What a wonderful and strange beast the sport of mountain biking has become since I first saddled up a rigid Rockhopper, complete with Technicolor pink, orange and yellow graphics against a lurid fluorescent-green frame.
No helmet, no gloves — only chamois shorts and a T-shirt. I was the picture of athletic dorkiness. Just a guy who had discovered the thrill of ripping single-track trails in the rolling grasslands surrounding my hometown of Kamloops, British Columbia.
My enthusiasm for this sport has barely waned since, and these days I seem to spend more disposable income maintaining my bike than I do the family car. Throughout my travels, I have had the chance to witness pockets of grassroots mountain biking that keep the soul of this sport fresh and real; communities that hearken back to the very roots of mountain biking, which emerged from a haze of pot smoke in California’s Marin County back in the 1970s — when some cyclists decided it would be cool to seek out dirt trails rather than avoid them. I’ve also seen where extreme wealth and ridiculous exclusivity can take a sport.
First the former. I spent last fall living in Spain with my wife and kids, which was essentially a tour of Spanish playgrounds strategically located next to tapas bars. I was enthralled by a country that had so thoroughly embraced cycling in all its forms: off-road, on-road, BMX, racing and urban cycling. Cities like Barcelona and Cordoba had well-established cycling infrastructure and a motorist culture that, to my surprise, rather than being dominated by the lead-footed, hotheaded Spaniards that I had naively expected, was profoundly respectful of bikes. (It reminded me just how far Canada has to go in this regard.) After a month-and-a-half on the road with kids, I needed to get on a bike, into the mountains and onto some single-track.
I found my opportunity in Lanjaron, a whitewashed town set on a steep hillside in the Alpujarras, a gorgeous region on the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia. While wandering the streets of Lanjaron a few days into a two-week stay, I found a posse of kids on mountain bikes hanging around a nameless bike shop barely big enough to accommodate a bike rack. The massive, asymmetrical floor joists overhead looked like they might have been hand-hewn when the Roman Empire still stretched across the Mediterranean. (Bike shops, regardless of their appearance, are the same everywhere — a magnet for gear nerds who just like to hang around bikes and distract the mechanics with questions about carbon fibre components or a certain feature on a certain trail, etc.) Inside the shop, I met the owner, Fran, also known as “Gato.” I explained my plight in tortured Spanish — I needed a bike and someone to ride with and show me the local goods.
No problem, Fran said. He was going into Granada the following day, where he would rent a bike for me and bring it back to Lanjaron.
“Meet me in the plaza around 11:00,” he said.
Saved by the Gato. The next morning I was in the plaza at 11:00 a.m. sharp, like a kid on his first day of school. Gato arrived in full Lycra astride a carbon fibre, sub-20-pound hard-tail. Clearly he was going to put the hurt on me.
It’s either up or down in the Alpujarras and the climbing started immediately, first on the cobbled streets of Lanjaron, then eventually on a gravel road that wound high into the Sierra Nevada. We topped out at a windswept collection of abandoned stone shepherd huts. Gato dropped in, pumped to be showing a foreigner trails that he had either built with a handful of other local riding aficionados or resurrected from stretches of ancient Roman routes that crisscross southern Spain. I clung to his back tire as we looped down a series of tight chicanes, before sneaking through someone’s backyard and plunging onto a cobbled Roman-era trail. This led to an ultra-skinny-track that switch-backed down a no-fall mountainside toward the natural springs of Lanjaron. Far below, modern windmills spun in the blue sky and beyond that the glittering Mediterranean faded into the hazy outline of Morocco. We ended round one of our ride with a couple of Estrella beers and calamari tapas, fortifying for the next installment. For the following two days, Gato graciously rescheduled his bike shop hours in order to show this wayward Canadian more of the local bounty that, without a guide, would be next to impossible to piece together. It was grassroots riding, defined.
Two years ago, in a land far removed geographically and culturally from Spain, I experienced the other spectrum of the sport. I was nearing the end of a weeklong fat tire odyssey when we found ourselves at “The Compound.” My hosts made me swear on a bible not to reveal the location of said compound. (Let’s just say it was on a Caribbean island known for Reggae music and Olympic sprinters, and the compound was hidden in mountains that are named by a colour that rhymes with the word “new.”) Our hosts had secured access to a private mountain biking compound funded by a multi-billionaire American, heir to the Styrofoam empire, who also happened to love mountain biking.
After a long drive from the coast into the mountains, we arrived at a gate guarded by a couple of dudes wearing earpieces and, I suspect, packing side arms under their sleek blazers. After a brief discussion between the wannabe Secret Service Agents and our hosts, we were ushered into the compound. It had the feeling of entering the Air Canada Executive Lounge, with its atmosphere of prestige and affluence that the commoners sipping Tim Hortons outside can only experience with envy through thick windowpanes. But instead, this was all about mountain biking — privileged mountain biking, that is. Dudes with Kiwi, Aussie and Canuck accents scurried around loading bikes onto the backs of ATVs, while we were given our orientation. Photos were allowed, but no identifying locations.
Soon we were on our way, bouncing up a thousand vertical metres of dusty access road to the top of a trail system. It was built and maintained by a full-time staff, likely with an annual budget that would be more than enough to feed a Bangladeshi village for a year, just so the Styrofoam King could drop in every once in a while with his billionaire friends to do some heli-shuttles on his private network. I soon learned this is but one of a half-dozen or so of these compounds that the Styrofoam King has scattered around the globe. Don’t get me wrong — the riding, with views of the turquoise Caribbean, was awesome. Furthermore, we were treated like Red Bull superstars, complete with a midday picnic at an idyllic waterfall with Reggae blasting from a sound system that was shuttled up the mountainside for this special occasion. Yet the feeling of absurdity — all of this so the One Percent can ride mountain bikes without mixing with the peons — was profound. But I guess that’s the increasingly polarized and class-divided world we live in today. The experience reminded me that when it comes to mountain biking, or any outdoor sport, the billionaires can have their private compounds; I’ll always gravitate to the “Gatos” of the world and all those other renegade trail-builders who do it for the love of the sport and desire to share it with as many people as possible.