The thing I love most about mountain biking isn’t the rush of whipping down a dusty brown thread of singletrack. It’s not winding through the close-up beauty you can only get to when you leave civilization behind. It’s not the thrill of achievement that comes when you finally conquer a feature that has defeated you many times in the past, either (though I’ve been known to yell like an Amazon warrior when I do). And it’s not the moment on a ride when you finally get into “the zone” and the protesting ache in your legs fades away, leaving you to the pure bliss that comes when you wholly embrace the mental and physical challenge of mountain biking.
These are all great, but they’re not the best part. What gets me is that feeling that comes over you at the end of a beautifully-tiring day, when you kick back with your people and clink brown bottles together, an affirming benediction over all things mountain bike. It’s sitting around a campfire, chatting with the guys from the next site over, because they saw your bike and they’re here to ride, too. It’s meeting up with strangers from your local mountain bike forum for a quick ride and deciding to share pizza and wings afterward.
In short, it’s the way our sport has the potential to break down barriers like nothing else. Somehow, it weaves our many different stories–and lives–together. And though the moment may be fleeting, the impact of it is anything but.
I was new to mountain biking when I experienced this for the first time. So new, in fact, that I didn’t own a mountain bike and couldn’t have told you what it was that I’d rented and was currently riding. It was a quiet summer evening, and to this day, when I smell the tangy balm of sun-warmed pine needles, I think of that first ride on the Hardy Road trails of upstate New York.
It started out innocently enough (but doesn’t it always?). A short lap around the smooth “Coniferous” trail had me thinking I was some sort of mountain bike prodigy, and when we reached a fork I didn’t bother to look closely at the contour lines of our map. Neither did I stop to think about how this next trail, “All In,” might have earned its name. Instead, I took a swig from my water bottle and set off down–or rather, up–the trail.
Because up it went. With a vengeance. It wasn’t long before I was out of the saddle and pushing that unknown bike over jumbles of rocks and tangled roots. This wasn’t anything like the friendly, pinecone-strewn trail I’d just finished. My husband, kind man that he is, suggested turning back to try to find a more beginner-friendly trail, but I wasn’t having it. Call it stubbornness or perseverance: I was going to finish this. I swung a leg clumsily over the top tube and took off again, making it only slightly past him before the difficulty of the trail brought me to a halt once again.
And that pretty much became the theme of the ride. Stop and go and stop, walk and pedal and walk. We were maybe three-quarters of the way up the mountain when the first of the riders passed us. He zoomed by me on a bike unlike any I’d ever seen before, although now I could have identified it as one of many that grace glossy pages of bike magazines. The next half-hour or so was an embarrassing repeat of that moment: a hollered “rider!” from somewhere behind me, the crackle of leaves as I dragged my bike to the side of the trail, the hush that fell again after each rider left me in their dust.
When I finally reached the top of the mountain where the trail dead-ended, hot and sweaty and exhausted, I was completely hooked. I rolled up to where my husband stood leaning on his handlebars, and grinned.
“That was awesome,” I told him. He beamed at me, and then I realized that we weren’t the only ones up there. All around us were the riders who had passed me on the way up. They were sprawled out on rocks, bikes propped against nearby trees, and most of them were holding cracked-open cans of beer. We would later learn that this was what the locals affectionately called “The Booze Cruise.”
“It’s her first time on a mountain bike,” my husband called out to them. “That’s a rental.”
One of the guys raised his beer toward me in a toast. “Woah, dude. That’s like skiing a double black on your first day!” There was a chorus of assent from a few of the others, and one man started to clap. They were buzzed and tired and happy and it was a perfect evening in late summer, and pretty soon they were all cheering for me. It was at that moment that I realized I had been initiated into this wide family of mountain bikers.
That was five years and three bikes ago. But that moment stands out in my memory clearly, as does the sketchy twilight ride down to the trailhead. It remains vivid to me because of the seamless way those veteran riders welcomed me as one of their own. There’s no doubt in my mind that my first mountain bike ride was as lame and clumsy as everyone else’s, and they were being nicer than they should have been by applauding me like that.
But I think maybe they clapped because they remembered what it was like to be that rider: the one who walked more than she rode. The one who ducked to the side of the trail again and again to let others pass. The one who reached the end of the trail, tired and sore and obsessed. And this–this is the real magic of mountain biking. It turns complete strangers into friends, even if only for a short time.