It was fear that turned me into a mountain biker. Fear of cars driving unpredictably within shoving distance, fear of the warning honks that invariably made me veer into their lane. Fear of falling off the narrow bike lane into a ditch.
Even after we moved to Denver and I suddenly had the Great Plains all to myself, there was the fear of the cacti and stickers that used up my spare inner tubes and forced me to walk all those miles home, hopefully before my children got off the school bus to find the house locked.
Ron joined the mountain bike movement just after moving to Colorado, primarily so we didn’t have to ship his bike from California. Let Lockheed transport his road bike in the Bekins truck once the house sold. And then it was my birthday and I test rode this knobby thing that didn’t have drop handlebars. My back didn’t hurt, the tires didn’t look ready to pop the moment I looked away, and best of all I could ride it anywhere!
Did it matter it weighted twice a road bike? Of course not, because I don’t ride for speed. It’s the calories that count, is what I heard.
Mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You’re alone on a trail on a spectacular day, feeling the sun on your face, going over rocks and gangly roots, up and down the hillsides. Birds singing, you’re cruising along with Mother Nature’s encouragement, until she trips you up on an errant pinecone.
Much as Walking is a learned skill, you have to learn to stay upright and steer straight at slow speeds. Or heck, at high speeds too, on the inevitable backside of the hill you just climbed. You learn to carefully watch for sand pits.
To bike on a dirt trail, through ponderosa pine forest or meadows of mid-summer wildflowers, occasional views of the Front Range or distant snow-capped mountains – this is what the term “Joy” was created for!
Sweat doesn’t drip off your brow as it does when running. And unlike running, there are periods of rest on the downhills, with the tradeoff being having to focus on not going off a cliff at full speed.
Hmmm, so what is a typical ride like?
Pump up the tires to a pressure appropriate for the anticipated terrain (low pressure for soft ground). Fill up the Camelback, put on riding shorts, bike shoes, colorful shirt and socks, and the helmet. Padded gloves if the ride is long or it’s cold out. Then you go!
Slowly at first so your old body doesn’t pull a muscle, you pedal up, then down, warming up.
A section of tight turns through the woods is next, and you try to look through the scrub oak for a horse approaching on the single track. By the way, if you like your shirt clean, try to avoid the horse poop.
So you slow down on the turn, downshift before the slope, then take off once you’re clear. Upshift, upshift, now you’re passing boulders and bushes on the straightaway. Fast! Freedom in the strength of your body and mind.
Uh oh, a dog. Will the owner reel in the leash, you wonder. Maybe this time you have to walk your bike to safety, but sometimes they get off the trail, dog firmly held beside them. Smile and wave thanks, you’re cruising again.
Sand pit! Brake fast before you’re in too deep. Downshift and plan to steer straight, unclip the cleats in case you end up falling anyway. Pedal as fast as you can in granny gear. You can do it if you can just keep moving. Think “light” as your legs begin to tire. It’s always nice after a rain when the sand pits are reasonably solid and you stand a good chance of arriving on the other side. But it hasn’t rained or snowed lately, and you end up slogging through the bigger sand pits.
Back in the trees, the light is dappled, a disco effect that first constricts then dilates your pupils. Your skin is hot and cold at this high elevation. You can’t always pedal fast enough to stay warm, so clothing is a factor, and hopefully you planned well.
At the next straightaway, you let go one hand, get a sip from the Camelback. Checking your mileage you see that you’re about halfway. Most has been downhill, so you know that uphill switchback is coming up. The one you sometimes try several times before you make it without walking. What will it be today?
Just as you downshift and are about to steer wide, getting on the left for the dreaded right hand turn, a couple of bikes come screaming around the bend from the opposite direction. You’re already out of your cleats because the one time you fell onto the big rock while clipped in, you ended up with a bruise that lasted several weeks. So you pull back to the right and let the couple pass, then you turn your bike around, walk down the hill a little to where you can make another attempt. Hard to start pedaling on the uphill with high friction, but you get moving. Again downshift, steer wide, push on the handlebar to help you lean and turn. Will you make it? No rocks or fresh pinecones on the trail today. No goopy horse manure. Stay on the outside of the curve where it’s less sandy. And…and…pedal…lean… Success! Gold star for you!
I don’t know what makes those right turns so much harder. Ron’s theory is ice rinks that make you skate counter clockwise except for 10 minutes at the top of the hour. My crossovers are crazy good in just one direction, so I think he’s on to something, and we can talk about this more when I write about how it feels to play hockey.
For now, we’re still on the bike, riding uphill on a winding single-track, pine-scented forest, sandstone outcroppings dating back to the Cretaceous. The path is fairly well packed up here, out of the valley.
Before long you’ll be back to the start of this loop. A few more turns to go, but it’s different. On the way out, the forest was less dense. You crouched on your pedals, hands loose on the handlebars, as you banked left and right, the trail winding between the trees, little effort expended on the downhill part of the ride. You swayed back and forth, the rhythm hypnotic. Your mind wandered, you found yourself humming some elusive tune. Stresses vanished as you were lulled into the next curve. It’s peaceful all around, just you and the ponderosas.
But here you’re pulling hard on the grips, working the quads, your arms are sweaty as you fight the hill. Rocks, pines, scrub oak all give you the evil eye, crowd your thoughts. You pedal on, moving slowly, just a bit faster than walking, or so you tell yourself because to get off the bike is to surrender. You have done this before, you can do it again! Even that dread right switchback bowed at your pedals today!
Riding on the flats or downhill is such a rush. The speed requires quick reflexes and sometimes a bandaid or two after. It’s an exercise of the brain to see and avoid obstacles. But there is equal pleasure in straining the body, feeling muscles contract as you push hard on the uphills.
Pretty soon the trail levels off, sounds reach you from the trailhead, equestrians brushing their horses. Another half mile to go, and it gets easier. You’re breathing normally again, have another sip of water, and then sadly you are back. With a refreshed soul, you unclip and put feet back on solid ground.