In the last few days, winter has finally caught up with us. The forecast for the past 24 hours was impressive, 45 and sunny falling to a few degrees (F) below 0, with close to a foot of snow, maybe some rain, and winds up above 20 miles an hour. At my 5000′ camp only a few inches of snow fell overnight, but the temp swing was no joke, and I had to hold a nalgene over the stove for a minute to get it open for breakfast. In any case, the lead photo harkens effectively back to this post; with the steeper 53 degree wall facing the camera shedding snow noticeably better than the 48 degree end wall on the viewers left.
In any case, rather than tussle with a late drive to trailhead and potentially getting seriously plowed in, I hiked from our back door and skipped over three ridge systems late into the night before finding the nice ponderosa patch shown above, which at 2200 was entirely snow free (the steeper wall was a bit harder to get well staked through the 4 inches of long needles and mule deer scat). The next morning I bushwacked down through more forest service land, climbed up a trail, bumped 40 head of elk, and traversed another ridge, dodging the -30F mph windchill, and made it back down to the bakery by the time my water had frozen solid.
This is all important because the access which allowed me to do a 20 mile loop with less then two miles of pavement door to door is possible because decades ago the city of Helena was visionary enough to protect big tracts of prime open space as city land, and today it facilitates deer and elk winter habitat and property values alike. This is in turn important because Helena, collectively, is now using these trails and their easy distance from town as a selling point for business and tourism. Especially insofar as tourism is concerned this means mountain biking, because (as will be relevant shortly) mountain biking is geographically and economically more of a destination affair. And this is in turn relevant because the practice of having a reasonably expansive mountain bike trail network, a sustainable network, within a town or city is increasingly at odds with how mountain biking is marketed to mountain bikers. And this conflict may or may not be relevant to what mountain biking looks like in another couple decades.
Long term readers here will know that Bedrock & Paradox started as a cycling blog. Then 11 years ago M and I moved to Montana and while I still rode my bikes often, the lure of the best of Montana being places where bikes either not able to not allowed to go put them far off the back burner. Then, two years ago, we briefly returned to the desert southwest, and with an easy reminder that it is and always will be, necessarily, the best mountain biking on earth, I was back paying attention to things I’d ignored for close to a decade. When we moved to Helena, the excellent and cycling friendly local trails served, along with the constant joy of a toddler and a balance bike, to keep my interest in mountain biking.
One at least subjectively drastic change from back then to now is that Pinkbike has evolved from a barely literate shithole website to a fairly literate, “largest mountain bike site on the web.” And this is in turn significant because Pinkbike is still doing what they’ve always done, aggregating content, charging a steep premium to native advertisers, and throwing in some skateboarding and BMX on slow days. And that is in turn significant because it provides the historical underpinning for the way mountain biking is beginning to diverge, potentially into two different sports. That I’m not personally a fan of jibbing, shuttling, and downhill only is irrelevant. If you don’t have to go far under your own power, and always have either gravity or internal combustion to help you out, it is little wonder that bikes are becoming something at best a bit discordant with the old, original idea of being able to go both up the hill, down the hill, and to the next state over, all on the same rig.
The logic here comes from several different and converging directions. In one direction, mountain biking is hard work, and intimidating. Lots more effort doesn’t get you much faster than walking on the way up, and on the way down there is the constant threat of injury and clumsiness. In another, the continued acceleration of technology combines with “modern” sensibilities and makes existing, multi-use trails less than satisfactory. This drives the “need” for berms, as flat corners become tedious, and B-line kickers, as 6 inches of travel pillows the little roots into oblivion. We see that here, when the local “Enduro” race brings a fusillade of folks on big bikes and full face helmets, taking to the green trails to grind in the braking bumps and french lines for the summer. In yet another direction, we see increased traffic all but mandating IMBA-spec bench cuts and switchbacks, things which may well lead to lassitude and bad behavior from core mountain bikers. And we see it from the most relevant direction of all, with prejudice and a shrinking world and increasingly fast and capable bikes resulting in them being banned from more and more of the most interesting places available.
A solution to many of these is in separating mountain bikes from other user groups and making in a separate thing, not unlike downhill skiing. Bike parks, mountain bike only trails, and shuttles; along with heavy, long travel, low BB, $4000 “affordable” bikes; combined with slapping corners, machine built jump lines, getting sendy, and cultivated skidding. All of these form a coherent future, but it is a future we want for mountain biking? Few if any of these may prove, long term, to be compatible with well traveled multi-use trails. Our own much beloved local shuttle is guilty of concentrating traffic to a drastic degree. On the one hand this makes pulses of bike traffic more predictable. On the other hand, it turns the best descent from each shuttle drop into a bumped-out, powdery hole fest by mid summer, and these trails will surely creep wider and wider each year. Will the bike industry be able to grow in a way which allows for sustainable growth within communities, or will mountain biking become a more isolated and necessarily affluent pursuit? Is one desirable compared to the other?
It depends on your angle.