Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Godsend or just a waste of time?

The man with the world's oddest spelt first name has landed the first ever combo of the world's most confusing trick. For those that haven't seen it, here's Szymon Godziek's Cashroll Barspin 

Cashroll Barspin

I take nothing away from this achievement, to name a few records, it's the first ever Cashroll Barspin, on any bike, it's the first ever Cashroll combo on a mountain bike and it's the first time ever that a trick has been performed on a mountain bike before a BMX, but it sits as an odd bedfellow to the shambles of the X Games last weekend. How can Szymon recieve so many plaudits for this historical feat and be described as 'pushing the boundaries of slopestyle', when many other top riders could not even ride the course at X Games, the most exposed event in Slopestye's history? Should riders really be learning to do cashroll barspins when they struggle to ride in the wind?

The problem comes from the definition of Slopestyle and/ or Freeride. Freeride itself comes from snowboarding, and encompasses riding without any goals or a set course, in this sense there is no 'real' freeriding in mountain biking. Perhaps the closest the sport comes to this in the FMB tour is the Rampage, where a an entire mountain side is given over for the riders to express themselves.  However, there are still  man made features and to succeed riders have to correlate their runs to a specific set of judging guidelines. The element of competition totally removes the idea that the riding in any FMB tour event could ever be truly 'free'.


Slopestyle is a definition that better suits the FMB tour, I have taken this from WIkipedia: "Slopestyle" type riding is an increasingly popular genre that combines big-air, stunt-ridden freeride with BMX style tricks. Slopestyle courses are usually constructed at already established mountain bike parks and include jumps, large drops, quarter-pipes, and other wooden obstacles. There are always multiple lines through a course and riders compete for judges' points by choosing lines that highlight their particular skills"

This format has allowed the FMB tour to become the most global of all the elite competitions in the mountain biking spectrum, with events varying geographically from the centre of Vienna to the slopes of Whistler bike park. It also means that events are easy and exciting to watch both live and on screen, they are a great introduction to the sport and I'm sure make plenty of money. However on all these factors I can't help but feel that it will never compete with BMX. Most bronze and silver events on the tour are little more than dirt jump contests, whilst the jumps are larger than in BMX, the larger bikes needed to ride them restrict the variety and technicality of tricks that can be performed and furthermore reduce the danger factor for spectators. Furthermore BMX bikes are far cheaper and generally perceived as cooler than jump bikes, until this is changed BMX will be the sport that kids gravitate to more. 

The larger events, Crankworx, the X Games, Rampage and Chatel, I feel show the true potential of Freestyle mountain biking, in these events the jumps and drops are significantly larger, there are many lines to pick from and specifically in chatel and rampage the battle to overcome nature is maintained, keeping the 'mountain' in mountain biking. The only problem is, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of riders now aim their training exclusively at the smaller events to the extent of not being able to even ride some of the gnarlier courses, but still being able to compete for the overall series. 

This has created a transatlantic divide over where the fmb tour should pitch itself. The Europeans generally favour the dirt jump courses where as the North Americans excell on the big mountain freeride courses.

So where do you stand on this debate? Should freeride play it safe, appeal to the mass markets and allow accessible events for the public and riders? Or should it be an elite form of competition, where only a truly skilled rider can express themselves over a semi natural course? 

Personally I believe that the latter of these two options is the best, downhill does not attempt to change it's natural environment to gain a bigger following and it survives as a sport, furthermore, in these days of social media publicising the sport is no longer a problem. But where do you stand? Should there even be 2 separate series? Let me know in the comments below!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

'Too Enduro'

I've been very quiet on the blog front lately and a lot has happened. 2 World Cups, Atherton domination, last weekend Slopestyle faced possibly it's largest ever exposure in the X-Games and the Enduro World Series ignited in spectacular fashion at Punta Ala, a spark that has continued through Rounds 2 and 3.

   (Vital MTB)                                      

As a sport Enduro has shook up the long established order of Mountain Biking. Previously our sport suffered from a polarisation of Cross Country and Downhill, with Dirt Jumping/ 4X being admired but largely ignored by the vast majority of riders. Brief fads, such as All Mountain Riding, existed as interesting concepts but never seemed to have the momentum to really catch on. Enduro, which has capitalised on the increasing popularity of Trail Centre riding, has allowed the vast majority of riders to find a style of riding that suits them.

Cross Country and Downhill racing both require very specialised equipment and skill sets to be proficient, and, furthermore, can only really be enjoyed to their full potential when racing between the tapes against a clock. Everything else is just training, no doubt fun, but lacking the pedal to the metal edge that they really need to attain the biggest rush. For everyone else, those who enjoyed riding trail centres, and perhaps even knew their local trails well enough to link up their favourite descents with relaxed fire road climbs (sound familiar?) there was no way to compete with other riders, beyond Strava, which itself is not without fault. Enduro was born to meet the demand of these riders and it shows in the relaxed competition formats aimed to encourage riders of all abilities and with a vast variety of equipment.

Enduro as a format did not have an easy birth but is now a competition that is emerging on par with the other well established disciplines. Original detractors argued that it was simply a graveyard for Downhillers with a lack of ability and Cross Country riders with a lack of stamina. These arguments have been quashed by dedicated Enduro athletes consistently outperforming riders from other disciplines.

(Matt Wragg)

What I find interesting is that through the dedication of Chris Ball and co, other disciplines of Mountain Biking can now benefit. Firstly, on the organisation front, the renegade Enduro World Series has taken just a year to flourish where formats such as DH1 were unable to. Through sheer bloody mindedness and hard work Enduro has managed to escape the bureaucratic shackles of the UCI, it has shown that Mountain Biking does not need an institution, that massively favours Road Cycling, to attract big name sponsors and venues.

 Secondly, it allows for a better definition of Downhill and Cross Country, the massive gulf between the two polar opposites of the sport meant for many downhill tracks  that were flat and featureless, and Cross Country circuits that led to a majority of riders walking sections. Downhill tracks which are not up to standard can now be described as 'too Enduro' in a way that was simply not expressable until recently. Tracks are now put under more scrutiny, which will lead to harder technical trails and a higher standard of  grassroots racing, leading to higher standards of competition and riders in the future.

 Finally, trail centres can now be used more widely. No longer will they turn more and more towards the family market and consistently sanitised trails. A market will emerge for technical, Enduro style tracks. Furthermore, as race events sweep the length and breadth of the country new race lines will appear, and the chance to watch and compete with top riders on one's local trails will help to push the standards of trail centre users.

Hully Gully, Trail Centre Perfection (PMBA.org)

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, 2013 looks like a positive year for the sport of Mountain Biking, the potential displayed in the first three rounds of the Enduro World Series seems to show that the Enduro Evolution has just begun, although hopefully the Euro fashions won't be following along with it!

Friday, 1 March 2013

Spaces, Places and Urban Downhill Races

It seems this Spring that Urban DH has emerged as a serious discipline in DH. Firstly, it's amazing to see Cedric Gracia back in the saddle, the tales of his near death were very close to the bone (if you'll excuse the pun), and in a similar fashion to Dan Atherton's neck break, brought home the realities of the risks we all take everytime we strap on the helmet. However, I think that the interest surrounding these events is more than just the return of a legend and the departure from the usual forest/rocky backdrops we're used to in photos.

The skill level required for athletes in these events is much less than those on the full World Cup circuits. The courses are largely made up of large stair sets, giant hucks and road tucks.Whilst as a sport it is exhilarating and by no means easy, but at the same time it lacks the more challenging, changeable features that the natural side of a mountain can offer. Despite this these races seem to connect with riders far more than just a publicity gimmick, or an attempt to extend the sport's reach to more deprived areas. A large majority of the readership of this blog will have lined up stair gaps themselves, yet every stair gap is, in essence, the same. I believe the thrill  you feel is not solely from the act of the gap itself but something a bit more subversive as well.

Neko Mulally, Urban Explorer - a modern Christioher Columbus

Urban environments are restrictive places. A series of spoken and unspoken rules dictate very regimented passages through them. On top of things like speed limits, crossing points, the split between pedestrian zones and roads and clearly defined boundaries, several other patterns are obvious. On Oxford Street, in London, two very distinct lanes of pedestrians from, those who are tourists and want to look in shop windows and those who are local, and have places to be. High Streets and Shopping Centres work on the basis that people all walk at one speed so as to avoid collisions, it is the person who walks in a rush that has to dodge round other groups and is seen as the nuisance. For the machine of capitalism to chug on Urban environments have to be sterile, efficient and, to be honest, boring.

Sports like Urban Downhill, much like Parkour and Skateboarding, allow athletes to access, explore and traverse the urban environment in ways that are not normally obvious and this is what makes them so exciting to watch and participate in. Speed and danger are now brought to an environment that is normally so barren. Long standing, man made barriers, such as walls and fences, can be jumped creating new routes through, and access to new areas of, the local environment and in an instant the rules that govern our Urban lifestyle are completely turned on their head in a rush of excitement, colour and chain lube. Indeed, these races are capable of entirely re-shaping our view of the city. This an effect that Danny Mac Askill took full advantage of when he took trials away from natural or purpose built obstacles and started improvising with what surrounded him in Edinburgh. After watching that video our eyes became trained to scope out our own lines in the environments around us. In a similar way that Downhill makes us a danger driving on motorways, scanning the surrounding hills for new singletrack, we start to look for new connections within the city. As we start to follow these new passages our whole view of the environment changes.

Look at him - all subversive and whatnot

Whilst I'm not suggesting that these races will re-shape our Urban landscapes, they do at least allow us a passage into discussing the restrictions they place upon us. As a final thought, it is worth noting that the largest Urban events occur mainly in third world countries. This may simply be an act of lax building regulations on steep land or maybe our Western environments just wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny that such events would bring.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Cyber biking

One theme that resonated most strongly at the Red Bull Rampage this year was the progression of freeride mountain biking. It is a progression that is all too obvious to see, take, for example, Gee Atherton's transfer to wall ride, the culmination of his run in 2010. It was a transfer that only he managed to make stick, the others that tried crashed, most dramatically with James Doerfling snapping his forks. Gee Atherton finished second in 2010, yet by 2012 that same line became pretty standard, and even with adverse weather conditions was ridden by many riders. So where has this progression come from? First and foremost I believe this is from technology.

Certainly the most obvious advances in this respect come in the form of the bikes themselves. Better frames, suspension, materials etc have all spawned from two years of development. However, I feel that other, digital technological forms have had just as big an impact. It is a concept that was touched on briefly in Where the Trail Ends. Derren Berrecloth was discussing the benefits that Google Earth has bestowed on the sport. Being able to spot potential lines from space has meant less time scouting on the ground and more time riding, therefore pushing progression. As amazing as the riding was in WTTE, I found it equally amazing that a trip to find such exciting locations could be planned completely on free software, from a living room in Canada. While most of us may not be jetting off round the world to explore previously unridden terrain, the same principles still apply. The helmet camera has allowed people to visualise whatever they ride before they even arrive. The view they receive is a wide angle, which flattens the terrain and makes it look far less challenging. This gives a confidence inspiring first impression of an obstacle as opposed to a daunting walk up the track from the bottom or view from a cable car.

Other, everyday, free resources are also integral in the progression of the sport. The photo of Gee I included is deliberately a sequence shot. Sequence photography is a relatively new phenomenon, another resource that has become available to riders. Multiple rider positions against the same background allow a viewer to see the movements of the body in a way that a still photograph can't really express. My personal favourite is the last frame of Gee, the low crouch and bottomed out rear end give a sense of the strength and balance that is needed to stick the landing of this trick. Perhaps his fitness as a racer allowed him to hold on, an attribute which laid back freeriders would not have been able to match. A similar effect is gained from the popularization of slow motion in extreme sports. The gradual, tandem slide of Kashima into a lower has become a fetishized nirvana for videographer trying to capture mountain biking on film. Techniques such as zooming and slow motion subvert what is in essence a kinetic and ephemeral sport. The ability to scrutinize each aspect of a rider in a turn can tell a viewer endless amounts about body positions, techniques, how tyres and components react to certain stresses and I'm sure many things that we don't even factor into the riding experience.

What is so exceptional about technology nowadays is the ease of access it perpetuates. I imagine that almost everyone who can afford a mountain bike also has access to the internet. Through this medium they are allowed to create and view an unimaginably large amount of resources all related to our sport. Most videos are short, 4 minutes at the most, set to popular contemporary music and largely formulaic. An opening quiet sequence which highlights a certain feature, a landscape, or bike for example, followed by riding shots, interspersed with slow motion and some large stunts in the middle and at the end. This format makes them highly consumable, the viewer is not distracted by new forms or style so, to an extent, the brain can switch off and allow the bombardment of branding and image to begin. The format was one started by companies wishing to sell products, for the consumer to imitate it only creates a hegemonic structure which further benefits the companies themselves. An unsettling thought perhaps? In terms of developing riding however, this is a very beneficial relationship. Emerging technologies, such as helmet cameras and cheaper DSLRs, allow this structure to flourish. This leads to a greater investment in the sport, which furthers the bike developments that have helped continue to push the boundaries of the sport.

Technology, as in every sphere of society, is now a burgeoning presence in our sport. The introduction of electronics to the bikes themselves, such as electronic suspension, is no big leap. The continuing use of technology can only lead to greater leaps and bounds in progression. I, for one, cannot wait for Rampage 2014!

Monday, 28 January 2013

Canada F*** Yeah!

I've always felt uncomfortable at the hibernation our sport seems to take in Summer. In my opinion this represents the overbearing influence Canada has on our sport. Websites are filled with rumors of the season to come or video recaps of the past year, a certain (Canadian) website is still churning out Rampage content in January! Yet despite this the world of Downhill still carries on strongly with the likes of the southern hemisphere holding their national series and plenty of other small race series across the world. Now I love summer as much as the next rider, a dry trail, long heady evening rides and a barbeque to finish it off, days don't get better than that, but that shouldn't detract from the wide variety of riding that Winter has to offer. Our sport originates from Californian hippies who would probably do worse on a drugs test than the combined '99 Tour, all they wanted was to get loose, do something a bit dangerous and have fun. What is stopping you taking their lead and going and having a spin in the mud and snow? What has happened is a Canadian homogenisation of the bike scene. Smooth, bike park trails, with jumps that riders are able to style out without fear of danger or big, one off stunts are becoming what defines Downhill. Any riding beyond these realms is considered old fashioned, if you're not literally destroying a berm, you're not riding it properly.

I find it strange that the epicentre of our sport, by which I mean mainly Whistler, is a place that is only capable of hosting it for half the year. I really do feel this is reflected in the riding too. Stevie Smith is the only Downhiller of real repute to come out of Canada, but yet we flock there in droves every year to supposedly find the best trails in the world. Contrast this to Britain, we are another country with access to fantastic and varied scenery. On top of this we have the possibility of riding all year round and a large presence on the World Cup scene yet we are largely ignored by cycling tourists. I just don't feel that Whistler is representative. It's monotonous and doesn't explore the more adventurous, outgoing angle our sport can offer. I think the prime example of this is the allergy people seem to have to breaking bumps, yes they're annoying and they give arm pump like nothing else but in my mind Downhill is all about tackling the most technical terrain possible and those who excel will be able to tackle it the fastest. I still feel that mother nature should dictate some of the formation of these tracks. The fact that a team has to be employed to smooth out the braking bumps all year round at Whistler just shows that they are removing a natural part of our sport and that reducing the trails to glorified BMX tracks. Braking bumps and bikes go hand in hand, if you're capable of still railing a turn after successfully negotiating them, then I would say you're closer to the essence of Downhill than anyone at a bike park could attain. There can be something satisfying about conquering a track that's not just designed to offer cheap adrenaline rushes to the masses, something a bit more rugged and un-preened can challenge you in ways a 30 ft tabletop just never will.

I'm well aware that Canada is an amazing place to ride, it's certainly on my bucket list, especially Whistler. I just hope that the idolisation of bike park culture over traditional trail design is not a sign of the future of Downhill. Canada's domination of the freeride scene I'm sure is in no small part due to their phenomenal bikeparks, but for Downhill riding inspiration we really need look no further than our own shores. Our pedigree in racing, and variety of tracks and terrain is phenomenal, I know there is a yearning for lift accessed trails but in my experience they only lead to a culture of cruising down trails waiting for the big jumps. A push up forces you to squeeze every last bit of fun out of a trail, it encourages you to session sections and improve skills and, perhaps more than anything, the social aspect of this British rite of passage creates a unique scene which breeds race success. So whilst I believe Canada has so much to offer for the world of mountain biking, I don't believe we should be so short sighted as to revere it as a holy grail, lest we lose sight of what natural promise is here on our doorstep.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Gwin's Great Escape

So, Aaron Gwin's at the centre of controversy again. In replacing Sam Hill at Specialized he has spawned a rumour mill of speculation. I've read accusations of contract breaking, threats of legal action and even that the move may be connected to the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. To be honest we may never know the true ins and outs surrounding Gwin's departure. I believe one thing for certain though, his motive will have been purely financial. This will not sit well with many people, who believe our sport to have some sort of idealised core of purity. That our heroes, who risk life and limb week in, week out do it only for enjoyment, that they wouldn't get sucked in by capitalist agendas. Unfortunately, I think this is probably the time to accept the unavoidable fact that the DH World Cup we all love, is above all, a way to sell us bikes and make money.