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!

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