The western Alps have tugged velvety white hats down over their treelined ears for the season, turning mountain bikers in northwestern Italy toward the shallower coastal mountains of Liguria for weekend romps. On a recent trip to Finale Ligure, I made some early morning trail laps, followed by an obligatory cool-down spin to see the sea.
With no noteworthy tide to speak of, the Mediterranean Sea is typically calm and quiet throughout the year. The occasional squall will roll through and upturn fishing boats and beaches alike, but on most winter afternoons the seaside is a better place to catch a nap than a wave. On this particular November day that serene scene was entirely flipped. The beach was packed with onlookers and photographers watching roughly fifty wet-suited surfers shred some small shore waves that had presumably been generated by an offshore storm.
A few passing locals mentioned that this was the first time they had seen real wave surfing in Finale. I was perplexed by how all of these folks knew that there would be waves that day, and why there were so many locals with surfboards at the ready. I later learned that there is a dedicated cohort surfers in the area, and plenty of resources to alert them to any coming waves rising from their inconsistent break.
Watching in awe while folks carved across the curl of energy as it passed through the sea, it occurred to me that surfing and mountain biking share some innate qualities. Having surfed a little bit on the Oregon coast, I appreciate the deep appeal of moving in unison with water and the sheer audacity it takes to paddle into a collapsing wall of wet energy. I am by no means a surfer, but I have inhaled enough saltwater to understand why people live and die by the sport — as I do mountain biking.
Like climbing service roads for several hours to descend 5-20 minutes of singletrack, the payoff for surfers requires a lot of hard work. Paddling out and duck-diving through advancing waves takes heaps of desire, strength, skill, and a love for the sport that isn’t realized until you finally stop paddling and stand up. The motivation and commitment required to learn how to surf need to be bolstered by some internal grit, as the first few times out you will likely face plant immediately after standing.
Then you’ll spin for the next few seconds begging the wave to spit you skyward for a breath. These are seconds that feel like a lifetime. It’s a bit like the dirt naps we endure while learning to mountain bike, or while learning new skills to keep the sport challenging. Whether carving waves or soil, you will likely get back up and try again, working to redefine your limits.
With a similar laps per day ethos of shuttling to the trailhead, surfers can occasionally take a jet ski tow-out, or exploit a riptide current, but it is admirable to earn your turns. In both sports, how you reach the break or the mountain top depends on the characteristics of the location and the culture of local riders.
It’s not all rip curl and tail whips in these sports. The surfing equivalent of a classic river trail spin might be a tide with three-foot swells, and a ten-foot longboard to cruise along like a barge.
On the topic of grit, there are good days and bad days to surf, and there are folks who will ride waves no matter what. Surfing is not necessarily hampered by the rain like trail riding can be, but there are certainly days when the waves look like short piles of crumbly popcorn, and other days when they resemble the open edge of a conch shell. Some mountain bikers live in rainy areas, where not riding in the mud would mean never riding. Other folks pedal fat bikes in the snow with heated socks and mittens cuddling their feet and mitts. A dash of chutzpah and a well of passion sends us all out to enjoy the natural environment in all of its beautiful iterations.
Mountain biking and surfing both require awareness and respect for the natural world around us. Both sports can kill us if we’re careless, or bring us to states of boundless joy if we’re well prepared and informed. We can find ourselves lost in the backcountry or swept out to sea, and we need to know how to navigate back to Babylon. Also, surfing and mountain biking share a “steeper than it looks” element that only riders truly understand. Both sports allow us to put ourselves against the edge of danger, which for some shredders is a big part of why we keep coming back to the trailhead or shoreline.
Our complimentary activities tend to instill a respect for nature, and a desire to care for the environment we live and play in. The sport of surfing is replete with plastic cleanup organizations and environmental fundraisers, and mountain bikers generally tend to keep their trails free of rubbish and their home refuse recycled.
Up the joy! Like skateboarding, snowboarding, break dancing, jumping rope, and scads of other activities, these two can be enjoyed purely for fun rather than for competition. They both have a strong competitive contingent, but in either case, the majority of us are shredding because it helps us feel physically and mentally good. Additionally, there is a sort of cultural “that’s kids stuff” element to surfing and mountain biking that I appreciate on a deep level. My favorite days on the bike are those when I holler loudly with happiness because my bike has reminded me what it felt like to be a kid. On a bike and aboard a surfboard, we get to pretend that we know more than gravity does, and that feels amazing. It’s close enough to flying.
Shredding in either sport comes with its own lexicon to allow everyone to identify with different segments of the culture, and to show how deep in double-overhead brown-pow we roll.
Though many of these characteristics exist across a variety of sports, this pair genuinely seem like close siblings that enjoy quaffing beers together at the end of a long day out.
Apart from the saltwater and sand rash, a notable difference between surfing and mountain biking is the cost. You can pick up a decent board for $300 that might last most of your life if you are careful with it, and a wetsuit for roughly the same outlay. Of course, you can fork over $10k for a board shaped by some famous wave whisperer, but in general, the sport is far less expensive. I bought my first board from a neighbor for $50 and handed it off to the next newbie when I moved.
What’s your surfing story? Are there other sports that bring you challenges and joy like mountain biking? Share the stoke below.