It’s been about two years since I swung a leg over the first mountain bike I’d ridden since I was a kid. Two years and, oh, roughly five bikes ago. I started on a no-frills hardtail (a bright purple one at that), then moved up to a 27.5+ (shoulda kept that one), before turning to full suspension, where theft and insurance replacements and smart eBaying led to my current ride, a bright neon carbon-frame 29er dual banger from a smallish, core company. My skills have risen with the quality of my bikes. Daily rides on the historic trails of Marin County, California, these past two years have firmly placed me, I think, at the bottom rung of competence. I can hold my own. If you encountered me on a trail today, you likely wouldn’t remember me the next day. I’m just…there. Not humiliating myself, not turning any heads. Perfect.
That spectrum, from total kook to the barest competence, provides a wide spectrum for snickering, ridicule, eye rolls, and outright shunning. I was prepared for this when I began. Nervous, a man in his late-30s, awkwardly spinning up trails routinely ridden by spandex-clad XC maniacs, shuddering down rock gardens passed by college kids in full-face helmets, bellying up to beer spots filled with hardened trail slayers clinking pint glasses together after a ride. I thought I wouldn’t fit, wouldn’t belong. I thought I’d bear the brunt of sidelong glances, maybe some fingers pointed at my aluminum frame.
The surf world could learn a hell of a lot from the mountain bike world when it comes to bringing newbs into the fold.
I was prepared for this because my only real frame of reference for an outdoor sport community is surfing, something I’ve devoted my life to for the past 25 years. I’ve earned a spot, should I want it, at the top of the grumpy surfing totem pole as a cooler-than-thou lifer. Well, not where I live, of course. Because of a byzantine set of rules that involve where you went to high school, perhaps where your parents did, who you say hi to in the lineup and whom you ignore, I’ll never be a local here at my home breaks in San Francisco. Forever on the outside, looking in. Of course, the moment I go back to my hometown, where I grew up surfing, it’s everybody else who is on the outside, pawing at the glass.
This is maybe a bit of a broad generalization, but also one that pretty much any surfer who’s spent a lifetime in the waves will tell you: surfers are particularly dismissive of newcomers. That’s partly because waves are a finite resource and crowds ruin the fun of surfing, and also because surfing is incredibly difficult to become good at, and unless you started as a kid, you’re unlikely to ever master it. If you’re competent, you’ve spent years and years getting better and you’re proud of your status, and guard your status with a kind of jealousy. But we’re also mercilessly dismissive of surfers at our own skill level, especially if we don’t recognize them. Some of the coldest silences you’ll ever experience can be found when a surfer is checking the waves at a spot with nobody out when another surfer arrives to do the same thing. We berate each other for taking pictures of good waves, for fear somebody else will come surf the same sandbar. We stink-eye each other in parking lots, knowing we’ll be competing for the same scraps once we hit the water. Not always, of course. But often.
So, anyway, after a lifetime of this, I stiffened my spine when I first hit the trails on my bright purple mountain bike. I expected rudeness, I expected barking at the new guy, I expected snickers. Not the good kind, either.
Instead, I was greeted with stoke. “Just got my first bike,” I told people I knew were hardcore riders. “Cool, let’s ride sometime,” they’d respond. This is not something expert surfers ever say to newbs. Ever. On the trail, I was shocked to hear helpful, friendly communication. “Two back,” riders would announce as they passed in an opposite direction. And, unbelievably, “Thanks, man,” I’d hear from the trailing riders as I made room for them to pass. As I’d come bumbling slowly up rocky sections, downhill riders would slow to a stop to allow me, the uphill rider, room to slip by. Most of the time, they’d extend a friendly, “Have a good ride.”
Thanks? Communication? Etiquette? This is the stuff of real community building.
I’m not totally naive. I read plenty of essays from hardened cyclists complaining about the lack of etiquette. I know all about the conflict among trail users. I am well aware I haven’t been doing this nearly long enough to become jaded. I don’t have anything to compare the attitudes of today’s riders with those of a decade or two ago. I am still a newb. I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know.
But I can tell you, fellow riders, that you have it very good. It’s been a refreshing joy to arrive at the trailhead to smiles. It’s been beyond thrilling to announce that I’ve only been riding for a couple of years when I’m asking for help at a local bike shop and not be condescended to. A thrill to encounter badass teenagers on expensive bikes who actually seem to understand the value of trail etiquette. A real pleasure to actually share trail beta with riders far, far better than I, who could just as easily hoard their knowledge of favored trails. I suppose it’s possible they are, but I don’t at all feel like I’m not cool enough to ask, that there’s a secret handshake I have yet to learn before I’m allowed in the club’s door.
It’s been nothing but smiles and a welcoming attitude since I arrived. Honeymoon phase? I don’t think so. For whatever reason, I’ve encountered many surfers riding mountain bikes over the past couple of years, who, like me, are surfing a whole lot less and riding bikes a whole lot more. Some of whom traded a surfboard for a bike years and years ago. We all say the same thing: Can you believe how friendly people are on bikes? And no, we can’t.
The surf world could learn a hell of a lot from the mountain bike world when it comes to bringing newbs into the fold. It’s not easy to build this kind of welcoming vibe.
Photo: Sam Marx