“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a mountain biker.”
“Oh really! Are you a professional or something?”
“Nope, I just like to ride bikes a whole lot.”
It’s a fun way to make conversation at a party, but also 100 percent true. When you ask me what I do, I’m not going to tell you how I make a paycheck. That just seems dull. Mountain bikes rule my life, and they are the thing that defines my existence the most. Before I was a college student, a scientist, a skateboarder, a rock climber or even an underemployed traveler (as I am now), I was a mountain biker. But what exactly does that mean?
It should be a simple question to answer. According to the dictionary, a cyclist is any person who rides a bicycle. A mountain biker must therefore be a cyclist in the mountains. Yet somewhere along the way we have lost sight of that. Like some kind of Lycra-and-flannel-clad Lord of the Flies we have become tribal. Holding on to our disciplines tight with white knuckles and a scowl. There is a lot of fun to be had in the dirt on two wheels, and no need to align with only one form of it. I’m not sure what causes this compartmentalization. Maybe it is human nature, marketing or simply the pains of a rapidly growing sport. All I know is it doesn’t feel very healthy right now.
I am constantly being told by other riders that I don’t have the right gear, that I don’t “look like a cyclist.” Granted, I may resemble a fire hydrant or a tree stump in the beat-up old equipment and clothing I often use. But what does a cyclist look like, and what the hell does that have to do with the joy of pedaling a bicycle? I can’t be the only one affected by these high-school-level judgements, and it probably scares more beginners away from mountain biking than we’d expect.
My bike has always been a tool for me to travel to unfamiliar places and meet new people. I want to taste all the dirt, share all the drinks and laugh all the laughs. But I also have a hidden agenda. I want to be a fun-enabler. I want to tell the stories of my experiences and get more people excited about riding bicycles in the dirt.
I understand that mountain biking is an inherently selfish endeavor. Immense joy can be had wandering the mountains, forests and deserts on two wheels. It’s just you, your thoughts, some calories and the contraption between your legs. This can sometimes lead to living life in a cycling microcosm. But I also feel that part of being a mountain biker is sharing our love of the sport with others, no matter what our preferred discipline may be.
Loads of great organizations are using bikes to do amazing things around the world, changing lives two wheels at a time. But who looks out for our friends, relatives and neighbors, the people we see every day?
So, I propose a challenge. A call to arms. A mission to find one person close to you and put them on a mountain bike. Do you have a friend who “used to ride” and wishes they could get back into it? Well then, borrow a bike from a riding buddy and take them for a ride. Does your significant other want to go for a multi-day bikepacking trip in the Rockies? Give them a high five, a map and get after it. Maybe your buddy at work has always wanted to do a backflip on a bike. Help him find a ramp, take it to a lake and give it a try.
Which brings us back to that seemingly simple question: “What is a mountain biker?” Most of us started riding bicycles when we were children; no divisions, just hopping curbs, skidding, getting muddy, riding with no hands, and popping wheelies for no other reason than it was fun. Maybe that’s all the definition we need, as individuals and an industry: a bike, a rider, and the intent to enjoy.