The imperative dominated my conscious awareness. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I was hurtling, at what felt like mock-speed, down a steep, winding, boulder and root-strewn dirt trail on a hard-tail mountain bike.
As I shoved the bike with white-knuckled exertion around each berm and obstacle, I tried not to think of what would happen if I hit something. The Superman, a failure so named for the near-comical way in which a rider flies off the front handlebars of a bike that has been traveling at high speeds and abruptly arrested by an obstacle, is one of the most theatrical ways that one can injure oneself — second only to the Scorpion in degrees of wretchedness.
It is telling that in most velocity-driven extreme sports, the contortions a body takes as it impacts the ground at high speed are given farcical — even humorous — names. While participation in such activities typically have high, adrenaline-fuelled payoffs, the threat of injury is ever-lurking, and it is uncommon to find a serious devotee who has not regularly endured lacerations, sprains, even broken bones, at the expense of their sports. More terrible still, are the deaths that shadow these communities each season — snowboarding, mountain biking, surfing, and others. In some circles, it is nearly impossible to find somebody who has not lost a friend or a partner to their respective avocation. These sobering and scary realities lie at obtuse angles to the happy-go-lucky, fun-obsessed, sunburnt countenances of most outdoor action and adventure-sports. So, it is with particular creativity and persistence that members of their ranks invent ways mock the theatrics of high-speed collisions. In fact, such theatrics have become somewhat of an obsession among enthusiasts: sports films always include at least one or two particularly acrobatic crashes, and fans often collect and string together video clips of their favourite mishaps each season to present to their friends.
Facing such a collision oneself, however, is anything but comical. As the bike flew, almost of its own accord, down the increasingly steep mountain trail below me, I morbidly pictured myself slamming into a stump, flying head-first over the bars, arms stretched out as if in flight. The move, at best, would end in an ungainly belly-flop into a death-trap of logs, branches, sharp rocks, and other dangerous objects. Between trying to stay on the bike as it bucked underneath me and barely avoiding collision with the constant onslaught of obstacles rushing into my path, I didn’t have time to mentally run through the list of potential injuries I might sustain, or gauge the likelihood that I might walk away from a crash — but I did have time to grimly acknowledge the fact that, if the terrain got any rougher, I would be in over my head.
As I raced down a steep boulder slab towards a break in the trail, terror and excitement jockeying for dominance, a crazy thought flashed through my fevered mind:
I had wanted this.
In fact, I had paid royally for this privilege. In the early months of the summer, amongst fear and uncertainty and the pandemic news-cycle, I had looked to the granite behemoths around my home in Squamish, and watched mountain bikers, dusty and elated, rolling their bikes off the trails every day. There was something impressive about them, with their heavy treads, wide-grip handlebars, broad tubes, pneumatic struts and complex geometries. They seemed to me like perfectly designed mountain-conquering machines, possessive of beautiful a singularity.
So it was that, after a long string of rationalizations and self-delusions, I found myself in possession of a scuffed up black hard-tail mountain bike on a cloudless, cool morning in early June.
The bike was, to my unconditioned sensibilities, abnormally expensive — especially given that I was its third owner and it had been more than a little beat-up. It had been cobbled together by an enterprising bike-mechanic named Casper with spare parts from a lesser-known but seemingly well-regarded bike company called Commencal, and with its almost delicate, slender, narrow frame, it looked, to me, less befitting of its price-tag than I would have hoped.
Still, my bike-savvy friends assured me that the $1,400 I was spending was well worth it, and that I had in fact gotten a deal. In an industry where the average price of a new bike exceeds $3,000 and can easily quintuple that figure, there is no escaping — or forgetting — the undeniable financial burden of “fun”.
Yet I fretted, in those first few days, that the outlay had not been worthwhile. As I cycled around flat trails in the woods, squatting awkwardly over my pedals like a gangly, helmet-clad toad and trying to get used to the feeling of rolling over roots, logs, and other obstacles, I worried that it might be years until I could ride competently enough to have the sort of high-octane fun that I had been desirous of.
As it turned out, I had little to worry about. Within days I was rolling down mild inclines, and within weeks I had worked my way up to intermediate trails — narrower, more technical, more steep. Months later, I would be cautiously barreling down some easier expert trails on that same bike. During this time, I would suffer more than a few scrapes and bruises — but I would also, most certainly, become a better, more confident rider.
In the early days, I often struggled to focus, my attention splintered into one hundred fragments: controlling the dropper (a telescoping seat post), keeping my pedals flat, managing the weight of my body and mass on the bike in three-dimensional space as it flew around corners and over obstacles. Even braking, a simple task on a regular bike, required enormous mental concentration.
Yet I found progression particularly rewarding. There is something visceral and impressive about watching your body adapt to a physical challenge, becoming stronger, reacting faster, learning the intricacies of balance, almost as if by magic. These changes might happen overnight, or they might take months, but they represent a particular type of reward for persistence, a self-affirming pat on the back and an exclusive pass to unique experiences, that is distinct from any other.
Such progression comes with a cost, however: in order to achieve higher levels of competence, one must, with some regularity, step outside of one’s comfort zone. This means exposure to bigger, scarier terrain and increasing degrees of danger. Risk is most often, although not always, correlated with experience: the more competent one becomes, the more risk one must undertake to progress further, and — inevitably — the greater the repercussions can be for failure. While conventional wisdom is to always “remain in control”, it is widely held (although rarely acknowledged) that doing so is not always possible. Just as a toddler learning to walk is expected to eventually fall, a rider pushing themselves into more progressive terrain is expected to occasionally lose control. In fact, even riders who ride terrain well beneath their capability level are expected to fall sometimes due to any number of circumstances beyond their control (weather, equipment failure, or other riders, to name a few) — this is why, even amongst timid mountain bikers, protective gear is the rule.
Despite the high financial and physiological costs, mountain biking and most other extreme sports have enjoyed significant growth in recent years, largely due to the efforts of the advertising sector, which funds high-visibility competitions on behalf of consumer goods companies like Cliffbar and Red Bull, and large outdoor ”lifestyle” retailers as REI (Recreational Equipment International). Would-be inductees and hard-core disciples alike are inundated with colorful photographs of professional athletes frozen, often in mid-air, at the apex of stomach-churning acrobatics. In such images, the adrenaline is nearly palpable, and it usually translates into top-line revenue. Despite being completely incapable of such feats myself, I have often stood in front of these images, picturing myself mid-stunt, and fought the urge to pull out my phone and buy the products or plane tickets being advertised.
It is interesting, in those moments of yearning, that we assume happy endings: we see, even though it is never explicitly pictured, a clean, triumphant landing, rather than a body and bike rag-dolling uncontrollably down a mountain at bone-breaking velocity. As a life-long snowboarder and surfing enthusiast, I have watched countless competitions, film outtakes, and real-life incidents where athletes have been injured or even killed at the conclusion of such stunts. I myself have sustained injuries too many times to count — yet it still never occurs to me to think of these incidents when staring at a photograph of a surfer dropping, like an ant, into a sixty-foot wave, or a snowboarder dropping over the lip of an enormous cliff.
Or perhaps it does, and perhaps that is precisely the point. It is widely held amongst neuroscientists that fear and excitement are close cousins. Indeed, researchers cannot — biochemically speaking — discern one from the other. Both emotions cause the same increases in breathing and heart rate, the same dilation of pupils, and the same sweaty palms. In fact, it is only the nucleus accumbens, the reward center of the brain, that distinguishes between the two. It is perhaps true that feelings of fear when studying a window display from the safety of a sidewalk might encode as excitement, while those same feelings experienced in mid-air right before a potential disaster might encode as fear. Either way, adrenaline is more or less guaranteed, along with a cocktail of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals.
If such a thesis is to be accepted, it follows that these sports — if you can even call them sports — are appealing precisely because they are dangerous and difficult, not despite.
John Krakauer, a journalist who climbed Mount Everest in 1996, wrote something to similar effect in his landmark book “Into Thin Air.” He wrote: “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”
Krakauer knew what it was like to brush up against his own mortality: the expedition that he was writing about ended in the deaths of eight fellow climbers after a blizzard struck near the summit, in the what was, at the time, the deadliest season on record. Yet somehow, he continued to climb in the years following the incident. In one interview with Outside magazine, Krakauer remarked “I guess I don't try to justify climbing, or defend it, because I can’t.”
In this light, the allure of such diversions makes sense, but biochemistry on its own it doesn’t explain the enormous growth this category has sustained. After all, mountain biking has been around since the 1970’s, snowboarding the 1960’s and surfing has been practiced for centuries, yet in the past two decades these sports have grown in popularity by orders of magnitude.
In fact, extreme sports have grown far beyond the bounds of their actual followings. They have become total cultural obsessions. Images are plastered on cereal boxes, tee-shirts, and window displays, and savvy marketers use them to hawk anything from software to cigarette cartons. Even the equipment have become status symbols: mountain bikes and snowboards sell like hot-cakes to office-working urbanites who use them a few times each year, skateboards and surfboards adorn the walls of ad agencies, cafes, and hip craft breweries, and high-end car manufacturers sell expensive sedans with designer ski-racks. These icons of “cool” evoke a certain rock n’ roll ethos — a laid-back carelessness — that embodies the kind of fun that happens without parental supervision. In their most pure form, they harken back to the time when extreme sports actually were counter-culture; dominated — and indeed, created — by anti-social dropouts who lived on the fringes of society and rebelled against such respectable notions as having “careers” and “contributing to society.”
In its modern incarnation, this character has emerged as a different kind of iconoclast: a fearless sensation-seeker, a hard-partying and acrobatically skilled hedonist, and his image is perpetuated by profiteers that have much to gain from selling such images to an impressionable and economically powerful demographic of young people.
In reality, however, extreme sports are divided into sub-cultures too numerous to count, each with their own personality archetypes. While these certainly include hedonists and adrenaline-addicts, they are exceptions, not rules.
In fact, if there is any dominant archetype at all, it is probably that of the well-heeled career-driven urbanite; raised on full-page magazine spreads of rebellious, long-haired athletes, but too respectable to emulate them. These individuals get out on the occasional weekend, spend money on courses and guided tours, and go on holiday to exotic resorts. They also spend handsomely on new equipment at big-box outdoor retail stores each year, and as such represent the majority of the “growth” that sporting institutions report.
Of course “mainstream-ification” (and commercialization) of counter-culture is nothing new. It happened to Rock music in the 60’s and Environmentalism in the 70’s. But the taproot of our obsession with the extreme runs deep. As a culture, we have come to fetishize these activities not simply because they are “cool,” or “rebellious” — but because they represent a critical ideal; a tough, strong, fearless independence thats origin lies deep in our collective psyche.
I remember being on an airplane once and watching an argument unfold between an overweight passenger and one of the airline stewardesses. The passenger, who already had an empty seat beside her, was demanding that she be upgraded to business class, presumably because she was uncomfortable in her narrow economy seat. The airplane was crowded and it was quite obvious that the stewardess could not move her. Her protestations got louder and more indignant, and eventually the chief steward had to be summoned to mediate. The passenger was eventually placated, but not before making a scene that drew the attention of everybody sitting within earshot.
While this probably wasn’t the most ridiculous episode to occur on an airplane, what struck me about it was the utter absurdity of anybody bitching about anything while reclining in a well-lit, climate-controlled, seat in which they had every need attended to.
The saying “When I was your age…,” oft-muttered by members of elder generations, has practically become platitude by now and might precipitate descriptions of anything even mildly difficult or arduous, but it hints at an insidious facet of modern society: we are too comfortable. No other generation in history has had the privileges we enjoy: access to the collective knowledge of entire societies in our pockets, near-instant home delivery of anything we want, medical protection and relief from most ailments, and machines that clean our dishes and do our laundry. We are, to be sure, the most comfortable generation in all of history — a far cry from the our grandparents, and an even farther cry from the bootstrapping entrepreneurs who founded our country in the post-colonial era and to which we attribute our hardworking, capable and self-reliant national identity. As we invent solutions to society’s problems at ever-increasing rates, we are becoming more comfortable still, but also more domesticated, more complacent, and less self-sufficient.
Yet for most of human history, this has not been true. War, exploitation, disease, starvation, and natural disaster have plagued every generation of humans to be born onto this earth, and for much of our collective history, dying of old-age was unlikely. Our time is unique because, for just a few short decades, a few hundred million of us have been able to imagine actual safety and ease as a background to everyday life.
This lucky faction of society, to which I admittedly belong, has grown up amidst such freedom from danger with level of coddling that has escalated with each passing generation. Products of the tech revolution and the helicopter parenting movement of the 80s and 90s, we millennials grew up believing that we were “rare” and “inspired” individuals, capable of “anything that we put our minds to”.
Yet, there is little real evidence of this. The percentage of under-thirty-year-olds who own businesses, for example, has dropped by more than 65% since the 1980’s. Adjusted for inflation, we work for lower median wages than we did in the 1970’s, and we produce fewer high-class patents than we did in 1999.
Meanwhile, we are too busy driving Teslas to our white-collar jobs, where we have free coffee, catered lunches, and elaborate workstations, to devote much thought to any of it. When the work is over, we return to our homes to have dinner delivered while we binge-watch Netflix and play video games.
But self-delusion has its limits. As society has gotten more comfortable, we have increasingly taken up fitness as the “de rigueur" symbol of toughness in a world filled with soft landings. “Going to the gym” has, in this way, practically become a religion amongst privileged middle-class suburbanites, and it is easy to see why. Weight-lifting is hardship distilled into its simplest form: a physical act that pits ones’ strength against heavy, inanimate objects; each repetition a reassurance that, although we may be chained by the shackles of modern society, we are still tough enough to survive outside of it, even as we soothe ourselves afterwards with spa treatments and “self-care” regimes.
Modern fitness trends, like HIIT, kick-boxing, and CrossFit, are all variations on the same theme: we seek to endure, both physically and mentally, to experience and triumph over hardship, and to challenge ourselves in visceral ways. We do this to remind ourselves, as well as to prove to everyone around us, that we are still capable of hard work, still in possession of the grit, the unyielding fortitude, the invincible spirit, that is so deeply ingrained in our collective identities, but for which we are missing evidence of in our daily lives. More compelling still, is the evidence such physical hardship leaves behind: toned bodies and large muscles feed our needy egos and help us convince ourselves that we are, evidence the the contrary, as strong and capable as we aspire to be.
Yet there remains something slightly emasculating about the gym, or, in its modern incarnation, the “fitness boutique”. To lift weights, to move, to sweat, in air-conditioned rooms, steps away from juice bars and saunas, is to toil in a toothless simulacrum of the environments that toughened our forbears.
Extreme sports, then, are an antipode to such frivolity. In our virtual, confused, hyper-technological, postmodern world we crave authenticity, and most action sports, practiced outside and away from the artifice of society, feel authentic in ways that conventional “fitness” sports (or for that matter, institutional sports like basketball or hockey) do not. In their very practice they are individualistic and often anti-social. They pit us against primeval forces of nature, testing not only our fitness but our focus, and, perhaps most importantly, our courage. The soul of these activities is not one of cooperation between humans, but of an atavistic, sometimes antagonistic, relationship between man and nature.
This is the genesis of our modern condition: we are mired in artifice, so we crave the real; we are steeped in comfort, so we crave hardship. We aspire to high-minded ideals of rugged individualism, and extreme sports, with their adrenaline-soaked promises of victory over nature, beguile us. Of course, the idea that we can conquer nature at all is illusory, predicated on a perception of ‘otherness’ — the notion that we exist apart from nature. We are, after all, just another class of fauna, albeit a particularly smart one, but the natural forces that we imagine that we can conquer are infinitely more powerful than we are. Devotees of extreme sports get occasionally glimpses of this, sometimes to our peril. Monster waves, storm-force gales, rock-slides, and avalanches remind us that we are fragile, exceedingly mortal creatures in an unforgiving, merciless world, and this — oddly — is comforting, perhaps because it puts throws into perspective the many smaller threats, both real and imagined, that we encounter on a daily basis. Writing about a near drowning experience on a big wave in Hawaii, surfer and novelist Bill Finnegan observed in his novel Barbarian Days: “I felt peaceful afterward. Ashamed of myself, deeply exhausted, but newly decided not to do this again — not to bend my neck, not to commend my soul to the ocean at its most violent in the hope of some absolution.”
At the bottom of the trail, I paused, breathless and elated, surprised that I had made it down in one piece. As I waited for my heart-rate to slow, I relived the each of the shining, perfect moments, playing them back in my head like a video recording, except this time imbued with the certainty of success — the knowledge that I had risked death and emerged alive. Whatever fear I may have felt I now re-lived as unencumbered exhilaration. In that moment I felt truly alive, strong, invincible even, and lightyears away from the anxieties and concerns of my daily life. It was a powerful sensation.
It is possible, had I not already had a history as a snowboarder, rock-climber and surfer, that I would not have taken so quickly to mountain biking. Maybe, had I not already been indoctrinated into the cult of the extreme, I would see it differently — an expensive, dirty, time-consuming, and potentially destructive hobby. But then again, maybe I would love it just the same. Our relationships with the things we love our fraught with complexity, much of which lives beyond the bounds of our conscious awareness.
Unaware of any of it, I stood there, in that moment at the bottom of the trail. The sun was shining, birds were singing, and my heart was beginning to return to its normal rhythm. As I set off towards the parking lot, I thought not of commercial exploitation, nor the artifice, nor fear or courage or individualism. I simply felt good. I felt happy to be alive.
Footnotes and Credits
- Feature image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool