Gateway Drugs For Kids
It was a red Scott that I later spray painted green and yellow using rattle cans inside my best friend, Chris Tucker’s, shed. It was a cheap way of imitating the jaw-dropping Klein paint jobs of the day and I even had some stickers made up using the school’s die-cut machine. I renamed the bike the Funky Chicken to let everyone know how foul this fowl was.
That bike was bought for me by my parents, I think for 600 pounds (I can’t find where the pound sterling character is hidden on my laptop. I feel robbed.), which was a huge amount of money for them. I nagged and pleaded and bargained with them to buy me that bike. In the end they relented with the proviso that it was to be my sole Christmas present that year. It was also to be my sole birthday present the next year and probably for a lot longer after that. I also had to find a job to supplement the monthly amount they would pay towards the bike each month until it was paid off.
I was more than happy with these terms because I was going to have my very own mountain bike. I’d discovered what mountain biking was (or at least what it was to a 14 year old in the mid-nineties: toeclips, muddy fields and Hans Rey) that summer and it had changed my life. I can confidently say that because twenty years later I’m still chasing the feeling I had during that first ride and that quest has lead me to travel around the world because of bicycles. It’s provided a non-stop, daily focus, my closest circle of friends and even my livelihood.
That bike became an extension of me; I daydreamed about riding it when I wasn’t on it and I’d spend any moment I couldn’t be riding it thinking of how I wanted to customize it and trick it out. The paint job wasn’t the first thing I did – that happened after a year or so of bumps and bruises being applied to the original paintwork – but eventually everything on that bike was upgraded as I saved up the necessary money, found bargains and made trades. By that time I was working at the local shop where I’d bought the bike – Bikes ’n’ Bits in Wells, Somerset, owned and managed by Andrew Chamberlain.
No matter what the bike ended up looking like, it was still ultimately a simple steel hardtail frame that was relatively affordable. I say relatively because it was a big expense to my parents but their investment has resulted in me finding my passion and a means for expressing myself, as well as not being an overweight, binge drinking, friday night fighter. It might have also distracted me from getting a good steady career, starting a family and owning a nice house, but let’s focus on the positive.
When I started writing this article I was sure that the average cost of mountain biking had risen to a point where only the rich kids could arrive and the truly desperate could survive. But then I started to look around and there are some good entry-level bikes at reasonable prices. Many brands have a range of well- priced, nicely specced bikes starting at prices that are relatively close to what my parent’s forked out 21 years ago, except the bikes are even better. The quality of those bikes of twenty years ago don’t hold a candle to what we have now – brakes that do actually slow you down so you can do more than creep along the trail, suspension forks that aren’t just a few heavy tubes full of Christmas cracker-quality engineering, tires that do stay on the rim, come in a myriad of different tread patterns, compounds, and sizess and sidewall thicknesses, etc…headsets that last, cranks that don’t always creak, bars that have good bend to them but won’t bend or break if you actually use your bike as it was intended for and frames can take a regular beating without showing signs of abuse – but has all this development meant the basic cost of a basic bike that won’t kill you if you take it off-road has escalated beyond the means of a wider audience of people?
A few weeks ago I questioned whether it was a good thing if mountain biking attracts new wealth at the cost of Average Joe being able to afford to keep up with the arms race-style escalation of shopping cart bills. The comments were an interesting battlefield with some people commenting that anyone that can’t afford it should just stop complaining and get a better job so they can pay for the better bikes. Yes, that’s a simple answer (also simplistic and a facile one at that) but what about the people that can’t just suck it up and work harder, like the kids? I don’t know what kind of jobs that kids are expected to be doing that they can afford to buy their way into mountain biking these days; the oil patch is shrinking, drugs are being sold by licensed retailers and Tinder has made sex free and readily available – and parents are being stretched more than ever.
The examples of entry level bikes that’ll you see in this article all start at around the $1300 mark, which is pretty damn good for a decent steel or aluminium frame with hydraulic disc brakes, a suspension fork, branded tires and a solid drivetrain. These bikes are bloody great but should we consider that perhaps $1300 is still a lot of money for parents or kids to invest to get into mountain biking? More so, the 600 pound steel- framed, fully rigid, 21-speed bike I started on wasn’t that different to the bikes the pros were riding back in that era, but today’s and entry-level bike bares very little relation to the bikes we all really want to be riding. I do believe many of us could and should still be riding hardtails and I doubt someone who starts on a rigid frame will be unable to actually enjoy the act of mountain biking, but once they’re hooked then the cost of upgrading climbs very, very steeply. Mountain biking compared to other youthful sports and activities – BMX, skateboarding, video games – is still damn expensive. It’s a significant commitment to buy into which could drastically reduce mountain biking’s capacity to attract new riders.
Is it perhaps time to put a bit more focus towards accessibility of mountain biking? I’m not blind, there are a lot of kids getting into biking at a very young age now, often urged on by their parents who are keen to share their own passion for bicycles with their offspring. As a result there’s not just groms shredding harder than Hans Rey in his prime but there’s sprogs doing things on bicycles that were not even possible twenty years ago. I would put a lot of this down to the access to the facilities, like bike parks, skills centers, and trail networks as much as I would because of the awesome bikes they can ride, if they or their families can afford them. Let’s keep an eye on the development of entry-level bikes that allow more people to access mountain biking and keep kids from a wide range of economic and demographic backgrounds because because otherwise mountain biking might just become a little too much like yachting or skiing. Or perhaps that’s precisely what it does need.
Do entry level products in mountain biking make it accessible to people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds – or are we indulging in a pursuit of the rich?