Has Mountain Biking Ruined Hiking for Me?

Photo: Matt Miller

It was on our way back to the truck, the second time hovering over a knife’s edge of rock, where the compressed tectonic came to a dramatic finale, that I realized my adrenaline was depleted. I really don’t like heights or the vulnerability that comes with a long fall below. Part of this route was shoddily planned by myself, but oddly, the back route hike up to Grays Peak had little information compared to almost any other trail in Colorado. It was July 4, and we wanted to do something other than mountain bike and try a spot that could be less crowded.

So my wife and I continued. We’d made the ascent on Grays, above 14,000 feet; a challenge even if you have a paved path. This was more of a trace along a ridge line that required all four limbs touching the ground to navigate it safely, at least for 2-3 miles of the 6-mile trip. What should have been a shorter trip to the top took much longer than the longer traditional route because of the technicality.

On the drive back down I was physically and mentally depleted, but soulfully satisfied — the kind of satisfaction that comes from pushing yourself through great discomfort. I hadn’t felt that way after a bike ride in quite some time. I wondered why I don’t hike more often.

There’s a common phrase amongst my mountain bike colleagues lately that have tried an e-bike. “This is going to ruin me for regular mountain biking.” The notion is that because you can climb faster and ride farther with less effort, we’ll lose interest in motor-less mountain bikes. It’s kind of like going back to green beans after you’ve already eaten a brownie. As a brief aside and refutation, I haven’t found that e-bikes have yet spoiled me for motor-less bikes.

But, I have found that in my life, as I’ve mountain biked more, my interest and participation in hiking has declined and bicycles have completely overpowered the tug of war match with hiking, like a mastiff would a Maltese. It seems that most of my mountain bike friends choose wheels over boots for their on-trail activity as well, at least according to Strava.

So what does hiking bring that’s different? A slower pace, and though some might disagree with my second thought, a more connected experience with surrounding nature. When I’m riding, I’m focused on the trail in front, unless I’m on a pull-off devouring a stroop waffle. Hiking allows you to listen to ambient sounds and look off the trail to discover new things and even provides space for thinking and introspection.

This year, I’ve been on over 130 rides. I’ve hiked twice. On both hikes, I walked away reminding myself that I should hike more often. Of course, not every hike, nor every ride, can be a white knuckle gripping sort of trip. That regular dose of adrenaline, mixed with serotonin, brings all sorts of feels on a normal basis when I mountain bike, so riding is a hard activity to put aside for any other pastime.

Research on extreme athletes says that addiction to a sport is possible. Some jokingly say we’re addicted to mountain biking, hence our outlandish purchases. Many of us have seen the meme that implies if we introduce our children to mountain biking, they’ll never have money for drugs. But addiction requires two things to take place: a capacity for higher tolerance — i.e. it takes more of something to achieve the same effect — and withdrawal symptoms, which are seemingly a stretch when it comes to any sport.

Researchers found though, that athletes may experience withdrawal during abstinence from a sport. They primarily studied rock climbers and skydivers. During the study, athletes exhibited symptoms of anhedonia, or loss of interest in other activities, and a craving for their sport. And, the more they participated, the more likely they were “hooked.”

“Addiction to skydiving was low in novice participants, moderate in intermediate participants, and high in experienced participants, implying addiction increased with experience and exposure to their sport.”

And so, the deeper we get, the deeper we get. It’s no wonder why mountain biking is a first resort. The study also noted that athletes can experience negative affect or emotions during periods of abstinence from a sport and felt stressed or unhappy.

While my short answer to my own dilemma is not that I am “addicted,” everything is in place that makes it easier to choose mountain biking over hiking. My friends are largely mountain bikers, I have good trail access, and the right bikes. And, mountain biking might just elicit stronger feelings. But of course, too much of any one thing can always be bad, so the next time there’s a string of mechanicals in my garage I know what I’ll be doing.

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