The F Word

Just because you’re a mountain biker, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to stand up and say, “I want to get fit!” Say it loud and proud!

Mountain biking is an athletic pursuit. Riding a bike over steep, rough terrain is hard physical work that gets your heart pumping, sets your metabolism racing and fills you with feel-good chemicals.

Yeah, you might “feel the burn” but that feels good, right? That’s why we do it.

Why is the f-word — fitness — such a dirty word?

It doesn’t add up. Mountain biking makes you fit, and to some degree at least requires you to be fit to get any enjoyment out of it.

So why, when you bring up the subject with any group of riders (ok, male riders) do they look at you as if you just stepped off a spaceship?

Het Nieuwsblad 2011 spring finish

Flecha and Langeveld duked it out in the finishing sprint

For some reason, for a mountain biker to discuss fitness training is akin to a group of blokes discussing the merits of wearing ladies underwear.

Blame the nineties

The f-word problem started in the 90’s. Back then mountain biking and road cycling were closely intertwined, with hardcore roadies regularly coming into the sport and taking all the spoils. In their wake came a trail of money, professionalism and seriousness.

The “true” mountain bikers — people who’d never gripped a drop bar, or donned a roadie cap — objected to this influx of shaven legs and competitiveness and set about mocking the newcomers: “they can’t ride”, “they’re uptight”, “they’re miserable”, “they’re all on drugs” came the taunts, and this attitude caught on.

All of a sudden, to be considered an athlete became the height of uncool.

Rob Warner and Shaun Palmer were the poster boys of the new movement: they drank all night, they raced all day and they shouted their mouths off to anyone in earshot. The rockstar lifestyle of the top downhillers inspired a generation and in the process defined what mountain biking is and who mountain bikers are.

Over a decade later, we’re still under their influence.

Generation XC

With the growth of mountain biking’s authority-baiting Generation-X came a distaste for competition (especially the much maligned XC racing) and the growth of what we now call trail riding: non-competitive riding in the woods with your mates.


Even skinny XC whippets can get buckwild

Somehow, we convinced ourselves that trail riding was a new invention: it wasn’t.

Speak to any racer of any generation in any mountain biking discipline and you’ll realise that 95 per cent of their riding is exactly the same as you and I do — riding in the woods with their mates — only they’re going a hell of a lot faster, and they’ve got a goals beyond, but not to the exclusion of, simply having a laugh. What’s wrong with that?

And yet at grassroots level, the athletic element of mountain biking is still downplayed in favour of daft displays of machismo like sipping whiskey from a hipflask on the trail (this might have some merit in the mid-winter in the Alps, but in Surrey? Really?) and running a single chainring so you have to walk up all the hills. Hey, you don’t want to be seen to be trying too hard do you?

Snobbery is snobbery

The reality is that it’s all inverse snobbery, only MTB’ers look down their noses at anyone in lycra rather than anyone who went to public school. Snobbery is snobbery, inverse or otherwise.

So where does that leave us? Well, it seems that even the most entrenched anti-fitness mountain bikers are beginning to change their views. Who can blame them? Riding is unquestionably more fun when you’re fit.

You get to the tops of the climbs quicker and in less distress, so you can enjoy the descents more; you don’t have to try so hard on the climbs so you can happily chat to your buddies, making riding more sociable; and you can ride further, faster, so those big rides you’ve always fancied but never had the nerve to try, are now in the realms of possibility.

It’s high time the f-word lost its taboo, and we embraced the notion that being fit is something to aspire to not shy away from, something that will make your whole life — not just your mountain biking life — more enjoyable.

Just because you’re a mountain biker, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to stand up and say, “I want to get fit!” Say it loud and proud!

The sooner we get over one silly word, the sooner we can get on with pushing mountain biking forward and enjoying — not just surviving — the ride.

So what’s stopping you?

Column from 2011 by Andy Waterman