Wet foliage on crisp fall morning is what racing smells like. I know a lot of people think hot, dusty trails and the smell of gloves is racing, but my race smells like my first downhill race in September of 2004 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There, as an unwitting 14 year old kid, I threw myself blindly down a hill as the timer ticked off seconds and they gathered next to my name. Since that first day racing the Hardtail Open class, I haven’t looked back, my life has been racing against the clock from that point on.
Eight years later, 2012, I didn’t race, not once did I hear the fateful start gate beeps in person. Life happens, and I got a job – it certainly wasn’t glamorous, and it definitely didn’t provide me with any ulterior satisfaction to my need for speed. I was able to train, but not race, so when the the 2013 season finally came-a-knocking, I was feeling ready – I was quite literally losing sleep thinking about it; I was joining back up with the traveling circus of dirty bikers and their noble steeds!
Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the first race of the year at Mountain Creek in New Jersey and there was a 40-foot (to the knuckle) step-down! Wow! Finally! They boys in NJ came out swinging…but so had the riders, and I’m not sure what to make of the latter. See, when I had last raced in 2011, there was still this elemental feeling of “grassroots” and “local race vibe” in the air. But now, now there was a different lingering feeling in the atmosphere; could it be? I didn’t want it to be, but it was there, that “serious feeling”.
Color me surprised when I realized that the fun times I had once known had seemingly been replaced with a lot of stern looks, hushed discussions, and a lot of unfamiliar faces. Change is good, and I’m glad for it, but I feel like I was seeing a friend for the first time in a while and more than their haircut had changed. No, this wasn’t good, and I was in for a bit of a startling realization: people got serious while I was out tending the fields [note: no joke, I was working on an organic fruit/veggie farm in 2012].
How could this have happened? Well, it’s not that hard to draw a few conclusions: Gwin happened; race coverage is coming back; a lot of fast guys have stepped out of the local scene because of work or something similar; the “old crew” was tired out, and the new kids on the block were spurred on by the winningest American racer they had read about on the forums. The repercussions, while positive for the industry in terms of sales of products is great, I can’t argue that, but the real cost seems to have been the soul of the scene.
Suddenly everyone is super “factory” in attitude, and not just “that one guy” who washes his bike after every run – everywhere I looked people were looking and acting the part of “big time” racers, albeit without the sweet endorsement checks. For facebook statuses updating the masses about how “Day 1 of Practice” went, how the bike felt, blah, blah, high fives for the sponsor hashtags. I’m happy that people have really taken to “making it”, it drives the competition, but I am not so sure the quiet pits and quite obvious lack of comradery is a positive replacement for the once rowdy post-riding parking lot antics.
Granted, a lot of the top racers from the East Coast have either stepped back from racing (in terms of race attendance, not speed) i.e. being more selective about venues, or have been moving up the ladder in the world of racing to the World Cup level (an odd split which speaks more to the availability of sponsor dollars than anything else). But, to me, that doesn’t account for what I think amounts to a frosty off-piste atmosphere. Just because you look fresh in your kit, straddling something a WC pro rides does not make you special. Don’t be like that frat bro wearing a “Howard” jersey and go around acting like you can dunk. Troy Lee and Fox make great kits, and I don’t think any of the designers would appreciate all of the cold interactions taking place with their logos present.
When the guys in on your computer screens, talking to you through Dirt TV, are more approachable and friendly than Joe Racer at Small Race Venue, I think it is time to consider what’s changed and why.