Monday, January 13, 2020

Fat Bike Victory (?)

On Jan. 8, the Wolfeboro Select Board signed the policy governing fat bike use on the town portion of the cross-country ski trails. It allows fat bikes on a limited portion of the trails that are on town land, which is itself less than half of the total trail distance maintained and groomed by the Wolfeboro Cross Country Ski Association. It permits the use for one year, while the Wolfeboro Singletrack Alliance builds its own network of bike trails on the town property, which they have already been doing. The policy will be reviewed annually in the likely event that trail construction by WSA takes them longer than they expect.

For all that mountain biking has become solely the province of well-funded consumers, the riders who do it in what we have customarily viewed as bike season have been admirably industrious at hacking out their own trails on several parcels of land, governed by various use agreements. Some of the trails are really well engineered, while most of them are of the more ephemeral rake-and-ride variety. However they get there and stay there, the bike group has at least put in the effort to make landowner contact and construct their own facilities.

Winter presented them with a significant extra challenge. Snow bikes are totally dependent on packed surfaces. The minority who could and would afford to invest in an additional expensive bike almost exclusively for use during the two or three months in which we might get snow found themselves with few pre-packed options. Their covetous gaze fell upon the cross-country ski trails. To the riders, this looked like a selfish private preserve fenced off unfairly from their harmless, goofy fun.

The ski association and the bike riders agree that the riders will be served best by making their own trails to their own specifications, and grooming them to their own standards. And the riders would not have been denied if they had simply gone straight to the town in the first place and asked for permission to start enhancing their existing trails and adding new ones.

All of the ire and anxiety inflicted on the cross-country skiers was completely unnecessary, driven by the covetous incursion of a rogue handful of fat bikers. Such a demonstration would not have been needed if the riders had simply put together a proposal and gone to the recreation department directly.  It was just an act of youthful arrogance by some, merged with the midlife crisis of others, to act out in juvenile rebelliousness that stands in curious contrast to their posturing now about "economic benefits" and other mature-sounding rational arguments. They could have respected the cross-country ski association and made a separate, totally justifiable bid to have their wants accommodated at the town recreation facility on public land.

Proponents of fat biking in general make the comparison -- almost entirely incorrectly -- between the rise of fat biking on groomed Nordic trails, and the rise of snowboarding at downhill areas in the 1990s.

First off, alpine skiers and snowboarders are both lift-dependent sliders on snow. Throw fat bikes onto a downhill ski area, and then you might have a comparison. By the way, alpine skiers were none too fond of Telemark skiers back then, either. The rhythm of free-heel skiing, within the limits of the gear at the time, made our paths a bit more meandering that your locked-down, fully mechanized alpine skier would follow. We didn't gouge things up the way the one-plankers did, but we still got in the way of modern progress. Telemarkers cured the problem by turning their gear into what was essentially alpine skis and boots. Snowboarders cured their problem by simply becoming too numerous to ignore. Needing the money, downhill areas caved in and sold out. The snowboarders do have a negative effect on the snow surface, but downhill areas are such a mosh pit anyway that lift riders have learned not to care. It's just a theme park.

Proponents of the fat bike revolution tell the cross-country skiers that we will be fine, just as alpine skiers were fine. It's a nice way of saying that our time is up and we have to watch ourselves being replaced by this new thing that is really different from our thing, that requires all of the concessions from the skiers and none from the bike riders, until skiing finally dies out. This is the wave of the future. Resistance is useless.

It's a bit like deciding whether to go ahead and welcome the Panzer battalions, or let the invaders machine gun and shell a bunch of you first.

The promoters of fat biking around here are all people who can afford to sit and chat for hours in places where beer costs $6 a glass. Fat biking takes on the character of gentrification. Get all these cheap-ass poor and old people out of the way so that the people with the most toys can win. They talk about "attracting a younger demographic with more disposable income," by prioritizing mountain biking in all seasons.

Here's the thing about a younger demographic with disposable income: they get older. You look at the users of the cross-country ski trails, and a lot of them are really old. The exercise helps them stay fit, and they are able to enjoy some form of it from childhood all the way to their 60s, 70s, and 80s -- sometimes longer. How many people will be able to spend whatever is left of their disposable income on technical mountain biking when they're in their 60s and beyond? Who will replace them as they age out? And how will you get their useless carcasses out of your way to make room for the next bringers of disposable income?

In the 1980s and '90s, cross-country skiing and mountain biking weren't about the money, they were about accessible and affordable fun. Mountain biking is now neither. The riders who have evolved with it are insulated by their money and their obsession. Cross-country skiing has also become more artificial in the need for grooming and snow farming brought on by the wide variations in winter conditions. The outdoor generalist can still get by with a mix of relatively affordable equipment, but frugal people are terrible for the go-go economy.

As consumer culture flames out in its final frenzy, it threatens all that is simple and affordable. Human powered transportation and recreation would have provided tremendous benefits for those of us with lesser means, if we had acknowledged as a species how limited our means actually are. But we're still drunk with the excesses of more than a century of expanding resource exploitation, reinforced and amplified by our collective fantasy life playing out on screens large and small. What is the true cost of all that disposable income?

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