Riding the Middle Ground: Mountain Bike Politics and Lifestyle

I remain an avid hiker and backpacker to this day, and that ethos still colors my cycling advocacy efforts, although staunch Wilderness advocated would never see it that way.
I remain an avid hiker and backpacker to this day, and that ethos still colors my cycling advocacy efforts, although staunch Wilderness advocated would never see it that way.

Editor’s Note: John Fisch is an avid backcountry enthusiast who hikes, bikes and backpacks at every opportunity. The trails in this editorial are part of his big backyard.  While John is a regular contributor to Singletracks.com, the opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

Times are strange, seems like nothin’ lasts
We watch the changes go by so fast
We fear the future, and it makes us long of the past . . .
First verse opening to “Middle Ground” by Rik Emmett

After what may have been the most contentious and divisive political season in American history, certainly the harshest in my half century of life, some reflection is in order to see where we fall, not just politically, but in all areas of our lives. Despite the fringes and extremists getting an ever-increasing share of coverage in both professional and social media, I remain convinced that the majority of us actually fall well between the two radical poles from which we are expected to choose. Whether in our political or social desires, or the way we choose to live our lives, most of us are meant to take a middle road most of the time.

Lost Horizon (1)
We could all learn a thing or two from the inhabitants of Shangri-La

One of my favorite pieces of classic literature is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.  The book is rich in themes about how to live life, two of which stand out to me as general statements of existence, but also with applicability to my life as a mountain biker.  The first deals with the concept of accepting diversity of experience and opinion.  The residents of the idyllic Shangri-La fuse religious traditions as diverse as Catholicism and Buddhism, and everyone coexists harmoniously.

The second deals with the concept of moderation.  In addition to peaceful acceptance, the residents of Shangri-La attribute their general state of happiness and unusual longevity to a lifestyle that stresses moderation in all things.  Without doing it consciously, I realized I have often followed the mantra laid down in the mythical Shangri-La, in both the political and lifestyle aspects of my life as a mountain biker.

Riding the Middle Ground: Mountain Bike Politics

Everywhere you look some kind of war is goin’ on
& no man’s land is never gonna’ stay that way for long
Better climb off that fence, boy,
Before somebody shoots you down
Hey, they’re gonna’ shoot you down, and they’ll say
“Hey, boy, just whose side are you on, anyway?”
But I haven’t got the heart to act my part out in their play
But in the end, you got no choice, it’s the only game in town . . .
-Middle Ground, second verse

Does thinking a bike should be allowed to traverse this trail once in a while mean I’ve abandoned the middle ground? If anything, it only reinforces my commitment to riding the middle ground. (photo: Greg Heil)

I have been very active in mountain bike advocacy issues, often to the point that many would say I’m doing anything but riding the middle ground.  But as an avid mountain biker, hiker, and backpacker, and former equestrian, jeeper, motorcyclist, and ATVer, I have tried to fuse my understanding of, and appreciation for, all these wild pursuits into an advocacy platform that can meet all but the most extreme desires of every user group involved in the public lands debate.

Like the politicians who would have us believe that their extreme positions are actually centrist, and that there is no middle ground between their positions and sides must be accepted in their entirety, extremist groups would have us believe there is no solution other than their solution.  The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club would have us believe that never, ever allowing a single bike tire to touch a piece of wilderness is actually a centrist position because, after all, wilderness makes up a small portion of the overall landmass.  In doing so, they ignore the fact that backcountry cyclists share the same leave-no-trace ethos as the backcountry hiker, and that the rest of the landmass is far less desirable as a destination for an equally low-impact, human-powered backcountry activity.  At the other end of the spectrum are motorized users who believe their vehicles should be allowed to travel any piece of land at any time.

Even within the cycling community, there are some who believe a knobby should never ever be allowed to see wilderness dirt, while others are convinced there should be no restrictions on mountain biking whatsoever.  In the end, cyclists are often left in the middle facing a no-win scenario, as played out in the creation of new Wilderness in Idaho’s Boulder White Clouds that simultaneously preserved cherished motorized access while simultaneously creating new Wilderness that froze cyclists out of their most cherished routes in the state.

Personally, I don’t believe in the Kobayashi Maru (no-win scenario) any more than Captain Kirk, and despite seeking the middle ground, I don’t like to lose any more than he does.  Like our swashbuckling space hero, I believe we can “reprogram” the scenario with parameters that allow for a centrist position—it just requires an understanding of diverse opinions and an acceptance of diverse desires, as was exhibited by the variety of backgrounds coming together in Lost Horizon.  We just need to consider alternative approaches; the extremists see only black and white while solutions usually require more subtle shading.  For instance, shared use schedules provide a way for hikers to have bike-free backcountry experiences without freezing out cyclists 100% of the time.  The world is full of solutions if only we have the desire to look for them, the willingness to try them, and the open-mindedness to accept them.

Equestrians and cyclists work together to reprogram the “no-win scenario” of trail conflict. (photo: Montana Mountain Bike Alliance)

While I usually advocate what I believe to be centrist positions, I tend to do so quite forcefully.  There’s little moderation in my riding the middle ground.  But if we are always moderate in all things, we are then being extreme in our moderation; the paradox is that it’s logically impossible to be moderate in all things, because if we are, we are by definition being anything but moderate in our moderation!  Sometimes, we have to cast the moderation aside, and advocacy is one area I have chosen to do this.

Riding the Middle Ground: Mountain Bike Lifestyle

I actually came to the realization of my riding the middle ground, lifestyle-wise, when I was riding on two planks rather than two rubber hoops.  At age 25, I discovered downhill skiing, and quickly ramped up to the level of an expert skier.  I was putting in around 20 days per year on the slopes and as good as I was, I realized I had hit diminishing returns and would have to do a great deal more to reach the next level.  However, a life that involved a demanding career and a family I cared about came into direct contrast with the requirements necessary to achieve world-class skier skills.

Balancing act

This conflict became even more apparent when I began riding mountain bikes at age 35.  I went from merely married to married and father of three.  I had ascended in my career and reached a point where even more was expected of me… and promised to me should I succeed.  What’s more, as quickly as I became obsessed with mountain biking, I wasn’t a “natural” at it like I was at skiing.  The journey to advanced-level skills was longer and far less obvious in its ultimate realization of success.  Being at the onset of middle age further reinforced that I had far less chance of reaching world class cycling performance than I did skiing a decade before.

At first, I found this conflict limiting… and distressing.  Skiing only in moderation seemed unacceptable.  But when thinking clearly and, dare I say, maturely, it was nowhere nearly so unacceptable as failing to acknowledge that those limiting factors were themselves priceless blessings.  How many people struggle to find rewarding work?  How many more struggle to find the joy that comes with a well-balanced family life?

What’s more, I knew that by maintaining the balance, I would lay the best possible foundation for my children to be able to find their own way, and by being able to give them the benefit of an early start, they were likely to be able to reach the highest levels of performance and still be able to live a moderate lifestyle, which would allow them to pursue a variety of interests—or they could become full-tilt ski/bike bums, but at least they would have the choice.  Ultimately, that’s right at the core of the “American Dream,” that we have the opportunity to provide even greater opportunity to the next generation.  Having been successful in this area has been my greatest satisfaction, and wouldn’t have been possible without spending a life riding the middle ground.

By starting my daughter early, she was able to reach expert skier status at a young age, freeing up adult time for other pursuits while still being able to absolutely shred whenever she finds the opportunity.
The world needs its Brandon Semenuks and Rachel Athertons who are willing to devote their entire lives to things most of us choose as hobbies.  They show us what is possible, they inspire us, and they move the state of the art forward.  But they are rare–as they should be–as the world needs even more John and Jane Does, who are not only willing, but appreciative of the ability to ride the middle ground, either in politics or lifestyle.

Earlier this month, Greg Heil asked us what kind of life we want to live.  In answering that question, I am fortunate enough to be able to say that, despite not winning a single World Cup podium, or even coming close for that matter, I live exactly the life I have chosen and am confident that not only I, but others have benefited from my choice to do so.

Last night I dreamed of a long forgotten place
High upon a hill with the cool wind in my face
And the air was clean and clear, and I could see for miles around
And in my heart, I knew I had come home
And in my soul, there was a Peace I’d never known
And so I laid my claim to this sacred place I’d found
And I stand the middle ground . . .
-Middle Ground, final verse

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