Mountain Biking: Chicken Soup for the Soul

What once was “that crummy fire road” or “that boring bike path” are now lifelines for mountain bikers, nuggets of normalcy to be treasured and appreciated.
Sedona in spring. Photo by Gary Peterson.

When they said “work remotely for the next three weeks,” I packed my California bags for Sedona that night and was on the road 12 hours later. “Is Arizona remote enough for ya?” I continually quipped to myself in the car with a jolly chortle. My current sense of wrap-around-doom is in stark contrast to that care-free, road-trip sparkle that accompanied the start of the adventure, and seems like another, parallel life. The Before Times.

Some friends already had a Sedona trip planned, and they too would be working remotely while interspersing rides and hikes. One holed up in the bedroom closet for seven straight hours as her start-up shuddered under the early blows of layoffs, revoked funding, and the chaos of moving to all-online operations. Another dressed for an interview, looking for new career options during strange and uncertain times. I Zoomed and WebExed and conferenced called.

We had glorious desert spring rides and every biker, every hiker we crossed were a sea of smiles, a “oh no, you first!” and “have a great ride!” a demeanor that is sadly uncommon on my local Marin County trails. But you could feel the angst rising by the day, a tiny darkening at the edges of vision, a favorite outfit that constricted a half an inch a day—and not because of the nachos and beer.

Somewhat Relevant Sidebar #1: I have a colleague who relates this story: one day he could not open his file drawer in his cubicle at work. It was too close to the cubicle wall. “What the heck?” he called out in bewilderment. “How the….what the heck?” His neighbor and co-worker inquired regarding his angst, and when apprised of the situation, laughed with gay abandon. Doubled over. Said colleague had been moving the cubicle wall toward him by a half an inch a day for weeks.

The “Wrong Bike”

Having been recently relieved of my Juliana Roubion (thank you D-bag who stole my mountain bike while I was at a meeting about how to make mountain biking better in Marin), my Specialized Epic was my road trip pal. This is a great bike and one that has sentimental value for having carried me through the Trans Alp seven-day mountain bike stage race in 2016, in addition to lots of other journeys near and far. But it is very nearly a hardtail. Renters insurance allowed me to replace the Rubion with a Turbo Levo, but in addition to being inappropriate for group rides (“social distancing” guidelines were a twinkle in the eye of public health officials at this point, so no shaming!), they are mostly verboten in Sedona.

So me and my trusty XC tried to keep up with the big kids on their bigger bikes on the likes of Hiline Trail with its ledge drops and ass-over-teakettle descents. I was proud to only dab once (the rest I walked). And one of the glories of my 2015 Epic is that its hella light, so all that walking up and down chutes, ladders, and cliff drops was decidedly easier. The 48-pound Turbo Levo would have been abandoned at the top with a “Free to Good Home” sign around his burly neck. But seriously, even on the Levo and Roubion with their 150 millimeters of travel, “droplet” once described the size of a huck I was likely to pursue. But that was in The Before Times, when it meant a petite height to be ridden off of vs. a vehicle of deadly contagion. My point is, while I might have liked a slightly bigger bike for the terrain, my soul was no less nurtured by the lack of a few millimeters of squish on these sublime trails in this red rock Eden.

But every day that we rode and then checked the news, the outfit grew tighter. The grocery store in town looked like all others, devoid of the same articles like ground beef, chicken, canned tomatoes and the now common but no less perplexing run on toilet paper. Which brings me to:

Somewhat Relevant Sidebar #2: Finding myself more tethered to Facebook than is ordinarily healthy, I did find a few gems there. A pharmacy in Norway solved the hoarding of hand sanitizer by employing market forces, the tag below the product reading “One for $3.99, Two for $399.00” (or the Norwegian equivalent, but you get my drift). Problem solved.

You are here. Photo by Gary Peterson.

Then the nine counties of my San Francisco Bay Area home issued a ‘shelter in place’ order. Then the bars and restaurants in Arizona closed. We broke our Air BnB camp and all went our separate ways, to differing levels of lockdown. I badly wanted to remain out, on the road, in the desert. Away. I made my way to Joshua Tree just as the National Park closed to vehicles, and became accessible only by foot or by wheel. Ever-so-thankful for the Epic, I pedaled the paved road into the park, not a soul to be seen, the strange, ancient trees reaching for the sky, for the horizon, for me.

The car-free road through Joshua Tree National Park was one small delight.

I reluctantly returned to Marin, reminding myself of the bounty of trails, fire roads, and open spaces there that would provide solace during the shut-in. Confusing pronouncements regarding park closures came after a weekend of summer-like weather when multitudes descended upon tiny beach towns ill-equipped for the crush. Trails narrow and wide saw an average 200% increase in use, and officials sent out clarifying messages—“What we meant to say was that Parking Lots are closed, Vehicle access is prohibited, but you can still access your neighborhood trails by foot or by wheel while practicing social distancing.” This is happening with varying levels of success, the local paper of course seizing on the unfortunate radical outlier with the headline “Swarm of Cyclists Harass School Guard,” inflaming the online trolls who have ever so much more time on their hands.  

While some singletrack trails are being closed in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as it is not possible to maintain a safe social distance, we are extremely fortunate in Marin to have a lot of options, even if those options are narrowing by the day. I have taken the challenge of riding versus driving to every hike or ride as an opportunity to explore, discover new ways to get around, new neighborhoods, new connections. As Matt Miller rightly described, “It’s Just Mountain Biking.” But as the world convulses and we collectively deal with this pandemic and its many-tentacled effects, I am more thankful by the day that this solace is still available. What once was “that crummy fire road” or “that boring bike path” are now lifelines for many, nuggets of normalcy to be treasured and appreciated. I look forward to restarting my 15-years-strong Tuesday night ride, to hugging my pals and sharing a beer and snacks huddled at the top of a windy rise, but for now I’m happy to hunker and help flatten that curve so that all you doctors and nurses and public health workers can do the work that matters most.