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Bespoken Word – it’s not what you ride, it’s how you ride

A rider on a trail at sunset
(Image credit: Lapierre)

Humans are tribal/pack animals by nature and that doesn’t change when we get on a bike. By default that means nearly all of us make instant, instinctive reactions to the various types of rider rolling around the trails. Depending on your perspective/prejudices it’s easy to load each category with – generally negative – connotations.

Trial by tribe

E-bikers are lazy and often newbies who don’t know (or care) a thing about trail etiquette. Schralping kids don’t give a damn about the world and woods they’re carving their trails into. If your helmet has no peak and your shorts are skin tight, not baggy, then you’re a humorless masochist who can’t ride off a curb without crashing. If you’re wearing a full-face you can’t pedal more than 100m without needing a Red Bull/Monster that you’ll just leave by the trail. Mullet bike riders are 76 percent more likely to smoke weed. 26in wheeled riders still have a landline. Wearing elbow pads over your jersey, using a map board, or putting any bike on a roof mount instantly puts you in the "cancelled from respectable MTB society“ category before you even hit the singletrack.

Even the smallest details are often seized on as a source of suspicion too. Where your brake levers bite in relation to the bar or how you angle them can make you a prophet or pariah. Shimano or SRAM? RockShox or Fox? Steel or carbon? Coil or air? Transporter, Vito or Transit? Admitting to having a gravel or road bike will instantly put you on a pariah watch list. 

That said, liking a narrower bar than you used to run, cutting fork volume spacers into fractions or fitting any kind of offset shock bushing or headset cup will gain you major prophet points among your dirt disciples. And I won't go on about how many E-bikers I know are ultra experienced riders who’ve been biking since the ’80s and are using a Bosch and battery to rekindle their splatter paint Kona glory days. Or the number of peak-less, power meter-using XC racers who could rip the average enduro rider a new one on a tech trail without even dropping their seat post. Or conversely the skin-tight jeans and goggle groms who think nothing of riding an hour to their spot, smoking roadies – not dope – in the process. 

Because while superficial judgements nearly always sell people massively short, what, how and where you ride – and your aesthetic while you do it – don't matter at all compared to your attitude.

Namibia's bronze medallist Alexander Miller races in the Men's Cross-country mountain bike event on day six of the Commonwealth Games at Cannock Chase

Just because a rider doesn't have a peak, it doesn't mean they don't have style! (Image credit: Darren Staples / AFP via Getty)

Karma police

That’s due to the fact that, while we’re definitely growing massively as a community, as a percentage of the ‘outdoor community’ we’re still seen by some as a malignant minority. And by definition that means we need to stop bitching and ‘bantering’ about each other, and self-police based on behavior not prejudice.

Not sure what I’m on about? It doesn’t matter whether you’re climbing fast on an e-bike or you’re a showboating racing snake on an XC bike. If you’re shoving past other riders/hikers/dog walkers on a climb then you’re an antisocial idiot wherever your watts come from. Whether they’re on foot, hoof or Maxxis tire, nobody has ever been impressed by being knocked over, panicked or put into the bushes by someone close passing them on a descent without warning either.

The damage to riders’ reputations is the same whether the wrapper you drop is part of a carefully curated nutrition plan or a snack you grabbed from Greggs [a cheap and cheerful British pastry product chain – Ed]. Farmers don’t give a crap what wheel-size you were riding when you left a gate open that meant they were looking for lost sheep until the early hours. Or whether you ran a coil-shock or an air-shock down that ‘event-only’ trail on private land. They’ll still pick up the phone and tell the organizer that they can’t use that land next year. Or it’ll just be another score in the anti-rider resentment pot that’s already regularly filled with recipes from mainstream media and online stirrers.

A rider picking up litter

Some outdoor users are rubbish. Others pick rubbish up (Image credit: Rich Baybutt)

Save your breath

Even if you have a perfect right to be riding somewhere, then ride perfectly. And I know that some ramblers, runners with headphones, dumbass dog walkers and farmers/landowners can be utter pillocks in sometimes astonishingly ignorant and aggressive ways. 

I could fill this whole column several times over with instances of idiocy or deliberate confrontation I’ve experienced. From the hikers who went mental at us riding the first man-made trail in Coed-Y-Brenin. Screaming at Dafydd the ranger that they’d been walking it for 20 years and we had no right to be there, despite the fact Dafydd and his crew had literally only finished boulder-rolling and brash-hacking it into existence the day before. To the countless cretins blocking totally legal bridleways with themselves or obstacles/traps or having family picnics at the bottom of rock drops on designated, clearly marked DH runs.

The thing is, beside having a generally pointless ‘conversation’ with these inconsiderate individuals until we get bored, we can’t really do anything about them. What we can do. though. is try and make a positive contribution to the outdoor space every time we ride. Trash Free Trails (opens in new tab) are doing great work by pushing this as a ‘purposeful adventure’ campaign revolving around cleaning up litter and generally being a better biking ambassador, but it doesn’t need a tagline or a #. It just needs a bit of thought.

Group of riders looking lost

If you see a bunch of idiots looking lost on a moor, help them find their way (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Positive impacts

It’s taking a rubbish bag and scanning round wherever you start, finish or stop during a ride to pick up any litter you see lying around. It’s slowing down and saying hello to other riders and trail users before you scare them shitless. And while giving others right of way is always the propaganda win, if they step aside or pull over it’s about being really grateful and polite, not immediately relaunching into hot pursuit of Strava glory over their sausage dog. 

And if you do stop, don’t just stare at your feet chuntering about the run you could have had. Try and start up a conversation, pass the time of day, or just smile. I’ve had countless otherwise average rides where a random chat with a dog walker, farmer or horse rider etc has been the highlight I remember. And talking of farmers/landowners, whatever the legal right you have to be riding through their workplace/lifespace, we’ll always get a better welcome if we behave like guests, not irresponsible idiots.

If you’re the one with experience or knowledge then share it. If it looks like you might be able to help somebody who’s lost then do it. Don’t just watch someone trying to work out where to ride at a trail center you know well, go over and talk the trails through with them.  

While mansplaining is always a no, witnessing a wobbling family heading into the ravenous mouth of a black trail without saying anything could be classified as manslaughter. And if another rider has had a mechanical, always check they can sort it – I mean that whether their bike is powered, un-powered, cool, or a piece of crap. 

Red Flag rider at Ard Rock Enduro

if someone is riding or behaving foolishly, show them the red flag before our entire team gets sent off (Image credit: Jerry Tatton)

If we're going to grow, somebody needs to be the grown-up

Finally, while leading by example is the easiest and best way to exert a positive influence on fellow riders, if you see someone being a pillock then pull them up on it. Got a mate who blithely rides at people on fire roads rather than giving them the widest berth possible? See someone riding or pushing back up a busy or blind descent? See someone throw a wrapper down, toss a plastic bottle? Or hear riders turning the air blue at a trail head where there are young kids and furious parents in earshot? Then step in and say/do something – even if you get a mouthful now, they’ll hopefully think about what you’ve said and modify their behaviour in future.

Because in most cases, issues are caused by people simply not thinking about their actions, rather than trying to be deliberately confrontational. While mountain biking is growing up fast, it’s still in its infancy in the outdoor world, and like any lively child it still needs parental intervention sometimes. Self-policing will always produce better results than any outside intervention we provoke – and we're the best placed, best informed people to make it happen.

Guy Kesteven is Bike Perfect and Cyclingnews’ contributing tech editor. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He spent a few years working in bike shops and warehouses before starting 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.


Rides: Pace RC295, Cotic FlareMax, Specialized Chisel, Vielo V+1 gravel bike, Nicolai FS Enduro, Landescape custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg