The Starting 5: Getting Back to Mountain Biking, Together

A reflection on mountain biking with friends, both old and new.
Let’s do this again, with a better camera.

Has anyone ridden Slickrock trail in Moab, Utah, with enough water — the first time? The trail, largely comprised of off-white hash marks on sunset-colored stones, is just 10.7 miles in length. A distance that some riders wouldn’t bother to pack a bottle for. Myself included.

My first foray through the flowy rock-coaster followed a full afternoon of riding trails with friends under a warm June sun. We decided to spin the loop before dinner since it’s short, and the trailhead was near the house we had rented. Our crew of five from Portland, Oregon, had a broad mix of MTB skill levels, and all of us are athletes in one way or another. We had ridden multiple loops this long back home and didn’t give a second thought to the short flow trail. Hell, it wasn’t raining, and there was nothing slick about the rock. There’s no way it could be as tough as a springtime ride in the Pacific Northwest.

We kicked off the loop looking for trickier and higher lines, trying to see how far we could shoot out of the countless compressions between mounds of smooth stone. Amidst the fun, someone checked the time and noted that sunset was approaching and we hadn’t yet reached the midpoint. A few of us had crashed while trying to master new skills on tired brains, and we were all out of water. It was time to focus on getting back to those cold beers and delicious burritos. There were a few touch-and-go moments on the way home, with some dehydration and abrasion concerns, but nothing that isn’t remembered fondly today. We pedaled comfortably, bouncing between type-one and type-two fun that we would later laugh at.

Sounds like a typical Moab trip, eh? Nearly everyone has to experience some close calls and underestimated challenges on those rocks. That’s part of why mountain bikers love the place, and why folks return to those unassuming ribbons in the desert. The trails not only provide humility, but they bolster camaraderie. The same sort of camaraderie that a lot of us are longing for during the pandemic.

The leg-one posse of four dirtbags all rolled to Moab together in my filthy diesel-fed Volkswagen Jetta, with two bikes on the roof and a pair hitched out back. We met a friend and her cleaner Jetta near Boise, Idaho, and played musical car seats for the remainder of the drive to become better acquainted. The second Jetta driver, now a dear friend and colleague, was a new face for most of us. We thumbed randomly through The Book of Questions before digging deeper and becoming more vulnerable with one another. After fourteen hours of cathartic chats, interrupted by the occasional podcast “listen and discuss” session, the threads that connected us became veins and arteries. I know more about those four friends than I do anyone else in my life. That week in Moab solidified relationships that we will all be able to call on for the rest of our lives, and I’ve made that call a few times in the years since. The basketballer in our bunch named us “The Starting 5” for obvious reasons.

While mountain biking is a fantastic forest-bath, stellar exercise, and a fun way to frighten oneself, it’s the community aspect that many of us are missing today. Riding trails alone is always preferable to riding the couch, but it’s undeniably better with friends. Here’s hoping that everyone receives one of the two new vaccines this winter so we can all start safely enjoying trails together again.

We also found some fun off-trail competition in Moab. Well, Julie won every round so maybe it was more of a demonstration than a competition.