By Christopher Cudworth
The thing about mountain biking is that to do it right, you had better know what the hell you’re doing.
Wander off on the wrong trail and kiddo, there’s no easy way back. Rocks and drops and switchbacks to tear your legs off. Real mountain biking requires skills that your run-of-the-mill cyclist who owns a mountain bike but doesn’t ride off the road much simply don’t have.
Real mountain bikers are made from different kinds of stuff than the typical round tire grass knockers (like me) who ride mountain bikes off the road but not where mountain bikes actually were designed to go.
But the dream persists.
In fact recently I met this cute girl with an awesome tattoo on her calf whose sturdy thighs told me, in no uncertain terms, that I probably could not keep up with her on the mountain biking trails we had just been discussing in the lunchroom.
We both live in the Chicago suburbs, so that means there are only a few really good places for real good mountain bikers to go.
One of the best sites for mountain bike trails is in the Palos area where glacial moraine hills make mountain biking pretty fun. I know this because the little graphic designer friend with a black Volkswagon Whatever and a bike rack on top told me it was one of the best areas around. The attached video didn’t show anything I couldn’t do on my mountain bike. But I’m pretty sure the trails shown were some of the milder stuff you can find. That I could hack.
When I went down there to ride I stayed off the single track but rode a trail loop through a forest preserve where at one point the climb was so steep my back tire could get no traction. Clipped into my SPDs, it was pedal or die. So I pedaled and made it up a hill steep enough that my nose was basically scraping the gravel ahead, and topping out on the flat above, adrenaline coursing through my veins and vanity, it definitely felt like I had accomplished something. And had I gone backwards, there would have been no living with myself. A cyclist with any degree of respectability does not go backwards under most circumstances.
Facing a test
Perhaps my cute cafeteria gal with the cool tattoo would swing right up that hill no problem. I get that. Real mountain bikers ride terrain that makes the rest of us piss our pants. They cross log piles too, without impaling the their crankset on a log. That’s both a literal phrase and a euphemism, if you catch my drift.
The last time I jumped a log my rear tire went hissssss with a pinch flat. That meant I had to walk home three miles because I wasn’t carrying a spare. I know. Dumb, right? But honestly I’d never had a flat on my mountain bike in 8 years of owning it. So give me a freaking break. I’d come to believe that bike was impervious to damage. All cyclists know there is a first for everything.
What cool-chickie cafeteria gal also probably knows about mountain biking is that it takes a certain daring nature to really ride the rough turf. And then she tweaked me by saying, “I don’t know if you could keep up with me.”
And it set me back a step. Anyone with a tattoo the size of a good sized bass on her calf must have a respectable tolerance for pain. Perhaps she was right. Maybe I couldn’t keep up. I’ve been dusted by plenty of women on the road bike. Gals who rip along at 26mph on the open road and leave only a whiff of their healthy fit gal smell on the wind as they cruise on by. You can either jump in their draft and go with it or make that pathetic little wave cyclists use when they know they’re not up to the pace.
Yet I have been known, on more than one instance, to rise to to new level of endurance and toughness when the occasion demands. My competitive nature and talents can be aroused by just such a challenge.
For example, my daughter once asked me to chaperone a date with a 9th grader when she was in 7th grade. I agreed, and we all went bowling together. The first game the kid dusted me 190 to 165. And then he did a dumb thing. He got all cocky and patronizing with me.
The next game I bowled 7 or 8 straight strikes and rolled to a 280+ game. To which my daughter hissed, “Are you insane?”
Yes, my little girl. Your father is quite insane. My brothers used to call me The Mink, and for good reason. Once I got spitting mad and the competitive juices started flowing, the ‘game on’ insanity was not far out of reach. I embraced it gladly, like a McDonald’s hamburger following an all-day workout. One does not care if food is healthy or not when famishment drives the soul. It’s the same with self respect and being challenged. You will eat your young to win if someone pats you condescendingly on the back and says, “Nice try. You did your best.”
Hungry for dirt
So while mountain biking is not my preferred diet for cycling, you could put a trail in front of me and who knows what could happen? If the chickie-babe tattoo cafeteria girl rides off into the sunset without me I will accept the fate and acknowledge that she, and millions of other women to be honest, are better cyclists than I.
But neither will I go down without trying my damndest. And it’s not about “beating a girl” or anything stupid like that. It’s about breaking out of your own expectations.
A healthy touch of insanity
It simply takes a little touch of insanity to be good at any sort of competitive sport, especially solo sports, because you have to put in a certain amount of time thrashing yourself alone to be good at a sport like cycling.
But mountain biking is a whole new realm of insane. If you really know what you’re doing––then you really don’t, in a way. Riding the right kind of trail where your senses are challenged to keep up is a matter of reacting and accepting that your next big jump could cost you some skin or a bone or two.
Okay, I’m not ready to go there. The Mink knows better now. But given the challenge of chasing a tattooed gal up a suburban hill, I just might.
I just might.