I estimate that the seed was planted when I was around 12 years old. Our unremarkable lakeside town in Ohio had a small, private plot of woods just south of downtown, set aside by the owner for us to refrain from “trouble-making” activities. It was littered with questionably built jumps, a small pumptrack, and a six-foot launch ramp (which my younger brother was the first to utilize, the effects leading to a chipped left incisor and crunched up handlebars). The city cops were generally bored and often our sole audience. Huron is singularly known for having the most pizza places per capita due to the abundance of Italian inhabitants. It impressively possesses an uncanny knack for keeping people around after high school, attracted to an economy which I have yet to figure out how it realistically exists.
We called our site of fearless recreation “The Trails.” It was a simple, modest name (duh) that made our immature egos proud, appropriate for an inconspicuous hideout run unchecked by a dozen tweenies. Back when parents weren’t cellularly tethered to their children’s whereabouts, we were good here, free from the maternal umbilicus. I had a multi-year fixation with BMX, building up a customized Haro Nyquist Backtrail and acquiring a neon-yellow GT Mach One with allowance monies and earnings from a part-time summer gig at a local ice cream parlor. Ohio provided more radness for good, punk-rock kids than many people probably bother to notice. The Gravity Games in Cleveland, Chenga World skatepark, the Flow in Columbus, countless BMX events such as the Christmas Classic – all of this allowed for an energizing outlet, and enough of one that several of our crew took their talents further to find a niche in the bike world as pre-20-somethings.
I got away from it when I started to “adult.” It wasn’t by intention. I moved to Cincinnati for college, joined the military, and blossomed into my independence. Mandatory Army physical training trumped extracurricular wanderings via bike, and the physical connection to my former lifestyle became blanketed. During the summer of 2004, I was fortunate enough to spectate the Tour de France while studying overseas in Pau, being one of those rare American followers that European enthusiasts actually appreciated. Valuing “le sportif du cyclisme” was always in my heart, but a moving space existed. I lacked the first-person understanding for the riders’ unwavering dedication to a classic pain driven by an overflow of flamboyant dress and body language. I didn’t know what the hell “panache” was.
Fast-forward to August, 2011. Relocation, again. The last one? No way! America is grand. However, this time, there was no more military uniform or predetermined assignment. I had assumed the freedom of decision, reinforced by crazy amounts of fitness from a stint with EOD, a muddy, resilience-building degradation of a was-gonna-be marriage, and I found myself in the middle of Chico, California. I had never heard of Chico, nor did I know a soul. I didn’t own a bike. Thanks to my father, all I had was the expressed genetic allele for endless searching.
Chico is a college town, rumored in other places as a well-ranked Playboy magazine city possessing one of those “drink-to-earn” degree institutions. I didn’t know what I was going to do here for income, but from first impression, the location was desirable: evergreen foothills and chemically-blanched orchards in a northern California valley housing a beer-laden town of fit freaks – sounds about right.
Over the next 11 months, compulsive running for recreational competition, territorial examination, and a healthy distraction from studying graduate coursework led to a hurt foot. Couple the injury with a good friend who enjoyed socializing at a local coffee shop, a requirement for reaching that peak fitness “high,” and the subsequent result was the purchasing of a mountain bike. “Heal the mind and physiology? Screw road, ride mountain,” they (Tom and Colin) said. “You’ll actually learn to feel and use your bike, and you’ll thank us for it,” they said. In hindsight, I do thank you, endlessly.
Fast-forward another three weeks. The exorbitant amount of endurance I possessed apparently tricked my newly acquired friends into believing I actually possessed technical skills (Upper Bidwell Park is not for every rider). Combine my macho amounts of newbie with a trail entitled “Bloody Pin” and a fractured elbow was no surprise. But… I just… got… bike… ugh.
Now what? A road bike so it won’t bother my arm? My maiden skinny tire ride was on a hand-built and borrowed bicycle, lent to me by Jeff Ochs from his non-profit program stock. (The mission of his program, Butte County Junior Cycling, is to introduce kids to cycling by loaning them road bikes… brilliant.)
Beginning with a descent out of Paradise via Neal Road into the valley toward Chico seemed like an appropriately large bite. This new concept of “fast” was instinctively weaved into my toy box as the Sutter Buttes breezed by my left, poking up beyond the earthy green speckled grass ridgelines of the foothills and bluffs. With each rotation of the crank, I knew a profoundly fresh and innate balance had been reached, a characteristic obtained far too late in life, as I wished I had found this feeling much sooner.
Chico has an odd and somewhat hidden abundance of great people, and my maturation as a cyclist, both road and mountain, has to be credited to the open arms they lent me, a total stranger from “the East” — where humidity was an over-exemplified version of Hell and all outsiders were typically judged in an unmistakable Valley Girl accent. This place comprises a unique organic stew, with the correct-enough chemical balance to concoct a breed of athletes, notable professionals in cycling and triathlon alike. In opposition, the weirdness comes from a contradiction provided by an immature collegiate population and large number of vagrant inhabitants strewn about its streets. These attributes are only a portion of its complex disposition, however, as the environment is a mecca for those even remotely considering a sport involving the bicycle.
The vast canyons carved by Big Chico Creek and Butte Creek are lined with rocky, technical trail networks, subtly sheltered from valley winds. Alongside are near-carless climbing efforts, with mistakenly well-manicured natural foliage hugging the empty pavement. Breaking from canyon walls into the Sierra Nevada pines, it smells good, always. Especially after a rain, the misty needles and soggy dirt somehow penetrates your gray matter enough to permanently store the scent and recruit your subconscious yearnings for future endeavors – bikepacking galore. Reentering the canyons to descend into the valley is equally appreciated, for once you peek out of the trees and see the sun setting against the opposite Mendocino ridgeline, you forget what you’re doing and appreciate the current. Total moment-focused riding. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
Hundreds of miles of foothills carved through with tunnels, high lakes accessible by trail and fire road, rocky rivers crossed by old steel bridges, almond, peach, and olive orchards, golden, fiery fields of flats – all the way north to Mt. Shasta, Downieville, Tahoe, and west toward the coast. I cannot begin to illustrate the landscape with any form of justice. Sometimes the choices prod your inner Devil to scream, “Make it freaking end already!” Other times, you never want to return home once fully immersed. Your new sense of belonging is zen, present, and momentous, moving forward as green and gold pass by your periphery, and all that is audible is the wind and swashing water of a nearby stream. Northern California is good at that. It has a talent for igniting something within to make you understand why you’re here.
It does lead to a common, dichromatic question: “dirt or road?” Further, for the thoughtful few, can there be a drift toward either after this journey? Everyone begins with one, hopefully crosses over to try and experience the other, and at least at a minimum, embraces an appreciation for the separate flavors of riding. But, why a side or division of identity?
Since living in Arizona, I’ve shied away from road cycling to fully encompass my dirtier roots — I will not miss the agro microclimate that seems to insert itself promptly, contradicting the purpose of the quest to find life’s answers. (Garmin obsession to the point of surpassing the surroundings for choice of donning the blinders of tech for what… to win at Facebook Strava posting?) This is where I align with trail. However, to the whole and fully cyclic and balanced individual, it is unanswerable, and I can say that I identify with that. The choices are both intricately laced with the moments that comprise a decision based on the immediate need of the body and mind, both subconscious and conscious.
Northern California provides a backdrop for both, equally. The raw aspect gained from each experience must satisfy those psychophysiological needs, and as spontaneous as the choice can be, it is profoundly deep. The vulnerability realized and betterment gained through such effort is unexplainable and absolutely original. I have learned from this existential transformation that these understandings have migrated from inside out, and I can thank the unexpected, unplanned moments in life for this.
Chico, my heart will always be with you.