks of this journey that a modern squishy bike could have mashed over that we had to carry ours over, but much like pizza and sex, when it comes to a ride, it’s quality over quantity. Mostly, anyway.

We bombed down death trails at 15 m.p.h, climbed 900 feet at a %14 grade in less than a half mile (well, Goph did. I got about 2/3 up and decided I’d reserve my moxie for the long haul…) we rode an amzingly beautiful, well hidden rarely traveled trail, completely encompassed in laurels known to our crew as “The Vietnam”… we were born in ’68, after all.

The last time he and I had ridden there, there was blasting going on for construction of the Casey Scenic Byway branch of US 6, 20 years ago. We also used to ride the byway itself before it’s completion. It was a dirt highway to all the great trails that are hard to get to now that the pavement has been laid down.

We rode all day, except for when we pushed ’em or carried ’em. We portaged though black mine water above our knees, shouldering our steeds to the other side. In the middle of the warm, greasy, black water, there was the shockingly cold remider that a creek fed it, and continued on into the woods on the other side. Mud made from the evil aforementioned coal silt six inches deep sneaking it’s gritty, grimy way between our toes and binding our SPD cleats full with it’s insidious cruddyness.

We explored the hidden remains of Edgerton, Pennsylvania (Google it!), past the pumphouse that once fed Jermyn and Archbald PA their drinking water, and the foundation of the tiny schoolhouse where only the girls spent their days, the boys being sent to work and die in the mines by age seven.

We took trails long abandoned that were once switchbacked roads who’s retaining walls at every bend were constructed by hand, one stone atop another, hundreds or thousands of stones in neat rows without mortar. Built by a generation that would find my idea of challenging to be laughable. That of the generation after me, horrifying. These men, their town, and this road long since swallowed up by the unstoppable force of nature reclaiming its own.

We toiled, sweat, cursed, fell and bled (as of this moment, I can only use my left butt cheek to sit. My right one is one large, gruesome bruise) we laughed and shouted with glee, and there were plenty of hi-fives and utterances of ‘Holy shit’ to go around.

What there was a conspicuous absence of, was other riders. A few bulbous middle aged guys puttering through the woods on quads with a case of Genesee bungied onto the rack, but no other bikes.

No fancy duallies with seventy two feet of travel front and back with electronic shift assist and dropper posts, auto pilot or remote drone riding capability (so you can ride from the comfort of your own home, between Walking Dead binges on Netflix and marathon sessions of Minecraft).

No downill kids getting a ride to the top of crane hill in daddy’s Escalade so they can shoot footage of their “epic” 37 second decent and quickly scurry home to upload it and wait to count the hits.

Nobody.

Just two gnarly dudes on the short side of 50 riding bikes that showcase the height of 20th century technology.

“Why Fud, you smug sonofabitch! What makes you think you’re so superior”, you may well ask.

It’s simple, really. If we weren’t superior, we wouldn’t have been alone in the woods.

‘Nuff said.

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