Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mountain bikes, alien civilizations, and arms races

No, this isn't a 1984 throwback post. I'm waxing philosophical (which is a hint to stop reading if that sort of thing bores you) about the relationship between technology and unanticipated consequences. With regard to alien civilizations, and also mountain bikes. I think.

This will become relevant to bikes in a minute, really. Bear with me.

One of the interesting conundrums of our times is that, while we've got all kinds of powerful and sensitive telescopes and instruments, and have spent a lot of time looking for evidence of other intelligent life around us in the galaxy, we have yet to find anything. This logic problem is known as the Fermi paradox, after the famous mathematician. There are several responses to the Fermi paradox, which are basically:
-Intelligent life actually is very rare, or unique (ie, we're special).
-We're looking in the wrong places or the wrong ways (ie, we're the only intelligent life using radio, everybody else is telepathic or something).
-Other intelligent life is deliberately laying low so that we can't detect it (ie, nobody likes us).
-Intelligent life tends to develop technology that allows it to quickly kill itself off, so at any given time, intelligent life is rare in the galaxy (ie, civilizations don't last long).

Call me a pessimist, but the final option seems the most plausible to me. We're a competitive, intelligent race of tool builders who have an exponentially growing population and limited resources - and better technology almost always means better weapons. My money is on all those alien species having wiped themselves back out shortly (say, within 500 years) after getting to the point where they could use radio. My money is also on humans to go the same route, but I'm trying to work this back to bikes now, so I'll stop with the depressing exobiology. The point I'm trying to make is that technology improvements always bring unanticipated side effects. Splitting the atom makes electricity, or it makes lots of people dead - it just depends on how you go about it.

Since I can't think of a good segue for this, here we go.

In the last 20 years, mountain bikes have changed a LOT. Here's a 1989 Stumpjumper:

I don't have to tell you that a basic XC mountain bike looks nothing like this now. You can easily poke around online and find a <30 pound 6" travel bike for <$1500, which is lighter, faster, smoother, and better in pretty much every way than the old Stumpy. You'll feel like a superhero on techy terrain on the new bike in comparison.

But that's starting to become a problem, I think. Inexpensive, commonly available mountain bikes are good enough now that even inexperienced or unskilled riders can tackle relatively steep and technical terrain in relative safety (well, safety for the rider, anyway), and can ride much, much faster on all types of terrain than they could on the bikes of two decades ago.

So instead of a few expert riders going fast on any given trail, along with some novices rolling slowly along, we've got a situation where lots of riders on long-travel, capable XC bikes can go fast enough on multi-use trails that they won't be able to easily stop in time to avoid a collision. The curves on the trails haven't gotten any less sharp, and the sight lines aren't any better than they were 20 years ago. And while brakes are unquestionably more reliable and easier to set up (cantilevers, barf) than they used to be, it's hard to argue that bikes actually stop any quicker - you can lock up a wheel with a cantilever just like you can with an 8" disc rotor.

In other words, the goal of building faster and more capable bikes may be incompatible with sharing trails with other types of trail user unless we come up with ways to avoid collisions and stop better. We already have lots of trails like this (bike specific ones, that is) at the bike parks and resorts - trails where having users go uphill would be unsafe, and even ones where having users going significantly different speeds (or stopping) isn't ok. Right now, the bikes that are capable of being safely ridden on those trails are basically only intended to go down - but they are getting lighter and easier to pedal every year.

If someday we could build a 15 pound bike with 10" of suspension travel, capable of changing geometry for climbing or descending, would it be a good idea to build it? I'm not sure. While I'd love to ride that bike, I suspect that making something like that available to the general public would lead to bikes being banned from a lot of trails. It's worth noting that motorized vehicles aren't really banned from trails because of some inherent unsavory quality of motors (they can be made quiet, stink-free, and unobtrusive) - they are banned because they go *too fast* to share the trail easily in many cases, or do too much damage to the trail surface. I think mountain bikes are coming closer and closer to motorcycles in their capabilities (which from a tech-geek standpoint is super cool), but that's a potential problem as trails get more crowded with users of all types.

I'm not trying to be down on new technology, but I do wonder what will happen to mountain bike trails in the next 20 years - I hope that my kids will be able to ride the same trails I do today, but I don't know if that will happen if any yahoo can go to Performance and buy a 10" travel cross country bike, then go scream down some local trail and run over people's kids and dogs.

In other words, hopefully we won't become the victims of our own technology. My solution? 1: Join IMBA, and 2: Take your long-travel bike and smash it with a rock, then get your old Trek Antelope 820 out from the rafters and pump up the tires...

Just kidding about that second part.


Dan O said...

Interesting post.

I agree with a lot of it - modern bikes can go down hill a lot faster then old ones. However, on flat terrain or hills - rider skill still triumphs over technology. I know, I sound like Grant Petersen.

I've been riding mountain bikes since 1984, so almost the beginning of it all. From rigid steel frames with bull moose 'bars to full suspension.

Due to money reasons, technology stops in my garage at my 1999 Ellsworth Truth. Four inches of rear travel, 2004 Fox Talas fork, full XTR with V-Brakes. I have demo'd many newer bikes though - yeah, they're damn nice.

The old Ellsworth was getting creaky, being low on funds - pulled all the XTR off and installed onto a eBay NOS 2007 Cannondale Furio-X frame with Headshock. Super stiff hardtail and 80mm front suspension. Back to a hardtail after 9 years of full-suspension. Ouch. Still, I'm really no slower on the Cannondale. Yeah - I do get the crap pounded out of me - but it's been fun to go back for awhile.

I did a XC mountain bike race last summer after a 15 year lay off - on the Ellsworth Truth. Fast I'm not, lucky to hang on to the back of 45+ Sport class. I mixed it up with people on full rigid bikes, single speeds as well as full suspension. It doesn't really matter.

Downhill/Freeride, jump off insane stuff aside - bikes are still 99% the rider. That's patly what makes 'em so damn cool.

b.asti said...

I very much like the way you try not to talk ´bout bikes. Great writing and some thinking outside the box. I have a favour for stuff like this.

Although I´m with totally with you ´bout the aliens and unanticipated results of what is often called technical progress, the biking analogy only works that well in theory.

I share the pessimistic view, when it comes to the future of trail acessibility. I do not prefer, but assume it will be go on and on with that bike park /trail park thing. I assume, those parks will get better to ride and consume ( more variaty of skill level, generally more familly friendly and more or less as easy to use as public football fields ...)

2 scenarios for the popularity of mtb in the future seems possible too me.

First one is close to the ideas above. Mountainbiking becomes a sport like alpine skiing. Downhill orientated, mass compatible, with strictlyly limited places to go and a huge amount of artificial incriedients to make it happen. Sexyness, adrenaline, sportive and more mtb pics in the marketing world for adding some "wild spirit" to some teeth brush comercial

Second version:
Mountainbiking becomes something like an alternative (and maybe younger and still more sophisticated) version to the jogging / runners movement. Not that sexy and adrenaline ladden, But easy to do whereever, whenever and to whatever extent. Like mountainbiking rediscover its cycling roots.

Both versions are represented in either freeride /downhill orientation or endurance/touring orientation.

While industry nowadays seems to push the first route, (And of course, the technical evolution in mountaibiking is a blast to use.) I don´t see so many crazy mountainbikers around. I see most of the folks riding their all mountain sussers just as discouraged, underskilled and slow as they ´ld ride a Trek Antelope on the trails. The technical benefits in fact are used for safety, adding some control and comfort by the majority of the riders. Most of them don´t even have an idea what their bike would handle. And it doesn´t matter, they couldn´t do it anyway.

btw 1: My observations are made in germany and switzerland. I know, most of the worlds riders think, germans can´t ride anyway. There are some. I swear. But I only see a few despite dirt jump folks.

btw 2: My babyblue waltworks needs some new decals.


Walt said...

BAsti - Drop me an email. I'll get you some stickers.

Thanks for the comment. I agree, the analogy isn't perfect. In my defense, I had consumed a lot of cough syrup before writing it up.

Anonymous said...

you have blown my mind tonight. the fermi paradox and bikes. nice post, i really enjoy your writing style. i was a bit surprised that you did not suggest that everyone order a rigid 29er from WW to ameliorate the current problem.
mike m

Jonno! said...

Your take on Fermi is a little short-sighted, in that it only looks at human intelligence from a modern perspective. Take the American Indians for example, they had tools and intelligence, but they did not see fit to systematically kill each other off for scarce resources. I think intelligence and access to tools does not necessarily mean life will kill itself off, we just happen to be doing that for the last few hundred years or so in our current version of society/culture/intelligence.

Walt said...

Jonno! -

Give me an example of a new technology in *all of human history* that wasn't used almost immediately to make weapons, and I'll find you 10 counterexamples.

Also, for what it's worth, Native Americans fought plenty of wars. They probably would have fought bigger ones, but they never got to a sufficient level of technology to manage it (Guns, Germs, and Steel has some interesting takes on that situation).

Your point is really the "we're looking the the wrong places/we're blinded by our culture" one. I think that one is plausible too, but not as likely as the more pessimistic explanation.

Thanks for the comment!

jonnyb said...

Nothing like reading a little Stephenson to get the mind working.

I completely agree with your point about bikes being able to go downhill too fast for the skill of the rider. In a similar situation, newbies on bikes are much more of a hazard in a skatepark than newbies on a skateboard simply because most anyone can jump on a bike and get it going 30km/h while it actually takes some skill to be able to ride a skateboard on transition and be able to just maintain your speed (being able to pump and accelerate is a whole 'nother game!)

I bought a fully for the first time this past fall and am having to try all sorts of stupid new things to make the ride as challenging as I'm used to on my rigid,dropbar go-to ride. Fun, but when I screw up I'm going twice as fast over terrain way rougher.

Walt said...

Johnny -

I was wondering if someone else who had read Anathem would notice that this post followed so close after I read it... it was indeed Anathem that got me thinking about this.

Love that Stephenson.


Maxwell said...

Outstanding post!

With the mentions of Stephenson and Diamond, I was wondering, have you read any Daniel Quinn?

Walt said...

You know, Ishmael has been mentioned to me a bunch of times, but I've never gotten around to reading it. Maybe I'll have to give it a shot. Thanks for the idea!

Anonymous said...

the whole ss/fixie thing seems like a de-evolution from the big hit bikes being built. plus dropping $5k on a bike seems unnecessary if your not a pro racer winning races. i feel like if i'm having fun and my bike isn't falling apart on the ride, then i'm content. when the aliens get here they will be in rigid steel ships.

Feldy said...

Fermi was a physicist, not a mathematician. At least, that's what my physics-centric perspective thinks.

And since you brought up wikipedia again (though it's sorta okay in this context), I thought i should mention that in episode 49 of "Ducktales," Scrooge acquires a magical harp that can determine if someone was lying or not. However, Magica de Spell wants the harp for herself, and so does the harp's guardian.

FWIW, I don't believe intelligent life forming is all that likely. However, I do agree that mountain bike technology has gotten to the point where it could kill us all. And by kill us all, I mean threaten trail access.