Bespoken Word – is mountain biking elitist?

Mountain bike riders in bracken
(Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Last week Guy talked about how welcome and friendly mountain biking generally is. This week it’s time to look at the other side and discuss the undeniable elitism of MTB and whether that’s as bad an aspect as it sounds.

Mountain bike buddies

Catching up briefly on last week I spent a fantastic weekend at Ard Rock Enduro with the widest selection of riders imaginable. I watched Danny MacAskill chatting to everyone from uber fans to the sign-on team at registration after waiting patiently in line like everyone else.

I rode a couple of stages early on Sunday catching up with Josh Bryceland in the Swaledale rain and slop. But later that ride I found a lass teetering on the edge of an intimidating natural half-pipe at the end of Stage 6. A quick chat about lines and braking strategy, some shared deep breaths and I watched as she wobbled briefly, then rolled down through the feature and up the far side with the biggest scream of delight I’ve heard in ages. It was a total highlight of the weekend for me too as the mountain rescue team and marshalls nearby joined in my cheers of congratulation (and relief). 

By the end, everyone was so caked in mud it was impossible to tell who they were, what they were wearing, or even what they were riding, but it didn’t matter. Mountain biking had bought us all together for a massive party in the middle of the Dales and we all had a total blast regardless of our skills, fitness levels, or bike/clothing/religious/political choices.

Riders sharing sausages at a red bull feed station mid enduro race

Sharing a pound of cooked sausages with new mountain bike friends at the Ard Rock Enduro last weekend (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

When it comes to my actual riding though I’m undeniably guilty of being far less accommodating. I can remember someone who ran another local, more sociable riding group describing our Thursday Night Fight Club gang as “Elitist”. To which I replied “We’re not elitist, we just don’t wait for people.” This was well over a decade ago and I often think about it, but every time I stand by our relatively strict entry and exit policy I’m happy if some people think we’re ‘dicks’ or ‘legends in our own ride time’ because of it.

For a start, TNFC has now been a thing in various formats for over twenty years. That’s way longer than any other informal riding group I’ve ever been part of. It started as a flat-out thrash around the local woods ending with an uphill sprint to the discount pizza place. Then we synced with a splinter faction from another riding group who specialized in doing what were traditionally decent day rides in a few hours on a night. Whatever the weather, all year round. And the first time I was cowering behind a wall in the sleet somewhere way out in the dales as my new pals pulled out fresh gloves and socks it was a pivotal moment. And when I fell through the door of a summit shelter about twenty minutes after they’d got there to be met with gales of laughter because I’d gone off way too fast in an effort to impress them I knew I had two options. Stick with my own ever-decreasing circle of self-affirmation or suck up a couple of months of misery and suffering to get to their level but win back a whole world of day rides that life with a young family had taken away from me. Fifteen years later sucking it up and digging in to get the job done is the best riding decision I've ever made. 

Riding through a gate on a snowy trail

Faffing is freezing so get the gate, hold it open for the gang then chase them down is the way we stay warm in winter (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Pack of f**king hyenas

Because unless we rode straight through gates held open by the first rider who then sprinted in pursuit rather than stopping and hanging about we couldn’t complete the rides we wanted before closing time. If we had to limit the terrain and routes we rode then it wouldn’t be fair on existing members. If people were consistently too slow or didn’t push themselves hard enough then others would risk hypothermia, lose the flow or just not get the ride they needed as a release (TNFC has also been accurately described as The Needy Fathers Club). 

Recruiting is done carefully through Strava or occasional ‘Aztec nights’ where people can bring along a human sacrifice. Active members come and go around the central core of die-hards as circumstances, fitness, available time, or just a willingness to hunt the hurt ebb and flow. We’re elite World Cup Marathon racers in their mid-20s to savagely competitive old sods nudging 60 who are still the ones to watch in any sprint situation. We’re MDs, tradesmen, IT business owners, graduates, boffins, and accountants on hardtails, XC race bikes, or state-of-the-art trail bikes. 

But every Thursday night - or whenever the WhatsApp thread gets us together - we’re TNFC. Ready to tear legs off or have them torn off and be brutal with the banter but also to hold gates, repair bikes in howling storms, swap snacks and spare layers. We’re also way more woke than most people would expect in terms of talking about ‘stuff’ when it helps but also providing a perfect place to burn a frustrating day to the ground in a flood of lactic acid or a jolt of tech-descent adrenaline. Because of the ride and experience bond we share our “pack of f**cking hyenas” as someone once memorably described us is also the strongest friendship group I’ve ever known.

Rider and trail dog

Running with the pack is a very primal urge that has a lot of resonance in group riding (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Elitist but not elite

And this isn’t meant to in any way be a ‘flex’ because in the grand scheme of things our speed/skills etc are pretty feeble. To be honest writing this has made me realise we’ve got a bit soft and sociable recently. But it is an illustration of why mountain biking is elitist by definition. I don’t want to be welcomed into a DH train without question or side-eye assessment if I’m suddenly going to find myself launching a gap jump way beyond my capability. I don’t want to be left lost by a truly elite marathon/XC/epic distance group or see the steel glint of eyes who got sick of waiting for me when they started shivering ten minutes ago. Cancel me if you like but I don’t want to get cold myself as someone changes their jacket for the tenth time at a gate or faffs around when I could be riding. And unless there’s some essential sharing and healing going on if you’re falling behind because you’re talking on a climb, I’ll make it clear you should save that for the pub afterwards if you want to become a ride regular. 

And to broaden the scope of the discussion for the same reasons I don’t think wilderness routes should be waymarked because you should have the skills - or resolve - to get unlost and survive if you miss a sign or your GPS dies. I’m glad that when I take my family or friends to a trail center there’s a clear hierarchy of trail levels to help us pick the right ones. And if you don't agree with me then fine, it's probably best we stay apart in terms of going for a ride together anyway.

But similarly, if I find you punctured, lost, hungry, or wondering where to ride I’ll stop and help if I can. I'll always give folk space and encouragement on the trail and If you’re lost or lonely and look handy enough to keep up, but not so rapid you’ll get bored then I’ll happily tell you to tag along. 

I'm sure even Josh Bryceland and Danny MacAskill started off having “I can’t do this” moments like that lass on Stage 6 and at some god-tier level I can only gawp at they probably still do. At that moment it’s probably the crew around them that provide the support, progression, and shared version of mountain biking that takes them to the next level. And even just that concept of ‘levels’ is what drives the progression, inspiration, and determination that’s a very big part of the attraction of mountain biking to many riders.

So yeah, mountain biking does have an ‘elitist’ side, but it’s a whole lot safer, better and ironically more welcoming in terms of you having a good time relative to your abilities and desired outcomes because of it. 

Guy Kesteven
Technical-Editor-at-Large

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg