The growth of mountain biking may be baffling to many. It's a sport that takes a painful toll on its participants, and it's not a cheap thrill -- the purchase and maintenance of bikes are costly. Despite it all, the sport has climbed quickly in popularity.
Why would anyone want to pedal up steep grades along muddy or sandy trails and around rocks and over fallen logs in the name of recreation?
"It's a challenge . . . basically a thrill," said Theresa Morningstar, who also competes regularly in triathlons. "I can't compare it to triathlons. It's a whole different style of racing. . . . In triathlons, there is timing. In mountain biking, there is no easing up. You have to constantly push.
"It's hard because the same time you're riding, you're using your mind and reading trails and climbing and going down hills. In triathlons, you don't need to think about things as much."
Morningstar, like millions of others, has caught mountain-biking fever. By day, she works for the Gordon Feinblatt law firm. Outside work, she is a full-time athlete.
Having played sports all her life, Morningstar, 33, likes to try new things. She began mountain biking five years ago but didn't become serious until recently, earning the title of Maryland state champion last year.
Many others have become serious about the sport. According to the International Mountain Bicycling Association, there are close to 30 million mountain bikers, including 32,000 officially licensed racers at various levels.
Ranked by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in a recent poll as the fifth-fastest-growing sport in the nation based on frequency of participation (those who ride at least 52 days a year), mountain biking also will be an official medal sport at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Getting into the sport, whether on a recreational or competitive basis, takes a financial commitment. For those getting started, a rugged, fat-tired bike with thick, straight handlebars suitable for occasional off-road use can cost from $250 to $500.
From there, riders can upgrade their participation by adding components or purchasing better bikes -- at a cost of $500 to $2,000. Maintenance costs also factor in, depending on the use of the bike.
"The vast majority of mountain-style bikes we sell are $300- $500," said Randy Hall, owner of Bicycle Authority shops in
Cockeysville, White Marsh and Abingdon. "Can you really take that kind of bike and beat it on the off road? Probably not. A lot of people buy it for the comfort -- wide tires and big handlebars. For most people, it fits the kind of riding that they do.
"The person who bought their first bike for around $300 to $500 usually buys his second bike from $500 to $1,000. They are serious riders who have jobs and families but like to ride.
"Out of the 4,000 or so bikes we sell a year, maybe 150 of them are really super-serious mountain bikers whose average price is maybe $1,200 to $1,300."
Mountain biking seemingly has swallowed up the biking world. The IMBA says 90 percent of bicycle sales are fat-tire bikes. Although dominated by riders 25-34 years old, the sport is expanding to other age groups.
"The big change in the last few years is that mountain biking is popular with people of all ages," said Tim Blumenthal, executive director of IMBA. "The image of mountain biking has been that it is a very aggressive sport, but in the last few years it has become very broad. A lot of 50- to 60- and 70-year-olds are riding off pavement, and kids, too."
Of the millions of mountain biking enthusiasts, there are just 150 to 200 professional competitors. Like stock car racers, the best are backed by a slew of sponsors, whereas those in the middle to bottom of the pack struggle to afford transportation, housing and equipment fees.
Roger Bird, a Baltimore native, has been racing professionally for five years. He has risen to as high as No. 51 in the National Off Road Bicycle Association pro rankings. That's a real accomplishment, considering Bird has to work for a living to afford the costs of racing. He is general manager at Hall's Bicycle Authority shops.
"It's hard because I spent nine years of racing before I could reach that level," Bird said. "I'd probably say I spend, between travel and equipment and entry fees, $10,000 a year. Two years ago was my biggest season. I did a little over 40 races.
"It's very competitive, and there are a lot of riders who are sponsored who don't need to work a normal job," Bird said. "They just train full-time. It's hard to compete with those guys."
With the growth of mountain biking in the United States, many trails are getting ravaged. And land access issues have become a concern, with riders often blazing their own trails. Bikers also are crowding an already congested situation, competing with equestrians and hikers.