What is a big mountain bike ride? We all have our own definition, relative to our abilities and experiences. Riders new to the sport might consider ten miles on a greenway to be a big day while others measure their big rides in days or weeks, not miles or hours. Most of us are somewhere between those two extremes. I did my first ‘big’ ride about six months after I started mountain biking, and it was a fantastic experience, one that had a profound impact on me as a mountain biker and as a person.
I bought my first mountain bike right after I graduated college. I got a job, moved to a new town, and bought the bike on credit before I even had my first paycheck. This was back when banks were just giving money to anybody. I didn’t even have a place to live yet – I was staying in a hotel on my company’s dime for a few weeks until I found a place. The bike I bought was a full-suspension model with adjustable air shocks (what!), hydraulic disc brakes (I didn’t even know those existed til I bought it), and 27 gears to choose from. It was a previous year model and on sale ($1,000 instead of $1,600) and the shop was offering 0% financing. It seemed like too good a deal to pass up. I signed some papers (and put no money down) and became the proud owner of a new bike, helmet, and flat repair kit. The bike was the most expensive thing I had ever owned and paid for myself (even though I hadn’t paid for it yet). I didn’t take it home because I had nowhere to put it. The shop let me store it in their back room until I found an apartment.
My first real mountain bike. We had some good times together.
About a week later I couldn’t take the waiting anymore and picked up my bike and went on my first ride. I rode the towpath alongside the canal, trying to find the pumping station trail. I was the typical ‘newb’. Shiny, new and expensive (to me) bike, gym shorts, cotton t-shirt, and sneakers. I was in heaven, the bike was so smooth, light, and fast. I never found the trail, but ended up with about 14 miles of flat as a pancake pedaling. I was completely wiped out. Once I got back to my hotel room I ate a footlong sub I picked up on the way back, took a shower, and then took a four hour nap. I don’t normally take naps – but I was just plain exhausted.
Six months later I had become a real mountain biker – well, I had more of the gear anyway. I had baggy bike shorts with padding, a hydration pack, a shirt made of fancy hi-tech fabric that dried way faster than cotton, and I had just upgraded to clipless pedals. The local bike club was putting on an informal big ride to raise a little money for the club. It was a point-to-point ride that linked several trails together using forest service roads and a little pavement. It was 49 miles long, so they called it the 49er ride.
When I first heard about this ride I thought it was crazy. Forty nine miles? People can ride that far? But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try it. I talked to my friend Kris and we decided to go for it. I don’t think either of us had ridden more than 20 miles at once when we decided to do it. By the time the ride rolled around we had upped our personal bests to somewhere just north of 30 miles, but that was all singletrack. The 49er had a good bit of road, and road riding is easy – or so we thought.
When we showed up to do the ride we were excited – we were going to attempt the superhuman feat of riding our mountain bikes forty nine miles. FORTY NINE MILES! We each gave a donation to the club and were given a map and cue sheet, and the club took some food we brought to the halfway point for us. It was a beautiful January day, it wasn’t too cold, and we were ready to ride.
Pit stop on a 50+ mile day this past fall. Riding with friends makes the big days even better.
The Horn Creek trail went by easily. Then we did the first big section of road to get to the Wine Creek trail. We rode Wine without any drama and then stopped at the halfway point at Key Bridge to eat. This is where things took a turn. We stayed way too long, and each of us basically ate a whole meal. When I got back on the bike and hit the Turkey Creek trail my legs just weren’t feeling it.
No Pain No Gain
By the time we finished the Turkey Creek trail we were officially in the pain cave, a place I had never really been before. Everything hurt. My arms hurt from supporting my torso. My legs hurt from so many pedal strokes. It hurt my neck to hold up my head and look further down the trail. Of all the things that hurt, my butt hurt the most. It was on fire. It hurt to sit and it hurt to stand, but it hurt the most when going from seated to standing or vice versa. When standing up it felt like I was leaving a layer of skin behind still plastered to the saddle. When sitting down it felt like the seat had been replaced with hot coals. We left fun behind at Key Bridge about ten miles ago – this was pure misery.
We still had several miles of road ahead of us before reaching the final piece of singletrack, the Modoc trail, the most difficult trail of the whole ride. I didn’t want to do it; I didn’t think I could do it. When we stopped to check the map I told Kris I was done, I wasn’t riding Modoc. I just wanted to finish and get off my bike. I was going to take the road around the trail since that would be faster and easier.
Key Bridge is a great spot for a pit stop. Photo: mtbgreg1
Man, I’m glad Kris was there. He said I should keep going, we’d ridden this far, we might as well finish it. I knew he was right. So I sucked it up and we headed on to the Modoc trail. I don’t know how long it took us to ride those six miles of singletrack, but it felt like forever. I’ve never been so happy to see my car as I was when we rolled into the parking lot at the other end of the trail. We had just ridden our mountain bikes forty nine miles and I could hardly believe it.
I expected to be really sore the day after the 49er, and I was. I spent the day on the couch eating everything I could find. What I didn’t expect, however, was the spark it would ignite – I enjoyed it, and wanted to see how much faster I could do it, or how much further I could go. I didn’t enjoy the sore muscles and firey taint, but the experience as a whole was awesome. I rode my bicycle 49 miles for crying out loud! I didn’t know I could do that. I learned what it was like to really push myself, and I learned I could go farther than I expected.
It’s been a few years since the 49er ride. I’ve increased my ‘personal best’ to 70 miles since then, which isn’t a huge improvement. But, 50ish mile rides are no longer a big deal to me anymore. Sure, I’m not fast, and they’re certainly not ‘easy,’ but I can ride fifty miles without it being a death march. Bonus: I actually enjoy myself the entire ride now and can function the next day.
I’ve retired that first bike I bought, though it’s still hanging on the wall in the garage. I’ve learned a lot since the original 49er ride. Best of all: there’s still so much room to grow, so many bigger rides to do, new personal boundries to push past. I mean even my biggest day is still short of what many riders consider a ‘decent training ride’.
So, what’s the point of this whole post? Hopefully it’ll encourage you get out and push yourself harder and further. Get in a little over your head. Ride a little further, climb a little faster, jump a little higher. Dig deep and see what you find – you’ll end up surprising yourself.