Forty eight years ago, on a blustery August evening in Redcar's Zetland Park, I had my first off-road mind over matter experience. Encouraging words from some way behind prompted the sudden realisation that I no longer had a parent's hand clutching the back of my saddle. I piled into the grass with a force that I still remember vividly. I remember the big curled pedal divot in the grass, I remember the long dark green stains on my knees and palms, I remember the front mudguard twisted against the tyre and, through sometime-warped patterns of event association, I remember three big nosed firemen coming into the living room to put out a chimney blaze. Most of all, I remember making a concerted effort not to cry. Pride can sometimes come after the fall.
I think that was my life's first turning point. Rational thought is not a conscious concept for a four year old, but I was immediately and acutely aware that it was the power of belief and enthusiasm that had kept me upright for the length of the football pitch. My dad's stabilising hand was merely a confidence trick. Since that day, most of my biggest lifestyle decisions and influences have been bike related because every time I go on a bike my mind becomes an open book, uncluttered by the obtrusive barriers of rules, regulations and accepted norms. The bicycle can be all things to all people. It's one of the world's great work tools. It spans a social spectrum that has no stereotypes.
An ever expanding band of pedalling friends and aquaintances are fascinated by the effect of bikes on their own ever expanding band of pedalling friends and aquaintances. They come to ask me for advice on what sort of bike they should buy. Most ask about Hybrids ("fig. thing composed of incongruous elements" - Concise Oxford Dictionary) mainly because they worry about the fashion accessory tag that the 'right-on' cynics attach to MTBs. I always tell them to buy an MTB, regardless of their riding ambitions.
Riding any bike involves an understanding of the multi faceted and inter-related concepts of balance, independent control of action, effort against gravity suck and personal achievement. These are life building forces that kids become acutely aware of before they have enough teeth to dent a Power Bar. Riding a bike off road begins to isolate, purify and highlight all those concepts away from the annoying interruptions of other people's lives being led. The first time you leave the traffic, the hassle, the noise and the smoke behind, you're commencing a long and secure relationship with the most far reaching and useful mechanical extension available for the advantageous adaption of the human body. Every conceivable environment becomes approachable. Life becomes less compartmentalised. Trapped emotions find outlets. I could go on but, at risk of sounding increasingly flowery, I'll get to the point.
The MTB is the first true 'bicycle for the people'. I advocate MTBs because almost everyone can find a way of feeling comfortable on them. Dropped handlebars need far more perseverance. Skinny wheels need far more care and attention. Road bikes and Hybrids are barely succesful marketing ploys aimed at those who passively accept the increasing compartmentalisation of active society. Live in a village. Drive to the city. Shop on the outskirts. Ride in a cycle lane. Go out training. The MTB captures the true free spirit of cycling, because it's infinitely adaptable. If you want a tarmac speed machine, fit some skinny treads. If you want a rock-skimmer, fit a suspension fork. As Ivan Illich once said, the bicycle "allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time,between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance". Make of that what you will but to me it says "Get a Mountain Bike and pull your life back together".