It was a typically barren Wednesday winter’s night, and I was trudging the cold grey shotcrete of a basement carpark to a bicycle cage. Entering behind a colleague and with a quick hello, I got the following response:
“Oh. I thought you were a woman with heels … you could do the catwalk with those tights on”.
Transitioning to a softer shade of scarlet with embarrassment (or was it perhaps a twinkling of flattery, and a secret desire to dance?), I awkwardly shuffled off towards my bike, distinctly lacking in a laconic manly gravitas.
This comment seemed somewhat representative of the crisis of modern masculinity, particularly in the cycling world. And yet, for a misogynistic, male dominated sport, mountain biking has a particularly odd relationship with conventional images of masculinity.
Trammeled somewhere between the world of the hipster and the tradie, there is no crisis in the world quite as ridiculous or hilarious as that of modern masculinity.
A Sense of Beauty
Cycling through the great natural expanses of the world, it is difficult not to feel a resonant appreciation of the deep and mysterious beauty of the world. An epicurean aesthete pretentiously projecting romantic ideals onto the world. Nature is, in fact, nasty, brutish and short.
The Cultivated Self
Perhaps the greatest conflict of masculinity in cycling arises from the apparel. Form fitting and garish, it is defined as much by its controversy as anything else.
There is no controversy with cycling greater than the obsession with lycra. Perhaps the driving factor of Australia’s rampant cyclist hate, lycra is like the Weapon of Mass Distraction in Duncan Gay’s Holy Crusade Against Sydney Cyclists, all in the glorious name of Bending Over Backwards to the Road Lobby, and attempting to deflect attention from the fact that your city has crippling transport infrastructure issues – because the truly Australian way to deal with crippling issues is to find minority groups to blame for everything.
And while Duncan Gay and the Sydney tabloid media can happily absolve themselves from the injuries and deaths that will result from inciting hate against vulnerable road users, the question of lycra will always remain a prickly one.
The problem of lycra is that, while most of us will look like this:
Secretly, we dream of looking like this:
But really, pulling off looking good in lycra really does require a certain European flamboyance. The ability to wear a pair of rainbow leggings to a pub and intimidate the surly locals. The ability to flaunt social conventions of style – and somehow pull it off.
Very few people actually achieve that, and the subsequent cultivation of image becomes something of a self-obsessed farce. Matching socks. Colour coordination throughout. The latest Rapha colourway.
All this progresses to a scary new level on the topic of manscaping. While numerous reason have been posited for the shaving of legs – and some with more merit than others (better for massage oil, better for crashing, better for mud) – the suspicious fact is that hair will always mask muscle definition. The immortal question then remains: is it a Venus treatment, or the French double-up with Gillette? And the next question – where to draw the line?
It was profound questions like this I pondered, as I sat up reading Jane Austen the night before the race, and reflecting on the most amiable pleasures of convivial felicity.
Start lines are, of course, the optimal point to exercise the cultivated self. With the immaculately conceived kit colourway resplendent in the morning sun, the latest Oakley generation sunnies a brilliant visor to mask the eyes, and calves flexed for optimal definition, it’s very important to look casual but deliberate. Every moment must be savoured for a potential dramatic instagram post later.
This stands at odds with how starts play out. At Tathra, the start was an odd mixture of a neutralised piano affair down the road, with a steady roll along the bitumen. This soon gave way to stupid attacks.
If there is one thing that defines the racing tactics of most mountain bikers, it’s reckless attacking. In spite of the fact that the start loop is probably going to be tactically neutral given the immense kilometres of pancake flat tarmac punctuated by a scrabbly dirt climb – it usually leads to the race exploding.
On the approach, the attacks came repeatedly and without much effect. Ever scraping late to get onto the fashionable trend, I threw in one heading around the head-land and found myself having to continue on the climbs. When Trekky came around, total implosion seemed imminent. In circumstances like this, it’s important to do everything you can to mask the severe possibility of spontaneous conflagration and hide it physically. This often has some fairly strange facial manifestations. For all the heroicism of dramatic attacks, the reality has more to do with dribble than glory.
The next issue that always arises is how to look for the action shots. I’ve long since learnt that my attempts to smile for photos will result in photographers putting their cameras down, or possibly even running off screaming into the bushes. It is instead far more important to bring out the best pain face imaginable – because, after all, the manly expression is one of heroic suffering, somewhat anathemic to the premise you might actually enjoy the thing. Suffering is somehow the masculine currency of the thing.
Somehow, the climb passed before the mist completely enveloped my vision, and we were soon barrelling into the singletrack.
It’s never quite certain how much fun you’re really allowed to have on the bike. There are two components to this – the uphill and the down.
Uphills are an interesting case. There is definitely a degree of masochism to enjoyment. Feeling the good burn or some sort of ascetic cleansing experience often come to mind – perhaps best embraced by the “sufferfest” training regime.
For me, this kind of suffering has always been justified more by racing. With a bit of red mist descending, somehow the pain isn’t really such a bad thing. Thresholds of pain somehow magically give way to mastery – the mythical good hurt.
Tathra was one of those magical days where I was feeling the good hurt. The lactic was flooding, my breathing was hoarse, and I was feeling ever in danger of complete implosion. But, with insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster, somehow, mysteriously, it was all going rather well and rather good fun. Bombing through the early trails of the loop, the pace felt fast and fun, clinging on to wheels, trying to pre-empt little crashes, and generally bouncing around on the limit. Trekky lifted the pace again on the next climb and split away. On the subsequent descent, Blairy soon powered away from me and Mark. We gradually closed over the Evil Tom climb… which brought us to the descent.
Descending has always held a little more credibility with the crisis of masculinity – because nothing demonstrates manliness like hucking off a 20ft gap to flat. With a decent shot of adrenaline somehow galvanised by a body fighting lactic from the climb, descending is a very unique beast in itself.
It’s important to roost the corners, huck every rock, roost the berms – and, of course, shred the gnar.
Tathra provides gnar in abundance – with every climb rewarded by swooping corners, the rocky gullies of Bridges, sandy corners, and tight chutes.
The next question that immediately arises comes from the instant need to document the life. Mountain bike photos are always a challenge. Action shots need to ensure that the setting is as dramatic and cool as possible, cast in epic light, and worthy of a few Pinkbike kudos.
Or, you could just have a spectacular crash:
Clinging onto the coat-tails of Blairy down the descent down the descent, I hung on for dear life and decided that – if nothing else – the descending would be amazing fun, and some gnar would be suitably shred.
Sure enough, with a hefty dose of adrenaline, a few glimpses of mortality and the frailty of life, and tyres miraculously not flatting as they were clobbered through rockgardens, I began to forget about the pain in the legs and got thoroughly into racer-boy-zone.
Mountain bike racing is a disingenuous thing. One moment, you’re rolling around with someone and having a very civilised chat about how enjoyable the trails are, and the next, you’re doing everything in your power to drop them.
Or, perhaps, the opposite occurs – busting on the front, snot and dribble issuing forth from every orifice, body pushed to the limit, the rider with you will make a cheeky little comment: “I’m thinking we should wind up the pace soon”.
Finally offering to roll a turn with Blairy, I was in two minds. On the one hand, working together would offer the only hope you keeping in any kind of contact with Trekky up the road, and holding off Mark. But I was also feeling the appealing of attacking and going flat-out on the hills in an attempt to break free.
Perhaps this raises a rather startling mirror to the nature of the racer boy. A maniacal egotistic desire to win, somehow veiled by a shabby facade of friendly banter. When Blairy popped off the back with a mechanical issue, I was quite happy to trade banter and collaboration for going for it.
If there is one aspect of masculine behaviour that has been present since the dawn of time, it’s stupidity. Having pushed my hydration strategy a little bit too hard, and with more than a few poorly conceived violent attacks, my legs were in strong protest, and considering cramping at every opportunity.
The final 25km loop was a strange mixture of focus and moderation, enjoying descents followed by violent cramps, wanting to push harder then rapidly realising the need for conservatism just to survive.
But a mountain bike track through beautiful south coast bush in the nascent spring sunshine, with views over the sea: there’s no better place to indulge in a little idiocy, and a huge thank you to Tathra Mountain Bike club for making it happen, even after a violent East Coast Low. A big thanks also to the Moffitts for putting me up in Bega the night before the race and providing a fantastic carbo load! It doesn’t get better than riding bikes on beautiful trails in better places – however much of a crisis of manliness you endure along the way….
Which brings me back to the first point. A sense of beauty? Naaah, mate!