Trail#4

Katrin Van der Speigel won countless enduros, three Aussie 24 Hour titles and was off to race the Solo 24 World Champs for a second time before I recall reading a feature interview with her in a mainstream Australian mountain bike mag. Two came out almost at the same time. One, which was in this magazine, had me leaning forward, impressed with where she’s come from, learning things I didn’t know and wanting to find out more (this was before I was writing for the mag, but it’s the kind of content that made me want to).

The other interview framed her as a superwoman who, beyond all belief, managed to juggle kids, a job and training in order to do so well at events. I questioned how that is supposed to make me feel as an aspiring, female rider – am I amazing too because I can juggle commitments, or are there other things that make this woman stand out from the crowd, not just fit back in it?

What I would like to discuss is the continuation, since this time, of a rise in the pride and interest people have not just for our sport, but for the people that make it up. I’m increasingly inspired now when I flip open a new mag, and I think this is as much to do with the range of events that are covered as the people who enable them to happen. If more sophisticated coverage of women’s riding is seeing me get more excited about the sport, what’s making other riders buzz? Further to that, if magazines are responding to trends on the trails, then what’s happening on the ground? What attitudes to the sport are coming through at events?

There is a pressure for people running events to obtain sponsorship and funding to make ends meet (or make a profit) while putting on a great show. The original drive behind this has meant events have changed dramatically in recent years, which is reflected in growing levels of infrastructure, more sophisticated merchandise and a growing number of races to choose from during any given month.

Atmosphere is linked to numbers, but is all the while relied upon to create a certain event experience, and atmosphere relies on the people. It may come as a surprise then to note that it doesn’t cost a cent to hand someone the mike for 20 seconds. If that person has something worth listening to, it sure goes a long way to producing a memorable event and growing the enthusiasm riders have for all the different histories that make up our sport.

How often, at the end of a race, have you watched countless categories shuffled through presentation to find that it’s only the elite male winner who is handed the mike to say a few words? Junior, master and women’s categories are usually presented before the men so if the mike is missed, it’s natural to think “Maybe we’re not doing speeches today. It is pretty late after all.” Unfortunately it sometimes has the opposite effect to inspiration when one lot of riders are seen as more interesting than others and fosters an attitude, or series of vocal complaints, about elite rider favouritism. In most cases, I don’t think this is deliberate; I think it’s a result of excitement during the moment and an eagerness to hear what the overall winner has to say.

Shifting this focus of excitement, pride and an eagerness to hear from others in the sport is something that needs to be built – not just from the people running events, but the people participating in them as well. There’s obviously a desire to hear from other riders and to express gratitude to people who have helped make racing possible, or biker blog culture and online forums would be decreasing rather than multiplying as they are.

It’s hard to deny that when Stu Plant is talking away on the microphone he does a brilliant job of fostering the attitude I’m talking about – throughout day-long local races of the past I remember hearing several short interviews with all types of riders: Those who had just come back from a lap, people waiting for a teammate, or some random who happened to walk by a little too close.

Anyone who has been to an event run by Wild Horizons would also note the difference a positive and vocal attitude makes to an event experience. Huw Kingston has a knack for making every participant feel important and making them feel like they’ve achieved something really great – which they have! This is then reflected by participants, who, following Huw’s lead, often come to know many of the volunteers and other competitors by face and name, and a real sense of community is developed around the event.

Is it really that surprising that so many people report back about the wonderful atmosphere of these events? Or that they are attracting record numbers of competitors and new riders to the sport? So why is it that in the last few months, in my local riding community, for every happy comment I’ve heard about the Fling, it’s been matched by someone angry because its success meant it sold out?  Why is there not more pride and excitement that the event has built such a strong following?  After all, it’s our own enthusiasm for it that has caused it to fill up.

My hope is that as the sport continues to grow so does a valuing of a broad range of peoples’ experiences and efforts within the sport and that this will continue to be reflected by events and the stories people tell about them. I hope that more riders, writers and events continue to lead by example and grow a biking community where a diverse range of stories, people and thoughtful work are valued. Those new to the sport are always quick to say what a great group of people mountain bikers are – I want to hear more people talking about why!