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.

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