Monday, 30 January 2012

Is MTB Racing The Next Big Thing?

I'm going to have to do some updating on the look of this thing. It's not that I don't like it, it's that it is a little stale after a couple of years.

Had a brief but interesting conversation yesterday about the circularity of things. Not so very long ago, Road racing was totally in the dumps. Mountain biking was king, Day-Glo and anodized aluminum parts in all sorts of freaky colors ruled the day. But, wouldn't you know it, the rat race of keeping up with all the new stuff, combined with a whole bunch of other factors, eventually killed the sport. it's a pretty predictable arc: early adopters get into something, because it's new because it's fun and because it's unique. I think that a lot of these people enjoy being the guys who are doing something that few others are doing. then, of course, some of them can't keep their mouth's shut, and become evangelists. They inspire a bunch of people to give it ago, and then you have the initial tornado phase developing.

That phase is really the go or no go moment for these things. If generation 1.1 of enthusiasts inspires enough "mainstream" people to get involved, then things really blowup. This is pretty well the exact thing that happened with cyclocross. Road is a bit of a different story, primarily because it had existed for so long. I don't know that a lot of people know this, but the MABRA BAR initially came into being in order to provide DC area road racers with an incentive to stick around here. At the time, most people were going to Pennsylvania very often to race in the healthier scene there. Hard to believe against the backdrop where cat five and cat four road races fill up within minutes, and you never have to drive more than an hour to race all you want, but 10 years ago it was a very different scene.

Doubtless, there was some "Lance effect" that pushed things along with the road scene. Coincidently with this shift, there was a huge global shift where sales of mountain bikes were just replaced with sales of road bikes. Total unit sales stayed relatively flat, but the make up changed wildly. Now, of course, we are in a situation on the road where brand-new CAT5's are showing up with equipment that a cat to would have thought indulgent just a short time ago. Not to mention how many of these guys are working with coaches.

Although some of that may sound like an indictment, it isn't. People might see it as a little funny, but we live in a world where that kind of stuff is the norm, and if people want to indulge themselves in bike racing, which generally promotes fitness, Well-being, and good competition, so be it. I'm all for it.

Nonetheless, there is always going to be a subset of people who take the attitude that "that's not what it's about". For others, they are just going along with the game that's available rather than the game that they'd most like to play. A couple of years ago, even before I had ever done a mountain bike race, I noticed a surge in curiosity about mountain biking that mirrored my own feelings at the time. Now that I've been doing some racing for bed, I see what was a small surge becoming a bigger surge. Some of it, I feel, is intrinsic to the attractiveness of the sport. Mountain biking, and mountain bike racing are fun as hell. I think that if many people were to try it, it would quickly become their favorite discipline. There is a big element of skill to go along with the fitness requirements, and things get more striated along Lines that make more sense to people. Generally, if you finished 10th, you were probably the 10th strongest dude. That's one thing that people like about cross racing, but mystifies many about roadracing. The "if you ain't winning, You're losing" of road racing doesn't make sense to a lot of people.

The atmosphere at mountain bike races is generally really cool. People are low key, helpful, and just sort of into it for a good time. Sure there is some of the hypercompetitive stuff going on, anytime there is a start line you're going to have that. But it's really not out of hand. It seems a lot like how people describe the cross seen just a few years ago. Now, there is still a pretty good vibe at cross races, but you do hear a lot of people bemoaning days gone by when there wasn't quite so much competitive focus on it. to put it in catchphrase terms, cross is the new road. And I would say that mountain biking is the new cross.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Cross races are thick on the ground. Without ever driving more than an hour to get to one, I did many more races this fall than was healthy. In order to do the same with mountain biking you would need to spend a ton of Time in the car. Also, while mountain bike races, despite the geographic hurdles, are somewhat easy to put on, training for them is a bit more challenging. in order not to get your ass handed to you, you need to be pretty slick in the singletrack. Which means, to most people, getting in the car and going to a trail system. I am a bit lucky in that I can ride singletrack nearly from my door, but it's still a bit of a limitation.

Another thing that I think gets people down about mountain biking is the equipment. First of all, it means a new bike. One awesome development on that front is the burgeoning popularity of the hardtail 29er. For racing, it is very very close to a turn key blanket solution. There is good availability, and you don't need to spend an arm and a leg to get in the game. Sure, you can get some real gains by spending a bit more, and just like and road bikes you can get some small gains by spending a shitload more, but to get in the game with perfectly raceable equipment, it's not so bad. Maintaining that equipment is a bit more of a game then and road bikes. At the very least, you almost always have to wash your bike after each ride. For a lot of people who live in apartments or very small spaces, this is a problem. the perceived difficulty of dealing with disc brakes and suspension forks is also a barrier. It's really not very hard at all, but perception is often reality.

So I don't really know if mountain biking is going to take off huge anytime soon. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. I just recognize that the elements are there for it to be the next big thing.

If there are some grammatical oddities and other unfortunate bits about the way this post comes across, I "typed" it with my mouth, talking into a phone.


Stephen said...

I wonder how much of the racing snobbishness both in road and a smaller degree in mtb has to do with the hyper-competitive DC or big city environment. Having done both mtb and road races in 2 locales extremely removed from the mid-Atlantic, I find the vibe quite different and more relaxed.

The first road race I lined up for in Oz was a self-seeded A,B,C race and I was upgraded to B on the spot from the appearance of my sponsor facilitated equipment.

In the mtb races, they give a similar amount of awards for exemplary crashes and acts of sportsmanship. I have really taken a liking to the atmosphere that this mentality fosters. I know it would be difficult to replicate this for road racing, but it is something to think about.

In both disciplines, there seems to be less of a focus on the status of your racing class, as almost all the races are self-seeded. How many people have the bike racing career goal of upgrading to a 3 for the simple prestige of saying that they earned a merit based category-even though the true merits can be debated. I've never understood the reasoning behind the pack finish upgrade criteria- it seems like it rewards average performances, albeit a lot of them.

Sorry for the long winded response. Good post.

Chuck Wagon said...

A friend who's done a bunch of racing in the Midwest says the same - it's pretty much super low key show and go racing. Of course our external environment here has a big impact on that - we live in a crowded, entitled, litigious area here. If your act isn't tight the whole way through you can expect a very bad outcome. Generally around here "tight act" means "$$" - a bunch of people with promoting experience around here just use $10k as a fixed cost # for road race - not office park crit - promotion. The math is pretty easy to do from there - you need about 300 entrants at $35 (gross fee - you give a couple $ away to BikeReg, etc) in order to make your nut. Getting 300 people seems easy and often is, but nothing's ever that easy. It's like the upper middle class rat race - you need the people to get the money to cover the costs. Doing the things that cause the costs also cause the people to show up. It's not exactly grass roots "let's get all the neighborhood kids together and put on a big show!!" stuff around here. There's a significant client/provider outlook that a lot of racers have in regard to promoters. I'm not immune, either. I don't go to crappy races, and after doing a good job of running a big race a couple years ago I've been freeloading since, which I'm not happy with myself about.

Categories are always fun. Personally, I blame the quest for upgrade points for how not fun a lot of Cat 3 and 4 racing is. People don't let it roll. Bert can give all the shit to people who race Masters all he wants, but it's better racing. People race to WIN, not get upgrade points. My ideal race has no upgrade points on offer, and no BAR or other series points either. Of course no one would ever show up to such a race, so it's a moot point. For my own account, I was definitely guilty of the "racing to upgrade" thing, until I had an epiphany and was like "I absolutely hate racing like this, and the whole play defense and then sprint at the end thing doesn't work out for me anyway so screw it I'm just going to race hard and see what happens." That immediately resulted in a series of podium finishes and an upgrade.

Haven't seen any of the mtb races give the awards you speak of, but it would definitely be good. Anything to get people to realize that we don't all need to take this that seriously.

Tanks for the comment.