Are Mountain Bikers a Bunch of Pessimists?

Why do we make a habit out of looking at the bad first, even during a good outcome?
Photo: Travis Reill

Phil’s Trailhead is the largest and most popular trailhead in Bend, Oregon. Despite a huge parking lot, riding on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon often means parking along the access road leading to the trailhead. It is the closest major trailhead to Bend and the first to experience the melt. 

Like many popular trailheads, Phil’s had a “skills” area consisting of a pump track, a whoop section (which seemed more appropriate for dirt bikes), and dirt jumps for all skill levels. Around a decade had passed since these features were built, and like anything over time they were in need of a serious rebuild. 

To remedy this problem, Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) hired professional mountain biker Kyle Jameson, owner of Black Sage Dirt Works, to redo the skills area. The snow melted, and Jameson and his crew took over and worked their magic.

A few days after the work was completed, I loaded up my kids and our bikes to go see how things shaped out. We had a blast. The new pump track was scary fast, and I quickly found out I needed to go down a wheel size or two to be more successful. The new jump lines are well-built and much more forgiving, allowing for progression to actually be realized. We all crashed, laughed, and cried (well, just my littlest) and got covered in some early spring dust. 

What really struck me as interesting was a couple that also rode their bikes over to check out the changes. “This is cool, but that’s really dumb that they took so much out,” one of the riders in the duo said as they approached. What she was referring to was the absence of the whoop section I mentioned earlier. The motocross bumps are now gone, leaving 50 yards or so of empty space.

At this moment, I realized I wasn’t on the same page as her and her companion, who agreed with her initial remarks. “Yeah, what a waste of space,” he added, as they rode off. My initial thoughts were that surely COTA wasn’t complete with the project. Surely COTA has plans for the area that our moto friends once drooled over. 

My intuition was later confirmed by folks I know at COTA. “Yeah, if she wants to throw $30,000 our way, we can get going on that ‘wasted space,’” I was told. What stuck with me is that her first thought wasn’t how great the work was or even that some idiot (me) thought he could take his 29er mid-travel trail bike in a fairly tight pump track. Pessimism came out. Negativity was her perspective.

Are We Debbie Downers?

Now, granted, I don’t know this lady and I don’t want to pass judgment on her. Yet, pessimism was my only experience of hers. Her partner as well. And it was my kid’s experience, also. My son, nearly six, shot a glance at me as they rode off. He overheard, and while I didn’t ask, I imagine his thought was that those people didn’t think this place was as cool as he did.

If you are unfamiliar, I highly recommend you catch up on the old Saturday Night Live skit “Debbie Downer.” Rachel Dratch plays Debbie, an over-the-top pessimist who seems to ruin every social situation. Debbie’s contribution to friends casually chatting over lunch can be something along the lines of her gout flaring up or, “Well, it’s official, the doctors said I’ll never have kids.”

Dratch’s offhand, awkward remarks in the skit give us a glimpse into the life of somebody who is helplessly negative. While I haven’t experienced this level of uncomfortable pessimism from fellow mountain bikers, I can’t help but think back to the negativity I’ve heard, and engaged in, that seems so commonplace in our sport.

I recently had my fork serviced. While the mechanic logged me into the system, he casually asked how I was liking my bike. “Uh, it’s okay,” was my response. He looked up, clearly hearing my lack of enthusiasm. “I mean, I wish the seat tube was steeper.” 

I’m not wrong. The seat tube is a bit slack and I certainly notice a difference when I hop on a friend’s bike. But, once again, there is that pessimism bursting through. I love the rest of the geometry. I love the travel numbers and the weight. It pedals well and descends well. I’ve done 20+ mile days and bike park days, both comfortably. But I chose to lead with what I didn’t like.

Keyboard Warriors

On the flip side, maybe we’re all allowed to complain about our bikes. What we don’t like pushes us toward our next bike, right? The knocks we have on our bikes are usually nothing compared to the negativity we find in the comment section of an article or video we’ve just consumed.

What? The internet can be negative? I know that trolls will always persist but I suppose I am still in shock a bit that they are so prevalent in the mountain bike community.

The inclusivity and general stoke of the community is something I am drawn to. Seeing so many different people and so many different skill levels throw their leg over a mountain bike makes me want to get my kids involved. Hell, I wrote an article about it. Despite the positive vibes that are persistent in much of mountain biking, toxic negativity is found in the comments.

Another article I wrote was about a teenager who is attempting to start a bike company. The young man thought up a frame, taught himself a computer program and designed it, and connected with an overseas manufacturer to have the frame made. He currently has it built up and is ripping trails around Oregon. 

The focus of the article was to point out the accomplishments of this 19-year-old; how he is absolutely pursuing his passion. Unfortunately, some readers saw all this from a different lens. They were sure he is just a rich kid funded by his parents. They are positive it’s the last we see from the brand. Many spoke of how they are in the bike industry and that he won’t make it. 

Cool, thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m sure that attitude is really encouraging a lot of younger riders to be excited about mountain biking (I imagine you are reading my sarcasm). The level of pessimism and negativity that is thrown around on a daily level has no place in mountain biking. What is really sad is that 99% of the emboldened typist wouldn’t say that to his face. No, they would say, “Oh, cool,” and nerd out, asking about geo and if the chainstays are size specific.

A Solution

Okay, I’ll step down off of my soapbox. If you’re still reading, I apologize for being up there for so long. So, is it true? Are we really just a bunch of pessimists?

The more that I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t actually think so. The fact is, it is unfortunately the negative that gets shared much more than the positive. Especially in the comments.

I was talking with Emmy Andrews, Executive Director of COTA recently about this very issue. I explained to her my hypothesis of the negative versus positive. I told her that I imagined that COTA receives more emails complaining about trail conditions, for example, than emails thanking them for the work they’ve done. Andrews confirmed that is the case.

It makes sense. If I go ride a trail and it is in prime condition, I’ll tell folks unloading at the trailhead that it was awesome. I’ll text my buddies, telling them to get in while the getting’s good. I’ve never emailed COTA, just wanting to say “thanks.” When it’s good, I smile and move on with my life. If I’m annoyed, I’m more likely to let my annoyance be known. I think we all are.

So, I’m going to start doing that. If I’m riding a trail and having a blast, I’m going to let them know. If I see trail work happening, I’ll leave a comment extending my appreciation on their socials (trail work is always on social media). When I read an article and get stoked because of what somebody is up to, I’m going to share that stoke in the comments. 

Let’s outweigh the negativity.