Life has a way of throwing curves at you. Most often these unintended intrusions end up being enormous shaping influences on our lives. An illness … cancer … a disability … a job loss. These are all pivotal moments in our lives. As we emerge from them we’re simply not the same. No longer can we view life and the world around us the same way. The same goes for me, mountain biking, and sustainability.
For a couple years I lived in a large urban center with no car. None. My life revolved around moving around in the city from Point A to Point B either on foot, bike, or public transit. We loved it. As a family of 5 we learned how we could easily navigate city life without the amenity of a vehicle. Since we lived in a neighborhood full of immigrants and refugees I realized quickly that what I had assumed as a right or need my whole life was instead a privilege. Many people in our neighborhood simply didn’t have the financial means for the luxury of automobile ownership.
As a result of this time I didn’t ride on dirt much. There was no loading up my SUV and driving deep into the wilderness to shred. But I didn’t mind as our life was full of rich relationships. Since then we’ve landed in Portland and in the process picked up an SUV. I had grown so accustomed to living in the city without a car that I recall my first trip into the Columbia Gorge to ride my bike. I honestly felt guilty. Keep in mind, for years before this life-shaping experience I lived in Arizona, worked as a mountain biking guide, and drove all over the state to hike and ride my bike. But my experience that I shared above shaped me. I simply haven’t been able to view mountain biking the same.
Since I teach a university course related to bikes, race, and equity I’m constantly reminded of this. In class we go over the data of the cost of owning and maintaining a car and how that impacts low-income families. And yet I’m a mountain biker. This past weekend I loaded up my bike and headed to Hood River for the day to ride. An hour drive east of Portland into the Gorge. I can’t shake that this is more of a privilege than I ever can even get my mind around. But I can drive to the trailhead. I can drive an hour … two hours … and more to ride wherever I want. But what about those who simply can’t?
I’ve read through enough Pinkbike articles and more importantly the comment sections below to know that any time topics of equity, diversity, and sustainability are brought up there’s certainly a backlash. It’s like, “Hey, this is our beloved sport! Don’t talk to me about being inclusive to others or that sustainability B.S.” But I can’t shake these thoughts. They are tied to two pieces: environmental sustainability and accessibility.
I know, I’m meddling now … but let me briefly address these two thoughts.
I recall my first shuttled trip after my car-free experience. Again, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas or thoughts about this before my car-free existence in the city. Three of us went mountain biking in the Gorge … 3 riders, 2 SUVs. We drove over an hour, parked one vehicle at the bottom of Post Canyon and loaded up our bikes on the back of the other SUV. We drove way up, parked, hopped on our bikes, and descended all of the way back down to the bottom. Then one designated “stayer” chilled seemingly for the next hour while the other 2 guys hopped into the other SUV, drove back to the top, grabbed the other SUV, drove down, picked me up, left one vehicle again at the bottom, and we drove back up top to ride down again (leaving one vehicle again at the top). We did that a few times. Since it was my first real shuttle experience I was inwardly in turmoil.
Surely there has to be a better way! I thought to myself. Listen, I don’t mean this in a mean-spirited way nor condescending tone … but I wonder out loud … is there a better way? Does mountain biking have to be intrinsically linked to non-environmentally sustainable practices?
This brings up the second point of how accessible trails are. Obviously this conversation ranges greatly from community to community. Unfortunately for Portlanders to ride on designated trails means driving an hour on average to get to a decent trailhead. Sure, there is the Gateway Green bike park in the city, but not much beyond that. However, there are other communities like Oakridge a couple hours away which has hundreds of miles of trails accessible simply by leaving your car in town and pedaling from there.
One way to address the environmental sustainability conversation then is to have trails close to or in the city or town or village. This would not only go a long way towards cutting down on carbon emissions, but even making mountain biking accessible for those who don’t have the luxury or finances to drive to trailheads even if all they have is a low-end bike they picked up at a non-profit bike shop.
While I know this is not the most endearing conversation to have in mountain biking I believe it is one that still needs to be had. I’m not anti-car nor anything like that. I am fortunate to be able to drive all over Oregon to explore, hike, and bike. At the same time I think a lot and even address these topics in the classroom about creating bike-friendly cities that go beyond bicycle facilities like bike lanes and cycle tracks, but includes access to dirt trails as well.
Words and photos by Sean Benesh, Loam Coffee Founder and Brand Manager.