Thinking and Mountain Biking (Without Going Endo)

Some of the greatest joys of mountain biking are intrinsic to the name itself: you get to bike around in the mountains! What could be better? Settling your butt onto your well-worn, perfectly-fitted, split-tail bike seat almost guarantees that you will be getting away from the multiplying vicissitudes of mini-malls, phone calls, the unrelenting “bing” of work related emails, haze of smog, and–critical to cyclists in cities–humans driving cars while owning smart phones. Yes, getting away is most assuredly time well-spent on a number of levels, not the least of which is resetting your personal calm.

How many other activities integrate so completely with a normalizing sense of personal regeneration? Mountain biking can be a unique, mind-expanding experience.

Photo: Erik Proano

I grew up as a cyclist in the late 1980s riding a Centurion Pro Tour road bike in Boulder, Colorado, where it was easy to quickly lose yourself up largely-empty, well-paved, winding mountain roads at lung-suckingly high altitude. Rides were quiet, long, hard, and gorgeously solitary.

However, when I turned 23, I chose to move to Los Angeles. Wait for it. Yep. That’s right. We all make strange choices in our lives; mine involved an interest in stand-up comedy and a desire to meet people who didn’t remember me from grade school. I suppose it is an essential part of growing up to wake up one day, look around, and ask yourself, “How the hell did I end up here?”

Interestingly, it is precisely the externalization of that life-bound journey in each mountain bike ride that feeds so much of my love for the sport: grind away for a few hours up an endless trail in a reverie of thought, snot, labored breathing, and pine trees; after which, you stop, unclick one foot, drink something lightly yellow from a plastic bottle, look around, and smile quietly, thinking, “How the hell did I end up here?”

There is something about altitude that presses my buttons. It is not so much the knowledge that you are 6,000 feet above sea level, but it is the ability to see the distance down the mountain you’ve just climbed. It swells with an innate sense of the conqueror, I think.

From where I live now, it takes me just a couple of sweaty hours (on trails) to get to the top of either Mount Wilson, Mount Lowe, or Monrovia Mountain. From any of those 5,500-foot elevations, I can look down and see almost all of Los Angeles out to the ocean (on the rare clear day). The city is shiny, quiet, and, happily, a very long way away. The breeze at that altitude is usually about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than down at city level, and it seems to graciously welcome your effort and arrival. I usually celebrate the occasion with green apple JellyBelly sports beans. No greater picnic could I ever enjoy. As my heart rate drops, so does my stress level and, perhaps, even my existential sense of need.

Los Angeles below, shrouded in clouds. Photo: Greg Heil
Los Angeles below, shrouded in clouds. Photo: Greg Heil

I must admit, as a cyclist, I have tended to enjoy the climbs up the mountain more than the trips down. I know, I know. I rediscovered mountain biking after a stint of ultra marathons, so I am still a bit plugged into the trance of an intense uphill effort. There is something meditative about a long, grinding climb, and the struggle to stay out of your egg-beater gear. When fully engaged uphill on a bike, it is possible to feel separated from reality a bit, lost in effort, the sound of your breathing, an internal monitoring of available resources, and the ongoing search for the smoothest path with the fewest loose rocks. (Certainly, no lifestyle metaphors to be found there.)

Going downhill is a different experience (and one that is growing on me). Until recently, I had never really given much thought to brakes; they simply are a part of cycling that you hope works when you want them, to and the forearm pump is sort of non-negotiable. Right? But then, my new Trek Superfly came stock with a magical Shimano SLX brake system. Now, all I have to do is think about slowing down, and somehow it happens. My fingers barely get winded. I never knew.

When slowing down is so effortless, there now seems to be a sort of Zen-like experience that goes along with extended periods of downhill riding. The descents now offer time to think and watch the world go by, while your body unconsciously dances the bike beneath you.

Photo: Greg Heil
Photo: Greg Heil

The trip down from any of my nearby mountains takes a little less than an hour and requires very little attention or concern for going “endo.” It leaves me with time to enjoy random, undirected, unmotivated thoughts while my body smoothly handles the minor technical issues, like avoiding death. It is a pleasure unique to mountain biking.

I have remembered long-forgotten events from my adolescence, vividly re-lived the details of that walk-off, game winning grand-slam I hit in little league, spent the whole hour trying to figure out what personality flaw causes me to choose so many melancholy songs for my iShuffle, noticed that every lizard seems to run directly at my wheels before veering away at the last possible moment as if testing its own agility, and wondered if I’m not doing the same thing on some level. It all might seem like dreaming, but, the thoughts I have on my bike stay with me and integrate into my personality in ways dreams do not.

Even when I am not riding, I find myself looking up at the mountains. I can see the places I’ve reached, and somehow I feel transported and more relaxed, even if only momentarily. I know I’ll be there again soon. There seems a connection to the serenity of the mountain that flows up from the seat of my bike. Well. Not the first time it has been suggested that my ass is the true source of my best thoughts.

Not to overstate it, but it seems there is an inherent bliss to this sport, which is accentuated wonderfully with the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance-like focus on taking care of your bikes. Yes, bikes plural. Raise your hand if you have only one bike. Right. No one here believes you.

Of course, as every mountain biker knows, the downhill reverie can quickly be interrupted by that unfortunately placed log, unseen ditch, or misplaced, wheel-grabbing patch of sand, leaving you lying in a heap with a broken collar bone and a two-hour walk to civilization. But, that’s a story for another time. (Though, it is interesting to note the utility of the right kind of Camelbak as an impromptu, highly effective arm-sling.)

I hope you enjoy your rides. Profound insights–and oddly misplaced smiles–are always welcome.

Brett Wolff lives in Sierra Madre, California, just a few pedal strokes from the Mount Wilson Trail and endless singletrack options in the Angeles National Forest.